A photograph of Lisa Jewell on a midnight blue background, with the words 'Shelf Life' in white and yellow to her left.

Lisa Jewell on the books that shaped her life

The bestselling author of The Night She Disappeared and Invisible Girl on the books that helped her through some of her darkest times – and inspired her career.

I stumbled upon Agatha Christie as most bookworms stumble upon books: in my local library. I’d been going since I was tiny, and gradually progressed my way around the library until I was in the adult section, aged about 12. I can’t remember taking Agatha Christie off the shelf, but I do know that from that book on it was like crack for me. I read all her books over the space of a year.

I remember lying in bed at night, when I was supposed to have turned the light off, and using the light from my calculator to read Agatha Christie by. I just wanted to solve the mystery; each time I thought I would crack her code but I never did. What I want to recreate for my readers now is that reading experience I had with Agatha Christie: I want them to be in a frenzy of turning the pages.

One day, I got to the library and realised that there were no more Agatha Christie books left for me to read. I don't think I really read again during my teens after that; I discovered music, and music became my thing. I just had this huge, addictive, adrenaline-fuelled hit of Agatha Christie over the course of a year, and then I became a teenager, and that was that.

This book just put its arms around me and just kept me company in this awful situation

In my early twenties I married in haste and repented at leisure to a man I met in the Lonely Hearts ads at the back of Loot newspaper. He was incredibly charming and intelligent, and had a very interesting background, but he was very damaged as well. I didn't fall in love with him, but I felt very much that his approval was something I wanted to seek; I was very young at the time, to be swept off my feet in that way. Three months after we met I said I’d marry him; we were married a year later. It very quickly became apparent that he wasn't what I thought he was: he was a coercive controller, and my life very quickly became very small and very limited and very controlled by him, to the point that I didn't have a front door key for our house.

We had booked a holiday at the top of a tower in a field in Jersey, and it rained the whole time. I can't even remember what I said to displease him but he stopped talking to me. So I was in the middle of nowhere with a seething, resentful man. I found The Book of Ebenezer Le Page by Gerard Basil Edwards on the bookshelf. While it’s written in the style of a memoir, it's fiction written from the perspective of Ebenezer, who is born on Jersey in 1900 and dies there in 1976. He never leaves, never gets married, he never has children. This book just put its arms around me and just kept me company in this awful situation that I found myself in. And I've always been so grateful to The Book of Ebenezer La Page; it was just one of the most intense and loving reading experiences I've ever had.

'It was a masterclass in how, if you get the characters and the feeling right, the plot can be subsidiary'

So I ended up stuck in this coercive marriage for five years, always thinking that my moment would come. Towards the end of the fourth year, I was introduced to a man on my first day at the office and the minute I saw him I thought, “It's you, it's you. You’re my happily ever after.”  We had an office friendship for about a year, when one day he said, “I know you're going to leave him but I just wondered if you could give me a rough idea of when?” And that was it. I just went home, walked in through the front door and said, “I want to leave”. I've never felt such an amazing sense of inner strength. And so I left him, and I moved back with my mother. And it was there I found The Colour of Memory by Geoff Dyer.

It was the most perfect book for me to read at that point in my life. It’s set in the 80s, and about 21-year-olds having their first summer after graduating. This book just encapsulated everything that I was feeling during those first few weeks back in London, falling in love with my new boyfriend – the most euphoric weeks of my life. I can feel them even now. It's a book of feelings, which as a writer was a masterclass in how, if you get the characters and the feeling right, the plot can be subsidiary to all of that.

'That was the most fortuitous conversation of my entire life'

A few years later, I was 28, looking at 30. I’d just been made redundant and was thinking, 'Things should have started happening by now'. I’d come away with my boyfriend, who is now my husband, to a massive farmhouse with a group of friends. I’d packed High Fidelity by Nick Hornby, which was the big book of the moment. Everyone had read it and passed it around; I’ve still got the copy, and it’s battered. I stayed up late talking to a friend, Yasmin, and she asked what I was going to do when I got home. She said, “You could use this moment to change your life – what have you always wanted to do?”. Having read High Fidelity, I had this immediate sense of connection to the voice and to the world that Nick Hornby had created, and I found myself saying I wanted to write a novel.

That was the most fortuitous conversation of my entire life. Yasmin said if I wrote three chapters of a novel she’d take me out to dinner, and so we shook hands at 4 o’clock in the morning. And those first three chapters were the first chapters of Ralph’s Party [Lisa’s debut novel]. During my marriage I’d read widely, and I’d realised there was a voice I wasn’t hearing in fiction: that of a young woman. I’d persuaded myself that you needed to be middle-aged to write a book as a woman. Reading High Fidelity just unlocked something. I thought, 'Surely I could write a woman’s perspective on the world that he’s written about?'

I’d never heard of Maggie O’Farrell before I’d read her debut, After You’d Gone, but it became the most influential book I’ve read in terms of the thrillers I ended up writing. She makes this very delicate kind of stitchwork of tiny clues, and little revelations in that book, in which a woman is hit by a car after running out of Edinburgh station. The book is an unpeeling of what led to her accident. I don’t tend to write crash-bang-wallop, or 'a twist I never saw coming' revelations; I try to keep them small. I didn’t realise at the time that I was going to go on to write domestic noir, but what I learned from reading After You’d Gone was waiting in the wings for the point in my career where I felt confident enough to switch into that genre. It was ­­­­incredibly formative.

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Image: Stuart Simpson/Penguin

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