"People keep asking me if it’s a love story and I say it’s a story about relationships," Ruth Jones says of her début novel, Never Greener, when we meet at The Ivy in Central London.
The Welsh actress and TV writer, best known for "Gavin and Stacey" and "Stella", cuts a gentler and more diminutive figure than expected and is decidedly unstarry. But she has now added yet another creative arrow to her bow with a bittersweet, much-heralded début soon to be unleashed into the world.
Transworld emerged victorious from a 10-publisher auction in 2016, expertly navigated by Jones’ university friend, super-agent Jonny Geller of Curtis Brown. The novel explores the consequences of married Edinburgh-based teacher Callum falling for a beautiful but troubled barmaid-cum-actress, Kate, 20 years his junior. The pair embark on an affair, which ends in heartbreak.
Fast forward almost two decades and Kate, a successful actress with a husband and daughter, revisits her home town and bumps into Callum, throwing open a Pandora’s Box of temptations. Jones’ forensic eye for the bittersweet exchanges of the everyday has captured the awkward realities of sex, as well as the aftershock of infidelity.
The novel is largely split across 1985 and 2002, echoing the time-shifting, split narrative structures of David Nicholls’ One Day and Laura Barnett’s The Versions of Us. Told from the points of view of five central characters whose lives are changed by the affair, it frequently uses flashback, panning cinematically between first encounters and clandestine meetings. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that it started life as a screenplay. "I’d started playing with screenwriting many years ago, around the time of ‘Fat Friends’, before ‘Gavin and Stacey’," she explains. "I’d had this idea, I think it came from the Philip Larkin poem ["Reference Back", one verse of which forms the novel’s epigraph]—what would happen if the person you are in your late 30s or early 40s met the person you were 20 years ago? I was looking for a vehicle to tell that story, and a love affair is a good way because you have passion and 20 years of life in between."
The screenplay was initially optioned but activity fizzled out. Two years ago, during a busy spate of work, she checked herself into a health farm, primarily to relax and read, and came across the screenplay on her laptop. "I thought, ‘Oh my God, it’s so two-dimensional’," she laughs. "But there was some really good stuff, some really good dialogue. I would go for a massage and think, ‘I can’t wait to get back into the world’."
She describes converting the screenplay into prose as like "translating French into Spanish . . . There will be a couple of words which will be similar, but they will essentially be different languages." She found the "freedom" of novel writing liberating and says, "It took me a little while to trust myself, that it was OK to have that much freedom [compared to TV writing] but they were very, very different experiences." Jones owns the TV rights and is open to the novel being adapted, revealing that she would "love to play Belinda [Callum’s wife] in her later years".
Jones’ enthusiasm for the project was such that she began to contact publishers as she developed it into a novel. "I just went with the email addresses I had and had a couple of meetings, and met with one publisher who made me an offer which was exciting but scary as I didn’t know what the procedure is," she says. "So I was trying to think , ‘Well, who I can ask’, and I was at university [Warwick] with Jonny Geller." She describes having had 10 publishers interested as "beyond what I had expected at all".
There was no superstition attached to the creation of Never Greener. "I didn’t have writing rules—I wish I could be that person," she explains. "I do have a writing room but I tend to write all over the house, or on trains. I quite like being around people when I’m writing." However, the "biggest challenge of all" was giving it to someone else to read. "I was giving it to my friend in sections... Once she said ‘This is really good’, I was so relieved," says Jones. "I kept saying to [editor] Frankie [Gray] and Jonny, ‘I’ve written the first third, do you want me to send it to you?’ Jonny would say, ‘Just get to the end, Ruth.’"
Jones reveals she was drawn to the messiness of relationships and that "there was something I loved about that entanglement" between the characters. It was a desire to expose the warts-and-all nature of relationships and love which lends the novel its darker aspects. "It’s a bit like Christmas: everybody thinks everybody else is having a perfect Dickensian-style Christmas and they’re not. I think most people can be fraudulent." Jones grows more animated as she describes how "we all have a public face that we put on, some people are better at it than others", but says she also wants to celebrate the positive aspects of humanity. "You know there’s such a lot of goodness in the world and in relationships, even the worst relationship will have its redeeming features. People’s personalities can be revealed through relationships."
The bleaker themes of the novel were "a concern of mine" she says. "I felt like people would think, ‘This will be a right rollicking laugh,’ and it’s not. Through the research [Transworld carried out a consumer insight project asking potential readers what they would expect from Jones] it would appear that people have quite an open mind with what they are expecting from me. They might be intrigued to see [she puts on a sinister voice] ‘the darker side of my mind’. Hopefully people will think, ‘Oh well, there’s another side to her’."
She cites Jojo Moyes’ Me Before You as an inspiration and says she wanted to avoid overly simplistic descriptions, particularly where sex was concerned, and clunky characterisations. "I knew I didn’t want the book to be twee in any way," she says. "I wanted the characters to be real. I asked myself, ‘How can I write these sex scenes without using graphic words?’ You don’t want to not write about sex, because it’s such an important part of the story."
Jane Austen was also an influence for Jones’ portrayal of relationships and human behaviour. "I remember reading Pride and Prejudice, I came to it quite late and I thought, ‘What is all this fuss about?’ Then something clicked and I thought, ‘There’s something amazing [here] about the observation of the human condition’," she says. "That’s what I want to achieve: to be able to tell the messiness of what’s going on inside people’s heads."
Jones delved deep into Kate’s motivations, in particular, softening her character from "more Machiavellian and really hard" into a more vulnerable figure. She reveals that while working with Gray and Geller, "They said, ‘Maybe tone it down a bit’, and it made me look at why she is how she is. The whole conclusion . . . that was a new idea I had and not in the original".
The conversation is peppered with mentions of her editor Gray, and it is clear that her structural eye also helped Jones organise some of the more complicated relationships and time-shifts. She enjoyed the editing process ("despite what Transworld might think") across the four drafts. "I have really enjoyed the proofreading, looking at the grammar and punctuation. That’s been a very interesting process for me: to what extent do you write ‘correctly’? Even reading this version [she picks up the proof], I’ve really enjoyed spotting the mistakes. I was head girl at school," she admits, before tipping her head back with a throaty laugh.
They’d stopped outside the final classroom. This used to be Mrs Jackson’s room when Kate was there nearly thirty years ago. But now the plate on the door bore the name of a different teacher.
Mr MacGregor. Kate felt simultaneously sick and exhilarated. It couldn’t be, could it? A loud rushing in her ears and she subtly steadied herself with her hand on the door frame. Fortunately, Mr Boyd didn’t notice. Kate gathered herself.
‘Not . . . Callum MacGregor?’
The Headmaster knocked enthusiastically on the door. ‘That’s right. Joined us last year from St Mary’s in Portobello. Deputy head. Quite a coup!’
A voice came from inside the room.
Kate couldn’t focus, could barely hear. Her mouth felt like it was filled with sand. The Headmaster, still wittering, opened the door and made way for her to go in. But her feet wouldn’t move. She stood rooted to the herringbone tiles of the junior-school corridor floor.
Sitting at his desk, in front of a classful of excitable eleven-year- olds, was the man she had fallen in love with seventeen years ago. Her voice wouldn’t work. Nothing would work.
Callum looked at her. Gentle. Unsurprised.