Jessica Francis Kane

in conversation with Alex Shephard

What is there to say about a massacre? This is the question that Kurt Vonnegut poses at the beginning of Slaughterhouse Five. It’s also a question that we, as a nation, have been asking ourselves since the tragic shooting in Tucson which left six dead, including a child, and sixteen wounded.

Even if there is, as Vonnegut suggests, nothing intelligent to say about a massacre, that doesn’t stop us from desperately searching for something to redeem the senseless death of innocents. And, even after one of the most remarkable events of public mourning in my lifetime, it is a question I imagine we’ll never stop asking. While the tragic event that propels Jessica Francis Kane’s remarkable debut novel, The Report, isn’t a massacre but an accident, the question of how individuals and governments respond to tragedy is at the center of the novel.

The Report is based on a historical event: the death of 173 adults and children in the Bethnal Green tube station in London, which was being used as a bomb shelter, on a night in 1943 when no bombs fell. The novel follows Laurence Dunne, a young, ambitious government official who is given the task of interviewing witnesses — mothers who have lost children, wardens who blame themselves for the tragedy — and writing a government report on the “crush” at Bethnal Green. Beginning “She was a woman in a crowd, surrounded, but alone” and submitted after three weeks of rigorous investigation, the report Dunne writes is unorthodox and is ultimately withheld by government officials who believe it would damage morale. The Report also tracks Dunne’s relationship with a young filmmaker who, thirty years later, is making a retrospective documentary about the tragedy.

Over the course of a slight two hundred pages, Kane deftly explores how tragedies are endured and remembered — and how what the victims want and need often clash with the expectations of a wartime government. I spoke with Kane in mid-December about tragedy, the 9/11 novel, and the best books she read in 2010.

How did you first come across the Bethnal Green tragedy?

[My husband and I] were living in London and I was working on a different book in the British Library. I wandered into the bookshop of the British Library one day and there was an event in progress about a new series of books of government reports that had never been published in a popular form before. I walked in and heard about the accident at Bethnal Green. It was some combination of the enthusiasm of the man speaking about the report and how well it had been handled and written and my own sense of amazement that it would be possible to investigate a potentially very politically difficult event and submit a report to the government in only three weeks — I thought, “there’s a story here.”
So I did a little reading and I went to the station — all they have, at the moment, is a little plaque — and took notes. I thought it would be a story, but next year 9/11 happened. After watching, in the subsequent months, calls for an independent inquiry and a report I started to see parallels. I started to wonder what it is we think these government reports will do to explain tragedies, and the hope and the faith that we have that they’ll be true, that they’ll tell us what happened. You know, it’s funny: I think of [The Report] as my 9/11 novel, although it’s hard to say that. A lot of people have read it and not seen those connections. Maybe it’s just something the author sees.

What’s your relationship with so-called “9/11 novels”?

I still find it jarring to read a book in which it appears. Not upsetting — not as if it’s not okay to do that, the way people talked in the first years after 9/11 — but just perhaps an awareness that a writer, still, almost ten years later has to really decide to put this in. It’s this big choice that, as a reader, you bump into it and you can’t get around it.

One thing the bulk of those novels shares with your novel is an overwhelming sense of trauma. Fiction is typically driven by action and conflict.

I don’t know if I thought of it that way. The book really began with the character Dunne — the man who is asked to investigate and write the report. To me, I saw it as a mystery: how do you enter a community that’s endured this and ask questions and learn more than you can handle, and make some kind of story out of it? Who would want to do that? His character is really where the book started in my head. He’s the only historical character in the book.

One thing that separates The Report from the bulk of 9/11 novels is that your book focuses on the entire community, rather than one or two individuals. I think that goes a long way in universalizing your themes.

I wanted it to be a book that thought hard about questions of blame, guilt, tragedy, accountability in general. During the years I was writing it I was constantly pulling stories from the newspaper about tragedies and calls for reports and people saying “we’re not interested in blame.” They always say that, “we’re not interested in blame, we’re interested in accountability.” There’s always that feeling; that’s where we begin. But it never plays out that way. The idea here is, what if someone really tried to write a report that really did avoid blame and just tried to tell a deeper story?

A report that dramatizes the event in question.

Right. Which brings you back to fiction, which is the book’s final argument: fiction can tell us more than any report can. …. That’s another thing we didn’t talk about when we were talking about 9/11: the turn against fiction [after the attacks]. That somehow it wouldn’t be useful anymore. The idea that what we needed now was non-fiction and perhaps only non-fiction to help us make sense of the world. That was weird – and disturbing. I remember not knowing what to make of it. But times change and certainly people are still writing fiction and turning to fiction. But this book was meant to be a great defense of fiction after a tragedy. ….

I suppose, though, that after 9/11 it was impossible to think of anything else. Everything not related to the attacks seemed so superfluous.

Of course that happens for a time. It will and should happen. But to extrapolate from that the way people did….

Of course, every decision in the process is a political decision, even the decision to dramatize. And in your novel — as in life — the report can never offer solace to those who were there.

I know, or [those] who lost a loved one. That’s a big divide: between the people who actually experienced and the people who are secondary. We all felt it [on 9/11], but you can’t argue that you were as affected if you didn’t lose a loved one. I do think that those people have different needs. Maybe that’s an interesting problem – maybe that’s where some of our report writing gets complicated. I think particularly of the advocacy of certain groups as they affect the paths inquiries will take.

How did you balance fact and fiction in the novel?

In the end I think I did a lot more research than I ever realized. [laughs] I had always felt that I was approaching it sporadically and inefficiently and all along I would say to myself, “you need to read more; you need to find more sources.”

I was aware of the need to have a very secure… scaffolding for historical grounding. If I was going to write a story around this I wanted to make sure I had the facts right. …. And then, at one point, I decided to let myself off the hook and not take notes anymore. I was beginning to feel like a historian, [and] I didn’t want to feel like a historian, I wanted to feel like a fiction writer. [I decided] whatever I could recall from my reading without the benefit of notes was probably the detail I wanted in the book, because it would be the most compelling. ….

I’d never considered that I was writing a historical novel and it’s been a little frustrating that it’s been characterized as a historical novel because I feel that it’s not. Maybe we need a sub-category. It’s certainly not a historical novel in the way that **The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer is a historical novel. I wish there was another way to describe it.

What would be better?

I don’t know! For every person who won’t pick up a book because it’s historical fiction and they don’t like it, there are ten who love historical fiction and will read it. You go back and forth. I’m not immediately drawn to historical fiction. I read, for example, Wolf Hall and it blew me away and I didn’t expect that because, on the face of it, that book should have done a bunch of things that historical fiction does that drive me crazy. But something about her voice and the way that she was in Cromwell’s head was fantastic. But I think of my book as sparer and character-driven. There are certainly historical details, but I hope I only used what I needed to. I was not interested in setting grand scenes…. I find myself wanting to gesture broadly when describing historical fiction, and I never wanted my book to be like that. I don’t love reading books like that.
To me, it was a book that was responding to my feelings about 9/11, so I was thinking of it that way. I was very driven by the 1970s material [in The Report] and people in the 1970s reflecting on this event that happened thirty years earlier while thinking what we will be doing thirty years from now. How will we commemorate 9/11 thirty years from now? That was the question driving the novel.

In The Report, Laurence Dunne argues that sometimes pinpointing blame –- even justly — is unfair, that no one person or group should have to bear all that guilt.

But if you can broaden the lens and see everything else too, then you begin to wonder how much [one cause] is. How important is that, really? One of the things that I tried to do was write Ada [who accidentally causes the tragedy by pushing a refugee, Mrs. W, who was in her way] in such a way that the reader would be forced to judge her. It’s fascinating to hear people talk about Ada. Some people think that she’s absolutely guilty, and others think that she’s not. It’s also interesting the things people think she is guilty for. Some people think she would have pushed the person in front of her no matter who that person was; others think she pushed Mrs. W because she was [a refugee].

The way you write the tragedy, though, Ada just pushes Mrs. W. You have no idea until much later that that is what ultimately caused the pile-up.

I had to keep it a secret — Laurie had to find that out during the investigation. That was a tricky thing about the book. That’s why I didn’t feel like I was writing historical fiction; it felt like I was writing a mystery! I had to get all these parts in the right order and not reveal too much too soon. I wanted the book to embrace ambiguity – which, it turns out, is tricky to do. [laughs]

Especially when the characters in that novel are demanding that there be no ambiguity.

No one wants to tolerate ambiguity after a tragedy. But I wonder whether ambiguity could be tolerated; I think that there’s benefit to remembering that stories are complicated.

Of course, there’s nothing ambiguous about loss.

All this work to figure out what happened — it doesn’t bring anyone back. It’s still a devastated community. They will still live with these scars for the rest of their lives…. I think there is this period after the tragedy where we really think that the report is going to fix things, but then more time passes and the report fades and isn’t remembered and not a single victim is back. It seems so obvious, but it’s somehow very poignant and painful.

The Report is preoccupied with the distinction between what is fair and what is true. Immediately after the tragedy, fairness is what’s called for, but thirty years later it’s the opposite.

That’s a good way of putting it. Our perception of blame changes over time. I think it’s inevitable.

I wanted to ask you about the line, “Morale was the altar on which reason was daily sacrificed,” which I think is especially interesting when thinking about The Report as a post-9/11 novel.

What interested me most was what people were expected to endure on the home front. They were expected to endure — that was part of the plan. They understood that they weren’t being protected by a huge force and that was okay with them because they wanted the men to be on the front. But that meant that the government felt that they had to keep morale up or they would lose their control over the people. That’s the fog of war, right? That’s what happens. Crazy choices are made and justified all for the sake of, “Well, we’re in this thing now and we can’t get out until we make it better, and how do we make it better? So we’ll just keep doing it even though it makes no sense!”

Normally, when you think of a report you think of a bureaucratic endeavor, but in your novel it becomes a kind of public ritual. Can you explain that distinction and how it relates to, say, the 9/11 Commission Report.

[The 9/11 Commission Report] was needed, it was a spectacle. After 9/11 and in my book after the government concedes to an inquiry, there’s a certain sense that “we will be seen to be holding this inquiry which will appease the people who are very upset and who need to understand what happened.” It goes back to your original question about drama. You’re making a drama out of it, inevitably. How else do you do it? ….

I do think that these inquiries that are held after a tragedy happens have so many parts to them. I think that they are about trying to find the truth and finding accountability, but I think that they are also a kind of catharsis. There’s a recognition that if we don’t do this then we’re not honoring the victims.

Something I found really fascinating in the book is the idea that the way you frame the aftermath of a tragedy can be as important as the tragedy itself. And yet, especially to the people involved, everything is a kind of show trial.

I think that’s right. You can’t not do it. You simply cannot not do it. But what is really the outcome? What do you really get in the end? Especially now when they’ve become so bureaucratic and political and it takes us months to decide who’s going to be on the investigative panel. And sometimes the report is issued months and months if not years after the event. I sound so cynical. I’m not suggesting that we can’t investigate tragedies; we have to — but to what end?

In the end, it always seems like some kind of compromise. We’ve learned a few things and we know not to do some things again in the future. But it still feels like a big compromise.

What were the best new books you read in 2010?

I really liked The Line by Olga Grushin, which is a book that I don’t think got nearly enough attention. I picked it up in a bookstore not knowing much about her and was just immediately captivated by the idea of it and read it and fell in love with it. I’ve been saying all year that it’s one of my favorite books. I really loved The Privileges by Jonathan Dee and my favorite short story collection was Mattaponi Queen by Bell Boggs – that was also published by Graywolf …. That’s a terrific short story collection – I have images in my head still.

I didn’t read any of the big books of the year. I kind of have an aversion to that; it’s terrible. Remember how they give you list of essay topics in high school and you could write an essay based on any of the topics on the list? I could never choose one of the ideas on the sheet! I always had to come up with my own idea. It made it so much harder, but I had to. It’s the same with books now. If a book gets a lot of reviews and everyone’s saying “you should read it, you should read it,” I cannot read it. I can go back to it later and read it, but in the frenzy I just can’t pick it up.

Why not?

I’m a person who reads a fair amount of book coverage and book reviews and I get too distracted by what people are saying and then I find that if I start the book I’m thinking of those things instead of involving myself with the book on my own terms. So I’ve learned not to do it, even if that’s at the expense of not being able to talk about it at parties with people who have read it. So I haven’t read Freedom, for instance. An exception to my rule was A Visit From the Goon Squad. I have to admit I’m not on the bandwagon. That was not one of my favorite books of the year. I was paying too much attention to what she was doing and not the story — it was gimmicky in that way. She experimented with form well, but those just aren’t my favorite kind of books. I pay too much attention to what the author is doing and I don’t like that.

Did you read any older books this year?

I usually do, but this year I really didn’t. I reread parts of Home and Gilead [every year] and I do that with Graham Greene and Penelope Fitzgerald too. Those are some of my favorite authors whose work I’m constantly checking in with. I can’t remember if I read any older or classic books, though. Isn’t that terrible? It’s been a busy year, bringing a book out.

It’s your third child.

[Laughs] Yes, sadly.


 

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