Jane Davis has long been part of a particularly elite group – authors whose books unfailingly catch my eye, always add to my kindle on publication day, then never manage to fit in the reading. Well, this time that’s going to change. When Jane told me about her latest, Smash all the Windows, to be published on 12th April, I knew it was one I just had to read. See if it captures your imagination in the way it did mine…
It has taken conviction to right the wrongs.
It will take courage to learn how to live again.
For the families of the victims of the St Botolph and Old Billingsgate disaster, the undoing of a miscarriage of justice should be a cause for rejoicing. For more than thirteen years, the search for truth has eaten up everything. Marriages, families, health, careers and finances.
Finally, the coroner has ruled that the crowd did not contribute to their own deaths. Finally, now that lies have been unravelled and hypocrisies exposed, they can all get back to their lives.
If only it were that simple.
I’m really delighted to welcome author Jane Davis as my guest on Being Anne to tell us more about the pitfalls of writing fact-based fiction…
Write about how Smash all the Windows came into being? It sounds so simple.
The novel began in anger. I was appalled by the press’s reaction to the outcome of the second Hillsborough inquest. Microphones were thrust at family members as they emerged from the courtroom. It was put them that, now that it was all over, they could get on with their lives. What lives? Were these the lives that the families enjoyed before the tragedy? Or the lives that they might have been entitled to expect?
For those who don’t know about the Hillsborough disaster, a crush occurred during the 1989 FA Cup semi-final, killing 96 fans. A single lie was told about the cause of the disaster: Liverpool fans were to blame. In that moment, victims became scapegoats. It would be twenty-seven years before the record was set straight.
Elizabeth Strout tells her writing students, ‘You can’t write fiction and be careful.’ But none of us exists in a vacuum. The pain I saw on the faces of family members as they struggled to answer that question was raw. And so combining two of my fears – travelling in rush hour by Tube, and escalators – I created a fictional disaster.
The previous year, en route to a book-reading in Covent Garden, I’d suffered a fall. The escalator I normally use was out of order. Instead we were diverted to one that was much steeper, but I was totally unprepared for its speed. When I pushed my suitcase full of books in front of me, I was dragged off-balance. Fortunately, no one was directly in front. I escaped relatively unscathed. But the day could have ended very differently.
My fictional disaster shared many elements with Hillsborough. Because both incidents happened before the explosion of the internet, voices weren’t heard as they would be today. Someone in management was new to the job. There was institutionalised complacency. (‘We’ve always done things that way’ is such a dangerous sentence.) Facilities dated from a time when human space requirements weren’t understood. Risk assessments hadn’t considered that multiple failures might occur. It was also important to me to reflect the extraordinary pressure endured by the Hillsborough families by perpetuation of the lie.
But new difficulties soon surfaced – from far closer to home. In May 2017 came the London Bridge attack. This happened within the setting of my novel. I witnessed the bouquets of red roses spanning the width of the bridge, the messages to loved ones, the photographs of the victims, all those beautiful, devastating obituaries. I had to decide if I should let this later disaster shape the story I was writing.
I’d already realised that I didn’t want to write a book about blame. This would do an injustice to the many individuals who behave heroically in the most terrible circumstances. Added to which, everything I researched about accident investigation delivered a clear message. Any finding that an individual is wholly responsible is likely be biased and will fail to identify the cause of the disaster. There are also dangers in holding organisations accountable. Unwittingly, in setting my disaster in a London Underground station, I’d picked a prime example of an organisation that is crippled by external pressures, London’s rapidly-growing population being the most obvious. Add to this the inherent difficulties of expanding the Tube network. And nowhere are these challenges more concentrated than in the City. I certainly didn’t hold London Underground responsible for my fictional disaster.
Then in June 2017 came the Grenfell Fire, the most heart-breaking tragedy of recent years, not only because of the scale of the devastation, but because it quickly emerged that the fire could have been prevented. Inadvertently, in avoiding writing about Hillsborough, now I risked giving the impression that I was commentating on two London disasters and, given that I live in London… Of course, having made a decision to write about unblame rather than blame, I was also seriously out of step with public opinion.
Fortunately my novel focuses on the disaster’s emotional fallout. My job was to capture all of the guarded memories, the hidden sorrow of a man whose wife will no longer leave the house, the man who mourns not only the loss of a daughter but his unborn grandson, a woman who beats herself up for having been a bad mother, the daughter who must assume position as head of the household, the sculptor who transforms his grief into art, the sheer heroism involved in getting up day after day and going out into a world that has betrayed you. The real beating heart of the story is not the disaster, but human resilience and the healing power of art.
Jane, thank you – I’m very much looking forward to reviewing in May. And you might just like to add it to your reading list too: you can pre-order it now for the special price of 99p/99c (that price increases to £1.99 on 12 March, and price on publication will be £3.99).
About the author
Hailed by The Bookseller as ‘One to Watch’, Jane Davis is the author of eight novels. Jane spent her twenties and the first part of her thirties chasing promotions at work, but when she achieved what she’d set out to do, she discovered that it wasn’t what she wanted after all. It was then that she turned to writing.
Her debut, Half-truths & White Lies, won the Daily Mail First Novel Award 2008. Of her subsequent three novels, Compulsion Reads wrote, ‘Davis is a phenomenal writer, whose ability to create well-rounded characters that are easy to relate to feels effortless’. Her 2015 novel, An Unknown Woman, was Writing Magazine’s Self-published Book of the Year 2016 and has been shortlisted for two further awards.
Jane lives in Carshalton, Surrey with her Formula 1 obsessed, star-gazing, beer-brewing partner, surrounded by growing piles of paperbacks, CDs and general chaos. When she isn’t writing, you may spot her disappearing up a mountain with a camera in hand. Her favourite description of fiction is ‘made-up truth’.
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