So here is my very first interview with an author! Jane Davis wrote one of my favourite novels of all time ‘I Stopped Time’ and when she sent me her latest book A Funeral for an Owl I cheekily asked if I could do an interview with her when it was published. To my delight she agreed.
Cleo: What theme was the basis for A Funeral for an Owl?
Jane: A Funeral for an Owl shares its central theme with Half-truths and White Lies, I Stopped Time, and to a lesser extent These Fragile Things, that is the influence that missing persons have on our lives. Whether an absent parent, the child who never was, a friend who died an untimely death, the object of our unrequited love who finds a love of his own, the friends we lose touch with, we all collect them, particularly as we get older. In my own life, the influence of those who are missing is as great, and possibly greater still, than those who are present. The fact that someone is absent creates the ultimate What if? question, the question authors have to toy with when thinking about the premise for their plots.
This theme was something that I had explored tentatively in my previous fiction, but I found myself studying the Missing Persons ads in The Metro, the fourteen and fifteen-year-olds whose stories aren’t sufficiently high-profile to land them on the pages of newspapers. They are simply slipping between the cracks. And so I looked into the facts. One in ten children ‘run away’ from home before they reach the age of sixteen, an estimated 100,000 every year. Shockingly, a quarter of those young people are actually forced out of their homes by parents or carers. Two-thirds are not reported to the police as missing. That’s 75,000 children for whom a Missing Persons ad will never be placed. All of these children are highly vulnerable, at risk of substance abuse, sexual exploitation and homelessness. Mobile phones and social networking sites have made it even easier to target them. I include a particularly poignant quote from Lady Catherine Meye at the beginning of my novel. “We can’t establish for certain how many children are missing. You’d have more chance of finding a stray dog.” But what if some of the rules that are put in place with the best of intentions – to protect children – actually deprive the most vulnerable of confidential counsel from someone they trust? I appreciate that not everyone will agree with that view, but when I was growing up we had a wonderful teacher who operated an open-house and provided a safe place for those who were struggling at home, no questions asked. It was surprising who would turn up at her door. Today, in an environment when any relationship between teachers and pupils outside the classroom is taboo, she would be sacked. I think that’s terribly sad. Fiction provides a unique opportunity to tell one side of a story through the eyes of one or two characters. It’s not the whole picture by any means, but it is one aspect of it.
Cleo: The telling of the story from more than one perspective was something that I really loved about this book. As a reader it gave me far more to think about than if it had just been told from Jim’s point of view.
Cleo: A Funeral For An Owl main protagonists, Jim and Shamayal, are male; is it harder to write from this perspective?
Jane: There are challenges about writing from a man’s perspective. Some of them are based on the myths perpetuated by popular women’s magazines – about how many times a day men think about sex, for example. When I’m not sure how to approach a topic, I turn to books. I also rely on gut feeling about how much detail people actually want to read. Something implied can be far more powerful than something that is explicit. I prefer describing emotions rather than mechanics. Young Jim does undergo something of a sexual awakening when he meets Aimee White, a girl from the other side of the tracks – smart and what we used to call middle class – who is a whole year older than him. Graham Joyce’s The Tooth Fairy provided a wonderful example of the confusion of finding yourself aroused by someone you are not attracted to. Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad provided fantastic examples of how to portray flawed characters in a non-judgemental way – people who don’t always understand the reasons why they do things. I take comfort in the fact that I am not so convinced as Cosmopolitan is that there is a ‘typical male’, but even if I’m wrong, my characters are not intended to be typical. I hope that, through young Jim, I have sympathetically addressed the pressures boys feel to behave in a so-called ‘masculine way.’ The main challenge in writing Shamayal was creating the fight scene. That was new territory for me. Again, my intention was to create a sense of fear rather than to be graphic. (I should perhaps explain that this isn’t a book about sex and violence.)
Cleo: I totally agree with you as I do not believe that boy’s issues and concerns are that different from those that girls have. Certainly my experience of teenagers of both sexes along with the multitude of their friends that passed through my door have proved that in fact the concerns are pretty similar.
Cleo: Did you see or hear about a playground fight involving gangs or was this woven in later in the process?
Thankfully the only playground fight I have ever seen close up was between my best friend and the school skin-head (also a girl). It began during a game of netball and I can’t tell you what it was about, but it must have been some righteous cause, because my friend wouldn’t have fought over any other. The skin-head should have had the advantage as girls’ fights consist primarily of scratching and hair-pulling, but my friend won.
The original draft of A Funeral for an Owl only told the story of what happened between Jim and Aimee in 1992. That was rejected by my then publisher as they felt it lacked a strong female protagonist. It was only later that I came back to the material, which I was convinced was too good to be consigned to that dusty drawer reserved for rejected manuscripts. I was surprised that I felt a real affection for it. I kept returning to it and decided to update it with Shamayal’s story. By layering the story I was able to reflect on cause and effect. I was able to tell the story of how Jim would put his career on the line to stop history repeating itself. I was able to allow Bins to be a bit of a hero. It was also an opportunity to acknowledge the enormous changes I have witnessed over the past twenty or so years. The cultural mix – in my South London middle school there was one black family. My friends’ children simply cannot understand how we survived without mobile phones in the ‘olden days’ and why there are so few photographs of us. Children and adults were members of different species. Gangs were very different things then. Children did not kill children. Today, hearing about gang fights is unavoidable. I read a lot of personal accounts during my research, including one victim’s who was dumped in a bin and left for dead. Sadly, there are lots of truths in my book.
Cleo: I think the fact that the book contains a lot of truths is what makes it so powerful, the change in attitudes in the last twenty years certainly adds context to both parts of this story.
Cleo: My favourite secondary character has to be Bins, a man who spends most of his time in the bin store at Ralegh Grove, the estate Shamayal lives on. Is he based, even vaguely on someone you know?
Jane: No is the short answer, but it’s not a very satisfactory one. Some readers assumed that Bins was autistic, but that wasn’t my intention at all. I suffered from depression for many years and, in an age when suicide statistics speak for themselves, I enjoy celebrating people who have found their own ways of living. In my locality we have a wizard who walks the length of the high street in his full regalia, complete with a black cat on his shoulder; we have a very masculine-looking Scotsman who wears a very badly-fitting cotton floral dress; we have a man who walks the streets with a tank strapped to his back spraying the air, and a young chap who stands on street corners conducting the traffic, and singing hymns at the top of his voice. These are all logical responses to an insane world. Small communities – and children in particular – accommodate people who don’t fall into our narrow definition of what is ‘normal’. It was only when watching a programme about the artist Chuck Close that I became aware of the condition Prosopagnosia, or ‘face blindness’, and appreciated how someone who didn’t appear to recognise someone he had met dozens of times before might be treated as if he was stupid, and if he was treated as if he was stupid, how he might eventually come to believe that.
Cleo: I asked this question was because I often feel that the importance of identifiable characters outside the main protagonists is often overlooked. I loved Bins and his interactions with both Shamayal and Jim bought a tear to my eye, I’m a softy for people caring for others particularly when on the surface it looks like Bins needs help too!
Cleo: I thought Ayisha seemed a little prim and proper at the start of the book, did you like her less than the other characters?
Jane: Ayisha is opinionated, it’s true. She is also a person who has been brought up with rules and believes that they’re there for good reason. She knows that her colleague Jim has breached the teachers’ code of conduct by befriending fourteen-year-old Shamayal. In the aftermath of the playground fight during which Jim is stabbed, Ayisha administers first aid. She’s in shock and understandably so. This is far outside her normal experience. She makes a split-second decision that it would be wrong to report Jim. He is in no position to defend himself: imagine the headlines if he doesn’t pull through. But in that split-second she puts her own teaching career on the line. So, yes, when she finds out that Jim has done all that she suspected and more, she’s furious with him. Because it’s too late. She is involved, even though she really doesn’t want to be. Far from disliking Ayisha, I am completely sympathetic. But for her ethnic background, I am a lot like her.
Cleo: I don’t want to give the impression I didn’t like Ayisha, I came to admire her decision to put her career on the line enormously as the book progressed. So moving swiftly onto the next question…
Cleo: Who was your favourite character in the book and why?
Jane: I think that Jim’s Granddad is a very powerful character. He is another missing person by the time that the action in the book begins, but he represents everything that was good about Jim’s difficult childhood. He recognised that Jim’s dad, Frank, favoured his brother, Nick, because he was more masculine, and he tried to compensate.
“He was a gentleman.”
Shamayal’s recovery swift, the mocking manner returned with a vengeance. “Posh?”
“God, no! He had a face full of stubble and tattoos up to his armpits. I meant in the old-fashioned sense. He was born at a time when showing manners and respecting his elders weren’t seen as weaknesses.”
Shamayal looked doubtful: this definition implied a loss of face.
“Granddad understood me better than anyone else.” Jim found himself smiling. “He was just old enough to remember what it was like to be really young.”
Cleo: Have you ever been bird-watching and if so did you learn the names of the birds in a similar way to Jim?
Jane: I’m not a bird-watcher, but I am a very keen walker, I enjoy observing life on a small scale. It’s important to slow down, to get away from technology, to observe the changing seasons. I’ve just returned home from a trip to the Lake District, but it is equally possible to experience these things in your local park. Apart from Ralegh Grove, which is fictional (based on my experience of living on High Path council estate, where I bought my first flat), the places I describe are within walking distance of my house. I simply recorded all of the birds I saw and looked them up. So-called garden birds are declining at a frightening rate, so it’s possible that this simple pleasure isn’t one that will be with us for ever. The one exception to my writing-down-and-looking-up rule is my owl. I am not absolutely sure that there are barn owls in Carshalton – although, if there were, it is likely they would be found by the sides of the railway lines. The owl is such a powerful image in mythology and folklore that his appearance was non-negotiable. I visited several wonderful websites when looking for inspiration: http://www.barnowltrust.org.uk provided me with beautiful and moving photographs that left me with a very clear image of what I wanted to try to convey in words. They do wonderful work and run adoption schemes for owls, which makes a very nice present – if you don’t want to buy a book.
I introduced the bird-watching aspect in tribute to Barry Hines’s heart-breaking portrayal of Billy in A Kestrel for a Knave. Like Billy, by discovering birds, Jim discovers another way of being that sets him apart from his father and brother and the assumptions that, like them, he will turn to a life of petty crime. He also sets himself apart from boys of his own age.
Cleo: The myth that you use wasn’t one I’d heard before, but one that I will now always remember.
Cleo: All your books are very different; do you work to an outline or plot or do you prefer just see where an idea takes you?
Jane: In the world of traditional publishing, it is not a smart move to make your books too different. The issue of genre is not quite so thorny in self-publishing, which recognises that authors want to develop and grow through experimentation and that readers do not want to read the same old recycled plot with different casts.
There is a school of thought that tells you that must have a clear idea of where the plot will take you before you start writing. If that was the case, I would never have put pen to paper. I choose to take the advice of authors who say exactly the opposite:
Debby Holt claims that there are plot-driven novels and character-driven novels. Hers fall into the latter category and I’m with her. Joanne Harris, too, says that women often write in this way, while men prefer to plot.
Stephen King’s advice from his book On Writing: is to start with a single question and see how that idea develops. The question always begins ‘what if’ and his usually follow the lines of ‘What if aliens landed in Arizona?’ or ‘What if zombies invaded my hometown?’
Sir Terry Pratchett uses a method he calls The Valley of the Clouds. In the valley of the clouds there are mountains but you can only see the very tops of the peaks. It is your job as an author to work out how to get to the mountains. As a walker, I really connect with this description.
Have a clear idea about your characters, give them background stories, put them in a conflicted scenario and take the idea to its natural conclusion. If you’re lucky and your characters are right, with a fair wind, they will take control and do most of the donkey work for you. Shamayal is one example of this. His spoke very clearly to me because he has a very definite speech pattern and he is unafraid of saying things to an adult that simply wouldn’t have been acceptable when I was growing up. That said, my method does result in some serious nail-biting, but I think that to plot rigidly would be to stifle the characters.
Cleo: Have you always written stories?
Jane: No. I always used to draw pictures. I might have pursued art but, after years of As, a grade C in return for my experimental silk-screening for my Art O Level dampened any ambitions I had in that department. I left school at the age of sixteen and never returned to it. These days I stick to photography.
Cleo: That’s a really original answer as most writers appear to have been scribbling notes away for years. I’m sure that will be good for aspiring writers to know, particularly as it is NaNo season!
Cleo: What made you sit down and start your first novel?
Jane: There were several reasons why I started to write. The first was that, although I had been an artistic child, my work in insurance provided no creative outlet. Secondly, it was a question of timing rather than one of time. I spent many years with ample time on my hands, but I didn’t start to write until I was in a relationship with someone who gave me confidence to express myself. Finally, I needed something to write about. Something happened in my life that I needed to make sense of and I used writing to explore how I felt about it. I think that most writers start because they want to make sense of the world.
Cleo: Do you work on one book at a time?
Jane: After the first book is out there, it’s almost impossible to work on one book at a time. At the moment I am marketing last year’s double release, preparing for the launch of A Funeral for an Owl and am 65,000 words into a new project which I’m still too superstitious to talk about. I’m at the panic-inducing stage where I know what happens at the end but I can’t seem to find the path to my final peak!
Cleo: That is such an eloquent way of describing all the work we readers often forget that goes into writing and publishing a book. I can’t wait to see what the new book is about but I won’t push for an answer, yet….
Cleo: When can readers look forward to reading A Funeral for an Owl?
Jane: The eBook is available immediately and the paperback is due for release on 1 December 2013
Thank you for providing such interesting and in-depth answers to my questions. It has been an absolute pleasure to feature you on my blog.
My review of A Funeral for an Owl will follow tomorrow.