A Conversation with Lisa Jewell
Ralph’s Party was the first book you ever wrote, and its structure is fairly complicated for a beginning novelist—there are so many characters to juggle! What were some challenges you faced in completing this novel? What characters came more easily to you than others? In hindsight, is there anything you might have done differently or explored in a different way?
The biggest challenge I faced completing this book was not really knowing what it was about. It started life as a three-header, with Smith, Ralph and Jem. I had intended for Ralph to be a slightly creepy character who becomes unhealthily obsessed with Jem and ends up kidnapping her – a sort of "Butterfly Collector" meets "Shallow Grave" scenario. As I wrote I quickly realized that I wasn’t that kind of writer and that I was producing something much lighter and more romantic. After a month, I sent off the first three chapters to some agents and was told by one that my story needed to be more complex so I had a sudden wave of inspiration and decided that the best way to introduce new characters would be to have them living in the same house. Cheri was based on a girl I was temping with at the time and Karl and Siobhan were based on an old school friend and her besotted long term partner. I came up with all these people but I still didn’t really know what they were going to do or how it was all going to end up. It was quite scary coming to my manuscript every morning not really having the first idea where I was headed that day.
Ralph was the easiest character for me to write, mainly because I was slightly in love with him! Jem was the hardest because I had to try so hard not to make her into a little brunette version of myself.
In hindsight I would have done nearly everything differently. I wrote it for myself never thinking for a second that it would one day be read by thousands of people all over the world and as such it is totally unselfconscious. In some ways that is part of its charm; in other ways it makes me cringe. But the thing that I regret the most about Ralph’s Party was an early decision by my editor to almost entirely excise the character of Cheri. The original manuscript was one and fifty pages longer and most of that was Cheri’s character development. I went into great detail about Cheri’s relationship with a man old enough to be her grandfather, she had a full-blown nervous breakdown and I followed her back to Liverpool where she tracked down her estranged grandmother and faced her demons. And then I brought her back to London where she chose the redemptive path which brought her ultimately to Ralph’s party. Cheri ended up being a one dimensional baddie and I still feel sad that her story never made it to the final cut.
In your bios, you’ve described Ralph’s Party as the book you always wanted to write. What about its storyline(s) caught your attention and wouldn’t let go? What aspect of the novel did you always believe in?
The aspect that took hold of me and dragged me through the novel was the same aspect that has since dragged me through the process of writing all my novels—the desire for all my characters to follow their destiny and find their happy ending. I have always hated books that finish somewhere ambiguous, that leave you to draw your own conclusions. I think that if you have persuaded someone to care enough about your characters to read four hundred pages of your prose then you owe them a proper, satisfying ending.
How would you describe your progression as a writer from Ralph’s Party to Thirtynothing and One-Hit Wonder, to your latest novel, A Friend of the Family? What have you learned along the way, how have you changed, and what about your writing has remained consistent?
That’s a really difficult question to answer, as it’s all so tied in with my progression as a person. I was 27 when I started writing Ralph’s Party. I’m 36 now. I’ve got married, had a baby, bought a house. As I mentioned earlier, Ralph’s Party was definitely the least self-conscious book, as I didn’t think anyone apart from my mates would be reading it. I think I was experimenting with my vocabulary at the time and as a consequence it is full of flowery turns of phrase and overly long descriptions that I would avoid using now. Thirtynothing was the lightest of them all. I was floating on a cloud of contentment and joy when I wrote it, feeling that I’d finally found my niche. I was in love, I was successful, life had never been simpler and consequently it is a very simple story. One-Hit Wonder was my attempt at trying something a bit darker, a bit closer to what I’d originally set out to write all those years ago. It was the hardest of all five to write and I think that shows in some ways. It was subject to some serious surgery and rewriting and feels a bit cut and pasted in places. A Friend of the Family was really a laddish counterbalance to the overtly feminine flavour of One-Hit Wonder. I was girlied out by the time I finished it, not to mention exhausted by the logistical challenges. I wanted to write something solid and masculine and three brothers seemed about as solid and masculine as you could get.
I’m not sure what I’ve learned along the way. Writing seems as difficult and challenging as ever. I never feel like I’m going to get to the end and I still don’t feel like a ‘writer’—I feel like a woman who goes downstairs every morning, sits in front of a computer and tries her hardest to think of ways of getting a load of people who live in my head from A to B.
A best-selling author in the United Kingdom and the United States, you’re very generous and encouraging with your advice to beginning writers. What advice and encouragement did you find especially helpful to you when you were working on Ralph’s Party?
I read a couple of "How To Write" type books when I started writing, but the only thing that really helped was pressure. I told everyone I knew I was writing a book, my husband was subsidising my lifestyle, I gave myself a self-imposed deadline. I had a friend in Australia who was reading it chapter by chapter as I wrote it. She would nag me by e-mail saying—where’s the next chapter—you can’t keep me waiting so long! All that pressure and expectation was what really kept me going. I felt I owed so many people to get it finished otherwise I’d look lazy and stupid. Basically, I finished it to save face!
Different things work for different people though. Some people find writing intensely personal and private and want to keep it to themselves. They would have to find different ways to push through the hard times and get to the end.
According to your UK website, you’ve just finished an as-of-yet-untitled fifth book, due in US bookstores early next year. How is it similar to or different from your other novels? Also, you’ve mentioned beginning work immediately on a sixth novel—what can you tell us about it?
My fifth book has now been officially titled Vince and Joy. It’s similar to my other books in that it is based on themes of love and destiny but it is very different in that it is set over a larger time frame. The first third is set in the 80’s, the second in the 90’s and the final in the new millennium.
It’s about a couple—Vince and Joy—who meet as teenagers in a holiday park and fall in love. Fate tears them apart and they go on to marry other people. But fate keeps bringing them together—unfortunately always at the wrong time. It’s a kind of love story, without a love story as they don’t really get together until the very end of the book. It was an interesting opportunity to explore the ‘bad’ relationships the two of them have with the ‘wrong’ people before they finally get together. So often love stories portray the male protagonist racing against the clock to prevent their true love from marrying someone else—as if marriage is the end of the road. I wanted to show how in the age of the ‘Starter Marriage’ there’s still plenty of opportunity to follow your destiny even after you say ‘I do’.
My sixth book, which I started a month ago, currently stands at one and half pages long! Life has conspired against me and I’ve had barely any time at my computer, but that’s all set to change and hopefully I can get into the swing of it now. It’s about a weird house in London owned by a loner called Toby and peopled by a strange mishmash of tenants. When one of them dies, Leo, who’s lived across the road for five years, rents his old room and discovers more about his odd neighbours. As with all my books, I’ve got no idea what’s going to happen, or how it’s going to happen—it’s the usual big Magical Mystery Tour—but at least now, five books down the line, I know I’ll get there in the end!