Ahead of her appearance at The Vestry Hall, Eileen Leahy caught up with the best-selling novelist – who has has penned novels such as Ralph’s Party, Then She Was Gone and Watching You – to exclusively chat about her impressive canon of work, and what’s in store for the audience when she visits Cranbrook this week
It’s a rainy Wednesday morning when I interview best-selling author Lisa Jewell, but despite the miserable weather she is in a bright and breezy mood.
“I’ve just written the first chapter of my 21st novel,” she declares as we sit down to chat ahead of her special talk in Cranbrook’s Vestry Hall this Thursday (March 24).
BOOK CLUB: The Vestry Hall will host author Lisa Jewell’s talk this Thursday (March 24)
Lisa has been asked to come and chat to lovers of literature by local bookshop owner Rosemary Hill, who has been a fan of Lisa’s work for many years.
“Rosemary is a Facebook friend of mine – and has been for many years – but I’ve never met her in real life. A while ago she messaged me and asked whether I’d like to come along and talk about my work, and so I said yes,” explains Lisa.
Although this particular evening doesn’t form part of the actual Cranbrook Literature Festival, which runs biennially every other September, it is being put on by the event’s chief organiser, Christine Newman.
EVENT ORGANISER: Christine Newman
“We’re over the moon that she is coming along,” says Christine.
For those who are not familiar with The Cranbrook Literature Festival, Christine says it’s a two-day, biennial event held to celebrate Cranbrook’s literary heritage and to promote the joy of the written word to children and adults in and around the Cranbrook area.
“It is a not-for-profit organisation, run totally by volunteers, all passionate about reading, writing and all things booky!”
And that’s part of the reason why Lisa decided to accept Rosemary’s invitation.
“All book people are good people, and we’ve all missed out on these face-to-face events over the past couple of years”
“All book people are good people, and we’ve all missed out on these face-to-face events over the past couple of years, haven’t we? I’ve done a few Zooms but you don’t get to see people’s faces and I’ve missed that interaction with my readers,” explains Lisa.
She admits that she doesn’t really know what she’s going to be talking about specifically on the night, but that’s how Lisa likes it.
“I generally prefer it that way! I assume that someone will have researched me and my books and will have a nice long list of questions for me to answer,” she laughs.
And to be honest that list will most definitely be long as Lisa has had 19 books published, written 20 and, as previously mentioned, is just starting work on her 21st. So far, so impressive…
Lisa first found fame in the late 90s on the publication of Ralph’s Party, a frothy romcom which made her the best-selling debut novelist of 1999.
Since then Lisa has gone on to write a wide variety of fiction, including her so-called ‘curry and flatmates’ novels of the 90s and noughties, such as Thirtynothing, A Friend of the Family and Vince & Joy.
But over the past 26 years as a writer, Lisa has also developed her style and professes now to specialise more in what she describes as ‘dark psychological thrillers’. They include books such as I Found You, Before I Met You, Then She Was Gone and Watching You.
Lisa’s latest book is titled The Night She Disappeared, which came out in paperback in December and has, like all of its predecessors, done very well commercially.
“I started off writing romcoms and ended up doing dark psychological thrillers”
“I guess I will be chatting about this when I visit Cranbrook, but I may also be talking about my new book, The Family Remains, which comes out in July.
“I started off writing romcoms and ended up here, doing dark psychological thrillers – and everything else in between!
Despite initially finding fame as a ‘chick lit’ writer, Lisa says her personal taste has always been more towards the darker side of things.
“Back in the 90s I was grouped in that writing genre and of course I was reading (fellow authors) Marian Keyes and Jane Green – but at the same time I was reading a lot of true crime novels, so I’ve always had a taste for that kind of thing – even in my romcoms there are some dark moments.”
Lisa says she thinks the transition from frothy to more serious writing was a natural evolution:
“I gradually started ramping up the gritty stuff and damping down the romantic content as I got older – but also as my readership got older my life and the world changed, too, so all that had an impact,” adds Lisa.
“I’ve always been lucky enough to write what I feel like writing. I know a number of writers who are tied into publishers’ expectations of writing to a certain kind of preordained genre and that’s never been the case with me. I’ve always been lucky to have editors who have let me go off and do my own thing.”
Does Lisa believe this freedom keeps her writing – and her ideas – fresh?
“Definitely – and also knowing that as much as I feel like I’ve found my niche with psychological thrillers, I could if I wanted to try something different,” she states.
“It’s nice to think that every year – and it’s always around the beginning of March – that I would think about what would I’d like to write about for the next year. I’m so lucky as I don’t have to worry about where it fits into my backlist or the market. I just write the book I want to write. I am very lucky to have that artistic freedom.”
Having written so many novels, does Lisa ever struggle for inspiration, and does she draw on what’s currently happening in the world?
“I’m lucky enough to find it easy to come up with ideas and rarely have days when I can’t write. If that does happen then I just leave and come back to it later. In terms of being influenced by world events, then I would say it’s only on a very granular level. I might have certain current scenarios in my mind but I will never ever write about Covid or lockdowns – ever,” she declares emphatically.
“My books are written in a bubble where there’s no Putin and no Covid”
“My books are written in a bubble where there’s no Putin and no Covid! I don’t come to books with big ideas. I come with tiny ideas I want to thread together in order to make a story.”
I ask Lisa what might be the key to her ongoing success as an author, and she swiftly responds: “I don’t know!
“I’m still amazed – I’m going to be 54 this year and here I am still writing, still picking up new readers and still up there as a high-profile author. It seems remarkable to me after so long that’s where I still am.”
After seeing how she interacts with her readers on Twitter I suggest it might be that they feel an immense sense of loyalty to Lisa and her books and their characters.
“Yes, I think you are right. Readers often talk about how they connect with my characters. They say they feel like real people who jump off the page and that has a lot to do with the fact I don’t plan my books. I just put someone on the page and say ‘off you go, do what you need to do. I’ll follow behind you’.
“That seems natural to me. I would hate to have a preordained idea of what one of my characters should be doing because I’d written it in my chapter plan six months ago.
“I find that stifling and constraining: I love that I don’t know what a character A is going to be doing in chapter 12 – they take me on a journey. I almost have a similar experience to that of the reader in that I often think ‘ooh what’s going to happen today – what’s going on next?’”
This approach sounds a little like her laid-back approach to appearing on stage at organised talks such as this week’s in Cranbrook.
“I am excited to be back in a room full of readers”
What is Lisa looking forward to most about it?
“I am excited to be back in a room full of readers. I’m excited to talk about books, to sign books and to talk about writing.
“I’m also extremely happy to be getting out of the house and putting some make-up on! It should be a fun night, so do come along if you can.”
To book tickets visit:
Vestry Hall Photo: © Julian P Guffogg/geograph.org.uk (CC BY-SA 2.0)