On Writing, Reading, and Finding Inspiration with NYT Bestseller Lisa Jewell

LisaJewell_NS_InterviewThe Family Remains is a standalone sequel to The Family Upstairs, which was published November 2019. What are some similarities fans of The Family Upstairs can look forward to in your new release and what are some differences that may surprise them?

LJ: The most immediately familiar element will be the return of Henry and Lucy Lamb. We meet up with them a week after the events of the last chapter of The Family Upstairs, when Libby had just sold the beehouse in Chelsea and Henry was pondering the possibility of going to Botswana to track down Phin. The history of the house is also revisited tangentially through a detective charged with solving the mystery of a bag of human bones found washed up in the shores of the river Thames. New to fans will be Rachel Rimmer, who is mentioned briefly in The Family Upstairs as the second wife of Michael Rimmer, Lucy’s ex.

NS: Can you tell us a bit about the new characters featured in The Family Remains?

LJ: The aforementioned Rachel Rimmer is the main new character. She is an interesting woman, externally very confident and self-assured, but inside she feels as though she has not broken free of her childhood bonds to her family. She meets Michael, who she thinks might be the man to break her out of bad patterns, but soon realizes that he is very bad news. And then there is DC Samuel Owusu, my very first proper fictional detective. He’d originally been meant to crop up only a handful of times during the narrative, just to update their readers on developments with his case, but I grew so attached to him and what he was trying to do that he ended up inhabiting a huge part of the book.

A lot of your psychological thrillers focus on the relationships between ordinary people and what happens when boundaries are tested and extraordinary circumstances disrupt regular life. What are the questions you try to ask yourself when starting a new novel? Is there a bigger question you want to explore—or is your main focus digging into the characters themselves?

LJ: I never have big questions in mind when I start a book, only a selection of tiny questions and, as you say, they are all about the characters, about finding out who they are and what they are capable of. Everything that happens is about the people in the book, rather than the world at large. Sometimes the world at large finds its way into my books, but it’s never by design.

Okay, so we know this may not be a fair question, but we have to ask: What has so far been your favorite book to write and why?

LJ: My favorite book to write was definitely The House We Grew Up In, which is a good ten years old now. I enjoyed writing it because, unlike most of my books which I embark upon writing without an arc in mind, I came to this book with a clear idea of where it was all heading, which made the process of writing the book much smoother and more efficient and allowed me to let the characters really explore their situations at every given moment. It felt almost effortless, and I’ve yet to recreate that experience!

Are there any subgenres in crime fiction aside from psychological/domestic thrillers that you would be interested in exploring?

LJ: I would have said no to this question until about six months ago when I was invited to write a book in another genre and the offer was so appealing that I couldn’t turn it down! So yes, in September, I will be starting my twenty-second novel and it will indeed not be in the psychological thriller genre. I can’t tell you any more about it for now, but I’m very excited about leaving my comfort zone for a few months.

In that same vein, are there any settings for your novels that you’re more interested in exploring?

LJ: So many! There is a whole world of settings that I haven’t used, both in the physical sense, and also inside my head. I often use fictionalized versions of places I’ve visited, as it gives more leeway and flexibility to writing if you’re not tied down by actual geography. So yes, when I look at the rest of my writing career, the thing that excites me more than anything is the thought of all the settings and places I have yet to write about.

What are the markings of a perfect suspense/thriller? What must they have and what do many often lack?

LJ: I have read suspense thrillers that were not beautifully written and enjoyed them thoroughly, so wonderful and creative use of language is not vital in my opinion. A good thriller really needs to set out pretty early on the one thing the reader wants to know and then withhold it for as long and as tantalizingly and pacily as possible. It doesn’t really matter what the withheld information is, it could be the identity of a murderer or it could be the whereabouts of a missing person or a dark secret that’s been hidden for years. Equally important is a great ending. So many really good thrillers fizzle out in the last few chapters once the answers have been found, and I love a thriller where one secret or revelation has been held back for the final pages.

Do you have the ending in mind when you start a new manuscript? Any writing rituals to help you get started? Clue us into the Lisa Jewell writing process.

LJ: No, I never know how my books are going to end. I never know who the baddie is or why they did it or how it happened or even if it happened until I’m writing the final chapters. I have no rituals other than just getting started as quickly as possible. Once I’ve decided I’m going to start writing my new novel, I just open a document and start typing. From that point on my main objective every day is just to keep going, not rework, overthink, go backwards or fiddle with what I’ve got. I write 1000 words a day, and once I’m done for the day, I go straight to the TV and watch whatever show I’m currently bingeing. And then I do the same thing the next day too. Routine is my friend when I’m writing.

We’ve read that your writing really started when you accepted a challenge from your friend to write three chapters for a novel “in exchange for dinner at your favorite restaurant.” Is this the real story? Was writing something you were always interested in? (What was the restaurant?)

LJ: Yes, this is 100% true. I was twenty-six, an out of work secretary on holiday with friends, and the conversation happened at 4am after a long night of drinking. I’d been interested in writing as a child, but then lost interested in both reading and writing as a teenager. Once I reconnected with reading in my early twenties, I did start thinking again about the possibility of writing a novel of my own, but it was very much something I thought I would need to wait to do until I was older, probably middle-aged. I’m glad my drunken conversation with my friend that night stopped me from waiting that long!

What are you currently reading or watching?

I’m currently reading a novel called An Inconvenient Woman by Stéphanie Buelens and I’m watching Blackbird on Disney+.

You’re a mother, animal lover, and international best-selling author. What are your tips for staying focused on writing and, in general, other creative work with such a busy life? What advice would you give to new writers if any?

LJ: It’s hard to give advice to new writers that works across the board. Some new writers will need to juggle it with a fulltime job, or childcare or even both, so it’s important to find your own way to structure your days to find the time to write, because finding the time to write is the greatest obstacle to overcome. Once you have that in place, you just need to be quite gung-ho, I think, and not take it too seriously or expect it to be really enjoyable or really satisfying because most of the time it really isn’t. So just get those words on to the screen and keep going. Also don’t overwrite. More than a thousand words in one sitting will probably lead you into corners that are hard to get out of. It’s good to walk away every 1000 words and let yourself get some distance from what you’ve done so that when you come back to it, you know vaguely what you need to do next.

What new projects are you working on that you can share with us?

LJ: I’m currently rewriting book twenty-one (yes, even at my advanced stage in a writing career it’s still perfectly possibly to completely balls-up a book!) and when that is done I will be going on to my new top secret project, a full length novel in a different genre. It’s the first time I’ve ever written two books in a year and writing the last one so quickly might explain the fact that I’m now having to rewrite it.


About the Author

Lisa Jewell is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of nineteen novels, including The Family Upstairs and Then She Was Gone, as well as Invisible Girl and Watching You. Her novels have sold over 10 million copies internationally, and her work has also been translated into twenty-nine languages. Connect with her on Twitter @LisaJewellUK, on Instagram @LisaJewellUK, and on Facebook @LisaJewellOfficial.