One might expect that an author who has sold £7.5m worth of books in the UK would be haughty and aloof, but when Lisa Jewell walks into a cosy cafe near Finchley Road wearing an oversized cardigan and her hair pulled into a ponytail, it becomes clear that literary success has not tainted her.
Jewell, 40, decided to pursue a career in writing after she was made redundant as a secretary in 1996. She was inspired to become a writer after reading Nick Hornby's High Fidelity: "I thought, I could do that." A close friend of hers, astrologer Yasmin Boland, challenged her to write a book, so Jewell wrote the first three chapters, "just to shut her up". Even though she believed the chapters to be "unpublishable" Jewell sent off 10 letters to different agents and "didn't think anything of it at all".
She received nine rejection letters but, two months later, was taken on by agent Judith Murdoch. This was just the beginning, however, and months of rewriting ensued: "If I had to do that much work on a novel now, I'd throw in the towel." Nonetheless, her dedication paid off and she eventually signed a two-book deal with Michael Joseph for £120,000. At the time she was "screaming and jumping up and down" despite thinking that Michael Joseph was "some obscure publisher". When Jewell later found out that Michael Joseph was an imprint of Penguin she was thrilled. "I was like: 'Oh, my God.' Not only have I got this gigantic publishing deal, it's with Penguin."
Ralph's Party went on to become the bestselling debut novel of 1999, and now, almost 10 years later, Jewell has recently finished her seventh book, The Secret History of Melody Brown, due out next April.
The novel tells the story of Melody, who loses her memory at the age of nine after a traumatic experience. Now a woman, Melody takes part in a hypnotist show and starts to regain her memory, uncovering a captivating past. Jewell feels that this book is a departure from her previous novels for a number of reasons. Unlike her previous books, The Secret History of Melody Brown incorporates a strong female voice and follows one individual's life story and half of the story is written from a child's perspective. But, she adds: "Every time I've written a book, I'm like, oh, it's so different from the last one, are they going to like it?"
However, there is one significant difference between this book and her previous six titles: The Secret History of Melody Brown is to be published by Century. Jewell seemed slightly apprehensive about discussing the move, summarising the switch to Random House as a "very complicated story".
"It was a good move, I'm looking to the future, and am very happy." She added that it was a bit "weird" working with a new editor at first. "It's a bit like getting divorced, and then having sex with someone for the first time. It's awkward and you sort of feel weird. And it did, until I read her editing notes and they were brilliant."
Aside from her daily routine of writing and looking after her two young daughters, Jewell has recently agreed to be a judge for the Costa Book Prize, for the First Novel category. Although it was tough finding the time to read all 40 books, given her busy schedule, she found the judging process "thoroughly enjoyable"'
Jewell is already writing her next book for Random House, a follow-up to her debut, Ralph's Party. "I am very nervous, I'm never going to do a sequel again. I'm out to prove something to myself and I'm not sure if that's a good idea. People will compare the fresh, untainted voice of my 29-year-old self that I was completely unselfconscious about writing [in] because I didn't think anyone was ever going to read it. It was innocent, it wasn't trying to be anything, it just was. I've put myself in a vulnerable place, but I suppose you do every time you write a book."
The vulnerability of Jewell's writing goes deeper, as she draws on her own personal experiences in her novels. "All my main characters have got bits of me, bits of my family, bits of my friends." She names Vince & Joy as the favourite of her own books because "it was very autobiographical". Jewell had what she describes as a "doomed marriage" in her 20s and wanted to write about it. "I finished that book and I was satisfied. I thought I'd done the story of my marriage justice, I'd fictionalised it enough that it wasn't entirely just a carbon copy of what happened to me."
Even though many of her stories ooze a "Richard Curtis feel", none of her novels have made it onto the big screen. "People have sniffed around, but it's only ever been very small operations who haven't been able to throw any money into it." Jewell says she would love see her books as films one day, as her friend Madeleine Wickham, a.k.a. Sophie Kinsella has just experienced: "If somebody wanted to ship me over to LA for the premiere on the red carpet I would really, really like that experience."
For now Jewell is waiting in a state of excitement for the release of her new book. "There's a weird contrast between my usual daily routine and then my book coming out. It's like someone's just suddenly opened the curtains in a dark room and everyone's looking at you."
Lisa Jewell, The Truth About Melody Brown (Century, April, tpb, £11.99, 9781846055720)