What is it that inspires a writer to pick up the pen and begin a first novel?
Some write what they know; some write as a form of catharsis.
For Jessica Francis Kane, it was an unrelenting curiosity about a tragic event with no clear cause.
While Kane was living in London in 2000, she learned of a brutal accident that occurred during World War II. One March night in 1943, 173 people died entering an underground air raid shelter. Death was by asphyxiation in every case; there was only one broken bone. And as it turned out, not a single bomb had even fallen.
What caused the people of this tight-knit, working class London neighborhood of Bethnal Green to behave in this way among their neighbors? How, Kane wondered, would a community put itself back together after such an event? She took notes on the magistrate’s report for what she thought might someday become a short story.
After the U.S. began its inquiry into the attacks of September 11th, 2001, she became increasingly curious about how an official report attempts to make sense of a tragedy. The result is THE REPORT, published by Graywolf Press in September. The novel was short-listed for The Center for Fiction’s Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize, to be announced this Monday, December 6th.
Beyond the Margins was inspired by her dogged work at the intersection of fact and fiction, and caught up with her after a standing-room-only reading in Newtonville, MA.
BTM: What was so compelling to you about this accident that you chose to make it the subject of your first novel? Was there any challenge or discomfort you had to get past in taking a tragic event and shaping it into fiction?
JFK: From the beginning I saw it as a story about tragedy, how we tell stories about tragedies. Every time I read in the news about someone investigating the latest tragedy and saying ‘I’m not interested in blame,’ or ‘We’re interested in cause, not
liability,’ I think, Well, good luck. It’s a noble goal, and perhaps completely impossible. In terms of borrowing a true, tragic event for a novel, I made very sure that I had a sound, historically accurate scaffolding on which to build the story.
After that, I am lucky, in a sense, that the Bethnal Green accident was mysterious, the cause never fully known. That left room to fictionalize around two facts I found compelling: two days after the accident the papers reported that a woman was the first to fall (though she was never identified), and magistrate Laurence Dunne’s report mentions that a woman was the last out of the stairwell before the crush was complete across the landing. So one woman may have precipitated the crush, and another was the last to escape before the crush became deadly. What if something occurred between them? There’s the spark for a story.
How much is fact, and how much fiction? Did the content of the report resemble your storyline, either in the human choices made or the troubling layout of the shelter?
The human choices made in the book are my invention. The troubling layout of the shelter is real. The only real historical character in the book is the magistrate Dunne, and here is what I knew about him: he was a magistrate, he liked to fish, he began his investigation into the accident at Bethnal Green on March 11, 1943, and submitted his report to the government on March 23, 1943. After the war, he was knighted and later redesigned the metropolitan police uniforms. To me, he was a man who found himself in the right place at the right time and wrote a report that was somehow better than himself. That he never did anything else of such consequence again seemed very poignant.
Your book was released in paperback, as was another novel nominated for the Flaherty-Dunnan Prize, The Quickening (Michelle Hoover, Other Press). Do you think bookstores, award committees and reviewers are becoming more in sync with economic changes in the publishing business, such as paperback releases and the role of small presses?
I think times are changing. I worked in publishing in the mid-1990s and it was much truer then that the paperback original was a second-class citizen. Now there is more review attention given to TPOs, lots of larger houses have terrific paperback imprints (I think HarperPerennial does a great job), and of course for lots of smaller houses, it’s a model that makes sense. Store placement remains a concern, I think. A lot of stores have “New Hardcover Fiction” displays that relegate the TPOs to a table so that you can’t tell the brand-new books from the reprints. Every new book, whether hardcover or paperback, deserves a little front-of-store time, I think, and I wish there were a better way to highlight the paperbacks that represent brand-new books, versus the paperbacks that are reprints of hardcovers.
Can you describe your research methods, and is the geography of Bethnal Green and the shelter environs accurate, or fictionalized?
The shelter and environs are all accurate. In fact, the illustrations that grace the inside covers of the book are based on the maps and architectural drawings I studied while writing. I read Dunne’s original report over and over, of course. Late in the writing, I researched crowds because crowd behavior is instrumental to the story. And the last thing I did, when the book had already been bought by Graywolf, was to go back to England, to the National Archives in Kew, to read through the complete transcript of the inquiry. I wanted to be sure that I hadn’t missed anything and that I’d honored the event by staying true to the spirit of the time and place.
The novel alternates between two times—the actual tragedy, and its anniversary, 30 years later. Did you always intend it to be structured this way, or did you write one time period at a time then weave them together afterward?
It began as a story set in 1943, but then I saw Errol Morris’s documentary “Fog of War” and was so struck by the depiction of McNamara talking about his decisions during the Vietnam War that I knew I had to try to write about tragedy and its reckoning. I wanted immediacy and reflection, the event itself and the way it would ultimately be remembered. I was writing both storylines at the same time, but the proper interlacing of them, putting the scenes in the right order, took many hours with scissors and tape. I made it harder for myself, I suppose, because I didn’t want to give the chapters time and place markers. I wanted the narrative sense and drive to come from something else.
You give away a key, personal aspect of the tragedy in the first chapter. Was that always your intention?
The Tilly frame—and what is revealed about her sister in the first two pages—came late and as a solution to a particular problem, though I think it ended up serving the book in several good ways. I really wanted the story to open fast and gallop along. I had been completely captivated by the openings of Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto and Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love and I kept those books near me while I worked. In The Report I found that the best way to handle the night of the accident and the jostling of many characters, would be to give the reader a connection to one character right at the beginning. That way the first chapters unfold with a greater sense of something terrible and inevitable about to happen.
Your last chapter offers the point of view a unique and previously unseen character. What thought process went into including this? The italics make it more intimate, and its position at the end gives that character a special significance and final say.
I like that you see it as that character having the final say. It was a way to give a voice to the voiceless, but it is also meant to be the opening of Laurie’s report. After a whole book about everyone waiting for this report, I felt I had to reveal something. I thought it would be manipulative not to. Concluding the book with the report—because of the way Laurie chooses to write it—also makes the case for literature, I hope, for not turning away from fiction after terrible events (as people discussed doing after 9/11). That final chapter is the novel’s final argument that fiction can reveal deeper truths than any government document.
There are many issues raised in the book—communal culpability, effects of fear, the otherness of refugees, the extremes brought out in people to protect family. Did you have one theme prominently in mind as you were writing?
If I had any guiding theme in my head, it was the epigraph I took from John Burnham Schwartz’s novel Reservation Road: “When hope is lost, blame is the only true religion.” That meant a lot to me, forced me to think hard about hope and blame for a long time. Later, I was fascinated by how people endure on the home front during war. I wanted to think about how mothers survive and protect their children. A friend of mine said the other day that she couldn’t remember another novel that was so much about war but also motherhood, and I thought that was nice.
But it’s so easy to talk about themes after the fact. Just the other night I did a reading and in the Q&A with the audience afterwards I’m afraid I made it sound like certain themes were in my head while I was writing, which is really not the case. It’s just that I’ve been reflecting on the writing now and talking about it on tour and so it’s easy to make it sound as if I knew what I was doing from the start and worked from a flow chart or something. Honestly, it’s mostly a mystery to me.
How do you find your writing and book-tour life combines with being a mother? I only ask this semi-sexist question because of your lovely mention of this in your acknowledgements.
My children are seven and four and are surprisingly aware of this book coming into the world. I suspect they consider it a third sibling. When we got the first box of books from Graywolf, they each wanted me to sign a copy for them, and they’ve been sleeping with those copies under their pillows. And lest you think they’re trying to suffocate it, that’s where they’ve always put their most special books!
Have you begun a next project yet, or are you a one-project-at-a-time writer, and find writing incompatible with promotion?
I haven’t been able to work much this fall, but it is a great relief to me that I have an idea for another novel. I’ve been holding it in mind the way you might treasure the thought of a tropical vacation during winter. As soon as things quiet down a bit, I’m going to go there. I can’t wait.