Jill Dawson: Thriller writer in Fenland

Jill Dawson, novelist of family secrets and silences, has turned to our deepest fears for and about children in her latest work. Marianne Brace talks to her
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The Independent Culture

As a little girl, Jill Dawson thought that "the world might not exist and that I had to make it exist by imagining it". In her new novel, Watch Me Disappear (Sceptre, £12.99), the child Tina Humber also worries that if she doesn't concentrate, the universe will dissolve into nothingness. "It was exhausting, this imagining. I had to keep it up at all times." The line between the real and the imagined gets muddied by doubt and intuition in Dawson's chilling and disturbing book, which reached the longlist for the Orange Prize this week.

Now a scientist settled in America with a husband and young daughter, Tina returns to her childhood home in the Fens for her brother's wedding. She hasn't been back for years, not even after her father committed suicide. But something is troubling Tina. She's experiencing flashbacks - a symptom of her epileptic condition - and keeps seeing her 10-year-old friend Mandy Baker, who vanished in 1972.

Here, among flat fields dominated by Ely cathedral, disconcerting memories plague Tina. Everywhere, posters show two missing girls and make Tina rethink the events of 30 years before. She finds herself wondering whether her bullying father, "shaggy, like a bear", with the "burnt-cabbage smell of the sugar-beet factory", was linked to Mandy's disappearance. Memories can be unreliable, and when there's no evidence, sometimes instinct is all you have to go on.

Dawson tiptoes through thriller territory to arrive at something more suggestive and equivocal. However much we re-examine our past, we can never draw a line under things that continue to perplex us. Dawson lives near Soham, in Cambridgeshire, but she was abroad when the nation became so engrossed in Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman's case. "My sister was staying in my house with my niece, who is 12. I got everything filtered through her. My niece's perspective was the starting-point for the book."

Strong narrative voices and a feeling of intimacy typify Dawson's fiction. Her main characters are always hampered by what they can't say, whether unwilling to discuss a miserable marriage (Edith Thompson in Fred and Edie) or unable to speak at all (Victor, the enfant sauvage of Aveyron, in Wild Boy.) Tina is discouraged from talking about upsetting issues with her mother, who in turn won't voice her fears about her husband. For Dawson, this tongue-tying creates an interesting challenge. There's a tension in writing about the limitations of language. "It's as if I'm making evident my own struggle with the tools at my disposal."

Dawson isolates her characters by placing them in alien environments - a city girl in the American wilderness ( Trick of the Light); a country girl among the tower blocks ( Magpie). Aspirational Edie must cope with prison, the untamed Victor with civilisation. Tina has escaped to Massachusetts, but returning to familiar territory brings uncertainty.

Although Soham is not mentioned in the novel, it's very much in the background, with helicopters hovering and headlines screaming. What is the challenge in using real events? "I've a problem with the idea that there are these true stories and ones that are made up," says Dawson thoughtfully. "Even true stories like Edie Thompson's get mythologised." Dawson is looking at "the myth of a subject". She says that "It's not 'What do we think about this particular wild boy?' but 'Why do wild boys fascinate us? Why are we obsessed with missing girls?'"

Dawson revisited her own childhood to conjure the intense girls' world of bossy best friends and Sindy dolls, Zoom lollies and Donny Osmond stickers. Aged 10, she had kept a scrapbook in which personal details (hair, weight, favourite things) were carefully noted. She had also put together magazines like those Tina and Mandy write. "My mum gave me a whole box of them, and something which struck me was how limited my world was. I wasn't looking outward at all. I found that quite disturbing, and that fed into the novel - the idea of the girls' immediate surroundings being their only terrain."

By the 1970s, it seemed that "above all else, girls had to be sexy and hot", reflects Dawson. And so it remains. But this emphasis on being "buff" fits awkwardly with our current "stranger danger" obsession. Dawson refers to a tabloid she noticed carrying news about Jessica and Holly slap-bang above an item on "Natasha, Britain's sexiest teacher".

"What clearer example can you have?" she asks. Vulnerable, confused, flirtatious, Tina tumbles into a sexual liaison before she's fully pubescent. "Tina is abandoned," says Dawson. "Her mother is more worried about her father, and her father is off shagging other people. She is left to do her own thing. There are heaps of girls like that."

Dawson started to write for a living the minute she left home, having her first piece accepted by Honey. When told that it read like a school essay, she had promptly rewritten it. "The amount of times people tell me they've had something rejected but never think of rewriting," says Dawson. "It's such a fundamental rule, and I learnt it early. I actually like rewriting."

It didn't always work out. She sent a debut novel to Pandora Press. Jeanette Winterson, then an editor there, wrote an encouraging rejection letter suggesting she have another go. "So I rewrote it, and in the interim Jeanette's own novel was published and she was ballistically successful. She then wrote me a very cursory note saying, 'This is dreadful. Why would anyone want to read it?'" Dawson is laughing. "She was right. I'm thankful that novel isn't out there to haunt me. Thank you, Jeanette!"

Writing poems and short stories, Dawson survived "on thin air" and was "very glad not to have a proper day job. That seemed to me like an accomplishment." In her mid-twenties she decamped temporarily to Okanogan National Park, in Washington State. Visiting her then partner's family, Dawson saw an advert for a cabin with seven acres of land. Despite heavy snow and the fact she was almost nine months pregnant, they drove the huge distance through the North Cascade Mountains. "I was already well past the point at which you should fly." The cabin was a wreck with no glass in the windows. Dawson bought it anyway.

Retrospectively, she finds her actions curious. "I don't even like camping now!" When her son was born, she lived there on and off - an experience she drew on for Trick of the Light. "It was probably quite a dangerous environment when he was toddling, but it was lovely, too. He had all that space to play."

Dawson, who spends three years on a book, tends not to plot but does do research. "So, although I knew the landscape of Trick of the Light, I would get out books and maps, go back to diaries and photographs." Sometimes she will drop in an original item - a love letter, a trial report. "I like the feeling that the reader is engaging with that research as well." She writes in intense bursts. As a single parent, she learnt to plan her novels while doing other things. "There's no sitting around having writer's block."

One of Dawson's preoccupations is death and our inability to address it. "The moments in my novels when people do are turning points. We understand it ever so fleetingly, but it's as if the imaginative possibility closes up again." And there are some gaps too frightening to fill. "Everyone knows that when a child disappears something sexual is usually involved. But that isn't conveyed to children. There's this missing bit which isn't spoken about."

If children are bewildered by events, it's only later that they can decipher the hints and clues. The adult Tina gropes toward an interpretation. Why did her mother insist Mandy never visited the house when she and Tina were out? Why was the child with the plaits sitting in the back of the van with Tina's dad? "This isn't a novel about suppressed memory syndrome," Dawson says. "I wanted to suggest that Tina had strong feelings about things not being right. It's something more nebulous than abuse."

A curator at London Zoo once told her that children always ask whether sea horses are real. "That was perfect for me. I made Tina a scientist who spends her time looking at things that others might not find real or significant." Tina is studying dwarf sea horses, with their chameleon-like ability to blend with their surroundings. It's one way to survive. Tina also disappears: she blanks out, blocks memories, flees England.

There's a suggestion in the book that memory exists only in the present. Seeing visions is only one manifestation of the ecstatic epilepsy from which Tina suffers. Other symptoms include smelling burning, hearing voices, déjà vu, sudden fear and premonitions. When the police ask Tina to re-enact Mandy's last known movements, it's as if she becomes her friend. Tina is a sort of vessel. "I do think of that as the writer's job too," Dawson says. "Other people's stories pour into you. That can be troubling. You don't want them. Sometimes I wish I had a second skin to keep material out."

Dawson likes the idea of time's malleability. Visiting her old school, she had the impression of seeing herself at 14 on the steps and thought how more interesting it would be for her teenage self to glimpse her as she is now, in her forties. When Tina is about to be assaulted in a country lane, she spots a woman approaching. Her assailants turn to follow Tina's gaze and she makes a break for it. The woman is a vision of the adult Tina: Tina in effect rescues herself.

Dawson leaves readers to reach their own conclusions regarding Mandy's fate. Tina, too, can only speculate, with the boundary between what's real and imagined forever uncertain. "The thing I love to explore and keep present in my writing is doubtfulness," Dawson says keenly. "Doubt is exciting. You need it."

Biography

Jill Dawson was born in Durham in 1962. One of three sisters, she was brought up in Essex, Staffordshire and Yorkshire. She read American studies at Nottingham University and has an MA from Sheffield University. In 1997, she was British Council Writing Fellow at Amherst College, Massachusetts, and in 2002-4 held writing fellowships at the University of East Anglia. She has edited five anthologies, and her poetry won an Eric Gregory Award in 1992. Her first novel, Trick of the Light, was published in 1996, followed by Magpie, Fred and Edie (shortlisted for the Whitbread Novel Award and the Orange Prize) and Wild Boy. Her new novel, Watch Me Disappear, is published by Sceptre, and has been longlisted for the 2006 Orange Prize. She lives in the Fens with her architect husband and two sons, 17 and five.

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