Birnbaum v.

Photograph by Robert Birnbaum

Jessica Francis Kane

Our man in Boston talks with author (and TMN contributor) Jessica Francis Kane about a tragedy during the Blitz that’s the focus of her new novel, The Report.

Unless you are a reader of The Morning News or a relative of Jessica Francis Kane’s, you may be unfamiliar with her name. Considering that any popinjay or nincompoop politician can grab attention with the most unlikely utterances, that is probably a good thing. Undoubtedly Kane will gain recognition the old-fashioned way—she will earn it.

Kane's story collection, Bending Heaven, was published in 2002. Her debut novel, The Report, was published in August, and has already been short-listed by the Center for Fiction for the 2010 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize. This is no small honor (in the literary world) and, considering past winners and her fellow short-listees, a mark of distinction.

The Report is a slim volume recounting as a story (meaning a fiction) an actual community tragedy that befell East London’s working-class Bethel Green neighborhood during the WWII blitz. On the night in question, 173 people perished under mysterious circumstances, and Kane’s narrative takes us to that night and the contemporaneous aftermath as well as an attempt by a young survivor to create a documentary film some 40 years later.

Francis Kane, a Yale graduate (though she assured me she didn’t do well there), has created an arresting story with enviable concision. In the chat that follows we talk about the long road to the completion of this novel as well as all manner of things that confront the writer of serious fiction today. Jessica is an engaging young lady and a talented writer. Try to remember her name, OK?


* * *

Jessica Francis Kane: I can’t believe I’m reading with Gail Caldwell.

Robert Birnbaum: She’s a sweetheart. A genuinely decent person, a sincere book person.

JFK: I’m excited to meet her.

RB: I won’t say nice things to you yet. Tell me: How it is that you thought that something as relatively obscure as a civilian accident in WWII killing only 173 people, which in the scale of carnage being wrought is small, would be an interesting story?

JFK: Good question. Well—

RB: I could ask some bad questions if you like. What’s your favorite color?

JFK: No, no. It’s funny; it evolved over time. There was something about the accident when I learned about it that compelled me. I think it had to do with the fact that immediately I understood that the investigation and the report had been written by one person. And in view of today, how long commissions take to investigate and how long it takes for the reports to be written—I learned that one man was asked to handle this situation—

RB: Are the characters’ names real?

JFK: His name was not made up—Lawrence Dunne was an actual historical figure—but not much is known about him, so I created this character based on just a few things. That was the thing that held me at first. But it didn’t all make sense.

RB: When did you read the actual report?

JFK: I was working on something else and we were living in London and every day I would go to the British Library to write. One day I wandered off—the writing wasn’t going well. As usual. I wandered out to the bookshop at the British Library and there was an event in progress—an event to celebrate this new series of books called Uncovered Editions, which were government reports that had not previously been made public in a popular format. They were issuing them in these little pamphlet-sized books. The one that the man—it was serendipity—was talking about as I walked into the shop was tied to the event. He seemed compelled by the story. He explained that it was the midpoint of the war and the man who had investigated had really done an outstanding job. And yet the report had to be suppressed until after the war. Maybe the presenter’s enthusiasm caught me. I thought it was interesting and I bought a copy of the pamphlet.

RB: Did the presenter have any connection to the accident or the event?

JFK: No. He was just the series editor. As we lived in London, I took the subway out, and I saw the station where it happened. There is just the smallest plaque. People had been working for decades to build a permanent memorial. But it’s East London and it’s still a poor part of London—the survivors and their families have not been able to raise enough public awareness. Still, I thought I just had notes for a story. This was all happening in the fall of 2000. A year later, after 9/11, I began to think about a tragedy and the reckoning for that tragedy and the role of a report writer—how does someone come in and tell the story of a tragedy to the people it had happened to? And what are their responsibilities? And I think, because reckoning and tragedy were on my mind, but I didn’t think there was any way I could write about 9/11, I thought that if I wrote about this tragedy it was a way to obliquely approach 9/11.

Almost any community’s response to refugees is difficult. That was where the idea began in my head.RB: You said the names, except for the writer of the report, were made up—Home Secretary [Herbert] Morrison was not a real person?

JFK: Yes, yes, he is real.

RB: And the Wardens Lowe and Steadman were made-up names?

JFK: Yeah, certainly there was a chief shelter warden—

RB: Did he commit suicide?

JFK: No, that’s made-up. Lowe may have been a name—I mean, I read things from the time and certainly borrowed popular names from the time. I did come across a Lowe [but] I did make most characters up.

RB:I was prompted to think about—are you familiar with Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell?

JFK: I know of that book.

RB: The premise of the book is that she examines six natural disasters, from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to Katrina; after these events, each of the affected communities, instead of fighting among themselves for whatever crumbs of aid came and becoming fractious, instead banded together and helped each other. In Katrina it is especially interesting because of the scurrilous rumors people were killing each other (apparently they were but not in the way initially reported). In the telling of your story I was unclear how much the community worked together—and there were the strains of an anti-immigrant, anti-Semitism—

JFK: The community aspect was definitely intriguing from the beginning. The sense of community because of the way the tragedy unfolded—the thing is, Bethnal Green was a very tight-knit community and it was just widely understood how well, in general, East London had behaved during the worst part of the Blitz. So there was community spirit—that’s why this tragedy was so devastating. It is true that was public outcry at the government’s attempt to suppress the news and they ultimately got a private inquiry—

RB: That was Lawrence Dunne’s investigation?

JFK: It is historically true that he holds the private inquiry. Before that in the book, Ernest Gowers, who was a commissioner, held a very quick public inquiry. Some disparaging remarks were made about it—it was so brief, so summarily dismissive of the whole thing that it enraged the area. Then [Home Secretary] Morrison agreed to a private one—meaning there would be no press allowed. No one would be sitting in the room other than the witnesses.

RB: Private but under government auspices?

JFK: Yes, that’s right.

RB: Like a special prosecutor.

JFK: He was writing a report on the incident to the government and it was up to the government if it was to be published. I guess it was like a presidential commission here. I do think there was community spirit and response that was altruistic. They were devastated by ethnic tension.

RB: What I get from the story is that whatever anti-Semitism was there wasn’t as virulent as I suspect took place in Kensington and other upper-class enclaves—

JFK: Right, right.

RB: It seemed to be run of the mill.

JFK: Yes, and in some cases people weren’t even aware that it was there—that was because it was East London, the part of the city where waves of immigrants had always landed. And even before the war there were many Jewish families living there, but the war brought many more refugees, so there were tensions, but they were largely under control.

It wasn’t a crush—it was just pressure. It was pressure on these people as they descended the stairs, and some blockage happened, and then it was just the pressure of the community.RB: There was a book published recently by Anthony Julius, head counsel for the defense in the libel suit brought by [Holocaust denier] David Irving against historian Debra Lipstadt, called Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England, which did not paint a pretty picture of jolly old England.

JFK: I don’t know—I feel like I am not an expert on this.

RB: Me neither. Being Jewish gives me license to see anti-Semitism everywhere—never surprising.

JFK: It was the refugee aspect that truly interested me, and almost any community’s response to refugees is difficult. That was where the idea began in my head.

RB: Was there ever a determination of the cause of this disaster? There were a slew of mysterious aspects, such as the victim’s bodies weren’t broken, they were asphyxiated.

JFK: That is one of the key things that intrigued me—that is one of the deeply problematic aspects of this—

RB: Some people at the bottom of the pile-up survived and some people at the top didn’t.

JFK: That’s right. It’s in the novel but it’s all historically true. The closest agreement about what happened—there was an anti-aircraft battery in Victoria Park, north of where this accident happened, and there was a new anti-aircraft gun—

RB: So there was some kind of explosion?

JFK: I believe that was accepted and believed to have caused the panic. But it really was a panic. It wasn’t a stampede. It is often in the reviews called a “crush.” In a way it wasn’t a crush—it was just pressure. It was pressure on these people as they descended the stairs, and some blockage happened, and then it was just the pressure of the community. Again, the community comes in—how troubling.

RB: There were more than 173 people?

JFK: Oh yes, there would have been hundreds. The 173 refers to the number killed.

RB: It reminds me of the Who concert in Cincinnati in 1979—some 11 people were killed

JFK: Oh really? I didn’t know that. I think of soccer games as the worst thing that comes to mind.

RB: You spent how many years writing this novel?

JFK: I can answer that question several different ways. If I go from when I first had notes to when it was published, 10 years.

RB: And when you began did you know what was going to—

JFK: No, I really thought it would be a story. From about 2000 to 2004 I was working on—I thought I would write a novella because they are so marketable.

RB: You have to write them in groups of three.

JFK: I thought I had enough material for what would be a long short story. I had no idea what I would do with it but then I went to the MacDowell Colony in the spring of 2004, which was a life-changing experience. I made friends with painters and filmmakers. There I realized that these notes I had for a story really could and should be a novel. My daughter was 16 months old and I really hadn’t done much writing since she was born. And so getting myself to MacDowell was the smartest thing I ever did.

RB: Who took care of your child?

JFK: My husband. I was not doing any writing and I was miserable and I had not figured out how I was going to balance motherhood and writing, and I go to MacDowell—

I am delighted to see reviews that call it a page-turner because I wanted there to be a reason to keep turning the pages.RB: What do you want to be a writer for?

JFK: What?

RB: What do you want to be a writer for?

JFK: What did I want to be a writer for?

RB: Let’s start that from the beginning. When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

JFK: Uh—I guess I had always written. I don’t know that I knew what it would mean to be a writer, but I had always written. I had always tried to write stories. I don’t know why. I had a moment in fifth grade when our teacher asked us to go to the window and look out at the park and describe the scenes we saw. It was a misty morning and I remember standing there at the window wanting desperately to do this well.

RB: Were you a reader also?

JFK: Yes, but not particularly an early reader, my mother would say. [laughs].

RB: You’re a smarty-pants who went to Yale though.

JFK: I did.

RB: No need to be embarrassed. [laughs]

JFK: I didn’t do very well there, though.

RB: Good, good. That’s the spirit. What did you do at Yale?

JFK: I was an English major. I took workshops with Ved Mehta and Maureen Howard.

RB: Amy Bloom is there.

JFK: Her novel Away helped me. I knew I was destined to write a short, dense novel if I ever wrote a novel. That novel—her compression and concision really helped me.

RB: As a reader it is immensely satisfying to read a big story in not so many pages. I don’t mind reading a long novel. So Away was a spur to you.

JFK: It helped. I was already on my way—in the middle of The Report as a novel, but I was writing two sentences and deleting one and a half.

RB: [laughs] What is a half-sentence?

JFK: I was moving slowly to say the least. It took me a while to figure out the arc of a novel—how to stretch a story over that many pages and make it compelling. I mean, I really—I am delighted to see reviews that call it a page-turner because I wanted there to be a reason to keep turning the pages.

RB: I don’t know what the reason was but I did.

JFK: You found it compelling?

RB: Yeah I did—

JFK: I’m so glad.

RB: I was surprised, as I had in the back of my head that this was a small tragedy in the context of a much larger debacle. The characters you created—Bertram, and the unhappy and dark mother and daughter Ada and Tillie, and the adopted son ends up years later doing a documentary.

JFK: Well now, don’t give too much away—can I go back to something you said at the beginning?

RB: No, we are only moving forward. [laughs]

JFK: Well, the novel circles back around also. You’ve said twice now it was only 173 deaths—that’s something that interests me. What are we talking about? We are talking about human lives.

RB: I know.

JFK: But it’s interesting—we hear news stories about a suicide bombing or an accident—10 people or eight people or 15 people, and there is a part of us that now says, “It was only 15 people.” But that’s troubling.

RB: Yeah, we fix on the number and not on the reality.

JFK: Exactly. There is a moment in the book where Lawrence Dunne is imagining groups of people, “What does ‘10 people’ look like?” I just couldn’t stop thinking about that.

RB: And 173 people have families and friends, a community.

JFK: To outsiders tragedies are reduced to numbers—we decide whether the tragedy is dire or not based on how big that number is.

RB: I suspect that for the most part we don’t acknowledge their reality.

JFK: Right.

RB: It seemed like only a small amount of the Katrina [news] footage delivered the horror—the harrowing nature of it. For me it wasn’t the physical devastation and flooding. It was the inside of the Superdome and long stretches of highway with immobilized cars, that’s what showed how terrible this thing was.

JFK: Wasn’t it the case also that it took so long for numbers to come out? There’s a reluctance to say what the toll is because people fixate on those numbers and decide just how bad it is based on those numbers.

RB: Yeah, there is an unreality—the news isn’t really real. I can’t quite grasp what its existential/metaphysical status is. But it doesn’t seem to have the same feel or weight as other things we grasp as real. So here you are, on your worldwide book tour.

I didn’t want to give the reader direction—I didn’t want to begin every chapter with a place or heading.JFK: [both laugh] Yes!

RB: This is a literary book from a well-regarded, small, not-for-profit publisher (Graywolf) that has published many fine writers, so what is going to happen to you?

JFK: [in a small voice] What’s going to happen to me?

RB: You’re kind of in the midst of this new experience.

JFK: The book has only been out three weeks.

RB: Oh I forget—I’ve had an advance copy for months.

JFK: My publication date was the same as Jonathan Franzen’s.

RB: You smothered him.

JFK: Did you see the Boston Phoenix? There is a brief review there that says I “out-Franzened Franzen.”

RB: What does that mean? You turned down Oprah Winfrey and Larry King?

JFK: In terms of telling a traditional narrative—I wish I could quote it to you. Anyway, I am in the thick of it and I feel very honored and lucky. I do. “Kane out-Franzens Franzen in her ability to create a compelling, traditional narrative.”

RB: You’re a mother who has lived in a number of places, from London to Charlottesville, Va.—it doesn’t strike me that you are in the thick of the literary world, partying with whomever. Do you have writer friends?

JFK: I do—I have a few that I rely on.

RB: You show each other work? First readers?

JFK: A little bit, a little bit.

RB: Crocheting and needlepoint?

JFK: I have met writers over the last few years, here and there, and rely on a few of them. Michael Downing actually, here in Boston.

RB: For some reason I have three of his books on my shelves—

JFK: Have you read them?

RB: No.

JFK: Read them. He is a terrific writer.

RB: That reminds me of a writer whom I read in the 1990s—a writer named Michael Doane. I read four or five of his books and he has since not published and essentially disappeared. I wrote his editor at Knopf, Gary Fisketjon, who I think told me the guy just decided to stop writing. How do you do that?

JFK: I don’t know. I hope I never know.

RB: Anyway, what does Michael Downing do?

JFK: He teaches at Tufts. He’s published a number of novels. His last book was called Life with Sudden Death, a brilliant book. Anyway, he’s a reader. He read more drafts of my book—I have two friends who read more drafts of this book than anyone should have to.

RB: Are you a fussy writer?

JFK: Well, no, I don’t think so—I think I was and I think I have gotten better. The thing about this novel, because of the interwoven stories and two time periods and I didn’t want to give the reader direction—I didn’t want to begin every chapter with a place or heading. I want to just move back and forth in time, always knowing where you are. That took literally cutting and pasting the book together three times. There were the drafts and then arranging it. I probably wrote it eight times.

RB: So, are you sick of it?

JFK: It’s funny; Michael asked me, “Are you enjoying your readings?” I said, “I’m trying to?” And he said, “Don’t you enjoy reading from your book?” You know, no. I’ve read it so many times I am having a hard time reading it to an audience and hearing those words. I am ready to move on.

RB: Yeah.

JFK: I am very proud of it, but I am ready to move on. [laughs] I hope other writers feel this way.

RB: Have you begun something else?

JFK: I am at the very beginning of another novel.

RB: Oh, we are writing novels now? You wrote one, so you think you can write more, huh?

JFK: I know. Somebody said, “You are a novelist now.” Do you get to be a novelist after just one?

RB: Yeah, sure. I recently talked to Scott Spencer—he said his best moment as a writer was when he got his first novel accepted. It was then that he felt he was a writer. So—

JFK: There is something about a first novel. I think that’s true. But I don’t feel like a novelist, if that makes sense.

RB: In your socializing in New York, you meet someone and they of course ask, “What do you do?”

JFK: I say I write for The Morning News.

RB: No kidding?

JFK: The Morning News saved my life—this book took so long if I hadn’t had The Morning News to publish occasional pieces during that time I really think I would have gone crazy.

RB: Yes, if you are a writer you must get published. Just writing isn’t enough.

JFK: It was gratifying to write short things, have them published. And it allowed me to write in another vein. I had not done a lot of non-fiction personalized essays but I was intrigued by it and thought I would give a shot. When Rosecrans started—

RB: How did he come across your writing?

JFK: I wrote a humorous piece, it was my first piece for them. I had sent it to McSweeney’s and John Warner, who was there and is also a TMN contributor, he didn’t take it but said to try The Morning News, and I never looked back. So yes, I hope to write another novel. I thought I would go back to stories but I now find myself really wanting to have time for this new novel idea.

RB: I must say I do love reading stories—and I am still surprised that in this day and age of challenging attention spans and general cultural din that stories are not more popular. On the other hand, I don’t get the story on stories. Publishers claim they don’t sell but they continue to publish them.

JFK: I know.

RB: And a lot of them. And given an obvious convenience in time commitment I’d think more people would be reading them.1 I don’t believe they don’t sell.

JFK: That’s conventional wisdom that’s been around forever.

RB: What happened with your story collection?

JFK: It was never done in paperback.

RB: Who was the publisher?

JFK: Counterpoint, right before they became part of the Perseus Group. I think what I might want to do now with that book is add some new stories—

RB: Do a New and Collected Stories? Maybe you should take it to someone like Melville House or one of those thoughtful small publishers.

JFK: I think they are great too. Oh, and about the stories—I think what is exciting today are these sites like Five Chapters and Fifty-Two Stories—edited, by the way, by Harper Perennial’s Cal Morgan—and really significant writers are giving their work to them. That’s really neat.

RB: I don’t know what the critical mass in the calculus of literary publishing—when a collection is printed its press run mustn’t be more than 3,000 to 4,000.

JFK: There is a way to do that and make it a success.

RB: Right. Harper Perennial has published some interesting short fiction, I agree.

JFK: I just read with Marcy Dermansky, her second novel was published by them. I think they are very exciting.

[Brief interlude when my son Cuba, who was sitting with us patiently doing his homework, demurred from asking JFK any questions.]

RB: So, you are living in New York—do you have any bigger plans?

JFK: Yeah—I think we have big plans. We just decided. This is new. Next year my husband has a sabbatical and we are going to Munich. For the year.

RB: Why Germany?

JFK: Oh, because he can be a fellow there. He has been invited to be a fellow at the Max Planck Institute.

RB: Wow!

JFK: So they will give him an office and let him continue his research.

RB: That’s southern Germany. Very gemütlich. I was born in Germany, but left at the age of four.

JFK: I was born in Berkeley. My dad was a post-doc.

RB: He was a what?

JFK: A post-doc.

RB: Post-doc meaning what? He didn’t teach? He hung out in the student union?

JFK: He was a chemistry professor.

RB: So that’s a big plan, taking the two kids. Do you speak German?

JFK: No.

RB: Not a particularly attractive language. Not a particularly attractive culture. Lots of heavy-browed thinkers.

JFK: Good music.

RB: OK, Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, and Wagner.

JFK: We’re going where we are able to—beggars can’t be choosers. But I am excited.

RB: Does you husband like teaching law?

JFK: He really does.

RB: What does he teach?

JFK: His area of interest is international tax and economic development and recently climate—carbon emission tax treaties.

RB: What does all that mean? Is there actually international law that covers those issues?

JFK: Oh yeah.

RB: That anybody obeys? [laughs] So, read any good books lately?

JFK: Well—

RB: Did you read Franzen’s book?

JFK: No—I never read The Corrections—I don’t know.

RB: Everybody has certain literary blind spots—I haven’t read Updike. I didn’t read Roth until a few years ago. I read Nelson Algren. I think no one should be embarrassed about what they haven’t read. Except for War and Peace, which I haven’t read.

JFK: My husband read The Corrections and he liked it; I thought I would read it but I never got to it. Now Freedom is out—

RB: The big book is normally something to be avoided, but I picked up the Franzen and liked reading it. Did you ever tell me what you are reading?

JFK: Right now I am reading the books by the people I am appearing with on this little book tour.

RB: Gail Caldwell?

JFK: Yes. And I read Bad Marie by Marcy Dermansky and short stories by a Graywolf writer, Tiphanie Yanique, How to Escape from a Leper Colony.

RB: Oh yeah. What’s her nationality?

JFK: She grew up in St. Thomas. My novel has been short-listed by the Center for Fiction’s Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize and I bought all those books on the list.

RB: I saw that. Remind me who was short-listed.

JFK: Julie Orringer, The Invisible Bridge; Adam Ross for Mr. Peanut; Beneath the Lion’s Gaze by Maaza Mengiste; This is Just Exactly Like You by Drew Perry; The Quickening by Michelle Hoover; and Karl Marlantes’s Matterhorn.

RB: A fine book. And the Adam Ross is compelling.

JFK: So I intend to read those.

RB: That’s a nice slice of contemporary fiction. Does that body give a short fiction award?

JFK: No. They do give a Max Perkins Award. So those are the books I plan to read.

RB: What was the last book you read that you would recommend without any reservations? A so-called “must-read.”

JFK: I really liked The Line by Olga Grushin—her second novel. I thought it was great. Something about this book really appealed to me. I picked it up in an actual bookstore, browsing. I started reading it and just thought it was great. It’s like a modern Russian classic.

RB: Is it funny?

JFK: Oh yeah, in that dark Russian way.

RB: Romania and east of there is a kind of reductio ad absurdum humor that takes things to their most bizarre, to the nth degree.

JFK: And the absurd predicaments and relationships—very dark but very funny.

RB: Have you read Gary Shteyngart’s new book?

JFK: No, I haven’t.

RB: At least go to YouTube and watch the trailer—

JFK: Oh, I’ve seen the trailer—hysterical. I loved it.

RB: That’s a nice new art form. Chris Lehmann just published a book entitled Rich People Things and someone did a four-minute video to accompany it—not exactly a trailer—using footage from La Dolce Vita. Brilliant use of subtitles. Well, it’s been nice talking with you.

JFK: Uh huh—nice talking to you.

RB: Do you think we’ll ever talk again?

JFK: I hope so. I hope it won’t take another 10 years to write a book.

RB: Cuba is taking over the family business so you may be talking to him. Thank you.

JFK: Thank you.

1As I continue to dwell on the matter of the status of short fiction and the size of its readership, it occurs to me that the multitude of small literary journals in aggregate represents a healthy number of readers (though the notion of a healthy number is arguable).