Lisa Jewell worked in fashion and public relations, among other fields, before writing her first novel, Ralph's Party, which became an international bestseller, and which is available in a Plume edition. She lives in London with her (brand-new) husband and their cat.
About Lisa Jewell
An Interview with Lisa Jewell
More About Lisa Jewell
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)
Before Ralph’s Party, you worked as a secretary in a men’s shirt-making factory. What inspired you to become a writer? How has it changed your life? Do you like the lifestyle of a writer? What is a typical day like for you?
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!
Lisa Jewell cautions us all to remember that what makes a
fantastic boyfriend doesn't necessarily make for a good friend ...
When I first started going out with my husband, back in
1995, there was one aspect of our relationship which I found unsettling - his
platonic friendships with his ex-girlfriends. It wasn't that I was jealous, but
just that I found it impossible to imagine sitting in a pub chatting with
someone you used to have sex with, whose tongues and fingers had been in all
manner of intimate places, without being painfully conscious of the fact.
Surely you'd just sit there all night thinking about what they looked like
naked? And what if you'd been in love? How could you ever divorce yourself from
the strength of those feelings, how could they ever translate themselves into
something as everyday as friendship?
My first experience of love was a wonderful, beautiful thing
and despite the fact that it ended quite messily, my memories of Sam were warm
and filled with an appreciation of my good fortune in having known him at such
a hugely formative time in my life. Inspired my new boyfriend's successful
platonic friendships, it occurred to me that a friendship with Sam might bring
a new dimension to my life and so I phoned him, out of the blue, seven years
after we'd last seen each other. He sounded genuinely pleased to hear from me
and we arranged to go out for a drink the following week.
When I saw him standing at the bar I was relieved. He hadn't
changed at all, he was still the sweet-faced, handsome, nicely dressed,
well-built bloke I remembered. But there was something wrong with the dynamic,
with the way he related to me. He still had the same friends as when we were
together and he still lived at home. He didn't have a girlfriend. He was more
interested in having unrequited crushes on the teenage girls who worked at his
office. But the most unsettling thing about the evening was how little interest
he had in me, or in what I'd been doing for the last seven years. I told him
that I'd been married - his eyes glazed over. I told him I had a boyfriend -
there was no reaction at all. I told him I was happy - he looked almost
disdainful. It was as if he couldn't admit to himself that I'd moved on over
the years, when he was still in the same place, emotionally and physically as
the last time I'd seen him.
He called the next day, told me he'd enjoyed himself and
would like to do it again some time. But I didn't want to. He'd been a
fantastic boyfriend but I knew that he wouldn't make a good friend. It made me
feel incredibly sad. I wanted him to have been happier, to have lived up to his
teenage potential. I wanted him to have developed enough to have been capable
of friendship, but it wasn't going to happen.
I've been talking to friends recently about their first
loves. A rare few have stayed friends right from the beginning but most didn't.
And no-one I've spoken to has managed to salvage a friendship from a reunion
with a love that hadn't been given the opportunity to grow organically through
the years. When Dig, the male protagonist of my novel 'Thirtynothing' bumps
into his first love, Delilah, he still feels the same physical attraction but
he has to do a lot of learning before he realises that there's no future for
them. She's changed completely in the intervening twelve years and whatever
ties bound them together in their teens have long ceased to exist. It's Nadine,
another ex-girlfriend who he stayed friends with afterwards, who's the right
girl for him, because they've evolved together.
I've read stories before of ex-lovers who met up later in
life and fell in love all over again, but I failed to unearth anything as
heart-warming. At best, friends described their meetings as pleasant but
unexceptional, at worst as hideously, belly-rottingly embarrassing.
They talked of the shocking physical reminders of the
passage of time; the sagging, the wrinkling, the greying. Or the awful 'what
was I thinking?' realisation that their fondly remembered lost love was
really ugly. Or the awkwardness of those 'so - what have you been up
to?' conversations. Do you really want to know that he's a dot.com millionaire
and has married a supermodel? But mainly they talked of the sad, pathetic
embarrassment of standing in the street and talking to someone who used to be
the most important person in their life and finding that there was nothing left
If you are destined to remain friends with a love, then
you'll instinctively make the effort to stay in touch. But some relationships
are no more than a chemical collison and sometimes it's better just to leave on
those rose-coloured spectacles, pack away the joy and exhilaration of your
first love in a little box marked 'My History.' And leave it there.
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