Next year will mark 20 years since the publication of Lisa Jewell’s début novel Ralph’s Party. Inspired partly by Nick Hornby’s 1995 bestseller High Fidelity and the groundbreaking BBC TV series “This Life”, with its gaggle of bed-hopping, coke-snorting young lawyers sharing a house in London, Ralph’s Party went on to become the bestselling début of 1998. A charming story about two flatmates who fall for the same girl when she moves in with them, it stands as one of a handful of commercial fiction novels that seemed to capture the zeitgeist of what it was to be young in the ’90s, alongside Bridget Jones’s Diary (1996) and the aforementioned High Fidelity.
Nineteen years and 14 bestselling novels later, a smiling Jewell, who really doesn’t look very much older than she did in the ‘90s, sits opposite me in a north London café to talk about her 15th novel, Then She Was Gone (Century, July). The central character is Laurel Mack, whose beloved 15-year-old daughter Ellie vanished 10 years ago, with the police presuming that she had run away. Laurel has never given up hope of finding her youngest daughter and her grief and worry have cost her a marriage and a good relationship with her other, now adult, children. Then one day she meets a handsome stranger in a café. As she starts to allow herself to fall for him she learns he has a nine-year-old daughter from a previous relationship named Poppy. But when Laurel finally meets Poppy she gets the shock of her life, for she is the spitting image of Ellie at the same age. So what on earth happened to Ellie all those years ago?
“I always wanted to write psychological thrillers,” Jewell says, candidly. “Ralph’s Party was going to be a psychological thriller but I clearly wasn’t emotionally in the right place to write it as it went off on a tangent into being a love story about flatmates. Originally the idea was that Ralph was going to be a sociopath who became so jealous of Smith and Jem’s relationship that he kept them prisoner.” Which would have made for a very different book and Jewell kept her desire to write suspense novels on the back burner for her next five books, all published by Penguin, which she refers to now as her “lager, curry, flatmate novels”, although among them they feature a girl searching for the reasons behind her popstar-sister’s suicide (One Hit Wonder) and a One Day-style plot about missed destinies (Vince and Joy). Jewell moved to Cornerstone Random House for her seventh novel, The Truth about Melody Brown, which also signalled a slight change of direction creatively, as she started to focus on particular issues affecting family relationships. After the Party, the terrific sequel to Ralph’s Party, dealt with marriage and what happens after “happy ever after’”; The Making of Us explored the issues around sperm donation; and The House We Grew Up In featured a mother whose hoarding was out of control.
The new route
“I wouldn’t say that I specifically decided I was going to start writing psychological thrillers,” says Jewell. “I just felt that I had a new editor, Selina Walker [who joined Cornerstone in 2011], who is a crime editor and who I knew would be more open to the idea of me moving away from the themed novels. I just felt myself drifting more towards the psychological thriller thing.” She dipped a toe in the swirling waters of psychological suspense with The Third Wife and The Girls, which was selected for the Richard & Judy Book Club. “There’s not much you can win when you write at my point in the market, commercial women’s fiction, and that felt like winning something. It felt like a defining moment. It was very precious to me - and it still is,” she says. “I was half way there but really learning on the job. And then with I Found You and [Then She Was Gone] I kind of hit my stride. Ha ha, I’m touching wood now!”
The interesting thing, she thinks, about Then She Was Gone and its predecessor was how quickly she wrote them - the former initially in just 10 weeks, although it went through subsequent versions - “which I think is a sign that I’d sat down [to write] and knew what was going on, rather than with previous books, when I would be trying to write and it would take an awfully long time because I was feeling my way.”
Jewell may have moved from commercial fiction into psychological suspense but all of her novels are very character-led, featuring believable, relatable characters who are negotiating the challenges of everyday life.“I would never, for the sake of the story or a twist, have a character do something that they just wouldn’t do. I really couldn’t. I’d rather miss out on the twist” she says of her psychological thrillers.
At the beginning of her career, Jewell found herself labelled - with other, mostly female, young authors - with the rather divisive term “chick lit”. “It’s a double-edged sword”, she says now. “I will never, ever know if it worked in my favour or not. Unless someone can give me some data and say, ‘If you hadn’t been perceived as chick lit, you’d have sold fewer books’, then I think, ‘Fine, okay’.” But she’s not a fan of the label and thinks it is a misogynistic term. Happily though, “it feels like it’s finally, finally dying. That whole idea of chick lit being a thing that you just lump all the commercial female writers into. It went on for years - I’d switch on the radio and I’d hear, ‘Two female authors are here to discuss chick lit - is it dead?’, and I’d think, ‘Argh, no, not again. Are we seriously still having this conversation?’” She sums up the snooty attitude towards commercial fiction rather brilliantly: “That if you read something in two days, it’s not as good as something which took you two weeks to read.”
Reflecting on the heady days of Ralph’s Party, which Penguin bought for six figures in a two-book deal on the basis of three chapters which she had written for a bet, Jewell describes that time now as “my massive moment in the sun. It was amazing and I totally appreciated it while it was happening - it wasn’t like I was so young and dazed that I didn’t notice what was happening. I was so aware of how lucky I was with my first book and how fairy dust was sprinkled all over the place.”
Her subsequent chart success over the years she attributes to a very loyal readership - “that’s the challenge for my publishers, to build on that loyal readership... but that’s what’s so exciting about being a published writer. It doesn’t matter how old you are, it doesn’t matter what your last book did or what you are going through at the time of writing the book - that could be the book. That could be your Me Before You, or your The Girl on the Train. It is quite magical in that way.”