Lisa Jewell is the international, best-selling author of nine novels. With the recent publication of her tenth novel Before I Met You Hazel Gaynor caught up with Lisa, who shared some fascinating insights into a writing career which started when she was in her twenties. “I’d always wanted to write a book,’ Lisa explains, ‘but in the mid ‘90s there weren’t really any young female writers, so I put it in my list of ‘Things To Do When I’m Older.” After taking creative writing evening classes, my interest in writing was reignited, but it wasn’t until I read Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity on holiday in 1996 that I really thought seriously about writing a novel myself when I was in my twenties.’
As is the case with many writers, it was sitting down to actually starting writing which was the turning point for Lisa. “I told a friend about my plan to write a novel and she made a bet with me that she would take me for dinner if I wrote three chapters of a book. I’d just been made redundant so I had some free time and a bit of money in the bank so I wrote the three chapters.” They became Ralph’s Party, the best-selling debut novel of 1999. “It was very good timing; the market for young female writers had just opened up in the wake of Bridget Jones. I found an agent before I’d finished writing the book and she got me a two book deal with Penguin a year later. It was all a remarkable fairy tale and even now I still can’t quite believe how lucky I was.”
With the publishing industry so different ten years on, it isn’t simply a case of writing more of the same to ensure her continued success, so how does Lisa keep coming up with fresh ideas, such as the concept for Before I Met You? “I tackled a few ‘big issues’ in the my previous three books,” Lisa explains, “so for this book, I really wanted to write a Britpop romance set in the 90’s, something, light and grungy and heart-warming. But halfway through, I realised the book needed something else so I went back to a character I’d introduced in the early chapters, Betty’s grandmother Arlette. I then gave her a mysterious past for Betty to uncover. The ideas come when they come. Sometimes I know what I want to write about next when I’m only halfway through writing the current book and sometimes I’ve finished the current one and have no idea what will come next, which can feel a bit hair-raising. But so far, something’s always come to me.”
Before I Met You is partly set among the bohemian world of the Bright Young People in 1920’s Soho and is brought wonderfully to life through Lisa’s writing. She didn’t however, get bogged down in research to add such authenticity, relying more on instinct, imagination and a passion for the era to add flavour and description to her writing. “I decided what I wanted to write about, I came up with my characters and then I just plunged in head first. Every time I came up against a point of historical detail that I was unsure about, I’d Google it. But imaginations are like sponges; I’ve read so much fiction set in the 20’s, seen so many TV shows and films, I think most of it was already in there, just waiting to come out.”
Lisa writes many memorable characters into her novels; being interested in personality and in what motivates people to behave a particular way. “I couldn’t choose a favourite character from Before I Met You, although Dom Jones, the Brit Pop star, was a lot of fun to write. He was so horribly flawed, yet so loveable and I was as torn as Betty throughout their romance about whether he was a good guy or a bad guy. I always try hard to show the myriad facets that make up a personality, to avoid stereotyped goodies and baddies, because I don’t believe anyone, even sociopathic monsters, are that clear-cut, and Dom was a perfect example of this. He wasn’t based on any one individual, but was more of a blend of people, Damon Albarn and Jude Law in particular.”
For Lisa, the writing process is very organic with her plot and characters emerging as she writes, even when her plot is quite complex and includes many strands to bring the conclusion of the story together, such as in Before I Met You. “I had no idea who the mysterious benefactor, Clara Pickle, was when I wrote her into Arlette’s will and the artist in the novel, Gideon Worsley, just appeared from absolutely nowhere as I wrote. But the starting point of Arlette’s history had been an article I read on the BBC website about the Southern Syncopated Orchestra. Their story runs throughout Arlette’s story and in my opinion would make an incredible movie or novel in its own right. I then went on to read a book written by the granddaughter of one of the original members of the Orchestra, who had settled in London and married a white girl, leaving behind a lasting legacy that carries on until this day. So I knew that I wanted to explore this history in Arlette’s story, but that was about as far I’d got before I actually started writing.”
The blurb reveal the complex relationship of these characters and their individual stories:
“Having grown up on the quiet island of Guernsey, Elizabeth Dean can’t wait to start her new life in London. On a mission to find Clara Pickle – the mysterious beneficiary in her grandmother’s will – she arrives in bustling and grungy 1990s Soho, filled with hope, excitement and dreams. She has the world at her feet and is ready for whatever life has to throw at her. Or so she thinks…
In 1920s bohemian London, Arlette – Elizabeth’s grandmother – is starting her new life in a time of post-war change. Beautiful and charismatic, Arlette is soon drawn into the hedonistic world of the Bright Young People. But less than two years later, tragedy strikes and she flees back to Guernsey for the rest of her life.
As Elizabeth searches for Clara, she is taken on a journey through Arlette’s extraordinary time in London, uncovering a tale of love, loss and heartbreak. Will the secrets of Arlette’s past help Elizabeth on her path to happiness?”
With so many bestsellers behind her- and particularly when it is so tough to get published in the current climate, does Lisa believe there is any magic formula to writing a successful novel? “All my books have been quite different in terms of themes and storylines, but it is vital to me that all my books do two things. 1) Introduce the reader to people they can get to know and care about and 2) Leave lots of unanswered questions about the place to keep the reader turning pages even when they’re tired and want to go to sleep. Those are the books I like to read and to write. ‘Success’ in financial and sales terms is another thing entirely and dependent on all sorts of factors and magical elements – being a good book is not always enough to ensure that kind of success.”
When she isn’t writing herself, Lisa is an avid reader. ‘I’ve read some totally amazing books this year. I don’t know if I’m getting better at choosing books or if books are getting better, but I’m finding it a very exciting time to be a reader. I’m currently reading and loving Where D’You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple, and have also just been fortunate enough to read an advance copy of Jojo Moyes’ new book, The Girl You Left Behind, which is due to be published in September and is, of course, very brilliant indeed.” But of course, for any writer, there is always that next novel to work on. So, what can we look forward to next from Lisa? She told me, “I’m halfway through a book about the family of a chronic hoarder, it’s a saga, stretching from their childhoods in the 80’s through to the present time. I’m writing it chronologically, without flashbacks, and despite its rather depressing premise it’s turned out to be great fun to write. It’s due to be published in August 2013.”
Lisa Jewell is a successful author because she writes great books, works hard and – at the end of the day – gets on with the job of writing. For aspiring authors, can she offer any advice? “Just do it! It’s good advice for someone who’s never written and it’s just as good for someone’s who’s written ten books. Just sit there and get on with it. There’s no magic key.”
Find Lisa on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/LisaJewellofficial or on Twitter @lisajewelluk.
Lisa Jewell was brought up in Totteridge, North London. After five years working in the fashion industry, redundancy was to prove a turning point in her life. Her first novel, Ralph’s Party, was the bestselling debut of 1999 and she has gone on to write Thirtynothing, One-Hit Wonder, Vince & Joy, A Friend of the Family ,31 Dream Street (which won the Melissa Nathan Award for Comedy Romance), and The Truth About Melody Browne all of which have been Sunday Times bestsellers. She was a judge for 2009’s Costa First Novel Award. Her latest novel After the Party (the sequel to Ralph’s Party) was published in April 2010. Lisa is now based in Swiss Cottage where she lives with her husband and two daughters.
Before I Met You (Century) by Lisa Jewell is out now. For Hazel’s review of the book, visit her blog for hellomagazine.com ‘Off the Shelf’.