An Interview with Jessica Francis Kane

I had the good fortune to host Jessica Francis Kane at Elliott Bay in the fall of 2010 for her novel, The Report. I subsequently put it on our staff recommendation wall. When Melville House Publishing sponsored the Indie Booksellers Choice Awards, an Indie Book Award for Independent presses voted on by Independent booksellers, Jessica’s book was the first that came to my mind and I nominated it. Charles Day at Melville House suggested that I might like to interview Jessica based on my staff recommendation. Jessica’s book is exceptional, so I enthusiastically jumped at the opportunity. The following is the result of that enterprise. –Greg

On hearing the story of the WWII catastrophe at Bethnal Green, which became the genesis for your novel The Report, was this a story that struck you as good material for a work of fiction? Did the story grab you immediately or was there something else which caused you to seriously consider it for a fictional treatment?

I risk melodrama here, but I have wondered, did someone in the crush that night pray her life would not end in vain? How else did this story reach up and grab me out of the great maw of history? I have absolutely no connection to it other than that I lived in London for three years from 1998-2001. I did not have a grandparent who was in the crush or lived in the neighborhood. I do not even have a relative that has been hurt or killed in a great public tragedy or natural disaster. But something about this story compelled me, and after 9/11 I saw in it a way to write about what guilt and blame do to individuals and a community after a disaster, and the tragedy of misunderstanding when the needs of people suffering are opposed to the concerns of government. I thought it would make an important and heartbreaking story, if I could get it right.

Obviously the character of Laurence Dunne was a public figure, so there is some public record of his work and achievements, while many of the victims were just average people living in London’s East End. How did you go about imagining the people who lost their lives that night?

A lot of reading and thinking! Obviously, first and foremost, I read about the lives of Londoners during the war. A book I found enormously helpful was Norman Longmate’s How We Lived Then. I was interested in the characters who emerge, good and bad, in any time and place where refugees arrive into a settled population. It’s a difficult and fascinating problem. By all accounts the East End, absorbing so many Jewish refugees during the war, was a success. But there were tensions and the book explores what happens when a community, even a close-knit one, is pushed to its breaking point. I needed a range of characters who would represent this community, and who I could put in several different spots the night of the tragedy.

Where did the framing device of the documentarian come from to tell the story?

That idea came later when I began to realize I was less interested in answers than consequences and reverberations. I wanted to think about how tragedies are endured and reinterpreted, so I needed to allow for a lot of time to pass. Errol Morris’s “The Fog of War,” an astonishing film about what time does to our perspective, was a big influence. I wanted to turn the tables on Laurie (Laurence Dunne) the way that film turns them on [Robert] McNamara. I wanted tragedy and reckoning, immediacy and reflection. A young documentarian, someone seeking to understand the tragedy anew 30 years later, seemed right.

While doing your research when or how did you know you had done enough and that you now needed to trust your imaginative instinct?

I fear my research was not proper or methodical. It always felt sporadic and haphazard. I doubt a historian would read Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs to better understand crowd behaviour, but I did. I studied the shelter drawings of Henry Moore and thought about what it would take for people to want to go underground to sleep. I took a lot of notes at first, but eventually hit on a method that let me off the hook a bit: I decided that the details I could remember without the benefit of notes were likely to be the best ones to make convincing fiction. So I began to write and research simultaneously and began to trust myself to remember what I needed. Eventually, I began to get confused about what I’d read and what I’d written and that seemed like a good sign.

Do you feel there is a common thread which runs through your fiction? Are there particular experiences, ideas, or questions which reoccur in your work?

With only one story collection and one novel, I feel barely ready to answer this question! But it’s a good one, and I am thinking about it because I’ve just been working with my editor on the table of contents for my second collection of stories. I think adult/child relationships interest me, especially the pain of lost respect. The difference between how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us is another theme. The caustic effect of blame. Nostaglia; failing to learn from the past. But really, I hope to leave this question to my readers and critics. It is always fascinating to read this kind of summary judgment in a review or email from someone who has read my work.

Are there writers or other artists who have had an influence on you as a writer?

I come back again and again to Graham Greene and Penelope Fitzgerald as twin guideposts of some kind. But I try to read widely and when I’m really reading hard and well I can learn something from anyone. Questions of perspective and voice, the problem of handling time and narrative tension—they are perennial and solvable so many different ways.

How does writing a novel compare and contrast with writing short stories and do you value one over the other?

It certainly took me a long time to figure out how to write a novel, almost 10 years with an abandoned one along the way. But by the time The Report was done, I knew I wanted to do it again. In the meantime, I’ve returned to writing stories and I’m loving that. So I hope to keep writing both, with the occasional essay here and there, and maybe even a play some day.

Learn more about The Report from Jessica’s The Morning News essay “Caught Telling Fiction“.

JESSICA FRANCIS KANE is the author of the short story collection, Bending Heaven, which was published in the US (Counterpoint, 2002) and the UK (Chatto & Windus, 2003). Awards and honors for her work include the Lawrence Foundation Prize, fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and Special Mention in the Pushcart Prize anthology. Her stories have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and published in many publications, including Virginia Quarterly Review, McSweeney’s, The Missouri Review, Narrative, and Granta. Her essays and humor pieces have appeared in Salon, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and The Morning News, where she is a contributing writer. Her first novel, The Report, was published by Graywolf Press in September 2010. It was a finalist for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize from the Center for Fiction, the Grub Street Book Prize for Fiction, and a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” pick. It was published in the UK by Portobello Books in March 2011. A new collection of stories is forthcoming from Graywolf Press.