Lisa Jewell was born and raised in north London, where she lives with her husband. She used to be a secretary until redundancy, a bet, and a book deal took her away from all that and she is now a full-time writer. Her first novel, Ralph's Party, was the bestselling debut of 1999. She is also the author of Thirtynothing, One-Hit Wonder, Vince & Joy and A Friend of the Family. Her latest novel is 31 Dream Street.
LISA’S TOP TEN TIPS TO WRITING A NOVEL
1) Don’t expect it to be easy. Don’t expect it to be fun. Don’t even expect it to be mildly enjoyable. Do expect it to be a complete nightmare.
2) Set yourself a goal, a deadline. If pressure works for you, let people around you know about your deadline. That way you will feel really embarrassed if you don’t meet it.
3) Let your friends read it while you’re writing it, if you think you can cope with the potential criticism. If you can’t, you should really ask yourself if you have the balls to open yourself up to the publication process.
4) Be disciplined. Sit at your computer (or wherever you've chosen to write) and don’t move until you've achieved something, even if it’s only a paragraph. Doesn't matter if it’s rubbish. You’ll have something to go back and change the following day.
5) Don’t be afraid to self edit. It doesn't matter how much you love it, if it’s not working, cut it out. Once it’s gone, you won’t miss it, I promise you.
6) Stick to your own voice. Trying to emulate another writer’s style is a sure route to writing a rubbish book. A fresh, compelling voice can carry an average story much further than an unoriginal voice can carry a great story.
7) Understand that that glorious, perfect, amazing idea you have been carrying around in your head for however many months or years will deflate like a burst bubble the minute you start trying to write it down. This is normal. Don’t let it put you off.
8) Finish your book! Finish your book! Finish it! Loads of great writers never finish a book and will therefore never be published. Keep pushing through the bad times, keep going. Get to the end. You will immediately have the edge over the hundreds of other people who started writing a book and never finished it.
9) Play the numbers game. Send your manuscript to as many agents as possible. It doesn't matter if thirty agents reject your submission. You only need one agent to like it. Prepare yourself for rejection. All the best people get rejected. Take it as part of the unique experience of being a writer.
10) Don’t take the whole process too seriously. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Maintain a normal life. Don’t call yourself a writer until you get a book deal, keep your head out of your bum at all times. That way, if you don't get a book deal you won’t feel like a failure. It will just be an experiment that didn't work out. Pat yourself on the back for having the discipline and chutzpah to write a whole book. Then move on.
Ralph’s Party documents the tangled love lives of young, urban professionals sharing a London brownstone. How much of the novel comes from your own experiences?
I’ve never actually shared a flat with two guys before (not straight ones, anyway!), but during my early twenties I did live all over town, answering adverts, going for interviews and learning to live with strangers. I moved ten times in five years and never had the same experience twice! The house in the book is based on one I lived in in 1990. I was there for six months and never once saw the people in the flat below or above me, and I thought this was an intriguing premise for a novel. What would happen if that fiercely guarded urban anonymity broke down?
Some of the set pieces were based on my own experiences. Yes – I did have a chili-eating competition with my boyfriend (it was a draw, although he still insists he won!), I have wandered stoned around Chinatown and bought a vibrator from a sex-shop (haven’t used it though, obviously) and I did know a Manchurian butcher in Chinatown who invited me back to his flat for a drink once, but I certainly did not take him up on the offer!
The rest is pure fiction...
Men say that your writing captures them realistically. To what to you attribute your insight into the opposite sex?
I have no brothers, I went to an all girls school and I didn’t have a boyfriend until I was seventeen, so I’m not really sure! Ever since I stopped being scared of men, I have really liked them and maybe this comes across in my writing. I’m lucky enough to have never been really hurt by a man and just see them as human beings with different bits on the front, rather than aliens from Mars. Some men have a strong female side and some woman a strong male side. I don’t think it’s right to generalize about the sexes because everyone’s balanced differently. I think I’m about half and half!
Ralph’s Party was an overnight phenomenon in England. Were you surprised that people have responded so positively to your novel?
I was shocked silly! All during the purchasing, editing and publishing process I was convinced that someone, somewhere, had made a dreadful mistake. I kept expecting to get a call from my agent or someone at Penguin saying, ‘we’re terribly sorry, but we’ve had a rethink and it’s not really a very good book – can we have our money back please?’ I was horrified by the amount of money Penguin UK put into marketing and publicity – I thought it was very rash considering no-one, anywhere was going to buy the book! I expected terrible reviews and even worse sales. My first review came out a week before publication in the UK’s biggest selling tabloid. It was a full page and a rave! The second was on a highbrow arts review program on the BBC. All three panelists, who usually trash everything, loved it! A week later and it was flying out of bookshops at a rate that no-one could have predicted. No-one could have been more surprised, or thrilled than me.
Have you ever considered Ralph's Party being made into a movie? Name your dream cast.
It is actually to be made into a TV series here in the UK (fingers crossed) and my dream cast for a UK version would involve actors that no-one in the US would have heard of! But if it was to be made into a big Hollywood movie I’d cast it as follows:
Jem: Parker Posey (because she’s cute and quirky)
Siobhan: Kelly McGillis (big, handsome woman – good at angst)
Smith: James Spader (when he was ten years younger, though)
Karl: Michael Madsen (because he doesn’t get nearly enough work and he looks great in a Hawaiian shirt!)
Cheri: Bridget Fonda (good sly, calculating acting ability)
Ralph: Jonny Lee Miller (looks completely useless but very endearing)
They always say that you should think back to what you were good at school when you plan a change of career and creative writing was literally the only thing I was even halfway decent at. I was laid off and was looking for temping work when a friend insisted I take some time to start a novel, first. It began as a bet and look where it ended up! The only thing that has changed about my life is that I can now wake up when my body tells me I’m ready to wake up (the ultimate luxury, and very good for you, too!) and that I work from home.
When I was a secretary, I really was the consummate ‘office girl’. I loved the whole culture of gossiping in the kitchen, after-work drinks and bitching about the management and really thought I would miss the environment and the camaraderie when I began to work from home. Well, I was wrong! I love working from home. Offices tend to be extensions of school and college, with petty rules and regulations and I now feel like a real grown-up, for the first time in my life. I am given some money, told to write a book, and no-one bothers me for a whole year!
I wake at 9 to 9.30 am, open my e-mail, surf the net and start work at about 10.30. I work through till 4pm, go to the gym, go grocery shopping, have a long, hot bath with a book, cook dinner, watch TV and go to bed. It’s far from exciting, but I love it!
What books are on your bookshelves? Who are your favorite authors?
I have wide-ranging tastes in literature – I tend to like to alternate a ‘literary’ read with a light read, and my shelves are lined with everyone from Bret Easton Ellis to Alain de Boton, and from Marian Keyes to John Updike. I also have piles of those ghoulish books about Serial Killers. My favorite (and by favorite, I mean authors whose books I buy just because their name’s on the cover) authors are Nick Hornby, Iain Banks and Geoff Dyer. I also – and I’m slightly ashamed to admit it – don’t read anything more than twenty years old. I toyed with the classics a few years ago and found that they just weren’t for me – I can’t relate to characters who don’t own a vacuum cleaner!