Lisa Jewell’s bestselling books combine page-turning, what-happens-next excitement with nuanced characters—especially female characters—who are mostly likable. Her narrative voice has a keen sense of humor that might fool some readers into thinking the story is fluffy, or that the suspense isn’t real, neither of which is in any way true. In fact, Jewell’s latest novel, Then She Was Gone, about the aftermath of a kidnapping, is her most suspenseful yet. I talked to her about what makes her books go.
SUSAN MAGUIRE: Then She Was Gone starts with a nightmare—a teenage daughter disappears without a trace—and it just gets twistier from there. What inspired this story?
LISA JEWELL: Some ideas come to me ages before I need to get them down, and I have months in which to percolate the idea, get a feel for what I might do with it, do some early planning. This one came to me in a blind panic when I realized that I should have started my new book a month earlier and still didn’t know what it was going to be. I had this idea about a woman whose daughter goes missing for ten years and is then found being kept hostage in their next door neighbor’s basement. The mother doesn’t suspect a thing until a teenage girl bearing a striking similarity to her missing daughter starts leaving the house next door every day to go to school. The mother feels uneasy and starts to investigate. The idea was that someone could be missing yet be just a few feet away from you. Clearly, the story moved away from this premise over the writing of it, but this was my starting point.
To me, the two hallmarks of a Lisa Jewell book are an unpredictable plot and realistic, and relatable characters—especially the women. But your books seem to be getting darker (and not just the cover art). Should we be worried? No, wait. I mean do you agree with that?
I think what has happened with my writing is that I always wanted to write dark books, but when my first novel came out, it was the height of the chick-lit boom, and I slotted neatly into that. Every editor I ever had was a “women’s fiction” editor who wanted me to keep writing quirky, easy reads for the sort of reader they had in mind as being a “Lisa Jewell reader.”
Then I think two things happened; first, those Lisa Jewell readers started wanting darker stuff, and two, my editor left, and I was passed onto my publisher’s crime editor. There was an awkward three or four books where we didn’t quite meet in the middle, but I think with each book, she is guiding me more and more towards the dark side—and I am supremely happy to be there.
I already mentioned your women characters, and how generally great they are. Even if you don’t like them because they do terrible or stupid things, you still like them. What sorcery is this? Or, more specifically, how do these characters come to you?
This is the thing that I don’t have to work on. So maybe it is sorcery! Plotting is hell for me. But pacing and characters I don’t even think about. Having said that, in my newest book (Watching You, out in January), my agent sent back my first draft with the suggestion that I make the main female character 27 instead of 37 because the stuff she was doing and thinking at 37 was making her unlikable and tragic, but as a 27-year-old, the reader would identify with her and get behind her. He was absolutely right; I liked the character much better once l’d changed her age.
While I do sometimes get it wrong, generally, these people just land in my head and I know them and I like them, even when they’re bad. I’m a very forgiving person in real life too; I don’t do fallings out or hold grudges. Everyone out there is, in my opinion, just doing the best they can with what they’ve been given. I cut a lot of slack.
Rebecca Vnuk, in her starred Booklist review of Then She Was Gone, remarked on its masterful plot. I’m curious—did you start with the main premise, that a girl would disappear, and years later her mother would meet a girl who resembled her? Did you plan the twists and turns ahead of time? Did any aspects of the plot surprise you while you were writing?
The process was the same as all my other books: lots of flailing about blindly and hating myself for not planning it all out ahead of time, thousands of words cut out and plot lines excised, late night sweats and periods of self-loathing. But this was the first book where my editor made me change the entire story after I delivered. She had to take me out to tell me face-to-face, and although it sounds dramatic and dreadful, it was actually a relief. I’d written it with a happy endin,g but I knew deep down inside that the happy ending just didn’t work. Her insight was brave and masterful.
I noticed your latest is not called “The Girl Was Gone.” How could you miss out on The Girl trend??? Are your publishers fired now? (And do you have any feelings about the hot trend in suspense of calling adults “girls” and then killing them?)
Well, I did already publish a book called The Girls (it was called the Girls in the Garden in the US), so I kind of used up my girl ticket already. And I do remember thinking at the time that at least my girl book was about actual girls, as in under the age of 16, not fully grown women! But this time round, we used gone, so I’m halfway there and won’t sack the publishers! I have no feelings about the trend for girl novels. As I always say about parenting, and the same goes for publishing trends and for everything in fact, it’s all phases. It’s the way we’re wired.
Thrillers are a go-to beach read. What kind of books do you like to read on the beach?
I totally like to read thrillers on the beach. Absolutely. I also like to take the kind of extra delicious books I know need to be read in two or three big serious reading chunks, not over fifteen sleepy nights in bed struggling to keep my eyes open. So I usually save a couple of big books for my holidays. Last year, for example, it was My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent. The year before, it was the Maggie O’Farrell.
This one is for all of my librarians out there: When we talk to patrons about books, we like to use a readalike, a book that will help capture the feeling that the reader is looking for or an author who is similar in tone or style or setting. If you were making a display of Lisa Jewell readalikes, what books (or which authors) would you include?