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The Truth About Lisa Jewell by Will Brooker

Writing.ie | Magazine | Interviews | Non-Fiction
The Truth About Lisa Jewell

By Will Brooker

There’s a scene in the 1995 movie Seven, directed by David Fincher, that I sometimes show my students. It’s a crime thriller, starring Brad Pitt as a young, fiery detective and Morgan Freeman as his older partner, an officer about to retire, in the sunset of his career. Freeman’s character, aptly named Somerset, is – as you’d expect from such a stately actor – sober, steady and wise, his approach cautious and measured. But in this scene, Somerset becomes quietly fired up, too. He’s in a library, taking down books from the shelves, finding matching images and phrases, piecing together clues and making connections. He writes notes and photocopies key passages. The screen fills with words and illustrations; Fincher cuts from Somerset’s face, focused and intent, to the books he’s studying.

This, I tell my students, is what academic research feels like when it’s going well. It feels like detection. And specifically, in this case, crime detection; the investigation of dark secrets and hidden mysteries.

As a professor, I’m also a kind of detective. And so when Lisa Jewell, queen of crime thrillers, agreed that I could shadow her for a year, I prepared myself for a certain kind of investigation and a certain kind of subject. The purpose of academic research is to interrogate, to find something new; new evidence, a new angle, new conclusions. Part of your job is to prise open old stories, to question what ‘everyone knows,’ to compare received ideas to the original source, to doubt what you’re told.

So I approached Lisa as a mystery to be solved. I assumed she’d have secrets. I treated our early conversations almost like police interviews – just one more thing – checking her memory against primary evidence, asking the same questions twice to see if she gave consistent answers, searching for contradictions in her responses.

I was mistaken. I was creating the wrong kind of story and constructing Lisa as a character within it. It took me a few months to realise what I was doing, to accept that it was misguided, and to adjust my expectations. Lisa sometimes got the figures of her own book sales wrong, but that wasn’t a clue; it was only human (she remembered every minor character’s name, rather than the exact number of copies she’d sold). Lisa claimed to put herself honestly and plainly on show through social media, and yet was sometimes cautious, holding private details back; for a while I tried to build something from that, before realising that we all do the same: if that was a form of deception, it was the whitest and most universal of lies.

But there was one further, fundamental contradiction that I needed to resolve. I was puzzled, from the first time I met Lisa, that this apparently nice, normal person was the author who’d made me put down her novels in shock at the suffering of a character I loved – who had, in Then She Was Gone and I Found You, tortured families, imprisoned kids, made children watch their parents’ deaths and slaughtered animals. This instantly likeable woman who now sat opposite me in a coffee shop had written scenes of emotional horror that still haunted me, months after reading them. I couldn’t fit the two together. Once we’d got to know each other better, I asked her directly. How could she, with her obvious compassion, write those awful, painful scenes without flinching? She laughed, suddenly seeing it my way. God yes, she said. It is horrible, isn’t it? That’s really sad! Those poor people! But at the time, she’d simply been progressing her plot, moving things forward, focusing on the prose rather than indulging in the characters’ perspective.

I’d assumed I’d be dealing with a calculating mastermind, a planner who knew every inch of her novels’ architecture. Instead, I discovered, Lisa builds the story as she goes along, hastily decorating rooms and putting props in place just before the reader enters. She sometimes rushes back at the end to add a connecting corridor, joining up scenes, or an underground tunnel – literally, in The Night She Disappeared – which give the illusion that it was all designed in advance.

I didn’t believe that at first, either. Surely a thriller like Watching You, intricate as… well, as a watch, must have been carefully structured, mapped out on one of those intricate walls of labels, push-pins and criss-crossing string that you see in crime shows. But as Lisa sent me her chapters throughout the year, I realised she was only ever one step ahead of me, and increasingly – gratifyingly – open to my advice about where things should go next.

By December, as we neared the end of our project, I was so immersed in The Family Remains that I was able to pitch her an entire subplot off the top of my head during a half-hour chat over drinks, and we’d built up enough connection and trust for her to accept and incorporate it, only slightly modified, into the finished novel. I never would have dreamed, at the start of the process, that I’d be contributing in any way to Lisa Jewell’s writing. But I was wrong about her. I’d imagined someone cautious, possibly aloof, a suspect I’d have to crack; a master game-player and manipulator. In fact, this author of dark, twisted thrillers is quite simply one of the nicest, most generous and open people I’ve ever met.

Our story – now published as The Truth About Lisa Jewell – didn’t turn out to be a detective thriller after all. It’s more the story of a strange and surprising friendship, formed during months of lockdown and in the brief, snatched gaps when government regulations allowed us to meet; an unexpected friendship in a unique year, woven together and intertwined with a mutual love of writing.

I was wrong about Lisa Jewell. I’m very glad I was wrong.

(c) Will Brooker

About The Truth About Lisa Jewell:

The Truth About Lisa Jewell

Have you ever thought about what it takes to become a bestselling writer?

If so, The Truth About Lisa Jewell is the book for you. It is the story of how a novel is written, from before the start to after the finish; it’s an in-depth analysis of how that novel fits into a bestselling author like Lisa Jewell’s career and her previous work, and what her style shares with authors from James Joyce to Martin Amis.

But this is more than just a study of an author at the top of her game. Like Lisa Jewell’s much-loved novels, it’s also the story of a relationship – between the bestselling author and the professor of cultural studies who has made her his muse – evolving slowly as the world comes gradually out of Covid. It’s the story of two very different writers getting to know each other gradually through words; two complete strangers becoming something more like friends.

A must-have for fans of Lisa Jewell, for aspiring authors who are interested in the path to success – and a testament to the way books can bring us together.

‘I read this yesterday in one glorious sitting! What an absolute treat of a book!’ Lesley Kara

‘This is definitely going to be one of the big ‘how to write’ books – every author who is on a quest to be Lisa Jewell will love it. Illuminating, revealing and absolutely fascinating, Will Brooker offers us the keys to the Jewell kingdom.’ Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin aka Sam Blake

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Will Brooker is Professor of Film and Cultural Studies at Kingston University, London. A scholar of fandom and popular culture, ranging from Alice in Wonderland to Batman and Blade Runner, he attracted global media attention in 2015 when he immersed himself in the life and work of David Bowie for a year’s research, published as the acclaimed Why Bowie Matters (HarperCollins, 2019). He is currently working with bestselling author Lisa Jewell on a book about her writing process.

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