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 over the coming weeks 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.
‘It’s all emerging out of character, again, isn’t it?’
‘Yes. That’s why I’m not one hundred per cent convinced that I’m going to go back to Henry, because Henry gave me so much when I was writing him that I felt that I was sated? So it was more about wanting to know what happens next, rather than wanting to spend more time with him, seeing the world from his perspective.’
Meanwhile, Lisa sends me the entire manuscript for The Night She Disappeared, which I consume in two days. The story I receive, though, is very different from the one that existed just a couple of weeks before. Lisa doesn’t tell me what she changed in that final rewrite until I’ve finished reading. I assume it must be a matter of minor tweaks, and I’m astonished when she reveals that it’s a huge shift, like tectonic plates moving under the little world that contains Tallulah’s cul-de-sac, and Scarlett’s mansion, and Sophie’s cottage.
‘In the thriller genre, everything needs to mean something,’ she explains. ‘Everything needs to happen for a reason, and you can’t introduce a character, an object or a location unless it has something to do with the dénouement. Those last few chapters have got to make sense of every little thing that happened before. When I used to write out of this genre, in romantic comedy, you could be a little bit self-indulgent, you could write a set piece just because you fancied writing a set piece, because it would be fun, and it wouldn’t have to feed back into the narrative once you got to the end.
‘But what I think people like about my novels is that there aren’t any loose ends, or if there is a loose end, it’s there on purpose. And that’s what I fixed last week. I’d introduced this female character, and felt very strongly that she was the wrong character? Because although she was doing the detective work, equivalent to what Libby did in The Family Upstairs, she didn’t have her own arc. She had no other function in this story except for asking people questions and being a bit nosey. And that was what I did. I found a function for her. And the clever thing about it . . .’ She hesitates for a fraction of a second, then seems to decide that yes, it was clever. ‘. . . was that the function I gave her was so profound, yet simple enough to be fed into the book with about six extra paragraphs, just sprinkled throughout.’
She’s talking about Sophie Beck, detective author and the girlfriend of Maypole school’s new headmaster, Shaun Gray. In the previous version, Sophie began investigating the central mystery simply because she was there and available; in the final version, the intrigue interlocks closely with her own books, and the clues are planted by other characters specifically to draw her in. The signs inviting her to ‘Dig Here’ are not random, as they were until this final draft, but deliberate references to her previous published work.
‘The thing about the “Dig Here” sign being in her book . . . that was what I added afterwards, at the last minute, to make sense of Sophie’s role in the book, because she didn’t really have one. So that was not in there organically. It was very much inserted after the event, and I had to stick it in without it having repercussions. I kept thinking that this whole story could be happening without Sophie in it.’
‘Whereas this way, the whole story is happening because of her.’
‘Exactly. I mean, people might have read the book and thought it was fine, but I felt really uncomfortable about it. In a thriller, everything has to work hard. You can’t have anything extraneous. And I was just really haunted by the fact that the book would have worked perfectly well without her.’
(c) Will Brooker
Edited extracts from The Truth About Lisa Jewell by Will Brooker published by Century.
Extracts 2 and 3 to follow.
About 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.