The Birthday Girl
Hello you. Many moons ago when I was still in my twenties, I remember there being a bit of a buzz about Lisa Jewell in the media. Being a soul who’s never really been driven by hoopla I just got on with contenting myself writing pervo erotic stories and poetry. But one weekend I went up to Oxford for a party, and on the Sunday while everyone else was slumbering away, I woke up early and raided my friend Phil’s bookshelf for a read. I spotted Thirtynothing by Lisa Jewell. I’d heard about Ralph’s Party but not read it, back then, the cover fascist in me didn’t like the font of the title, yes that’s how instantly dismissive I can be! Terrible I know. But I really liked the spiel on the back of Thirtynothing; I had had a ton of platonic male friends at Uni and have always got on well with men, and I’ve danced that fine line between love and friendship – so the premise of Dig and Nadine’s story immediately appealed to me. And I’d never seen it tackled before.
I took the book down, went back to bed and started reading. The household woke up around me; a cooked breakfast was put in front of me. And I was still reading. A pub lunch was suggested and I said I’d only come if I could carry on reading! I think I might even have sulked a bit when I was asked to put the book down. When it was time to head home, I told Phil I had to take the book with me or I might die. Luckily, I’m here writing this, so you know he let me! I took Thirtynothing back to London and read it on the way home. Then when I went to work I did something quite sneaky, I had it on my lap so I could squeeze in the odd page here and there in between bits of Marketing. Then on my lunch hour, so I would remain undisturbed, to the amusement of my colleagues, I actually retreated under my desk to finish it!
The story just spoke to me. It was fundamentally a story about two friends who didn’t know they were in love, but far, far more than that. I loved how Lisa had written so empathically from a male and female perspective and how London centric the novel was. I was and still am a bit of a bohemian music nut and there were cultural references galore. It was as if it was written for me. And it was funny, moving and edgy. I love an edge in my fiction and this book definitely had one.
There was also a bit where a cat came up and pissed on a man having sex that made me choke with laughter! There wasn’t a cliché in sight and the characters were very human and approachable. I’d never known a female writer to write like that before, both with humour and emotional intelligence. And I knew after reading Thirtynothing she would always be interesting. And I would always be curious to see what she published. Nobody could write a book like that and be unoriginal, they just wouldn’t tolerate it in themselves. So I have followed Lisa’s publishing career since then and read her books in all kinds of memorable situations.
In fact, I vividly recall reading the ending of ‘A Friend of the Family’ in my younger brother’s car, driving to Heathrow airport, when I was readying to fly out to the Maldives for the second time! I was determined to finish it before I left the UK.
Now, fast-forward seven odd years and witness a conversation going on between me and my older brother, who at the time was working for a bank:
TB: Guess who I spoke to today?
Me: I don’t know. Who?
TB: Your favourite writer
Me: Lisa Jewell? No! What was she like?
Yes, indeedy, he’d rung her to check she was happy with her fiscals and she’d perked up when he mentioned how his sister and wife were fans of her books and how I was actually writing one. His anecdote tickled me enough to wonder if Lisa was on Facebook and lo and behold she was. So I wrote to her and said ‘I do believe you spoke to my brother today’ and she wrote back, pretty promptly. I was delighted.
Since then, we’ve had quite a few exchanges online and in person at shindigs. I made her a Spotify playlist once to try and get her into Hole. She was very encouraging about Gunshot Glitter and set me the challenge of coming back to tell her I’d done it. I’ve always loved how open and honest she’s been with her opinions and feedback. There is sensitivity, because we writers can be painfully sensitive souls ( I know I can be), but no sugar coating. I appreciate that, and her honesty shows in the interview you are about to read. The publishing world is in a state of dramatic change and if you are a writer entering it all fresh and new you need to know that. This is reality, go into it with your eyes open.
As a reader and fan, I have a massive amount of respect for her ability to create and maintain a character’s voice. I’ve seen writers fall foul to becoming formulaic or rehashing the same kind of characters over and over, or just not writing men very well. I defy anyone to read ‘ A Friend of the Family’ or the utterly wonderful ’31 Dream Street’ and not see how beautifully realised the men in those books are. So, I salute you, Lisa Jewell, and for your pleasure dear reader, and to celebrate the fact it’s her birthday AND she has a new novel ‘Before I Met You’ hitting bookshops both virtual and physical today: I give you a Goliath-sized interview with Lisa herself. My personal favourite answer is what Lisa would do if her cats started talking to her ; )
Jack with Lisa’s daughter Evie!
What? It’s a valid question! Enjoy! Do leave a comment – and if you’re a fan tell me what your favourite Jewell read is?
Yasmin x x
P.S HUGE apologies for radio silence. Gunshot Glitter is coming out next month and I have been working my *^(& off frankly to ensure that happens. My next blog will expand on this phenomenon and tell you much, much more and I’ll try not to leave it six weeks this time.
YSB: Hi Lisa, how’s 2012 been treating you so far?
It’s been a very uneventful year so far. I started a book in January, went to Lanzarote in February, abandoned my book in March, started a new one in April, released the paperback of The Making of Us in May, complained about the weather in June and now I’m just waiting for the new one to come out on the 19th to see if that provides any much-needed excitement!
**NEW** Out today!
YSB: Congrats on your new novel, ‘ Before I Met You.’ It was originally going to be called ‘Pretty Betty’ what prompted the title change?
Naming books is a very strange thing. Sometimes the name comes first, which was the case with Pretty Betty. Before I even knew what the book was going to be, I knew what it was called. Other times I’ve written a whole book and delivered it with no idea what it’s called. Unfortunately, my editor didn’t think Pretty Betty was the right title for this particular book and they all had a brainstorm and came up with the title Before I Met You. I don’t love it, but I’ve got used to it. If it’s of any interest, working titles of my previous books have included:
31 Almanac Road (Ralph’s Party)
Dig and Delilah (thirtynothing)
Whatever Happened to Bee Bearhorn (One Hit Wonder)
The London Brothers (Friend of the Family)
Toby’s House (31 Dream Street)
The Kids (The Making of Us)
YSB: If someone came up to you and asked what ‘Before I Met You’ was about, what would you say?
If they were in a hurry I would describe it as a book about two young women, one in the 90’s and one in the 20’s, both coming of age in London, with a mystery at the heart of it. If they had a bit more time I would say; it’s about a young girl from Guernsey called Betty who cares for her grandmother, Arlette, until her death. She has no idea what to do with herself after her grandmother passes away, until her will is read out and it is revealed that Arlette has left all her money to a woman called Clara Pickle who no one in the family has ever heard of. Betty sets off to Soho to try and track her down. In doing so she uncovers her grandmother’s secret history, retold through a series of flashbacks to the swinging days of the early 20’s.
YSB: It’s quite a departure from your other novels, do you ever worry about reader reactions or do you write for yourself first and foremost?
I absolutely write for myself. In the current climate this is quite a luxury. I am not sure how much longer I will be able to carry on just sitting and writing stuff I like. But I always, always worry about reactions. Horribly. For months the only feedback you’ve had has come from your agent and editor and they’re very good at sounding positive, even when they’re suggesting changes. Once it’s out there, though, you’re at the mercy of thousands of people and their opinions. I feel nauseous just thinking about it.
YSB: God, I’m going to feel exactly the same way when I launch Gunshot Glitter at the masses believe me! Were any of the characters such as Betty or Arlette based on people in real life? Who did you have in mind when you were dreaming up your Britpop icon, Dom?
Arlette’s lover, Godfrey, was based on a photograph I saw of a member of the Southern Syncopated Orchestra, although only in his physical appearance. Betty and Arlette are entirely invented. Dom was supposed to be a kind of amalgam of Damon Albarn, Jude Law and the Gallagher brothers.
YSB: Many writers base characters or events in their novels on personal experience. I know I did with Gunshot Glitter. In ‘Vince and Joy’, I recognised elements of Joy’s marriage from your own life story. Was your ex-husband aware of the novel, what was his reaction to it?
I haven’t had any contact with my ex-husband since shortly after Ralph’s Party came out when he wrote to congratulate me. I have no idea if he’s read anything since. Given an interview I did about our marriage for the Sunday Times Magazine in which he was painted in a very unflattering light (I so regret this interview) I doubt it very much.
YSB: I found the inter-racial romance in ‘Before I Met You’ fascinating. Did you do any research into what the realities of relationships were like in the Jazz club era?
I had absolutely no idea when I started to write Arlette’s back-story that she would be involved in an inter-racial affair. It was a total fluke. I wanted to involve her character in the burgeoning jazz scene of the post-war years and ran a quick Google search to check that jazz had actually arrived in our country in 1919. This took me straight to a BBC article about the Southern Syncopated Orchestra and uncovered a story that would make an amazing film or non-fiction book in its own right. I knew immediately that I wanted to incorporate the story of the orchestra into Arlette’s story and when I saw a photo of Pete Robinson, their drummer, in a book written by his granddaughter which I read for research:
I knew instinctively that I wanted Arlette to fall in love with a fine man just like him.
YSB: In my teens I wanted to be the editor of Smash Hits, I loved their wit! I know you wanted to be the editor for the NME, was it cathartic writing a novel that was partly about the music scene from the 90s?
I have loved putting music into my books, right from the very beginning. Dig in Thirtynothing worked for a record label, Bee Bearhorn in One Hit Wonder was a pop star, and yes, I do believe that a lot of that is my frustrated music journalist coming out. I spent my teenage years going to gigs, writing to music papers, writing into radio shows, and it amazes me nowadays how little interest I have in music. I never listen to it any more (apart from the bilge my nine year old daughter makes me listen to in the car!). But I do still like to write about it.
YSB: Who were your favourite bands from that era?
In the 90’s I loved Nirvana, Sleeper, Oasis, Blur; all the usual suspects.
YSB: Some writers need to work in total silence; others have to have some music on, which camp you do fall into on that score?
I used to write to music. Then, after I had children, I wrote in silence. Now I find I need the white noise of a public place to help me concentrate, so I write at my local café.
YSB: Your astrologer friend Yasmin Boland, infamously cajoled you into completing the first three chapters of ‘Ralph’s Party’ with a meal at your fave swish joint, but have you ever been tempted to ask her to forecast your future?
The other Yasmin : )
No! My interest in astrology is another thing to have hit the kerb as I’ve grown longer in the tooth. I was never a great believer, but I did love to read my horoscope and analyse it. Not any more I’m afraid (sorry, Yasmin!)
YSB: If ‘Ralph’s Party’ hadn’t been the storming success it was, would you have carried on writing? Or would you have done something else?
No, I honestly don’t think I would have. The whole project always felt a bit dippy and unlikely. I had entirely assumed that I would not get a publishing deal. I had no great ambition or game plan, and would probably have tucked the manuscript away in my attic, got a proper job and maybe tried again when I was fifty.
YSB:Are milestones meaningful to you? Did you acknowledge how cool it was to have ‘The Making of Us’ as your tenth best-selling novel?
I do like a good milestone, yes, but I don’t think I really felt the full impact of this one. It’s all so scary at the moment, my sales have been on the slide pretty much since book number 1 and there was so much pressure for this book to perform well that I didn’t really notice that it was my tenth. But now it’s been published (and sold way better than book nine) I suppose it is kind of cool. One book is a fluke, ten is a real achievement.
YSB: I think though with books, as with a huge mega-selling debut album, it’s extremely hard for an artist to ‘top’ that. You kind of arrived at the ‘top’ to begin with, with ‘Ralph’s Party.’ Have you been tempted to write anything radical and utterly off the wall and publish it under a pseudonym?
I might have to if my sales don’t pick up! A lot of authors are having to take this path to keep their income levels up. The history of an author’s sales has a huge impact on book shop ordering of subsequent titles, regardless of the quality of the book, so a couple of duff sales statistics can be the start of a really slippery slope. If this ever happens to me (please God no!) then I would definitely consider the ‘clean slate’ of a pseudonym. But hopefully, if I have any radical ideas, I’ll be able to write them under my own name. I do hope so.
YSB: I will always be up for a radical read. What are you working on at the moment, Lisa?
I am writing a book called (for now, at least) The Bird House. It is a family saga, set mainly in the Cotswolds, but also as far afield as Spain, Thailand, Crete, Australia … and Tufnell Park. It follows the lives of Lorelei and Colin Bird and their four children; Megan, Bethan, Rhys and Rory and unravels the reasons behind Lorelei’s later descent into chronic hoarding. The second half will show the estranged family coming together after Lorelei’s death to unpack her shocking hoard and in doing so untangling the knots of their family history and finding a way back into each other’s lives. It is every bit as much fun to write as I thought it would be when I started it three months ago.
YSB: That sounds seriously cool, definitely different. God help me if I end up like Lorelei! Does Jascha read all your books? Does his opinion on your writing matter to you?
No, my lovely husband has not read any of my books since Melody Browne and he is still only halfway through that. And halfway through 31 Dream Street, too, I think. He always packs my latest one to take on holiday and then it just sits there by his lounger for two weeks before being packed up again and brought home untouched. It really doesn’t bother me. He is not a reader. If he was reading, say, Dan Brown and not me, I’d be miffed. But he’s not reading anything, so it’s fine. My sisters’ opinions are far more important to me.
YSB: What is the easiest and hardest thing about being a writer?
The easiest thing is the lifestyle. I can work wherever and whenever I want (assuming there are no children in the vicinity). I can work in my pyjamas (which I never do, but I could, in theory). I am always able to my children up from school or attend nativities or meet a friend for lunch or take a stroll around the shops or tackle some ironing (which I never do, but I could, in theory) and still have time to write a thousand words. The hardest thing is getting the words out of my head and on to the page. Always a struggle, that.
YSB: What inspires you as a writer? I pick up interesting names all over the place and get opening lines from strange sources. How easy is it for you to write your first chapters?
I love writing first chapters. It’s the culmination of all those hours you’ve spent building a world in your head and you haven’t yet reached any brick walls or obstacles. You can still kid yourself that you’ve got it all under control. The things that inspire me are probably the same things that inspire anyone with an interest in writing; music, overheard conversations, headlines, memories, feelings, people. For my current book, I was inspired by passing a flat on the Finchley Road that was clearly hoarded up to the hilt and wondering about who lived there and did they have a family and how did their family and friends feel about them living like that.
YSB: Lisa, do you have a writing routine?
Yes, it has changed incrementally over the years in line with number and ages of children etc. Now that they are both at school and I don’t have to worry about nursery pick-ups or childminders or our prepaid slot at the crèche at the gym, I am free to structure my day much more satisfactorily. I have broken my day into three chunks, which I can arrange in whichever order makes the most sense on that particular day. I am allowed two hours at home farting about on the internet and doing a bit of housework, I am allowed an hour and half for the gym and a minimum of two hours writing at my local café, internet free.
YSB: I should go to the gym to see off ‘writer’s arse’! As a writer and reader, how do you feel about the decline of bookstores and print sales and the rise of ePublishing?
As a writer, as long as my books are being paid for and read and enjoyed, I don’t really care what format they’re in. As a reader, I’m very happy to read a book on my Kindle, but my heart does sing out quite loudly every time I pick up a paperback.
YSB: I know the chick-lit tag sometimes frustrates you, if you were going to classify your own books what category would you place them in? And if you want to create a new category, go for it!
I would place them in the category of, erm, ‘books.’ I don’t know, I find it really hard to be objective. I witnessed a Mumsnet discussion the other day, following on from my Q&A and one Mumsnetter said she felt she’d judged me unfairly as a chicklit writer and another Mumsnetter popped up and said I absolutely was a chicklit writer, so it’s totally subjective. But let’s put it this way, I do not ever intend or set out to write chicklit. I always set out and intend to write a really good book about a subject that I find interesting. I enjoy my own writing and have accepted the fact that I’m never going to write to a ‘literary’ standard. I just hope that readers who haven’t read one of my books won’t be too put off my chicklit credentials. Shall we call it popular fiction? Yes, I like that. No negative connotations.
YSB: As a writer do you feel you are under different pressures and expectations now to when you first entered the publishing industry?
I am definitely not as relaxed about my future prospects as I once was. I feel very much that the industry is now more than ever, about ‘the book’ rather than ‘the author’ and that even a writer like David Nicholls who outsold everyone a few years ago with his third novel, is not guaranteed a life time of top five sales. Readers are more fickle and hop about from hot book to hot book (I am absolutely guilty of this, I am rarely faithful to an author these days) and so now, every time I send out a new book into the world I’m wondering if it might catch the zeitgeist, the collective imagination. I have absolutely no confidence that it will sell simply because I’m a popular author.
YSB: It’s weird, I’m seeing the same thing happen in the music industry with new ‘hot’ bands, but the optimist in me still believes loyalty exists when it’s merited. Who reads your books? Have you noticed any change in your readership since you wrote ‘Ralph’s Party’?
Women read my books. Occasionally their partners read my books. Sometimes gay men read my books. A handful of teenagers read my books. Old people have been known to read my books. But essentially, it is women between the ages of 18 and 55. I think this has remained pretty much the case since the early days
YSB: Is there any new news on any of your novels being filmed for TV or the silver screen? I would love to see ’31 Dream Street’ or ‘Thirtynothing’ bought to life.
31 Dream Street is still under option and the guy who’s financing it and producing it wants to start filming sometime between September 2012 and May 2013. My breath is well and truly held.
YSB: Bring it on! I hope they do the book justice. Adaptations often send people scurrying back to read the books too. Being a writer, wife and mum must take up an awful lot of your day, what do you do when you find a scrap of free time? What do you like to do?
Read. Read. Read. And read. When I go on holiday I am a very poor conversationalist (ask my poor husband, lying there next to me with his unread Lisa Jewell paperback on the floor, hopelessly trying to engage me in chit-chat). At home I am also likely to do mindless things on the internet and watch interesting documentaries about human beings. I have been known to bang out a little watercolour on occasion. And I do love to walk, aimlessly. I miss the pram-pushing days of babies when I’d take them out for an hour or two to nap while I sucked in all the wonder of the outside world.
YSB: Last question, I once broke the world high-kicking record as a teen, as well as writing engaging reads do you have any hidden talents that might surprise people?
I am very good at unravelling knotted things. I can drink all night and not get a hangover. I just asked my husband if there was anything else he could think of and he looked at me blankly. I think that is the extent of it!
From now on I will save up all my knotted necklaces for you. I thought I could end it there but I can’t. Here’s a wee quickfire round. Go with your first instincts,
Most cringeworthy crush ?
Lion Sleeps Tonight
Steve Grant of Tight Fit.
Band you wish you could dance on stage with?
I would not wish to dance on stage with anyone. Band I would like to watch from the wings with a glass of champagne in my hand: Blur.
What would you do if your silver tabby cats started talking to you?
I would be delighted. I would do a cognitive aptitude test on the boy, because I suspect he has special educational needs. I would find out if the girl was more than just a pretty face and ask her if she ever misses her babies. And I would apologise to both for the brutal combings I have to give them to stop my house being permanently cloaked in silver fur.
Last great film you saw?
Titanic in 3D at my local IMAX. Tenth time I’ve seen it, was gripped till the very last moments and sobbing at the end.
Biggest guilty pleasure?
Skipping the gym, as I am doing at this very minute in fact. It feels good.
Olympics – pant-wettingly excited or already over it?
I was never in it to get over it. Not interested. Not a sporty girl.
Idol you’d most love to meet?
I would not wish to meet an idol. I have met two already, I have been out for drinks in Soho with Nick Hornby and have sat in a soft play centre in Crouch End drinking tea with Clare Grogan. I was totally unrelaxed on both occasions and found it impossible to be myself.
Most romantic thing you’ve ever done?
Do you mean a gesture, or an experience? I have never knowingly committed a romantic gesture. I do not like romantic gestures and would not inflict one on another human being. But the most romantic experience of my life was my wedding weekend in Portofino on the Italian Riviera. Truly magical.
Most famous Lisa Jewell fan you know of?
YSB: Thank you Lisa Jewell : )
‘Before I Met You’ by Lisa Jewell is on sale now at all good bookshops and online retailers. Visit: http://www.facebook.com/LisaJewellofficial.
Click here to read an extract
Millie: ‘I am not just a pretty face…or am I?’