Wednesday, 20 September 2017

In Conversation with Lisa Jewell

By JJ Marsh

If I were a bookseller, I’d say you’re hard to categorise. Now you’ve gone and made it even harder with Then She Was Gone. Do you purposely try to stay out of a box/ off a particular shelf? 

I don’t really do anything on purpose. I often wish I did. Then She Was Gone has been such a brilliant success and not only that, almost universally liked by everyone who’s read it that I would love to be able to purposely write something that could replicate that reception. But it’s impossible. Books are so nebulous and I don’t plan or plot so really I just start at point A and end up at point B with no real idea how I got there. I think my publishers have found it quite awkward publishing me at times. I have had a sense over the years of oh God, what have you brought us this time; back to the drawing board everyone! But as a team we are trying very hard now to stay on one shelf which means, I think, that I will need to keep killing off characters so that I can be published in the thriller genre.

Since your arrival onto the literary scene in the 90s, your life has changed in all kinds of ways. How does your own personal development trigger your work?

When I wrote my first novel I was newly divorced and newly in love with someone else, I was twenty seven and kind of directionless. But incredibly, deeply happy. So although I have always loved dark themes – I love reading books about serial killers and skipped quite happily through American Psycho – at that time I was more hormonally and emotionally geared towards writing light-hearted romances. Then I got married again, had a baby, lost my mother, had another baby, went through a long period of time when my husband was physically disabled and of course I got older and more experienced and braver in many ways. So yes, life does definitely inform and shape the things you want to write about and getting older gives you the confidence to push boundaries.

Looking back over my well-thumbed paperbacks, you seem to be less of a ‘write what you know’ author and more of a ‘write what you’re curious about’. A fair assessment?

This is mainly true with some grand exceptions. After The Party was a very closely fictionalised account of the pressures a second baby brought to bear onto my own marriage, Joy’s marriage to George in Vince & Joy was almost 90% the story of my own first marriage and The Girls was set in a communal garden exactly like the one I live on in London. But generally, yes, I feel a sense of curiosity about something and then find a way to explore that curiosity via story-telling. Obsessive hoarding disorder was a perfect example of that. I looked through a dirty window into a hoarded house one afternoon and thought; god, who on earth lives in there, how did they end up living like this and what impact must it have had on their family? Then I went home and started writing The House We Grew Up In.

One characteristic I associate with you and your writing is empathy. Not only do you identify and understand some difficult characters, but you ask your readers to do the same.

Yes, absolutely. I feel sad, for example, that a lot of readers didn’t see the two sides to Lily in I Found You. I tried so hard to make her nuanced and not just a two dimensional cold-hearted witch. But the majority of readers disliked her and found her gaucheness and abruptness impossible to get past. I thought she was really funny and just trying her hardest in a terrible situation in a strange country with no cultural cues to help her. And this was why I took the reader straight into the heart of Noelle in Then She Was Gone. I couldn’t see the point of writing about a person doing a terrible thing unless you could make the reader at least attempt to understand why they might have done it. Otherwise you’re just creating characters to move the story along, not to give the story layers. That seems a wasted opportunity to me.

The trauma behind Then She Was Gone must have put you, as a parent, through the wringer. Did you cry in the coffee shop while you were writing?

No, the traumatic bits didn’t make me cry. I’m pretty hardcore when it comes to things like that and if I can read a book about Fred and Rose West and what their victims went through without crying or feeling traumatised then I can most definitely write about a made-up thing happening to a made-up person without finding it too gruelling. But the epilogue was a last-minute decision. I wrote it after my first big edit of the book and I still cry every time I read the last line.

You’ve got a pretty disciplined routine of 1000 words a day and you say you’re not a plotter, more an explorer of ideas. Do think the real alchemy is in the first draft or the editing?

It’s very much a mix of the two. The first draft is the world you’ve created and if you get that right then you know you’re onto something. The edit is where you make sense of the world, put it all into the right order. I love editing. I don’t do much as I go – apart from the occasional really dramatic excising of thousands of words or a whole storyline – but once I get the manuscript back from my editor covered in post notes and paperclips I get really intensely into it to the point of not noticing what time it is. And yes, that is when the magic really happens.

It’s coming up to 20 years since Ralph’s Party was published. In what ways has the world of publishing changed over two decades, in your view? And is it better for readers and authors?

Publishing has become much more risk averse. No one, for example, would have picked EL James’s 50 Shades books from the slush pile these days. That only got published because of the huge online success it had had. I think of the late 90s, when my first book was bought and published, as a kind of heyday for publishing – there was a lot of money flying about and publishers were really keen to try new things and see what took off. Nowadays they tend to want to replicate what’s gone before and pay less when they do take a risk. But the book world as a whole is incredible right now – social media has brought authors, readers and publishers together into the same sphere and there are so many forums for people to share their passions. Being a reader has become much less of solitary pastime and more of a wonderful universal experience.

E.B. White in Charlotte's Web said “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer”. I suspect you’d disagree, as you have a wonderful circle of authors as friends. How important is it to have an understanding group of writing mates for you?

It is hugely, enormously important and again, a situation for me which has been facilitated greatly by the internet and social media. When I was first published and the internet was quite a fresh, new place, a writer’s husband set up something for a group of us called a ‘chat room’! We’re still on it, twenty years later and out of that core group of people have come more groups and sub-groups and every time you do an event you’re meeting new authors and they get absorbed into your circle and we all use each for support and reassurance and wine and nights out and it is just brilliant. My writer friends are one of the best – and most unexpected - things to have come out of my career. And no, there is no competition between us. Readers buy up to 50 books a year so there’s plenty of the market to go round and the more good books there are out there the better for all of us.

Last question - best of three. Which book affected you most as a teenager? What’s been your best read of the year? Which book is your comfort read?

I barely read as a teenager. I just listened to the radio and wrote letters to pen-pals. But in my pre-teen years I read like an animal, anything and everything, under the covers into the early hours. My biggest passion then was Agatha Christie – I read four of her books a week and once I’d exhausted her oeuvre I sort of stopped reading until I was in my 20s. My best read this year I suspect I have not read yet as I have five amazing books lined up for a week in Tenerife in October all of which I am expecting to completely blow me away. But thus far I have adored The Vanishing Act of Audrey Wilde by Eve Chase and, in the thriller genre, Here and Gone by Haylen Beck. I don’t re-read books so I don’t have a comfort read. If I were to re-read something from the past it would probably be The Country Life by Rachel Cusk; so incredibly funny.

Then She Was Gone is a Sunday Times Number 1 Bestseller – available now (Century Hardback, £12.99)

Read JD Smith's review on Bookmuse


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