Juggling motherhood with writing is never easy but Lisa has it sussed. She talks to Mary Hogarth about starting her first novel for a bet, plus the trials and tribulations of being a writer.
I had always wanted to write a novel but thought I should wait until middle age when I’d had a child or two, experienced loss, illness and had some life-changing experiences. Reading High Fidelity back in 1996 changed that perception. Here was a young man writing about someone the same age doing nothing much but thinking about his ex girlfriends.
A friend made a bet with me to write three chapters of a novel. It was just meant as a bit of fun, but those three chapters evolved into my first novel, Ralph’s Party.
Was it hard getting Ralph’s Party published?
It was easy. My timing was good, Bridget Jones had been a huge success so publishers were desperate to sign up young women writing pithily about their lives. I found an agent from my first hit-list of 10 who advised me to rewrite the last third of the novel. She then submitted it to three big publishers and a top editor at Penguin snapped it up within five minutes of reading it.
It was favourably reviewed on a highbrow late night BBC review show on the day it was published, this sparked a snowball effect and for a while my book was everywhere. It was the highest selling debut novel of 1998.
Today publishers take far fewer punts. There are still fairy tales about debut novelists but they’re fewer and further between.
If I tried to write at home I would get distracted. There’s the Internet, biscuit tin and the pile of washing that needs to be hung. When I’m in a café I have no Internet and am surrounded by buzz and chatter of real people, which I really enjoy.
I don’t let myself leave until I’ve written 1,000 words so the longer I fart about the longer I’m stuck there for and after a couple of hours I usually really need the toilet.
How do you juggle writing with family life?
Ah, the age-old question men never get asked. Before I had kids I could not imagine how I could combine writing with having a child. And for the first few years there was a lot of juggling involved. I had unreliable childcare and often lost precious writing days due to logistical issues.
Now that both children are at school, my working day runs like clockwork. I write in the mornings, 1,000 words and I’m done. I get home for lunch, catch up on housework, email, social media, Q&As for blogs etc and then collect my youngest from school. Over the years I have somehow managed to structure my life so that there is virtually no overlap between writing and family life. I am very lucky.
Your biggest lesson as a writer?
Every book I read is a lesson, whether it’s in plotting or timing or a lesson in what never to do. I learn a lot from watching movies and box sets, too, anything that shows me how someone else has chosen to tell a story is informative. But my biggest lessons come from my own mistakes – there’s nothing like binning 50,000 words of a book in-progress to focus your mind on what should be done differently next time.
Which comes first characters or the plot?
My books start with a spark of interest, usually something quite loose and vague. I plant these little ideas in my head and let them grow. If it doesn’t grow I’ll ditch it.
The Making of Us, for example, started as an idea for a story about an older woman entering into an unlikely friendship with a younger person. I couldn’t grow this so I came up with the idea that my characters would be donor siblings. Suddenly the story had legs.
Ever written about people you know?
People occasionally land in my books from real life but mostly I’m barely aware I’m doing it. However, in my fifth novel, Vince & Joy, I wrote about an ill fated and controlling marriage, based on my own marriage in my 20s. It was something I’d wanted to write about since the day I left my husband – I’d just been waiting for the right time and book. But ‘George’ was still very much a fictionalised version of my ex and Joy’s marriage to him was different from my marriage in many ways.
The only time I’ve written about ‘real people’ was in Before I Met You where I used a real life all-black jazz ensemble called The Southern Syncopated Jazz Orchestra who took London society by storm in the 1910s. I found a copy of their 1919 UK tour dates online and used those to place the story. Many members of the orchestra drowned in a shipping disaster off the coast of Scotland later that year and I incorporated that tragedy into my story.
It’s about a community of families who share a large, idyllic communal garden in north London. Many of the families have lived there for two generations so allegiances, secrets and histories run deep.
The book opens with 13-year-old Grace, who is fairly new to the garden, being found by her sister, Pip aged 12. She is unconscious and bloodied in a dark corner of the garden. We then travel back in time six months to watch how all the relationships developed and built up towards this inexplicable attack.
What’s inspired your latest novel?
Originally I wanted to write a story about two people who meet on a suicide pact forum but everyone I mentioned it to recoiled. So I backed away but was still left with this lingering connection to the female character I’d created, called Alice. She was chaotic, brusque and unconventional, with a brood of kids from different fathers, lots of untrained dogs and a cosy, messy cottage abutting the sea. I just couldn’t forget her so that’s how I Found You evolved.
Your most inspiring experience?
Every person I meet is a walking story and I love writing about people in all their incompleteness and randomness, making stories out of the beauty and futility of existence.
Lisa Jewell’s latest novel, I Found You, is published by Century and will be available from 14 July.