Ruth Jones on fame, friendship and fathers

The actress-turned-author talks about her generation-spanning new novel, Us Three which publishes in paperback this week.

Ruth Jones: 'You do worry that Gavin and Stacey fans will be disappointed'. Image: Stuart Simpson/Penguin

“It feels so like it was just yesterday. It really does.” Ruth Jones and I are talking about her adolescence; the raw excitement and opportunity that comes with being 18 and away with your mates. She’s 53 now, and having her hair and make-up done by a gentle, quiet make-up artist, before a photoshoot. It’s a far cry from what her teenage self might have imagined. “We’d all wear green eyeliner and ‘Bilberry Ice’ lipstick,” she recalls, singing the musical ode to the former, composed during a holiday in Spain. “My friends will still remember those silly things we had. When you woke up in the morning the first thing you had to say was ‘Machynlleth,” she pauses to laugh, and I ask what Machynlleth is. “It’s just a town in Wales!” she hoots.

Depending on what you know of Ruth Jones – author, writer of hit sitcoms Gavin and Stacey and Stella, actress behind such brilliantly belligerent characters as Nessa, Stella and Linda from Nighty Night – this might be the kind of outburst one could expect. Her work blends home truths and immaculately observed detail with comic aplomb.

Us Three, her second novel, is no different. Ostensibly a story about three childhood friends – steady Catrin, vivacious Lana and contemplative Judith – and the women they become, it doesn’t shy away from lives that are hefty and complex. Jones folds in alcoholism and toxic parental relationships, family secrets and heart-wrenching tragedy. At its core, Us Three is about betrayal and forgiveness. In setting it against the tea-and-toast warmth of a village in rural Wales, Jones manages to accommodate such unwieldy matters in this hard hug of a book.

'If you lose somebody close like that. You do feel more mortal'

Jones hadn’t, she says, planned to write something that spanned 40 years. “I don’t really know how I got there,” she admits. “I knew I wanted to write about female friendship. I’ve got a few friends I’ve known since we were teenagers, who have spanned the decades, and I do find that a fascinating thing, that friendship can last that length of time.”

Describing herself as “a bit of a looker-backer”, Jones has an innate interest in the unlikely paths life forges. “I love looking at old photographs,” she says. “I don’t know if it’s something that gets more appealing as one gets older and you’re trying to get a sense of your place in the world and the little area that your life has taken up.”

The “bare bones” of Us Three were forged during the summer of 2018, when Jones says she “had a really good solid couple of months where I was only doing that”, and then drafted several more times alongside other projects. Her father died the year before. “It does change your perspective on life, if you lose somebody close like that. You do feel more mortal.” 

While Jones’s portrayal of how girlhood shifts into womanhood is a tender, beautifully domestic thing (her characters do the “squeak test” while washing their hair, their major life events collide with Tupperwares filled with Welsh cakes), the role of fatherhood provides an undeniable rhythm to Us Three. Catrin’s father Huw, whom Jones describes as “the worrying dad” when we speak, is a maelstrom of Welsh parenting tropes (what Jones terms “proper Welsh parents… they’re overprotective, want to know all the ins and outs, melodramatic in their responses and catastrophising everything), the type to brandish his daughter with a khaki money-belt before she leaves for Greece.

If Huw inhabits some of the book’s comedic locus, George, stepfather to Judith, embodies much of its heart. Inherently kind and patient, his is a character that pins down much of Us Three’s narrative swerve. “I just love George,” says Jones, simply. “But also he’s a stepdad, and I think it’s lovely to be able to portray a positive stepfather.”

Jones cites Jane Austen as an inspiration, namely “the way she taps into human psychology” and Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones, “because she’s fallible. I love fallible characters”. A voracious reader since childhood, when she would record the books she had read in a notebook, these days Jones fits in reading the latest plot-twisting mysteries around her own writing. When we speak, she has recently finished Adele Parks’ Just My Luck (“I do like a mystery”). “I like really, properly detailed, described characters,” she explains.

'It could have gone horribly wrong, with people saying, "Oh, just stick to TV writing"'

Before there was Us Three, there was Never Greener, Jones’s 2018 debut that ratcheted to the top of the Sunday Times Bestseller List. By this time, Jones’s on-screen career had made her a household name. “There’s the profile you get from being on a TV show, so you’ve got that starting point,” she says, “but you do worry that people are expecting a book version of Gavin and Stacey or Stella and will be disappointed. I have to come up with the goods, it could have gone horribly wrong, with people saying, ‘Oh just stick to TV writing’. Thankfully that’s not happened.”

Rather, Jones is continuing to do both. Some of her fans have been crying out for a sequel to Never Greener, in which two people rekindle a teenage romance in middle-age, ever since its release. “I have got an idea for that, so it is a possibility,” she teases. “But that might be my fourth book. My third book will be completely different.”

Further listening...

Hear from Ruth Jones in conversation with Nihal Arthanayake about the creation of Us Three and the objects that have inspired her including a pair of pink trainers and Wales (the country). Plus why she never ever wants to return to Glastonbury. 

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