The Truth About Lisa Jewell – Extract 3 by Will Brooker

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Will-Brooker

Will Brooker

The Truth About Lisa Jewell by Will Brooker is the the story of how a novel is written, from before the start to after the finish. 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. By reproducing a series of three extracts from the book, we hope our readers will see just how invaluable are these two authors’ shared insights into the craft of writing.

‘So the other night I was just flicking through my phone, at about midnight, and I stumbled on to this Facebook discussion, where someone had started off by saying, I’m thirty chapters into The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell and I just can’t get into it . . . is it worth me persevering? There were sixty-eight replies to this woman’s question. And I blithely went in, thinking: Well, some people are going to say they didn’t like it, and some people are going to say, No, I loved it, stick with it, it gets really good, keep going. And basically, of the sixty-eight replies, sixty of them were going nah, I didn’t like it either. Couldn’t get on with it. Boring, ridiculous, didn’t know what was going on, two of the characters had names that began with the same letter . . . and it was kind of jaw-dropping.

Obviously, I know that lots of people don’t like it, and I know that it’s got a certain number of one-star and two-star reviews on Amazon, but to see this massive body of negative opinion . . .’

‘I’d hate that,’ I offer. But she’s not wounded, hurt or haunted; she’s baffled.

‘It was the fourth-bestselling book in the country last year, and loads of people absolutely loved it, and I get all these messages from people saying it reignited their love for reading. So the people on Facebook read that book . . . and it was a different book. And that’s a really hard thing to get your head around. How can it be a good book and a bad book at the same time? How can it be gripping, and yet boring at the same time? It’s the same book. It was a bit of a headfuck, that.’

We have stumbled back on to the same page. One of the classic articles of audience studies, the catchily titled ‘Tendency Systems and the Effects of a Movie Dealing with a Social Problem,’ written by Charles Winick in 1963, collates very different responses to the Frank Sinatra film The Man with the Golden Arm and concludes that for the various diverse members of the audience, ‘it would appear that the movie was almost a different movie’. The concept of one text with multiple meanings is something I’ve embraced and accepted for decades. It hadn’t struck me that for someone in Lisa’s position, this would be a paradox like Schrödinger’s Cat – how can something be good and bad at the same time ?

‘I think that’s something you can’t think about too much, as a writer.’ She shrugs. ‘You can’t be trying to write books for those sixty people on that thread. You can’t. You have to write the book for your most enthusiastic reader. And make it a book that they will love.’

It seems a wonderful, warm place to leave things, and we say goodbye for a week; but Lisa dwells on the subject, then mails me several days later with a follow-up to our earlier discussion. She doesn’t consider herself an academic by any stretch – ‘I hated learning,’ she tells me, ‘and only passed six O Levels, in a school where ninety per cent of girls passed nine or more’ – but her commitment to thinking, to the re-examination of ideas and rigorous, deep reflection, makes her more impressive to me than the majority of philosophers.

The conversation we had about failure and me being terrified. What I was trying to express, not very well, is that what I fear is letting people down, not failure per se. The terror is of writing a book that people don’t like. At this point in my career, as successful as I have recently become, I’m now at the very bottom of a tall house of cards, holding it all up; above me are my readers, the ones who use money they work hard for to buy my words because they have a certain expectation of the experience of reading those words. Above the readers are my publishers, the ones who invest in me, work hard for me, use me to support other areas of the business that are less profitable. Also tucked into the house of cards is my family, who I support financially. So that is the terror, that I do something wrong and the book is not good and the readers are disappointed and the publishers lose money and I stop making money and the whole house of cards collapses.

This brings us neatly back to the idea of success (and Success). Sean London, in A Friend of the Family, has won an award and a considerable advance for his debut novel, but is tormented by the fragility of his situation:

. . . suddenly he’d remember how precarious this ‘happiness’ he’d achieved actually was. It all hinged on being ‘successful’ – and being successful wasn’t like being a man, or being tall. It wasn’t guaranteed for ever. Success could be taken away from you, just like that – or rather it could slip away. And where would Sean be without this ‘success’, without the aura that being ‘successful’ conferred upon him?

Lisa’s anxieties are less selfish than Sean’s. Rather than personal failure, she fears letting people down, and feels a tremendous sense of responsibility to all the people who choose to spend their own hard-earned money on her work. Despite her strong sense of authorial ownership over her characters and plots – contrary to what Roland Barthes might tell us – I was struck by Lisa’s compassion for and connection to readers in this further explanation. She owes them a debt. They deserve to have their expectations met. And now I do believe her. Lisa Jewell is genuinely terrified.

(c) Will Brooker

Edited extracts from The Truth About Lisa Jewell by Will Brooker published by Century.

Read Extract 1 here and Extract 2 here.

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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