Jane Davis is the acclaimed author of eight novels. Her latest, Smash All the Windows deals with the aftermath of a public tragedy and its lengthy mishandling.
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.
People say that all fiction is autobiographical. Have you based this book on personal experience?
Partly – although it’s my reaction to the suggestion put to the families after the verdict of the second Hillsborough inquest. The idea that ‘now it was all over’ they could finally get on with their lives. I was the mad woman shouting at the television, ‘What lives?’ Were they talking about the lives that the families enjoyed before the tragedy? They clearly no longer existed. And neither did the lives that they might have expected. But even if elements of those lives remained, the family members and the survivors had changed.
But I think you always have to make it personal. To create my fictional disaster, I combined two of my fears – travelling in rush hour by Tube, and escalators. Last year, I suffered a fall on my way to a book-reading in Covent Garden. I was overloaded, having just finished a day’s work in the city. I was carrying my laptop bag, my briefcase, plus a suitcase full of books. The escalator I would normally have used was out of order. Instead we were diverted to one that was obviously much steeper but I wasn’t prepared for how fast it was. I pushed my suitcase in front of me while holding onto the handle and stepped on. The case, which was only one step in front of my feet, literally dragged me off-balance. Fortunately, there was no one directly in front of me, and a few bruises and a pair of laddered lights aside, I escaped unscathed. But I can still blink and see the moment I knew I was about to fall and the recognition that there wasn’t a damned thing I could do about it.
Why a fictional disaster? Why not simply write a novel about Hillsborough?
Elizabeth Strout, an author I greatly admire, tells her writing students, ‘You can’t write fiction and be careful. I think actually the biggest challenge a writer has is to not be careful.’ And I agree. I really do. But none of us exists in a vacuum. The pain I saw on the faces of family members in the aftermath of the second inquest, twenty-seven years after the disaster, was raw. I wanted to take a step away from that. My favourite description of fiction is ‘made-up truth’. Making up truths is what I do.
Yours is a very different disaster.
It is, deliberately so. I particularly didn’t want to write a book about blame of individuals, because so many individuals behave heroically in the most appalling circumstances. That said, the St Botolph and Old Billingsgate has a number of vital things in common with Hillsborough. It happened before the explosion of the internet and so people’s voices weren’t heard and photographs taken on mobile phones were not posted online, as they would be today. There was someone in a position of seniority who was brand new to the job. There was an element of institutionalised complacency. (It’s said that the most dangerous sentence in the English language is ‘But we’ve always done things that way.) Facilities dated from decades when the relationship between pedestrian traffic flow and human space requirements was not as well understood as it is today. The lack of preparedness for dealing with multiple-casualty emergencies. The manner of dealing with family members who were searching for their loved ones was unacceptably insensitive (something also seen in the aftermath of other tragedies such as Lockerbie/PanAm and The Marchioness). In both instances myths about who was to blame were widely circulated, putting extraordinary pressure on the families. Victims were turned into scapegoats. The enormity of that shouldn’t be underestimated.
What is the most significant event for you in the story and why?
In a way this was a back-to-front piece of story-telling. The book opens with the end of the second inquest. The reader knows right from the get-go what the key event is. The St Botolph and Old Billingsgate disaster was a large-scale disaster that resulted in the death of fifty-eight commuters. The challenge was to show the impact of the event on different individuals and their families, who have re-lived it each day of the eighteen-month-long inquest. Because the accident takes place in an underground station, we see the various characters travelling towards it. I tried to create a sense of real-time and urgency, despite the fact that the reader knows the accident happened fourteen years in the past.
What are the story’s themes?
In fiction, there’s a temptation to try to undo the wrongs of the real world because of the assumption that there’s a single ‘truth’. In Smash All the Windows, I used several characters’ points of view, so that I could explore different reactions to and opposing opinions on the same subject. Who are the victims? Should individuals been held accountable when large-scale accidents occur, or does this prevent the identification of the factors that create circumstances that allowed accidents to happen? How should families and friends of victims be treated when they’re searching for or identifying loved ones? Should those same friends and family members be allowed to participate fully in inquests? But, despite everything I’ve said, it’s not a book about technicalities. It’s about human resilience, healing and art.
How do the characters change during the course of the novel?
The lives of the families of the victims have already changed in ways that they could never have imagined. Mostly, it’s a story about gradual healing, but there are breakthroughs and sudden insights, which lead to glimmers of hope. Maggie, in particular, has felt guilty about getting on with her own life. She has worried that this would mean forgetting her daughter. But Jules delivers a simple concept in a single sentence and you just know that it will kick-start the process of change.
Which character would you most like to be a dinner party guest and why?
I think it would have to be Jules. On the outside, he’s is a passionate, energetic and intriguing individual, quite anti-authoritarian, unafraid what people think of him, someone who makes you feel flattered when he unlatches the door to his world and invites you in. But like many artists, it is what’s behind the show of energy that is most interesting. I chose not to write about him in the first person, because I wanted to keep that sense of mystery about him, but I find myself wanting to learn more about him.
Where did your research take you?
Apart from the incidents themselves, I researched the rapidly-changing demography of London, transport policy, accident investigation, crowd theory, crush injuries, obituaries, working on the Underground, the layout of Underground stations, working as a tour guide, working as a set designer for the stage, ghost stories, medical information. Art features quite heavily in the novel. Sculpture, modern art, and heaven and hell depicted in art. At Tate Modern, I specifically sought out works of art where what was written on the wall label dramatically changed the way I thought about it.
So many tiny details go into the making of a book. The rule of thumb is that research shouldn’t show up on the page, but Smash all the Windows is the exception. Eric’s hard-won logical deductions needed to be shown. Mapping out the chain reaction that led to the disaster became Eric’s obsession and he pays the price with his health. Because I only had to show snapshots, thankfully my walls weren’t covered in his crazy line-up of Post-it notes. I didn’t suffer the same headaches, the stressful late nights fuelled by copious amounts of caffeine.
What moments in the novel do you like best?
Some of Donovan’s scenes are among my favourites. Donovan is a big-hearted man, but one who finds it difficult to express his emotions. There’s is a moment when Donovan finds a pair of his daughter’s swimming goggles in the garage. They have lain there, undisturbed for over thirty years, but he finds them just after he makes the decision to allow Jules to have the pieces of wood from the unfinished crib Donovan was making for his unborn grandson. (The idea is that Jules takes mementos from the families and uses them to create new works of art.) Donovan translates this as his daughter’s way of letting him know it’s OK.
I also rather like the moment that lent itself to the cover image: the starling. I borrowed a moment from one of walks through the city. I was taking the stairs from the Riverside Path up to London Bridge when I saw a starling sitting on a steel railing, singing its heart out. Hearing birdsong when surrounded by the traffic roar and the clang of building works is quite special and so I stood and watched. I used this moment for my character Maggie, who’s the mother of the young station supervisor who was in charge when the disaster happened. She feels her daughter is sending her a message.
So I think you’d have to say that my favourite moments are those in which people find ways to connect and communicate with their loved ones.
Smash All the Windows is published on 12 April.
Pre-order the novel here for 99p/99c (Price goes up to £1.99 on 12 March & £3.99 on 12 April)