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The WD Interview: Lisa Jewell

The New York Times-bestselling British author discusses creating thrilling plot twists and developing characters in her 19th novel, The Night She Disappeared, in this interview from the Jan/Feb 2022 issue of Writer's Digest.

Lisa Jewell has found her sweet spot. After writing a few rom-coms, then sliding into family dramas, her books now land solidly in the psychological thriller category. And she’s not going anywhere.

“I’m settling here,” she says. “It was destined that I wasn’t going to write a thriller for my first novel, and I’m quite glad I didn’t—now. But this is where I was meant to be, and this is where I’m going to stick.”

And why wouldn’t she? The success the British novelist has found throughout her 19 novels is impressive. The Family Upstairs was an instant New York Times bestseller and was followed by Then She Was Gone which spent more than a year on the same list and sold over a million copies. Combined, her books have sold more than 5 million copies in 29 languages.

Now Jewell is out with her a new novel, The Night She Disappeared, about Tallulah, a missing teen mom whose own mother, Kim, will stop at nothing to find out what happened. It has all of the hallmarks readers expect from a Lisa Jewell blockbuster: more twists and turns than you can count, red herrings galore, complex character motivations, and an ending you won’t predict. Jewell knows the importance of a strong ending in a thriller, saying, “It comes down to such minute decisions in the end. ... It’s a strange one because, for me, the ending is absolutely everything when you write a thriller. I’ve just read so many thrillers with disappointing endings and I couldn’t bear to put a book out there that had a disappointing ending. So, I have to take a deep breath and hope I’ve chosen the right outcome for my characters.”

But before we could talk about endings, we had to start at the beginning, with the inspiration for The Night She Disappeared.

I always love hearing where you get your ideas for new books because sometimes it’s just a quick passing moment. Where did the idea for this particular book come from?

Well, it wasn’t quite as picturesque or poetic as some of my inspirations look. The Family Upstairs was inspired by a woman I saw when I was on holiday in the south of France. This one was a bit more prosaic than that, but it still has the same feeling of, I’ve just had an idea, and now I want to write it really badly. Somebody said the words “boarding school,” and I suddenly knew that I wanted to write a book that was set [there], which I’ve never done before. I had this idea of a murder mystery with a boarding school setting somewhere out in the countryside, in a beautiful old building with stunning manicured grounds, and what have you. As I was mentally processing my way through the grounds of this beautiful imaginary school, I saw this sign in my head, a sign saying “Dig Here.” And that was the diving board from whence the story came.

The Night She Disappeared | Lisa Jewell

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TNSD features three different timelines that ultimately catch up to each other. How do you navigate writing those different timelines and keeping them straight for yourself as you’re drafting or revising?

Well, it’s actually the other way around. Having the various timelines is what keeps it straight. If I didn’t have so many timelines going on, I would get quite lost. Because I don’t plan when I write and I don’t have any idea where the story is going, if I was only following my writerly clues from the perspective of one person in one place at one time, I wouldn’t really have a lot to go on. I think I would get quite stuck and end up writing myself into corners and not sure where to go. There’s sort of a pinball bouncing around from person to person, timeline to timeline, perspective to perspective, it’s what keeps it all together. It all keeps the momentum going and gives me what I need as a writer in terms of clues as to what’s going on. So, I get to the end of the chapter with one character and think, Well, now they know this fact but that doesn’t really help me going on into the future with this character. I need another character to come and tell me another fact from their point of view. So that’s how it actually works. It’s much easier than it might look to a reader, to actually break the narrative up into those sorts of chunks.

I’m so interested to hear that because as I’ve been interviewing different writers who use multiple timelines, some of them talk about discovering another timeline as they get further into the book and having to go back and revise and map them out and sticky notes and dry erase boards.

Oh, god, no! No, see when I die and they come to clear out all my writerly effects, they will find nothing. There would be not one piece of evidence, apart from my published books and the documents in my Word folders, that I ever wrote a book. I don’t have anything. It’s all just in my head and on the screen and then, ultimately, in a paperback novel.

My brain doesn’t work like that. I can’t take things out of the novel and put them onto a Post-it Notes and put them onto a whiteboard and then reconnect them back to the novel. I can only work those things out in the context of the novel, of the words I’m looking at on the screen; if they’re anywhere else, they don’t make any sense to me. It’s quite intense, but it works for me. And [it] does the way the other writers have what works for them. It’s the joy and the magic of it because everybody finds their own way to do it.

So how does that way of not plotting work when it comes to your revisions and making sure that things work together? Do you find that you spend more time revising as a result?

Less, actually. This is my 19th novel, and in my first 10, 12, maybe even 13 novels, I did an awful lot of revisions, and also lots of deletions of stuff: rejigging, printing off the manuscript and putting it on the floor, moving sheets of paper around, and changing my mind about things. For the biggest chunk of my career, there’s been lots of that. But that’s something I would like to think you should get better at—the technical aspects of writing—once you’ve been writing for 25 years and written 19 novels. And I have … I do much less in the way of revisions, of taking stuff out, and of going backward before I can go forward. I spend much more time now just going forward. Wasting much less time and being much more efficient, much more confident, and trusting my instincts a lot more, which I think is vital. But it takes a lot of practice to trust your instincts.

Your novels are so very character-driven, and in TNSD, I love Tallulah. But what’s fascinating to me is where she is in her life. Not only is she at an age where she’s going from being a teen to being an adult, but she’s doing that while learning how to be a mom and figuring out parts of her own sexuality that she might not have known were there before. How did you figure out all of these pieces of who she is?

I started writing her as an afterthought. I hadn’t been going to include her. I had just been going to map the whole story out between Kim and Sophie [Tallulah’s boyfriend’s mother]. Then I got to a point … [where] Kim and Sophie need some help here in understanding what might’ve happened to Tallulah, and the only way I can give them any help is by knowing what happened to Tallulah myself. The only way I’m going to find out what happened to Tallulah is to write the girl. So, I introduced her quite a few chapters in, and the first chapter I wrote was her seeing this girl who I assumed would be the girl with the swimming pool.

I knew that Tallulah had been at a pool party with this girl called Scarlett. I thought, Right, let’s start writing Tallulah. And I do start very, very quickly. I don’t sit and wait for the muse and prevaricate … I just go with the first thing that presents itself to me. The first thing that presented itself to me was Tallulah sitting in the cafeteria at college and seeing this girl Scarlett. And I could have gone any way with it, ’cause I didn’t really know who Tallulah was, but I found myself writing that she was really aching for her baby. I also realized that she was a teenage mother who was aching for her baby. That kind of formed everything else.

What if she’s aching for her baby, but she’s doing this other thing: She’s improving herself and making a life for herself in the future, then she’s probably very responsible and she’s probably not very rebellious. She probably does toe the line and do everything as expected. She probably is quite quiet. She probably isn’t wild. It was that initial sight of her in my mind’s eye sitting quietly in the cafeteria, aching for her baby just informed everything. That’s kind of how all my characters come out. I put them somewhere because I have to start writing them. …

And that’s the joy of it. That’s why I love writing characters so much—watching them unfold on the page and watching these layers develop and getting to know them as I write them. I never come to a book with a character fully formed in my head and I know everything about them. I know a couple of things and everything else comes from that.

Some of your books, including TNSD, explore the power dynamics and trust between people in positions of power vs. people who are in comparatively lower positions of power, like a principal vs. a student, or in this case, a quiet teen mom vs. a popular teen. How do you approach working those concepts into your novels?

Any sort of friction is going to work in a novel. I immediately knew which relationships you were talking about and from which of my novels, and I didn’t actually notice until you pointed that out, that there is a pattern of that in my books. I have chosen those dynamics very subconsciously it appears. I guess I liked writing about hopeless crushes, and I think there is an element of that with the headteacher in Watching You, and a few people have a hopeless crush on him. … And then again here, you’ve got Scarlett who has a whole cast of people who were in thrall to her. A whole cast of people who actually would kill for her and do kill for her.

I think that’s a really interesting thing, particularly for me, because I’ve never been in that position. There’s never been anyone in my life who I’ve felt that way about or looked up to in that way or have that sort of obsession with … So maybe that’s why I like to explore it because that’s not any feeling that I have for another human being in my life, yet it creates so much interesting friction on the page. And as you say, it also creates all this ambiguity, which is the key to a good psychological thriller. I think it’s just something I’ve naturally kind of come back to time after time and I’m doing it again with the novel I’m writing at the moment. There is some obsessive love going on there as well and a master taking control of somebody who’s in thrall to them, that dynamic again. …

So, that’s another thing that happens when you’ve written 19 novels, you get repeating motifs. Somebody was asking me about this last night, “What things do you find you keep coming back to now you’ve got to this point in your career?” And I said, “I keep going back to teenagers.” And she said, “Oh, I thought you were going to say houses because that is a repeating motif, is the houses.”

Lisa Jewell | Writer's Digest Interview Quote

So many of your books do feature a home with secrets. What goes on behind closed doors, what people choose to reveal about themselves to the world, how much you actually know about the people you live with, and there’s so much for novelists to explore there. What about that is interesting to you?

… They’re like little boxes to lock people away with their secrets. Places where people can be absolutely themselves and not have to worry about what anybody thinks or what impression they’re giving to the world. So, they’re bound to be the most interesting place to see stories unfold, but that’s clearly where all the interesting stuff is happening.

Obviously, you’ve got other sorts of locked room environments that you can write like that boarding school, it’s a similar thing. But still, there’s nothing more intensely private than a house with a door shut and nobody else there apart from the people who live there and their secrets and their true selves that come out. Why wouldn’t you want to write about houses?

The importance of the ending in your books really shines through. There was one point in TNSD where I thought, OK, perhaps I figured it out. Not only had I not figured it out, but there was a second twist that absolutely made sense and leaves readers with a little gasp.

Exactly. And it’s that little bit at the end, because so often when you set up a brilliant thriller and then you have to explain everything at the end, a lot of thrillers can just run out of steam with all the explaining. You can almost feel the writer just like thinking, Oh, I’ve got all these loose ends I need to tie up and I’ve tied that one up. Right, now I need to tie up another one, oh, there’s another one. And then you get to the end and you’re like, “Oh. OK.” I quite often feel like that when I’m writing my endings. … Because it is hard to end a novel, which is why I love to come back with a thing, a thing that, it’s usually something that I’ve been saving up for the whole book.

It doesn’t have to be a huge twist that throws the whole thing off-kilter, just a little thing just to make the reader go, “Ohhhh, that was going on all along in the background. I never even thought of that.” That’s a really good way of rescuing the ending of a thriller with that sort of dribbling away thing that they can do sometimes.

You did that so well in TNSD and Watching You as well. That one really got me.

Because it didn’t actually change the story, the ending of Watching You. It wasn’t a massive twist. It just gave the reader a different view of things, kind of mentally scrolling back through everything. I like to do that. I think that leaves the reader feeling satisfied and like it was all worth it. It takes a long time to read a 400-page novel and you want to feel like it was worth your time.

I think my problem with your books is I enjoy them so much that I always say, “Oh, I’ll just read one more chapter,” and then it’s 2:00 a.m. Part of it is because of the way you create cliffhangers at the end of your chapters.

I think it’s very instinctive for me in a way. Because, quite often, the mechanics of just getting a chapter down on the page can feel quite dull. You can sometimes write a chapter and think, all I’ve done is move my characters out of one house into another house. And they’ve had a conversation and they’ve revealed a wonderful something or other. Now I’ve come to the end of the chapter, and I need something to give me the momentum to jump onto the next chapter because I’m feeling like I just wasted 1,500 words or however long the chapter is. So, I will just pluck anything, anything that I can possibly find out of thin air to put into the last paragraph of the chapter to bounce it back out of whatever doldrums I felt it might have been in and bounce me into the next chapter I’m rearing and ready to start writing. I do it for me, but I can see it, obviously, it has the byproduct of working quite well for the reader too.

What is the general working relationship like between you and your editors and your agents? Because you’ve got editors and agents on both sides of the Atlantic—how many of them get involved in the ideation of a book?

I’ve got a very unusual relationship with my U.K. editor, and she’s my fourth editor I’ve had over my career, or maybe my fifth. But she’s the only editor I’ve ever had who sees my rough first draft. Every other editor I ever had before that, I would honestly rather cut off my toes than let them read my rough first draft because they’re the ones who pay me. I don’t want them to ever see my dirty laundry, unwashed garments: the truth about my terrible writing. But me and my U.K. editor, we just clicked. I think this is her seventh or eighth novel with me, and I’m not scared of her seeing my bad writing. It doesn’t scare me at all.

She works as the first reader in the way, and that is highly unusual for a writer’s editor to be their first reader. It’s usually either someone they live with or a friend or their agent … At the moment, my editor is my first reader … She will fix my manuscript for me, I’ll go away and rewrite it. Then we present that in one fell swoop to my English agent, my American agent, and my American editor, who then make their own editing notes. We then do the next draft as per their input as well. So, it’s quite unusual, but it absolutely works for me, hugely. It’s part of why I’m so relaxed about the writing process, now that I’m not scared of what happens at the end anymore.

Did you have any additional writing advice for the readers of Writer’s Digest?

I think the thing that is most helpful to me now at this point in my career is not overthinking things and just putting yourself on the page. Not thinking about the market, and not thinking about the book that you read last week that was really good and why didn’t you write that book, and not thinking about will people think I’m stupid if I say this. There are so many things you can worry about when you’re writing that are all irrelevant. Two people can write the same book and it’d be two completely different books. The important thing is a book that you write is your book and it’s you, and you put yourself into it and don’t listen to any of the interference from anywhere else in the world. Just you, your screen, your brain, your fingertips, your world, just focus on you. Just communing with your keyboard and not worry about what anybody else is doing at all. 

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