Novelists are sculptors of real-life, but some have to be particularly sensitive to their raw materials. Especially when that material is events that have made headlines in the news – natural disasters, wars, or terrorist incidents.
That’s what I want to explore today. You might recognise my interviewee – Jane Davis, who has hosted me on her Book Club series and was one of my co-conspirators in the Women Writing Women box set. In her eighth novel, Smash All The Windows, she tackles the aftermath of a fictional disaster, for which she drew on the Hillsborough football stadium disaster in 1989.
In this interview we talk about
- Why the story’s time period was an important choice
- Why she created a fictional situation instead of writing about an actual event
- How she created an authentic experience
- Sensitivity issues
Roz Your novel was sparked by the second inquest into the Hillsborough disaster. What was it that grabbed your attention?
Jane It was the press’s treatment of the families. They thrust microphones at family members as they emerged from the courtroom and put it to them that, now the original ruling had been overturned, they could finally 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. Live commentary informed television viewers that Liverpool fans were to blame, and victims became scapegoats. It would be 27 years before the record was set straight.]
Roz But you didn’t end up writing about Hillsborough. You created your own fictional incident. Why was that?
Jane You have to treat recent history with respect, especially in cases where the survivors and relatives and partners of the victims are still alive. Twenty-seven years after the disaster, the pain on their faces was still so raw. My gut feeling was that I didn’t want to add to that. And what could I add to the material that’s already been produced? Jimmy McGovern’s powerful 1996 TV dramatisation formed part of the protest before the original verdict was overturned. McGovern based his script almost entirely on court transcripts and eye-witness reports. And he had blessing of the families. You have to ask yourself, would a fictional account be welcomed? Would it be disrespectful to add a fictional character to the storyline? And what right do I have to tell this story?
Actually, have you tackled recent history in your own writing?
Roz I use a recent disaster in Ever Rest. In 2014 there was an avalanche that killed 28 people and caused lasting ripples through the climbing community. It’s actually not the focus of my story; it happens on the periphery. Even so, I was careful to research every detail. I read the eyewitness accounts, watched real-time footage and interviews. Much of the information I gathered wasn’t needed for the book, but it allowed me to write with confidence and respect.
Jane And that’s why researching your subject matter and timeline is so important. Even if you only touch on it briefly, it would be a crime not to be aware of it.
Roz In my ghostwriting days I went much further. I created earthquakes and mass floods, and it’s a huge undertaking. The amount of factual research is enormous. First there’s the event itself, the special responses of bodies like the police, ambulance and fire brigade; then all the other surprising possibilities that make a gripping story well beyond the obvious. I’ve seen you remark on Facebook that this book darn near killed you and I can well believe it. Tell me about creating your disaster in logistical and practical terms. What did you draw on?
Jane Research – obviously – but also personal experience. The previous year, travelling by Tube to a book-reading in Covent Garden, I’d suffered a fall. Already overloaded from a day’s work in the city, I also had a suitcase full of books in tow. I was totally unprepared for how fast the escalator was. When I pushed my suitcase in front of me, it literally dragged me off balance. Fortunately, there was no one directly in front. A few bruises and a pair of laddered lights aside, I escaped unscathed. But the day could have ended very differently.
In terms of research, as I’m sure you’re aware, creating a fictional disaster doubles your workload. Firstly I researched Hillsborough and unpicked the elements that led to the tragedy. Facilities which dated from a time when the relationship between pedestrian traffic-flow and human space requirements wasn’t understood. Someone in management who was new to the job. Elements of institutionalised complacency. (‘We’ve always done things that way.’) Risk assessments that failed to consider that several things might go wrong at the same time and how multiple casualties might be dealt with. I also wanted to reflect the extraordinary pressure endured by the Hillsborough families following their appalling treatment as they searched for loved ones, and then as lies were spread.
Then, having chosen my setting, I set about researching how an accident might happen in an Underground Station, and the difficulties that the emergency services would encounter, which meant looking at accident investigations from Kings Cross and London terrorist attacks. I documented everything I could about the vulnerabilities of the system and weak spots, and that meant tracking down reports on transport policy, overcrowding, the impact on health, recommendations that have not been implemented… the list goes on.
Roz So you created a story about a disaster on an escalator in a London Tube station? What then?
Jane After that, I plotted my timeline. It took over a decade of legal wranglings before the Hillsborough families even managed to get their hands on paperwork to help them build their case, but I didn’t want the timeframe to be as long as 27 years. Somehow, to suggest my fictional characters suffered as much as the Hillsborough families seemed disrespectful. But to reflect the issues that existed at the time of Hillsborough, the story had to happen before the explosion of the internet, when voices weren’t heard as they would be today and photographs wouldn’t be posted on Twitter.
Roz The expanding internet. A boon for research; a bane for plotting. How many storytellers have wound their timelines back for that very reason? But I digress. You then created a character to personify the fight…
Jane Yes. When most injustices are overturned, there’s usually an individual who worked away tirelessly to construct a case. With Hillsborough, it was Phil Scraton, a professor of criminology. With the disaster in my book, it was Eric, a law student. He’s the outsider, someone who arrives at a point when the families have all but given up. His conviction reminds the families that they still have a little fight in them.
Roz You also have to grapple with a lot of human stories – and in a sensitive way. You create characters who experience the worst because that makes the most drama, but you must handle everything with respect and not appear to exploit it. Can you talk about that?
Jane The question of whether it’s possible to exploit a fictional character is such an interesting one! But yes, the human drama is what’s going to grip the reader, so characterisation is crucial. You have to translate the emotional fallout with delicacy and honesty, allowing your characters to retain their dignity. I wanted to show the terror and the horror of the disaster, without making anything gratuitous. So how do you go about that? I write in close third person from multiple viewpoints and I think this lends itself to a very personal relationship with my characters. I also do a little of what I call ‘method writing’. If I need to write a tired and emotional scene, I try to write the first draft when I’m tired and emotional. If my character has had a drink or two, you get the picture…
Roz That’s not unlike the ‘musical method writing’ used by many of the guests on my Undercover Soundtrack series. We’re all searching for the truth in these emotional scenes. What about the scenes of the actual disaster?
Jane My choice of setting was deliberate. I suffer from claustrophobia and anxiety and so travelling in rush hour on a Tube train is something I have to do, but I struggle with. I hope that I’ve managed to translate my feelings of claustrophobia onto the page. As for the disaster itself, I show the various characters travelling towards it, and so we see the build-up from different angles, but I tend to cut away from the disaster itself quite suddenly. If you create the right atmosphere and rack up the tension, the reader is perfectly capable of imagining what happened next.
In the book, I have my character Maggie ask my character Jules, who is a sculptor, if the work they are planning to make for his art exhibition is going to be too shocking, and he says, ‘It is going to be just shocking enough. You cannot make art and then apologise for it.’ So I suppose my question to you would be where would you draw the line? What would be too shocking?
Roz A good question. Sometimes understatement is beautifully devastating. Graham Greene described a shooting as ‘a thud like a gloved hand striking a door’. I think you have to do what is true to your style.
On the subject of shock, it’s now not unusual for authors to have a sensitivity edit, done by a person with more direct experience of the issue or that kind of event. Did you have a reader who performed this for you? Maybe more than one because you’ll have several human issues like post-traumatic stress, depression, anxiety, marital difficulties… The human fallout of such an event is endless. How did you get to the stage where you felt confident you’d appreciated the situation fully and been fair?
Jane I hadn’t heard the term ‘sensitivity edit’ until a few weeks ago, when I shared an interview on Twitter from a sensitivity editor, so no, I haven’t sought out that kind of professional help. But you’re so right. Many lives are blighted by an incident on this scale. I chose to focus on five key characters and the people they lost.
Hillsborough had already given me long-term view, but while I was writing the book, the 50-year anniversary of Aberfan took place. Aberfan was a Welsh mining village where a slag heap collapsed on the village school. Because the world’s media descended on this small community, there’s a wealth of photographic evidence – it’s almost obscene. And if we measure the long-term impact of large-scale disaster in terms of medical records, we see it all here. Alcoholism, addiction to prescription drugs, a rate of minor ailments that far exceeds the norm, mental health issues, suicide, premature death. I actually wonder if I have gone far enough, but then you return to that question of exploitation.
I also use a team of about 35 beta readers who come from wide circles. They always surprise me but, unbeknown to me, one of my team had survived the Hatfield rail crash. That discovery led to a valuable exchange about survivor guilt and flashbacks. Particularly pertinent were the what ifs? ‘If I’d asked him to get me a coffee, he wouldn’t be here.’
Another beta reader had suffered a fall down the escalators at Euston Station two years ago and is still walking with a stick (in fact, I’m gathering a file of escalator incidents – falls seem extremely common). She found my descriptions of the fall terrifying because, of course, she superimposed her own experience over what she read on the page.
Roz Add me to your list of escalator casualties. I have a triangular hole in my shin from a mishap at Knightsbridge Tube.
Jane Another one! And I’m hearing about them all the time.
But another beta reader thought that the way I depicted a pregnant woman was too generic. She exercised right up to the birth of her first child – she had climbed a mountain two weeks beforehand and had been jogging a couple of days before the birth. Of course, pregnancy is something I have no experience of, so her input was extremely helpful.
My choice of Dan Holloway as a structural editor also served me well. He asked probing questions like, ‘Is that really the first thing you want your readers to know about this character’?
Wearing your editor hat, I assume authenticity is something you comment on?
Roz I do! I’ve developed a nose for authenticity, or rather, its opposite. Sometimes I can comment from my own knowledge – for years I’ve done editing shifts on medical magazines, so I have a wide experience of mental and physical health issues, and also of the professionals who treat them. Also, ghostwriting gave me other surprising life-skills because I had to write convincingly about things I hadn’t ever done. That’s made me an obsessive checker. When I’m editing a manuscript, even if I don’t know the subject, I can usually tell if it has been researched thoroughly. Of course, it’s harder to know if a writer has made a wrong assumption, so there’s no substitute for befriending an actual expert.
What other obstacles did you encounter?
Jane The main problem was that time refused to stand still. While I was writing my book, disasters kept on happening. News broadcasts and front pages of newspapers were dominated by terrorist attacks. Paris was already on my mind, but Nice, Berlin, Manchester… Then in May 2017, the London Bridge attack happened. Would it be insensitive to continue to write about an incident that took place within a real life disaster? Part of me said yes. On the other hand, I saw the aftermath. The cars parked diagonally across city streets, the bouquets of red roses propped up against the bridge. The messages written to loved ones. And the photographs of the victims, all those devastating, beautiful obituaries. I had to make conscious decisions about whether I should let this disaster shape the story I was writing.
Roz That’s a perennial problem – the book that keeps growing in scope. Life keeps adding possibilities. You have to decide when you’ve got enough. Which seems a good place to end!
And if that snippet about Ever Rest piqued your interest, you can find out more in my newsletter, including adventures like this: