The story centers around a night in March 1943 when nearly two hundred people died seeking shelter from what seemed to be another air raid in East London. In all cases, death was by asphyxiation; there were no broken bones.
The incident is real. It was the largest civilian accident of World War II. My novel reimagines the story, following a handful of characters who are in various places in the crowd the night of the disaster: the shelter warden, a young clerk, a mother and her two young daughters. The government tries to suppress news of the accident, but when the devastated neighborhood demands an inquiry, the job falls to magistrate Laurence Dunne.
As Dunne investigates, he finds the truth to be precarious, even damaging. He works quickly, interviews dozens of witnesses, and hopes to write a good report in the belief that the document will restore the city’s confidence.But years later, when he is interviewed by one of the children who survived the night, Dunne is forced to consider whether what he did was right.
The Report has been shortlisted for the 2010 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize from the Center for Fiction and is a Winter 2010 Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. Kane and I talked recently about the writing process behind her new novel. As someone who writes much shorter pieces and who can't envision writing a novel (my dissertation was enough), I was fascinated by Kane's journey while writing The Report. I got a clear sense that it was exhausting, but the pride in her voice was even clearer. This was, if I may drop all pretense, a very fun conversation, even if it's hard to tell from the interview. Writers with children will find Kane's discussion of what it's like to write a novel with two small kids in the house particularly interesting.
Kane is also a contributing writer at The Morning News, whose founder, Rosecrans Baldwin, I interviewed recently for his hot new novel You Lost Me There. She has also published in, among other places, Granta, Salon, and Virginia Quarterly Review.
So read my interview with Jessica Francis Kane. You'll learn why fifth grade was so important to her, why she loves to write in libaries, how she blocks out distractions while writing, and the importance of scissors in her revision process.
When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?
I can actually date it to a class assignment in fifth grade. I grew up in Ann Arbor, and my classroom was at the top of an old building. One morning, my teacher asked us to go to the windows--our school overlooked this beautiful park called Burns Park--and it was a foggy, misty morning, where the mist was hanging low over the trees. She just wanted us to describe what we saw in a paragraph.
I remember feeling that I really wanted to do this well, that it was important. It made me nervous. Although I didn't know it at the time, it was the first time in my life that I really wanted to write well, to describe something uniquely.
And then in sixth grade, I had a teacher who wanted us to write a short story every week. He gave us silly themes, like writing from the perspective of a turkey at Thanksgiving, or writing a story about a teabag. I loved that.
Let's talk about your writing process. One of the things I've noticed from your website is that you've written in a variety of genres. How did you go about writing The Report? And would you call yourself a disciplined writer?
I suppose I am disciplined. There have been several stages of discipline, both pre-children and post-children. I had one routine before kids, and I wasted a lot more time. We have two kids who are four and seven, and the work on my novel dates back to when my daughter, the first child, was born.
After college, I worked in publishing, and I would write in the morning and evening. I was writing short stories in those years. The breakthrough came when we moved to London and I left my job. I had more time because I did not have to work immediately when we moved. Once we moved, I started going to the library every day and writing there. That's when I started really getting work done. When we returned from London, my first short story collection came out.
All along, I knew I wanted to write a novel, but the length terrified me. I felt like I understood the arc of a short story, where everything ended nicely at 25 pages. I was baffled at how you could carry a story over so many pages to make a novel. I had a number of false starts.
When my daughter was about 16 months old, I got a residency at MacDowell, and I went there with some notes for what I hoped would be a long short story. It was there that I realized that what I had was enough for a novel, and that became The Report. I started the book in 2004, even though I had notes dating back from 2000. I had a finished draft by 2009.
When I was writing my dissertation, the length also intimidated me. The thought of writing something well over 200 pages was unfathomable, but I found if I set short term goals and broke it up so that it was, say, 20 pages a week, it became manageable. How did you overcome your anxiety?
I've always tried to write every day. Just something, not necessarily a set number of pages or for a prescribed length of time. I subscribe more to the Eudora Welty method: I go to the desk, sit there, and if the muse comes, I am there.
I tried to make it a routine, a daily practice. Sometimes it didn't work, but I was happier trying than not trying. When I wasn't writing, I was miserable. The story grew so slowly. Once I had 20 pages I was happy with, I knew I could keep adding to that. It had taken me a long time to get to that 20 pages where I knew I had more to say after that, where I was actually opening it up instead of saying that I would be done in five pages.
So how did being a parent affect your routine? It forces discipline, doesn't it?
The first year our daughter was born, it was very hard. I was not writing at all, and I couldn't figure out how I could balance being a mother and a writer. At MacDowell, I realized that I had to make both things work, so when I came back, I had some amount of babysitting every day, whether she was in day care or with a sitter. That gave me two to three hours every day when I could write. I would actually leave the house. The sitter would come, and I would go to the library. I only had a little bit of time, but I found that it was enough to feel like a writer again.
I made that time sacred. I would not run errands or go grocery shopping. I would just write. It didn't feel like discipline, though. It felt like desperation (Laughs).
I found that I have two modes: parent mode and writer mode. And I can't do both at the same time. To the extent that I can turn one switch off, I am happy, because my mind isn't thinking about writing when I am with the kids, and vice versa. And then you appreciate both more when you are involved with one.
Is there anything you must have with you when you write? In an earlier interview with Tony Doerr, he mentions wearing chainsaw ear protection muffs to reduce noise, a holdover from his days in New York City, even though now he lives in Idaho.
Laughs. I read what Tony said on your blog and I love it! I want a pair of those. I have to say that this summer I have been writing essays and have had to write when the kids are around. I noticed that I was writing while plugging my ears with my fingers. So I might give that a try.
I suppose the quirkiest thing about my routine is my need to go to libraries. I just wrote an essay about this called "Where We Write." Partly because of the way things were arranged after we had kids, I started going to libraries to make it feel like a real job. I worked in publishing for a number of years, and I just felt better if I got up, got dressed, and left the house. In London, I went to either the British Library or the London Library and wrote there. But when we returned form London, I found I still needed to write in libraries. I like the anonymous fellowship there, where you don't know know what everyone else is working on, but you are surrounded by workers.
People have recommended that I join one of those writer's rooms. But that doesn't appeal to me because then I would know that everyone there was writing fiction or working on a novel. Laughs. I would find that too competitive.
What is your revision process like? How complete are your first drafts? For example, when I revise, I only do it on hard copy, and I only revise once before taking a break.
Wow, that's very good of you. I recognize the wisdom of that, but I have trouble doing it myself. Everything I thought I knew about revision went out the window with this novel. With my short stories, it was never a battle. I would write a draft, print it out, and they would evolve. But the novel was much different. I probably rewrote it five times. I finished a first draft in January 2008, and I had no idea how far I was from actually finishing the book. What was next was reading it again and realizing that the whole thing had to be rearranged. So I spread out sections on the floor and used scissors to cut up parts--
You actually used scissors to cut up sections? I did the same thing for my dissertation. It's old school cut-and-paste. I tell writers all the time that it's the best way to organize. Cut out all your paragraphs and rearrange on a big surface.
Laughs. Exactly! I totally agree. I was disheartened, because the first time I did it, it wasn't a good feeling. I was tearing into it and was worried. But then I saw progress and the different ways you can see the work, and it became exciting. I reassembled the novel that way twice.
What did you learn about your own writing while working with an editor on your novel?
I had a wonderful experience with my editor at Graywolf, Fiona. She encouraged me to go to London in the summer of 2009 to read through the full transcript of the original inquiry that the book was based on. In her really wonderful, really indirect British way, she gave me the confidence I needed. She was sure I wouldn't find anything to ruin the book! And what I did find--namely the rhythms of question and answer during an inquiry--helped the novel enormously.
The other thing was my use of passive voice. Apparently, I use it a lot! When it came time to edit the manuscript, a friend who is a good editor read it and circled all of my uses of passive voice. There were circles everywhere, circles interlocking with circles! I was surprised, but I also believe that rules are made to be broken. I considered each instance and purged a lot of them, but I left a lot in, too, wherever the feeling of passive voice was what I wanted.
What do you do when you have writers' block?
I read, I walk, I try not worry. It's funny, I wonder if I've ever really had writers' block. I wonder if I've only had a less substantial version of it, just a crisis in confidence. I try to read, which gets other narrative voices in my head. I try to go to bed at night with a problem in my head in the belief that my subconscious will work on it overnight.
How do you know when something you are working on is done?
I think a sign for me is when I become truly impatient with it. There's a true impatience and a false impatience. A false impatience always comes first: you've done this thing, it's almost where you like it, and you think it's ready for a reader. I've learned over time not to trust that, and to wait. So I'll take a break, work on something else, and come back to it when I have renewed patience. It's ready to go when there's true impatience.
Where did you get the idea to write The Report ?
I first came across the story ten years ago, when I attended an event at the British Library for a new series of books published by the London Stationery Office. The series is comprised of official government reports not previously available in popular form, and the one the series editor held up in his hand—and spoke passionately about for a few minutes—was The Tragedy at Bethnal Green. He sketched the time and setting, explained that conditions were very difficult, and that morale was very low at that point in the war. The magistrate who'd investigated, he said, had done an unusually good job and then had delivered an elegant report. I bought a copy of the pamphlet and later visited Bethnal Green to see the plaque that commemorates the accident. I took a few notes and thought I might turn them into a story someday.That was the fall of 2000. After 9/11, when a public inquiry into that disaster was demanded, I pulled out my notes on Bethnal Green and started thinking hard about the way we tell the story of a disaster. The result, a mere nine years later, is The Report.