December 2010

Mark Doten

features

An Interview with Jessica Francis Kane

Jessica Francis Kaneís complex, moving first novel, The Report (Graywolf Press), examines the aftermath of a real-life tragedy that occurred in the Bethnal Green district of London during World War II: a crush on the stairs to an underground station being used as an air raid shelter. Something -- it is not clear, for most of the novel, what -- happens to impede the forward movement of the crowd, and in a matter of seconds, subjected to the force of the hundreds of people surging behind them, almost 200 people are dead. The scope and senselessness of the tragedy -- as it turns out, there was no raid that night -- shock and anger the community. Forced to some sort of response, the government instructs a young magistrate named Laurence Dunne to open an inquiry and write an official report.

The novel follows Dunne in his work, along with many others involved in the accident as they try to understand and come to terms with what happened, both at the time of the accident and decades later.

The Report was a long time in the writing -- you say in your authorís note that you first had the idea for it in 2000. You use a quote from The 9/11 Commission Report as an epigraph. What effect did 9/11 and the reaction to it -- including the Commission Report -- have on it?

In 2000, when I first learned of the accident at Bethnal Green, I took a few notes and thought Iíd write a story about it someday. At the time, I was working on a different novel. After 9/11, after the calls began in the press for an independent inquiry into that tragedy, I began to see parallels between the events. Obviously the tragedies are very different and on a very different scale, but in the sense that a community had been shocked and put a great deal of faith into the inquiry and report-writing process, there were similarities. I guess you could say the events of 9/11, and the release of The 9/11 Commission Report five years later, turned a small idea for a story into a novel. I was thinking a lot about tragedy and how we reckon tragedy and that became The Report.

Did you read all of The 9/11 Commision Report? How satisfactory a document did you find it?

No, I didnít. I meant to, but in the end I couldnít. Maybe like a lot of other people, I was compelled by the opening chapters, and then very quickly I got distracted by the coverage of the report instead of the report itself. The news at the time was obsessed with the fact that the report was well-written, stylish, so what would that mean about its relationship to the truth? The very idea that something well-written might be somehow less true captivated me.

At one point, Dunne says of his report, ďI told them a version of the story that would give them hope. I still feel that was the right thing to do. I didnít punish anyone.Ē In many ways, Dunne is the authorís surrogate in the book. How much do you relate to that sentiment of his? Should authors offer their readers hope?

He does serve as the authorís surrogate in the book, but remember, heís writing a ďreport.Ē He is supposed to write a nonfiction account of what happened that awful night of March 3, 1943, but what he wants to do, as he begins to buckle under the burden of making sense of the senseless, is to write something that recognizes the difficulty of accounting for the variety of experience. Something that troubled me after 9/11 was the way many people talked about the irrelevance of fiction in the wake of such a disaster. There was a turn to nonfiction as if from now on it would be a surer, more reliable way of telling us the truth about the world. As authorís surrogate, I think Dunne is struggling to find a way to write his report that gives maximum flexibility to the truth. Does that make sense? What I believe is that literature, with or without hope, delivers more truth than any government report.

The book has a fragmentary style, moving through time and relating the event through many points of view, often retrospective and problematic. Was it always clear that this is how you would write the book? What writers do you admire or did you learn from when writing The Report?

The style emerged over a long period of time. In the very beginning, it was a book set only in 1943. Then I saw Errol Morrisís Fog of War and realized I wanted to write about tragedy and how we remember tragedy. Morrisís documentary made me think about how our perception of blame changes over time, and I wanted to get that into the book too. So I began to realize that I would have to turn the tables on Laurie. In the 1943 parts of the book, he is the interviewer, but in 1972, he is the interviewee.

As for writers I admire: Iíve said elsewhere but it is always worth repeating: I admire so much the novels of Graham Greene and Penelope Fitzgerald. I wanted the moral ambiguity of the first, and the wry humor of the latter in The Report and kept their books near me while I wrote. I admire a big story told over a relatively short space, so Amy Bloomís Away helped me figure out some things about compression and concision. Another influence, I think, is the movie Amadeus. Itís one of my all-time favorites. Iíve never forgotten the poignancy of watching the young Salieri in his days with Mozart versus the old Salieri incarcerated at the madhouse, retelling his story. I wanted to structure a book the same way.

There is something very sympathetic and poignant about the older Dunne. The small worries at the club, his peevishness with his friend, the sense that the scale of his life has so radically diminished. His interest in fly-fishing, though, seems to give him a kind of dignity. Perhaps thatís just me, since Iím a big fan of Norman Maclean and have been known to fly-fish myself. But I found it a very necessary fact about the man -- that he has this unchanging hobby, which is, though constrained by petty human worries (he has his annoyances with others at the stream), also set apart from those worries.

The historical Dunne was a fly-fisherman, it was one of the only things I knew about him, and in the early years of working on the book I found it comforting and hopeful to have this one tangible piece of information. I have never fly-fished, but my father and brother do, so I know a little bit about it. The thing is, youíre right, I think the unchanging hobby has the effect of highlighting all that changes for Dunne. Take the soundtracks of his life, for example: in the 1943 sections, it is wartime and he is listening to classical music and talking to the people of Bethnal Green. Thirty years later, the predominant sound of his life is the lonely pock-pock of Wimbledon on television. But he still thinks of himself as a fly-fisherman. It is the only thing he has left, actually.

If you have ever tried to tie a fly, you will know, even more than the book lets on, how absolutely wretched the fly that Paul tied to curry favor with him must have been. [Paul was an infant in Bethnal Green in 1943, and is making a documentary about the accident for the 30th anniversary.]

I know! Iím pretty sure my dad said the same thing. I thought about improving it, making it more viable, but then I decided that Paul wouldnít have. Heís using it as a lure, but he doesnít know enough to make it better. And in that way of youth, he doesnít know he should try. But Dunne is too smart to be duped. When he decides to take it, I think itís because he knows heís going to test Paul. Their relationship fascinated me. So many things divide them -- age, experience, background -- but they share a compulsion to tell the Bethnal Green story again. Paul starts as the character who knows the least, but by the end, it is Dunne who has been compromised. A table-turning that was necessary, but it made me sad for Dunne.

Letís talk a little about your process. Which characters did you have an idea of from the beginning? Which ones emerged throughout the process?

The book began with Laurence Dunne, the only historical character in the book (other than the Home Secretary Herbert Morrison). Laurie is charged with the responsibility of writing a report to the government about the accident and I wanted to know how he did that. In three weeksí time, he investigated, held an inquiry, and wrote and submitted his report. How do you begin to tell the story of a tragedy to the people it happened to? Who would want to? I was fascinated by Dunne from the start. Second was Bertram. He is sort of a parallel to Dunne in that after the accident, he is charged with the responsibility of returning the pocket items of the victims to their families. So he has a job to do after the tragedy too, but his is on a smaller, more private scale, while Laurieís is more public. The chief shelter warden James Low was very clear to me early on. Much later Ada and her daughters emerged. Armorel, Laurieís wife, is an example of a character who actually receded. I thought she would be really important at first, and I had early scenes of her sewing circle and going to visit the Bethnal Green station with her daughter Georgina that all got cut. As the novel progressed, I realized her best role would be in the way she influenced Laurieís thinking about the tragedy.

How do you build characters? Are you a writer who has external files or backstories for characters that you write separately?

Not at all, though that sounds sensible. I did try it in the beginning. At one point I had a file for each character and I would write down details that occurred to me about them, but then a scene would take over, and Iíd end up writing part of the book in the file that was supposed to be just about Ada, for example. It was messy and confusing. I think my characters are built bit by bit, with little building blocks of motive and description and dialogue. They evolve when I put them in scenes with each other.

There must have been something of a puzzle element to writing this book -- who to introduce, what to reveal, before the incident itself. How difficult were those sort of decisions? It seems like rate of revelation is critical here, almost as in a crime novel.

Yes. That was absolutely the hardest part. People say, ďOh it must have been so hard to write a historical novel set in that era and get all the details right,Ē and I feel like responding, ďA historical novel? Really? I was so busy trying to get the revelations about the accident related in the right, page-turning sort of order, I never thought of it as a historical novel!Ē I probably cut and pasted the book together -- with actual scissors and tape -- 3 or 4 times.

Iíve done that before. Itís very freeing, but at the same time it really drives home (at least for me) how arbitrary this whole fiction business is -- on a different day you would have shuffled the cards differently. You move them around and cut and add and rewrite, working towards what you believe is the strongest possible configuration, when in fact what you arrive at is only one of many possible configurations, some of which may in fact have been stronger. Isnít that terrifying?

Yes, completely. I know exactly what you mean. These questions of editing, voice, perspective -- they are everything and every writer knows it. You can worry these questions forever, and I very nearly did, obviously, given that it took me 10 years to write this book. I think at some point, you just make a set of decisions and write forward and hope at the end the story resembles even a little bit the story you thought it could be at the beginning. My dad used to say to me when I was little, ďYou pays your money and you takes your choice.Ē At some point, you just have to commit.

One thing thatís interesting about this book is that while the accident had many causes, some of which the book discusses and some of which are unknowable, there is one figure who is eventually, with a fair degree of certainty, identified as the accidentís proximate cause -- the single actor who triggered the crush. But this individual goes unmentioned in the report, which refused to assign blame. Can you talk about that decision -- what it gives you? Do you think there was such a person?

In newspaper reports of the time, two things were mentioned: a woman was the first to fall on the stairs, though she was never identified, and another woman was the last to escape the mass of people before the crush was complete across the stairway landing. Iíd been working on the book for a long time, focusing mainly on Laurie and Low, before one day it hit me: a woman falls, another woman is the last out, what if they knew each other? What if something occurred between them that night on the steps? So what I suggest in the book was a result of this idea, but I think it is in keeping with the tensions of the time. I think the whole point of the book, though, is to show that no matter how strong our need for a single answer to what causes a tragedy, no tragedy is that simple. There is always a tangle of causes, and the report writers, the people who write the first version of the story, have the burden of accounting for all of them.