Tonight I am delighted to be welcoming to the blog for the first Friday Night Drinks of October, author… Jane Davis.
Jane, thank you for joining me for drinks this evening. First things first, what are you drinking?
I’ll have a gin and tonic, please. If there’s a choice of gin, my favourite is Portobello Road.
If we weren’t here in my virtual bar tonight, but were meeting in real life, where would you be taking me for a night out?
Sky Garden, which styles itself as London’s highest public garden. When the Walkie Talkie was built, it was the city skyscraper everyone loved to hate (there was controversy when it was still under construction and was blamed for reflecting light which melted parts of a car in a nearby street) but then some bright spark had the idea of creating a palm house and viewing platform on its uppermost floor. Add a bar and a restaurant and it has become one of the best spots to look down over the City. But the time when Sky Garden really comes into its own is sunset. There is a moment at which the glass and steel constructions of Canary Wharf turn to gold, and it’s just magical.
That sounds fab, I will have to pay it a visit if I ever make it to London again! If you could invite two famous people, one male and one female, alive or dead, along on our night out, who would we be drinking with?
My first guest would be someone who was very famous in his day, but who history has almost completely forgotten, and the reasons for that interest me. James Naylor was a pastry chef by trade, but in 1784 he became the first English aeronaut, just a year after the first balloon flights. Naylor had no formal education to speak of and was almost certainly illiterate, but his understanding of heat (learned in the kitchen) enabled him to introduce innovations to his balloon design. He was the first to create an adjustable fire to control altitude, and the first to use hydrogen, but his inventions weren’t restricted to hot air balloons. He also worked on steam engines and improved on the design of rifles and cannons (including the ones aboard Nelson’s HMS Victory), after noting that over one third of weapons missed their target by over five feet. Like Nikola Tesla, Naylor is someone who was interested in the science rather than money. I’m sure he would have a few stories to tell.
My second choice would be the poet Edith Sitwell. Her eccentric style of dress, captured so perfectly by Cecil Beaton, gave the impression that she was a throw-back from another era. She herself told the tale that she was descended from the Red Rose Plantagenets on one side, and on the other from an errand boy who walked all the way from Leeds to London, barefoot, where he made his fortune. She mixed in extraordinary literary and artistic circles and, although she described one of her hobbies as ‘silence’, recorded interviews suggest she was never short of something to say. I hope that she might be persuaded to tell us how she struck up a friendship with Marilyn Monroe after a meeting in Hollywood. It would probably be some time before I plucked up the courage to confess that my character Lucy Forrester from My Counterfeit Self is a cross between her and Vivienne Westwood. I wonder if she’d recognise herself.
So, now we’re settled, tell me what you are up to at the moment. What have you got going on? How and why did you start it and where do you want it to go?
I’ve also started work on a new novel, Encroachment. I’m very superstitious about saying too much about works in progress, but the plan is that it will have a dual timeline, one in the late Victorian era when my main character spends his life savings on a plot of land, where he creates what will be one of England’s last pleasure gardens. The gamble doesn’t pay off and he is forced to sell off the land, plot by plot, to property developers. The second part of the story is set in the present day, in a house that was the ticket office for the pleasure gardens, when the encroachment comes in the form of neighbours from hell. It’s a story about trying to live out our dreams only to have them trodden on. The second project I’ve been working on is editing the diary I kept about helping to care for my father during his last eighteen months of dementia. (He passed away in April during the COVID crisis.) I’m not quite sure what I should do with it yet, except that I would like to do something. One in fifteen adults over the age of 65 suffers from some form of dementia. By the time you reach the age of 80, the odds increase to one in six – and yet talking about dementia seems to be taboo. I have so many incredible anecdotes that might provide reassurance to those whose relatives have a diagnosis, but another approach would be to produce a more serious work of non-fiction about how so little help is available for the army of unpaid carers who are looking after family members. And that’s a national scandal.
They both sound fascinating, but what a difficult topic you have chosen for the second. You are very brave. What has been your proudest moment since you started writing and what has been your biggest challenge?
My debut novel, Half-Truths and White Lies won the Daily Mail First Novel Award, and Joanne Harris gave me a lovely quote for the front cover, but it’s actually the two smaller awards I won since I turned indie that acknowledge both writing and publishing standards that I’m most proud of. The single biggest challenge is how to gain visibility in a saturated marketplace. On the 3 September, 600 new titles were released on a single day, and that figure doesn’t include self-published books. How to make ourselves stand out from the crowd is the question we authors have to ask ourselves most often.
What is the one big thing you’d like to achieve in your chosen arena? Be as ambitious as you like, it’s just us talking after all!
The organisers of many awards claim to be looking for the best in fiction, but even when self-published authors are allowed to enter (which is rarely), many awards have prohibitive entry fees. Even the Guardian’s Not the Booker which relies on nominations from its readership excludes self-published titles. For a competition that is supposed to provide an alternative, that seems particularly narrow-minded. What I’d like is the opportunity to compete on an even footing with traditionally published authors.
What have you planned that you are really excited about?
2020 is a year when planning seems futile. Every event I planned to attend has been cancelled, so I’ve more or less given up getting excited. On the bright side, next year’s calendar is filling up quite nicely… But seriously, I think now is a time for caution and taking care of those around us. Perhaps to make longer term plans.
I love to travel, and I’m currently drawing up a bucket list of things I’d like to do in the future. Where is your favourite place that you’ve been and what do you have at the top of your bucket list?
That’s a hard choice. I fulfilled one of my longest-held ambitions by going to China. Seeing the Terracotta Army was one of the most mind-blowing experiences I’ve had. Not just the scale of it, but to understand the belief systems that went behind it. But I also loved the temple complexes at Angkor in Cambodia.
For myself, these days I tend to stay far closer to home. (When I renewed my ten-year passport last year, I realised I hadn’t used it once.) I’m a keen hillwalker and enjoy regular trips to the Lake District, but there are so many parts of the UK I have yet to explore. I’d love to go to what I think of as ‘Local Hero’ country – the northern reaches of Scotland in the hope of seeing the northern lights. I’d also like to walk the St Michael ley-line which runs from Cornwall to Essex.
Cambodia is top of my wishlist. Tell me one interesting/surprising/secret fact about yourself.
Although most of my musical connections are on my mother’s side of the family (my grandfather was a composer and maternal uncles were very well-known flautists), it’s on my father’s side that I’m related to Annie Adams, one of our first Music Hall singers to become an international stars. She began her singing career singing in her father’s pubs but by 1871 she was touring the States, from New York to San Francisco.
Books are my big passion and central to my blog and I’m always looking for recommendations. What one book would you give me and recommend as a ‘must-read’?
My favourite fiction title of last year was Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott. I instantly fell in love with the tone set by the book’s anonymous narrator, who recalls the story of Truman Capote’s relationship with his ‘swans’, who invited him into their homes (and onto their yachts and private jets) and confided in him, only to discover that he had betrayed them when he used their stories in his fiction. When he found himself shunned, Capote’s reaction was ‘What did you expect? I’m a writer’.
They told him everything.
He told everyone else.
Over countless martini-soaked Manhattan lunches, they shared their deepest secrets and greatest fears. On exclusive yachts sailing the Mediterranean, on private jets streaming towards Jamaica, on Yucatán beaches in secluded bays, they gossiped about sex, power, money, love and fame. They never imagined he would betray them so absolutely.
In the autumn of 1975, after two decades of intimate friendships, Truman Capote detonated a literary grenade, forever rupturing the elite circle he’d worked so hard to infiltrate. Why did he do it, knowing what he stood to lose? Was it to punish them? To make them pay for their manners, money and celebrated names? Or did he simply refuse to believe that they could ever stop loving him? Whatever the motive, one thing remains indisputable: nine years after achieving wild success with In Cold Blood, Capote committed an act of professional and social suicide with his most lethal of weapons . . . Words.
I have this on my TBR, I must get round to it soon. So, we’ve been drinking all evening. What is your failsafe plan to avoid a hangover and your go-to cure if you do end up with one?
My failsafe plan is the stick to the same drink. (I probably should never have started on the gin!) I have to tell you, things get pretty ugly if I have a hangover. In all honesty, I’d probably pull a duvet day.
After our fabulous night out, what would be your ideal way to spend the rest of a perfect weekend?
If we were to stay overnight in the City, I’d use it as an excuse to continue my exploration of its nooks and crannies and take you to see some of my favourite finds. A short wander will take us to Bunhill burial grounds where we’ll find William Blake’s gravestone and those Daniel Defoe and John Bunyan, author of pilgrim’s progress. I’d take you to see the Thomas Hardy tree in old St Pancras churchyard. (Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley’s mother is also buried here.) Just around the corner is Word on the Water – a floating bookshop based on the Regent’s Canal at King’s Cross. If you follow the canal in the direction of Camden you come to one of my favourite architectural developments, Gasholders, literally built within the framework of the decommissioned Victorian gas holders. We could picnic in the park, or have lunch in nearby Coal Drops Yard. On Sunday, I might take you for a tour of Highgate cemetery. We can explore the East cemetery at our leisure, where we’ll find the graves of plenty of authors, from George Elliot to Douglas Adams. To access the West cemetery, we’ll have to book a place on a tour, but it’s well worth it to see the Grade 1 listed Egyptian Avenue and the Circle of Lebanon. Perhaps I’ll be able to tempt to you back to Carshalton for a pint at my local, The Hope, which the community clubbed together and bought to save it from being snapped up by a supermarket chain. It’s clocked up no less than five CAMRA Greater London Pub of the Year awards and holds monthly beer festivals. Our pub cat even has its own Twitter account @pubcathope.
Jane, I have had a wonderful evening, thank you so much for joining me.
London 1949. The lives of three very different women are about to collide.
Like most working-class daughters, Caroline Wilby is expected to help support her family. Alone in a strange city, she must grab any opportunity that comes her way. Even if that means putting herself in danger.
Star of the silver screen, Ursula Delancy, has just been abandoned by the man she left her husband for. Already hounded by the press, it won’t be long before she’s making headlines for all the wrong reasons.
Patrice Hawtree was once the most photographed debutante of her generation. Now childless and trapped in a loveless marriage, her plans to secure the future of her ancient family home are about to be jeopardised by her husband’s gambling addiction.
Each believes she has already lost in life, not knowing how far she still has to fall.
Six years later, one cause will reunite them: when a young woman commits a crime of passion and is condemned to hang, remaining silent isn’t an option.
“Why do I feel an affinity with Ruth Ellis? I know how certain facts can be presented in such a way that there is no way to defend yourself. Not without hurting those you love.”
Hailed by The Bookseller as ‘One to Watch’, Jane Davis is the author of nine thought-provoking 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. Smash all the Windows was the inaugural winner of the Selfies (best independently-published work of fiction) award 2019.
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’.