Lisa Jewell on how she got her first novel published

'Dreams can come true': the bestselling author tells us how her first novel, Ralph's Party, got published


I was a secretary on holiday in 1996 when my life changed forever. I’d just been made redundant three weeks earlier, from my job as a Director’s PA and was with a group of friends in a villa on Gozo, drinking, eating and sunbathing my sorrows away.

Late one night, my friend Yasmin and I were sitting out by the pool chatting drunkenly about the meaning of life, etc. She asked me what I was planning to do when I got back to London. I told her I would enlist with some temping agencies and see where that led me. She asked what I really wanted to do. I told her that in a dream-world I would like to write a book, but that I couldn’t possibly because I didn’t have the time, the money or the experience. Yasmin, a positive kind of girl from Australia, didn’t see it that way. She told me I had enough redundancy money to put off working for a month, I had a boyfriend with a computer and I had the desire. What was stopping me? She made me a bet that night – she would take me out for dinner to my favourite restaurant if I spent the next month writing the first three chapters of a book.

Never one to renege on a bet, particularly one involving food, I set about it the day after we got home. Within a month I’d written three chapters and just out of interest, I copied them and sent them out to ten agents. I signed on with a few recruitment agencies and started temping. I didn’t expect anything to happen with the book. Yasmin had read what I’d written and said she thought it was great – but then, that’s what friends are for, isn’t it? I didn’t really believe her.

Sure enough, as the weeks went by, rejection letter after rejection letter landed on my doormat – but I didn’t mind, I’d expected nothing more. I figured it would be fun to keep them and show my grandchildren – after all, not everyone’s got a rejection letter from a literary agent, have they?

And then, one morning a couple of months later a letter arrived from the last of the ten agents. She liked what she’d read and she wanted to see the rest! After peeling myself off the ceiling I calmed down a bit and then I started panicking. There was no ‘rest’ of the novel – I’d only written three chapters. I didn’t have time to write any more and I couldn’t afford to not work. I had rent to pay. What was I going to do...?

This is when my boyfriend, Jascha, came to the rescue. He could see what an amazing opportunity this was for me so he suggested that I give in my notice on my flat and move in with him – he would look after the mortgage and the bills, leaving me free to get a part-time job and spend the rest of the time writing. Yes – he is a truly great bloke! Not surprisingly, I said ‘yes’ and moved in a couple of weeks later.

That was in January 1997. I put the final full stop on my novel just before Jascha and I were about to go out to a party on New Year’s Eve of the same year.

A few days later I took my finished manuscript to the agent who’d sent me that letter nearly a year earlier. My intentions to shove it through the letterbox and run were scuppered by the smallest letterbox I have ever seen. I had to ring on her doorbell. She worked from home and, unbeknownst to me, had just come home from hospital and was recovering from an operation. She was wearing a dressing gown and was not at all impressed by my unexpected visit. She took my manuscript, but not before brusquely confirming that I had enclosed return postage.

I ran away from her house shaking and presuming that I would never hear from her again.

And that’s where the fairytale really starts. Despite her annoyance at my uninvited appearance on her front door step, the agent loved my book! I met up with her a week later and she started talking about TV rights, bidding wars and the American market – I was flattered but couldn’t help thinking that she was barking mad!

A few weeks later she – now ‘my agent’! – sent off my re-worked manuscript to a handful of publishers and, true to her word, it was sold, in March of 1998, to Penguin Books. When she phoned to tell me, it was the most exciting day of my life – I had to go and walk around Regent’s Park for two hours to calm down. They were offering me a two-book deal for more money than I could ever possibly have dreamt of – as a secretary I’d never earned more than £16,000 a year.

So – there you have it. Dreams can come true. I work at home now and I’m doing something I absolutely love. And it’s all thanks to a drunken conversation with a pushy friend at four in the morning in Gozo! Life is a funny thing.

And if you’re a film/TV type person and are interested in taking up the rights to any of my books and making them into wonderful films so that me and my friends can get dressed up and go to the premiere (oh, go on!) please contact my agents Casarotto.

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