The Penguin Q&A: Lisa Jewell

The prizewinnning novelist on writing, her favourite fictional characters and throwing the perfect fantasy dinner party

Lisa Jewell
'Fifty per cent of my existence is a guilty pleasure' – novelist Lisa Jewell

What is your earliest reading memory?

Ant And Bee, mahogany wood panelling, sitting cross-legged on Axminster carpet in the children’s section of my local library.

When did you know you wanted to write?

I think from around the age of eight or nine. But I completely forgot I wanted to write between the ages of 16 and 26. And then I remembered again.

What are your influences and inspirations?

Every brilliant book I read is an influence and an inspiration. As is every brilliant movie I watch and every brilliant box set. More specifically, I started writing my first novel, Ralph's Party, as a direct result of reading High Fidelity by Nick Hornby.

What are you reading (or re-reading) at the moment?

I've just finished reading A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler. I found it fascinating to see a writer take a theme that I have used in my own work, a dysfunctional family saga, and make it Booker Prize-worthy. I really learned a lot from it.

Who is your favourite fictional character?

Ebenezer Le Page from The Book Of Ebenezer Le Page by G. B. Edwards. He's the first-person narrator of a faux-memoir written in Channel Island patois. He lives on the island of Guernsey from birth to death, through two world wars, without ever leaving, and reports on the comings and goings of his fellow islanders in a mesmerising stream of consciousness. He’s grumpy, stubborn and unadventurous, yet also romantic, gossipy and incredibly insightful about the community he lives in.

Which fictional location would you most like to visit?

The Magic Faraway Tree of course! I don't think I need to explain.

Who would you invite to your fantasy dinner party and what would you serve?

I would have to avoid heroes as I've met heroes in the past and behaved very strangely in front of them. So I would invite only people I know: a mix of other writers, neighbours I've never had the chance to get to know properly, family, maybe some of my daughter’s friends’ parents to see if they really do allow their children to stay up all night on Instagram and take days off school for no reason. I’d serve curry, because you can make it hours in advance and it’s easy to serve. Plus I do make a good curry.

Not many people know this, but I’m very good at…

Nothing really. Pretty much just writing books. Although I do have a special knack for untangling tangled things.

What is your guilty pleasure?

Fifty per cent of my existence is a guilty pleasure: not doing the housework, walking past the gym where I used to be a member, wine, champagne, chocolate, sitting on my backside doing nothing when there's loads to be done, Celebrity Big Brother, funny cat videos, funny dog videos, cuddling my daughter’s guinea pigs even though I'm fairly sure they don't like it, viewing houses I have no intention of buying, internet shopping, ignoring Twitter. I could go on. But I won’t.

What do you always carry with you? And whenever you travel?

I must always, always have a box of Extra chewing gum in my bag because I have developed a terrible cheek-chewing compulsion. It’s not only uncomfortable but I look really weird when I'm doing it and chewing gum is the only way I can stop myself. When I travel, I can leave everything at home apart from books. I curate my holiday reading rigorously and would be devastated if I found I’d left one at home.

How do you prefer to write – by hand, typing?

I type. I did used to write longhand from time to time but found it slowed everything up as it then needed to be typed up afterwards.

Can you tell us about a problem you hit with one of your works and how you got around it?

There are everyday problems and then there are terrible, structural problems. Sometimes it's just a matter of filling out the narrative with some flashbacks, which is relatively easy. Other times it’s a matter of cutting out huge swathes and virtually starting again, which is what happened with my last book, The Girls. I’d written half of it and just couldn't get into the flow. 

Then I suddenly realised I'd jumped into the story too late. So I pushed the action back six months and rewrote it. It took me just three months to write the whole thing after that.

Do you have any writing rituals?

No, I'm not superstitious and never have been. I just switch on my laptop, wherever I happen to be, open up the document, read through what I wrote the day before and then start writing. No special pens or lucky teacups or anything like that.

What’s the most useful piece of advice about writing you’ve been given?

Many years ago I was having lunch with a former editor, running her through the bare bones of my new book. At the end I said: 'And I'm not sure what happens after that.' She smiled and said: 'Nothing needs to happen.' For years I wrote on the back of that advice and I think it was good advice at the time. But the market has changed and nowadays in my genre something really does need to happen. You need a solid plot, a twist, maybe two, a fully resolved ending. So I'm on a learning curve, trying to learn how to write books where something happens, whilst secretly wishing that books in which nothing happens would become fashionable again.

How do you celebrate finishing a book?

That depends on the day of the week. I don't drink during the week, so I’ll just post a photo on Facebook of the words THE END on my screen and enjoy the congratulations and save the champagne until Friday. I generally deliver a day or two before school breaks up for Christmas so I also celebrate by catching up on all the Christmas shopping I haven’t had time to do.

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