My Counterfeit Self: an interview with Jane Davis on her latest novel

Today, I’d like to welcome Jane Davis. Jane Davis is the author of seven novels. Her debut, Half-truths and White Lies, won the Daily Mail First Novel Award and was described by Joanne Harris as ‘A story of secrets, lies, grief and, ultimately, redemption, charmingly handled by this very promising new writer.’

Six further novels have earned her a loyal fan base and widespread praise. Her 2016 novel, An Unknown Woman won Writing Magazine’s Self-Published Book of the Year Award. Her favourite description of fiction is ‘made-up truth’.

Her latest book, My Counterfeit Selfis launched tomorrow (£2.99/$3.99) but get it today at a special pre-order price of £99p/$99c!

Completely gripping, excellently written and so skilfully put together, I can’t recommend My Counterfeit Self highly enough. Isabel Wolff, author of Ghostwritten.

For more on the novel and links to her work, please see the end of this post.

Now, Jane answers some questions.

What’s your writing style and how do you differentiate your writing from other fellow writers?
I love this question. It gives the impression that the writing arrives fully formed, when in fact the version the reader sees is an illusion.

I have only three rules. Whatever my subject-matter, the end-product must be honest, credible and authentic. The hallmarks of my books are multiple points of view and non-linear timelines. I’m excited by cause and effect and unconventionality in all its forms. I like to write about big subjects and give my characters almost impossible moral dilemmas.

Which of your personal qualities lend themselves to writing?
I come from a large family where the rule was that it was rude to interrupt, so I guess I’ve become a listener and a keen observer. As someone who never has the right words to say at the right time and who plays conversations over and over in her mind (sometime months after they take place), it’s deeply satisfying to be able to put words into characters’ mouths.

How do you go about writing scenes which you know will be particularly challenging?
I’m sure every book or screenplay contains a scene that the author has approached with dread. I know I do! I remember reading that for Anthony McCarten, who wrote the script of The Theory of Everything, it was the one in which Stephen and Jane Hawking acknowledged that their marriage had come to an end. Since Stephen could say very little, he didn’t think it was fair to allow Jane to use words as weapons. McCarten spoke about the need to convey great emotion in very few words. That’s really my first rule of thumb: keep it simple.

Let me be totally upfront: I hate writing sex scenes. There are so many holes you can fall down. This article explains just some of them. And if a writer as experienced as Ben Okri can win the bad sex in fiction award, then what chance do I have? But An Unchoreographed Life tells the story of a ballerina who turns to prostitution when she becomes a single mother, so I do like to set myself challenges.

In the case of These Fragile Things, I chose to write about near-death experience and religious visions. My sister’s advice was that no one but Graham Greene should attempt to write about religion, but it was the book I didn’t seem to be able to avoid writing. It was part of my DNA. My grandfather’s conversion to the Catholic faith shaped my father’s childhood and my own. It was important to me to tackle everything with sensitivity and I chose to have each character representing a distinct point of view, and each believing absolutely in his or her stand-point.

Often, I have to step outside my own experience. I hope that by the time the need arises, I will know my character well enough that he or she can show me the way. In A Funeral for an Owl, I had my character Shamayal, a fourteen-year-old mixed race boy, face the gang members he’s desperately been trying to avoid. To find out how well I did writing my first fight scene, I had it analysed.

Your novels are all very different – which readers like, but publishers are rather dubious about. Have you ever been asked to write something ‘similar’ to your award-winning debut?
Readers often write to me wanting to know what happens next. They seem particularly interested in my secondary characters. With These Fragile Things, they fell in love with Miranda, my main character’s school-friend who is expelled for challenging her head mistress. With An Unchoreographed Life, readers already want to know more about Jean-Francois, one of Alison’s former dance partners. My philosophy is to ‘arrive late, get out early’. If I don’t leave the reader wanting more, I haven’t done my job.

What’s the story behind your latest release?
It’s the story of a radical poet and political activist called Lucy Forrester, who’s a cross between Edith Sitwell and Vivienne Westwood. Having been anti-establishment all of her life, she’s horrified to find that she’s been featured on the Queen’s New Year’s Honours list. To be honest, the idea of writing about the life of a poet came directly from reader reviews. Several comments that my prose was like poetry. I had no idea if I could actually write poetry but this gave me confidence that I might be able to convince readers that I could see the world as a poet does.

How do you manage time within a novel that spans sixty years?Jane Davis author
When I was writing I Stopped Time, I set up timelines for the twentieth century. I added everything from news stories to the books people were reading to the weather. Now, whenever I write a book, I grab the data from the decades it covers and slot my tailored research into place. For My Counterfeit Self, that included details from biographies of poets, literary critics, even a dress designer. Then, because I like cause and effect to show throughout the book, I tend to deconstruct the timeline. Memories don’t arrive in chronological order. They might show up like photographs or postcards, or sometimes even like unwelcome guests. This way, the reader builds a gradual picture of who the angry old lady we meet in the first chapter is, and what made her that way. The story comes together like a mosaic.

You confess to loving biographies. How much has this influenced your fiction?
The novel is such an ideal medium for ‘big subjects’ because it’s the only narrative form that transports the reader directly inside characters’ heads. By exploring an issue from the standpoint of one or two individuals, giving it context, providing motive, showing cause and effect, we humanise it. Biography also does that, but a biographer has a responsibility to his subjects in a way that a novelist doesn’t. I think it’s fair to say that you can be freer with the truth in fiction. At the same time, I want my fiction to feel real. I want readers to believe that Lucy Forrester exists!

In the book, you talk about success coming at a price, as if another kind of bargain has been struck. Is this a reflection of how you feel about your experience of winning the Daily Mail First Novel Award?
Obviously, it’s unavoidable for a writer to draw on their own experience. I received several reviews that suggested Half-truths and White Lies didn’t deserve to win, that the result was a fix, or that I must have been related to the judges. I wanted to say to those people, ‘I didn’t enter with any expectation of winning.’ You see, I entered out of sheer frustration. I had an agent but my manuscript had been sitting in her in-tray for six months.

While I was writing My Counterfeit Self, I saw the reaction to Sarah Howes’ win of the TS Eliot Award for her debut collection, Loop of Jade. Even at the awards ceremony, a journalist overheard the comment, “I wonder how long it will be before everyone begins to hate her.” As it turned out, the answer was ‘Not Long’. Private Eye questioned the judging, asking if the award was given “for extra-poetic reasons?” Was it because she was a “young woman with a dual Anglo-Chinese heritage” and could be seen as “a more presentable ambassador for poetry than the distinguished grumpy old men she saw off”.

There’s always a sense of giving with one hand and taking away with the other, ignoring the fact that at the centre of the controversy is someone vulnerable and real.

My Counterfeit Self is an intriguing title. What does it mean to you?
Lucy’s parents behave appallingly and in such a way that she is freed from any feeling of obligation to live up to their expectations. She moves out of the family home and decamps to bohemian Soho. In distancing herself from her parents she adopts a new personality that she hides behind. Although she insists that she lays herself bare in her poetry, it’s keeping secrets from those who love her most that is her undoing.

My Counterfeit Self: from the award-winning author of Half-truths and White Lies, an emotional story of hidden identities, complicated passions and tangled truths.

MORE ON MY COUNTERFEIT SELF

A compelling portrayal of the bohemian life of an activist poet, the men she loves, and the issues she fights for. Eleanor Steele

A rose garden. A woman with white hair. An embossed envelope from the palace.

Lucy Forrester, for services to literature, you are nominated for a New Year’s Honour.

Her hands shake. But it’s not excitement. It’s rage.

For five decades, she’s performed angry poems, attacked government policy on everything from Suez to Trident, chained herself to embassy railings, marched, chanted and held placards high.

Lucy knows who she is. Rebel, activist, word-wielder, thorn in the side of the establishment. Not a national bloody treasure.

Whatever this is – a parting gesture, a final act of revenge, or the cruellest of jokes – it can only be the work of one man. Dominic Marchmont, outspoken literary critic and her on/off lover of fifty years, whose funeral begins in under an hour.

Perhaps, suggests husband Ralph, the invitation isn’t the insult it seems? What if Dominic – the man they both loved – has left her an opportunity?

ABOUT JANE
Jane lives with her Formula 1 obsessed, beer-brewing partner, surrounded by growing piles of paperbacks, CDs and general chaos. When she is not writing, you may spot Jane disappearing up the side of a mountain with a camera in hand.

START HERE

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