I was fortunate enough recently to conduct an e-terview with Jessica Francis Kane, author of the “The Report,” one of the finest novels I have read in recent memory. Read the review here. Read our chat below.
“The Report” describes a neighborhood’s response to an intense, puzzling tragedy caused by a crowd. How soon into the process did you determine that you would write it in various voices from the neighborhood?I knew quite early on because one of the things that drew me to the story in the first place was the idea of communal guilt. How guilty is a crowd? How guilty is each member of the crowd? To do this, I knew I needed to place characters at different points in the neighborhood that night so they would have different experiences of responsibility and blame. I wanted to think about how a close-knit community like this would put itself back together after an event that devastates it, and yet for which it is blamed.
Your details about the London Blitz and the neighborhood bring the time and place into such sharp focus. Yet to me, the story felt somewhat timeless. I mentioned Greek tragedy in my review, but it also struck me as akin to “Our Town” or an Arthur Miller play.
My hope all along was that somehow, through the prism of Bethnal Green, I could write about the aftermath of tragedy in general. It’s wonderful you mention Arthur Miller. In one of my earliest notes to myself about the book, I wondered if I could make the novel do for government reports what “The Crucible” did for McCarthyism. I was fascinated by the way reports were handled in 1943: one man was assigned the task of investigating and writing a report to the government. It took him two weeks, he interviewed over eighty witnesses, and he wrote the report himself. We live in an age when it would take two months just to decide on the members of the investigating commission.
Speaking of its theatricality, someone has optioned it for a play. Can you provide any further details?
The wonderful screenwriter/playwright Martin Casella is currently adapting the book for the stage. I haven’t read any of it yet, but I’m very excited about his vision. We corresponded a lot before he started and everything he said felt right to me. I can’t wait to see what he creates and am so thrilled the story will have this next chapter.
In the book, the magistrate in charge of the investigation, Laurence Dunne, is quite scrupulous about not apportioning blame. Was this inspired by your reading of the original report?
A little bit, but also my experience of watching modern reports into accidents or misdeeds be received by the waiting public. They are always much-wanted and so eagerly awaited, but they never seem to solve the problems people think they’re going to solve. If one entity blames another, the reason for placing the blame is always questioned. I began to wonder what good it does.
Both you and critics mention the need to find someone to blame in the wake of tragedies such as this, and you have written that initially the idea intrigued you as something you might write about someday, but it was not until 9/11 occurred that you were really galvanized to do it. What struck me, however, was the compulsion of your characters to blame themselves, rather than outsiders, for the smallest of mistakes.
Ah, that’s interesting. I haven’t considered that before. I wonder if it has something to do with my research into what life was like in London during the war. At the time I was writing, our country was at war, but we had not been asked to make any sacrifices. The English home front was totally different. It was a population asked to make enormous sacrifices daily for years, and by 1943 the people were exhausted, uncertain, scared. And yet they absolutely believed that courage at home was required. The nature of this accident seemed to call their courage into question and given the weariness at that point in the war, I think there would have been some self-doubt. I suppose it is my natural habit of mind, too, however! I regret everything.
Again, Dunne is a fascinating character who you have drawn so well, a man of great dignity and integrity. I’m wondering how much of this is your own invention? For example, in his later years, when he is visited by Paul Barber, the documentary filmmaker, Dunne has settled into a narrow, somewhat haunted life.
What I knew about Dunne was this: he was promoted to Chief Metropolitan magistrate after the war, largely because of his expert handling of the Bethnal Green disaster, he liked to fish, and he redesigned the police uniforms in the 1950s. I saw a man who peaked early, a man who was in the right place at the right time, but then never did anything else great. That kind of person has always interested me.
The report itself is referenced, sometimes in a negative light, as a beautifully written narrative, considering it’s an official report. Yet you never quote it directly.
I show Dunne grappling with the writing of it, and the very last chapter is meant to be the opening of his report. But that is my fictional creation.
Magistrate Dunne’s wife, Armorel, is working throughout the novel on sewing a blanket which is a kind of topographical map to aid pilots in learning landscapes. It is a fascinating detail! Can you expound on it?
How I wish I could. Those quilts have become a mystery to me and here’s why: When I was researching the novel, I swear I read about them somewhere. But when I went back much later to check things, I could find no reference to them. Anywhere. I was living in Virginia at the time and had the help of a wonderful reference librarian at the University of Virginia. I asked him if he could find any mention of these typographical quilts, and he couldn’t, either! I’m forced to believe I made them up.
Finally, from the “shallow” end . . . I thought the Graywolf edition of the book had the most wonderful cover. The photo of shelterers in a tube station overlaid with text from the report. But since then I’ve seen two other covers which I like equally well. Do you have a favorite?
I am so lucky to be able to say I really like them all. I, too, loved the Graywolf edition, which was the first. And in an age when women writers often struggle to get “serious” covers for their books, I was thrilled Graywolf was not afraid of a dark and serious cover like this. I think it emphasizes the community aspect of the story, while the two English covers highlight the particular story of a couple of the characters. The first UK cover shows the legs of a mother and her daughters walking. It almost looks as if they are rushing somewhere, and I thought that was powerful. The second UK cover shows a mother and daughter in profile, the daughter very worried, the mother with a determined set to her jaw, so this captures something about the book, too.