Zibby Owens: I'm thrilled to be talking to Lisa Jewell today who is the internationally best-selling author of seventeen and a half novels including the New York Times best seller Then She Was Gone as well as I Found You, The Girls in the Garden, and The House We Grew Up In. Her latest book, The Family Upstairs, is already a number one best seller in the UK and is a Book of the Month Club pick. Her novels have sold two million copies around the world. She currently lives in London with her husband and two daughters.
Welcome, Lisa. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Lisa Jewell: Thank you for inviting me.
Zibby: Can you please start by telling listeners what your latest novel, The Family Upstairs, is about?
Lisa: The Family Upstairs, it’s a story told from the point of view of three different people. The first person we meet is Libby Jones. Libby is twenty-five years old. She lives in a small town just outside London. She sells design kitchens for a living. She's a very sensible girl. She's a very organized girl. She doesn't really do spontaneity or surprising things. She was adopted as a baby. She's known all her life that on her twenty-fifth birthday she’ll find out what her birth parents have been holding in trust for her. She's got no idea what it is. We meet her in the first chapter opening a letter from the solicitors to tell her what this is, her bequest from her birth parents.
She discovers that she has inherited an eight-bedroom mansion in Chelsea overlooking the River Thames, which is a quite extraordinary thing. She also finds out when she goes to visit the house with the solicitor that this house comes with a whole host of terrible, terrible, dark secrets. She was actually found as a baby in a cot wide awake, gurgling, well-looked after, well-fed, clean and happy, while downstairs in the kitchen there were three dead bodies on the kitchen floor dressed in black robes and a very strange suicide note suggesting they might have done some sort of cult-related mass suicide. That's what Libby has landed with in the first couple of chapters of the book. There's much more to it. I'm sure we can talk about that as we go on.
Zibby: I love how in one of the videos that you have online, you show a picture of a house in Chelsea as you imagine this house to look like from the outside.
Lisa: That's because I'm a lazy researcher. I don't do research. I could’ve got off my bum and got a tube over to Chelsea and found a nice house in real life. Instead, I did a Google Image search. I found one. I thought, that looks like the right sort of house. Then it was quite strange when my publishers actually said, “We’re going to take you to that house. We’re going to film you outside it.” It’s the first time I've ever been there. [laughter]
Zibby: That's awesome. I love that. You've written eighteen novels, correct?
Lisa: Seventeen and a half.
Zibby: Seventeen and a half. Okay, sorry. How do you keep coming up with the ideas? This was a fantastic book, and plot twists, and kept you going on the edge of your seat. You've done this a billion times already. How do you keep coming up with these ideas?
Lisa: It’s a bit hit and miss, really. I'm not one of those writers who has a notebook full of ideas. I know people who do. When it comes time to write their next book, they’ll go to their notebook and think, that was quite a good idea I had two and half years ago. Maybe I’ll go back to that one. I literally have one idea a year. Sometimes I don't even have one idea a year. Sometimes I will have finished a book and it will come to day one of starting the next book, and I will literally not have any idea what I'm going to be writing about. Then I have to go for a long walk and slap myself around the face a bit until something comes to me. That, for me, is one of the hardest things. What I tend to do, because I don't have a lot of ideas, which is such a myth about writers, that we've all got all these ideas, when I get even the tiniest glimmer of an idea, I jump on it like a lunatic, like a madwoman, almost bodily throw myself on it. You're mine. I'm going to make you work. I'm going to do something with you. That was the case with this book.
I very much jumped on something really tiny, which was a glimpse of a woman in Nice in the South of France when I was there two summers ago on holiday with my family. There is a chapter in the book where a character called Lucy sneaks her children into a shower block of a posh, private beach club in the South of France. That was based on seeing this woman in real life sneaking her children into the shower block of a posh beach club in the South of France. Maybe most people would've seen such a vignette and not thought anything about it. I saw this vignette and couldn't stop thinking about it. I kept thinking this woman looked terribly interesting. She looked like she had a backstory. She looked like things had happened to her. I thought, I could write a book about this woman. That was the starting point for this one. It was tiny. Of course, since that moment, it’s grown layers. You've read the book. You've seen how many layers there are beyond just a woman taking her children into a shower block.
Zibby: That's such a tiny moment in the context of the rest of the story. How interesting that that's what started it. You never know. That's amazing.
Lisa: There can be bigger things than that as well. There's the what-if scenarios as well. Then She Was Gone, which was three novels back from this one, the starting point from that was not -- it was a bigger seed. It was the idea of, what if your child had been missing for years and then you found out that they'd been living next door the whole time? Something like that, it could be anything, small or big. I'm very greedy for ideas. The minute something comes to me, I'm on it, all over it.
Zibby: One of the characters, which was told from Henry’s point of view, you wrote the following, you said, “Birdie hasn’t known whom else to turn to. As an adult man now of forty-one years old, I have often used this refrain to get people to do what I want them to do. ‘I didn't know who else to turn to.’ It gives the person you're trying to manipulate nowhere to go. Their only option is to capitulate, which is exactly what my mother did.” Talk to me about this a little. I'm wondering, have you ever used this to your own advantage?
Lisa: This is really interesting because this wasn't me. I very, very rarely take things -- when you're friends with a writer, you're constantly thinking they might be using bits of you to put into their books. “Is that based on someone we know?” It never is. It’s never based on anyone we know. It’s never based on anything that anybody I know has done or said. In this exact example, this was my friend. My friend said this to me. We were talking about the conundrum. She said, “What you have to do is you have to just go to that person and say, ‘I didn't know who else to turn to.’ Then they’ll have to do it.” That wouldn't necessarily be my approach to a situation, but it was her very, very clever manipulative approach.
Zibby: Did you take her advice?
Lisa: It’s not really my style. I don't like putting people in corners and making people feel uncomfortable and pressurized, but this wasn't me. This was Birdie. It was absolutely perfect. No, it wasn't Birdie. It was Martina talking to Birdie. It was the absolutely perfect person to use that little gift that my friend gave me. I don't think I ever told her I put it in there. I should tell her.
Zibby: I thought maybe I could use it with my kids. “I really need somebody to get me that water bottle. I have no one else to turn to.” Let me test it out.
Lisa: It’s good, isn't it? It’s a really good one.
Zibby: You never know. I'm going to store it in my back pocket. You also have this passage where Lucy, the character you were just referring to who came from the woman taking the shower in the beach club, she's walking through the house where previously she had been abused by her husband. She has to go back. I won't say why. For various reasons, she has to find herself there. You wrote the following, “She averts her gaze as she walks away from the spot at the foot of the stone staircase where she ended up with a broken arm and a fractured rib when Michael pushed her when she was four months pregnant with Marco. She averts it from the spot on the wall on the corridor where Michael banged her head repeatedly because he'd had a bad day at work, or so he explained an hour later when he was trying to stop her from leaving because he loved her so much, because he couldn't live without her. Oh, the irony, because here he is married to someone else and utterly and entirely alive.” Talk to me about this passage.
Lisa: It’s a trope, isn't it, writing about abusive relationships? I've never been in a physically abusive relationship. I've been in a mentally, psychologically abusive relationship. It’s just one of those things that as a writer, it’s really interesting to get your teeth into it to imagine how you would feel if you had found yourself in that position of being, in her example, in a long marriage with someone who treated her like that, someone who tried to kill her and was physically that violent. Writing those scenes -- there's two or three scenes set where Lucy goes back to this guy’s house. There's a very particular reason why she has to keep -- her worst nightmare come true. She never wanted to see him again. They were really easy chapters to write. It’s a horrible thing to say, but they were kind of juicy because it’s all there, isn't it? I was with her when she was walking into the house. I was looking at the house through her eyes and imaging all the memories, the shocks, and the pain. Those passages were incredibly easy and exciting to write from a writer’s point of view.
Zibby: It seemed so visual to me. You know the maps where you can actually have a 360-view if you turn yourself around? That's how I felt in that moment with Lucy.
Lisa: That's how I felt writing it, very much. Even while we’re sitting here talking about it now, I'm there. I'm there in that hallway. I'm looking at the bottom step. I can see the steps. I can see the wall. I can feel how she was feeling. It’s very [indiscernible], very real.
Zibby: All of us have some sort of place or something unpleasant or traumatic or something has happened. Then you go back. How do you feel again?
Lisa: Yes, absolutely. I was going to use an example from my recent life, but it’s so pathetic compared to [indiscernible/crosstalk].
Zibby: No, give it to us.
Lisa: I moved out of my house for eight months to have renovations done. We rented this beautiful, beautiful apartment up the road, which we were terribly excited about living in because it was very luxurious. It ended up being eight months of hell because the neighbors in this building were so obnoxious and spiteful and horrible. Still now, even if just see -- it’s quite close. It’s only a few streets up from here. I can't walk past that street anymore because my blood runs cold. A dark shadow envelops me. We've all got those places, even if it’s not quite as horrific as in Lucy’s case.
Zibby: Speaking of another room that you actually built, you really did a job of making people feel like they were in -- when Libby and Miller find themselves trapped overnight in the room and can't get out. I literally was sitting there reading, my heart was pounding. I was like, I can't have a panic attack reading this book. This is not good. This is not my life. I am just reading. I can close the book if I need to.
Lisa: That's really funny.
Zibby: You captured that. I felt like they were pretty chill relative to how I felt about them in that situation.
Lisa: Yes, I got them just as they were about to peak, as they were probably about to start screaming and start banging on doors and having panic attacks and what have you, just at that moment I got to them with -- no spoilers. I took them out of that situation at just the moment where they might have been about to get terribly messy.
Zibby: I don't think it’s that big a spoiler. It was early enough in the book that you know that they are going -- [laughs] I’ll just move on from that. Henry and Finn, two of the other characters who lived in the house, Finn says -- now I'm so worried I'm going to spoil something, so I don't want to say anything. Anyway, Fin says to Henry in one conversation, “All men are weak. That's the whole bloody trouble with the world, too weak to love properly, too weak to be wrong.” Then Henry thinks, “My breath caught at the power of that statement. I immediately knew it to be the truest thing I'd ever heard. The weakest of men lay at the root of every bad thing that had ever happened.” Tell me more about that. Is that what you believe? Another friend, perhaps?
Lisa: No, I can't say that's come from a friend. That is one of those things that just suddenly lurched out of my psyche and onto the page. I probably do believe it to a certain extent, particularly the world we’re living in at the moment which appears to be full of very weak, narcissistic, dreadful, pathetic men who seem to be hell-bent on spoiling everything for everyone. I can put something like that in a novel through a character without having to analyze it too deeply because I'm not speaking for myself. Therefore I can think, that sounds good. I think there is a certain amount of truth and depth to that, but I'm not going to now extrapolate into some sort of long analysis of whether that's true or not, and examples through history, and research and statistics. Very much, that came from me through a character. That came from me because on certain fundamental level, I do believe it’s true. I can't back it up with research. [laughs]
Zibby: That's okay. I was not looking for statistics. I was just wondering if that's something that you happen to believe. That's okay. I won't delve too deep. I’ll let it go.
Lisa: I don't want to offend my male readers.
Zibby: One of the most memorable lines in the book was in your acknowledgements. You ended like this in the acknowledgments, “And lastly, thank you to the two double vodka and tonics that saw me through the last three chapters of this book late on a Friday night and helped me find the last few lines that I knew were hidden away in there somewhere. Cheers.” [laughter] That was awesome.
Lisa: Do you want to hear about that?
Zibby: I'd love to.
Lisa: That was amazing. I was rushing, rushing, rushing to my deadline. I really wanted to get this book finished by the end of the week. It was Friday about six PM. I wrote while the children were at home. I never normally write while the children are at home. Normally, the minute they get home from school, the laptop’s shut and I'm done. I thought, no, I want this wrapped up before the weekend. I wrote the last chapter by about six PM. I walked off thinking, I finished my book. Then I thought, I really haven't finished my book. That was the wrong ending. That's not how this book should've ended. The scene I'm talking about, since you've read it, is the scene when they're in the restaurant celebrating Libby’s twenty-sixth birthday. It just felt pat and bland and everybody’s -- I can't say because it'll be a spoiler.
Then being six PM on a Friday night, I always celebrate six PM on a Friday with a double vodka and tonic. I did this. The minute I had it, I needed to go straight back to the manuscript. I opened up my laptop again and wrote this chapter. It’s hard to be objective as a writer, but I felt very strongly that I had made the book, that that chapter was what totally completed the book and gave it depth and meaning and everything that it needed for it to be a fully satisfying read. Vodka did that. [laughs]
Zibby: Thank you, vodka, for that fabulous last chapter that is haunting me. Now I can't get it out of my mind. Thank you for that.
Lisa: It haunts me as well, if that makes you feel any better. I'm totally haunted by it.
Zibby: I heard somewhere that someone offered you a free dinner if you could write three chapters of a book. This was a dare. This is how you started to write?
Lisa: Correct. It’s wonderful. I was twenty-seven, maybe even twenty-six. I was a secretary. In fact, I was out-of-work secretary because I'd just lost my job. I was very much not the sort of girl who had any grand ambitions. I didn't go to university. I didn't have a degree. I wasn't like Libby in the book. I didn't have a career plan. I was very much just going to keep on working as a secretary and see how much money I could possibly earn doing that. I was out of work. I had this amazing conversation with a friend where she said something I think everyone should say to someone when they’ve just lost their job. I said, “I'm going to sign up with some temping agencies for a while. I'm not ready to go out and get another full-time job.”
She said, “You know, lots of people use redundancy as an opportunity to change the direction of their life. They could use it as an opportunity. Is there something deep down inside that you've always wanted to do?” Because I'd been a very bookish little girl and it was something I'd wanted to do when I was eight years old, I found myself saying, “I think I might like to write a book,” which was a very strange thing for me to have said because I'd never really thought it. My friend, she did not laugh. She did not say, “Don't be ridiculous.” She said, “Why don't you just write three chapters and see where it goes? If you write three chapters, I’ll take you out for dinner to your favorite restaurant.” I did, and she did. That was the first three chapters of my first novel, which was a massive success, a huge best seller over here in the UK. Here I am twenty years later.
Zibby: That's an amazing story.
Lisa: Some conversations really do have the power to change your whole life. That was one of them.
Zibby: Are you still friends with her?
Lisa: I am still friends with her. I had dinner with her on Sunday night, in fact. She's awesome.
Zibby: That's amazing. I love stories like that. You mentioned that at three o’clock when your kids come home from school -- I think you said three. Maybe I was just thinking that was my life. Anyway, you said when your kids come home from school, you shut down the computer and that's it. Tell me about your writing process and how it’s changed over the years. You've been writing since before you had kids. When and where do you like to do it?
Lisa: [laughs] Sorry, I'm just putting a bit of innuendo in that question. I started writing, as you say, before I had children, which meant that I had all day. I'd been working nine-to-five jobs all my life. It just made sense to me to write from nine to five. Then I had my first baby in 2003 and thought I would never write another book because how could I possibly write a book with a baby in the house? Then I managed to write a whole book in an hour and half a day while she was napping. Ever since then, your little bubbles of oxygen get bigger and bigger as your children get bigger and bigger. My children don't get home from school until four thirty. I'm almost back to the possibility of doing a nine to five, but I will never do that again because I now know that I don't need to sit at my desk for six, seven, eight hours. I spent a lot of time at home doing stuff on my computer. There's an awful lot of stuff involved behind the scenes that's not writing novels when you're a writer, a bit of housework, squeeze a bit of housework in.
Then I will most often take my laptop into a coffee shop and do my actual writing there because then you've got that feeling of space and removed from the domestic bubble, which is quite important sometimes. If it’s raining, I’ll probably just stay at home and write at the kitchen table. I do a thousand words a day every day, generally in the afternoon. It takes me about two to three hours. That's my day. The important thing for me when I'm writing, though, is my life has to be really, really boring. Having too much stuff in the diary, chopping and changing and not being in the same place or not having that sort of flexibility, that puts me off my stride a bit. It’s very important to me that my days are dull and empty and routine, which they are at the moment. It’s lovely.
Zibby: [laughs] Why writers must have the most boring lives ever.
Zibby: At this pace, say if you're doing a thousand words a day five days a week, five thousand -- I'm trying to do the math of how many words you're writing every year, about twenty-five thousand? No, that can't be right. Twenty-five thousand words a year, that's not enough. You must write more than that. Fifty weeks?
Lisa: Us book people aren't very good at maths, are we? Five thousand words, that's twenty thousand words a month. There's eighty thousand words -- it’s four months, which is basically about how long it takes me to write a book.
Zibby: Every four months, that adds up to a book? You write about three books a year?
Lisa: No, I write one book a year, but I spend an awful lot of the year doing other things like editing books. I say eighty thousand words is a draft. Obviously, there's a lot of work that goes into it before it becomes a book. I usually deliver at Christmas. Then I start a book in March, but I start really, really slowly. I just muck around. If somebody says, “Hey, are you free for lunch today?” I’ll say, “Yes, I am free for lunch today.” I’ll go out for lunch. At this point in the writing process, we’re now in October, now I turn down invitations for lunch, serious, nose to the grindstone, getting on with it.
Zibby: What are working on now, if you can say?
Lisa: Yes, I can. I just today reached the magical two-hundred-page mark on book eighteen. I can pretty much say I've written seventeen and a half books as of today. It’s very different. It’s actually based, funnily enough on the dreaded house that I had to live in for the eight months when we were having our house renovated with the weird people in it. It’s not really about that. It’s not about bad neighbors. I felt like I covered that quite substantially in The Family Upstairs. It’s actually about a man called Owen who's one of those guys where you look at him and you think, you're a bit weird. I wouldn't put anything past you, the sort of guy that makes you feel a bit creeped out and a bit, no, I don't like you. You're wrong. I wanted to get inside the head of a man like that. He is accused of something he didn't do. It’s a book about injustice, really. That should be coming out next year.
Zibby: Do you feel any pressure now that you are such a best-selling, in the limelight type of author that there has to be some sort of message or anything other than entertainment and thought-provoking literature?
Lisa: No, I don't feel like that about messages or being thought provoking at all, which is why it sometimes really stumps me when I'm talking about my books and people try and wheedle out some sort of messages. The only pressure I put myself under is to be entertaining. My biggest fear is that someone's reading one of my books and they're bored. That's the pressure that I have, is that I'm going to write a book that's boring or that's not as entertaining as the last one. It’s that sort of pressure rather than, I should be writing about big themes and big issues and making people think about things. I don't necessarily want people to think about things. I just want them to feel a bit creepy, feel a bit uncertain, feel a bit scared, feel a bit frantic to get to the next chapter. That's my main motivation.
Zibby: Providing that escape for people is one of the most generous things you can do, honestly. You get people out of their own heads. That's the best thing a book can do, get them to escape.
Lisa: Excellent. That's the only thing I'm any good at. That's just as well.
Zibby: I watched a video of you on Facebook somewhere. I'm sure this must have been an older video. It said that your books had not been adapted to film. Is that even possible?
Lisa: Correct, at this current moment in time. When my career first started, there was a little flurry because I was a big hit over here. I got a little taste of people running after you, the option money saying -- that never happened. Then it all went very, very quiet for a very long time. Now my career’s taken a little upward peak again. I've currently got four books under option, three in Hollywood. If I've got three under option, statistically, surely one of them’s got to come off. I don't know. The Family Upstairs is under option. Watching You is under option. I Found You is also under option. It would be lovely if it did happen.
Zibby: I don't know if I could handle the intensity of watching a movie of this book. I don't know. I'm kidding. I would, but whoa, that will be intense.
Lisa: It would be very intense.
Zibby: Do you have any advice to aspiring authors?
Lisa: It’s really hard. There's two things. You've got to be able to write. You do need some sort of evidence that you can write. When I was writing my first novel, for example, I was sending chapters as I wrote to my friend who I had that amazing life-changing conversation with. She kept reassuring me that I could write. She's going, “No, no, no, you can write. This is brilliant. Just keep going. Keep going.” I don't know how you get that. Not everybody can get access to someone who will give them the truth about whether they can write or not. Of course, there's only one way of finding out whether you can write or not, and that is to try writing.
It’s very important for anyone setting out to write a novel for the first time to bear in mind that it’s really, really, really difficult even if you're writing something quite lighthearted and funny. Just structuring a novel is really, really difficult. Keeping going, keeping the momentum going, not losing faith, seeing the big picture, it’s incredibly difficult. You have to go into it with your eyes open that number one, you may not actually be a very good writer. Number two, even you are a brilliant writer, it’s still going to be incredibly difficult. Beyond that, even if you're a brilliant writer and you manage to write a whole book, it may not have been the right book for the market. That all sounds very negative. A positive side is that it’s a numbers game. It can happen to anyone. There's something slightly magical about the publishing industry. There's no formula. People think there is a formula, but there isn't. That's what the publishing industry’s always looking for, is that thing that they didn't know they wanted until it suddenly appeared. I would say go into as a realist. Also, keep a little bit of that magical optimism alive as well.
Zibby: Excellent. Thank you so much for all of your time, coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books,” and for all of your amazing novels. I can't wait to read the next one.
Lisa: I can't wait to finish it. [laughter]
Zibby: Thank you very much.
Lisa: Thank you.