Lisa Jewell: I have a finely tuned radar for anything that's dark and twisted
Bestselling novelist Lisa Jewell talks about moving from romcoms to twisty thrillers and why Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin still leaves her starstruck
JUST seven years ago, bestselling women's fiction novelist Lisa Jewell changed course to focus her writing on dark psychological thrillers.
She had written romance, comedy and other contemporary relationship tales for more than a decade in novels including Ralph's Party, Vince & Joy and 31 Dream Street, which sold in their millions.
Today, speaking from her London home, Jewell (52) is as down-to-earth as ever, despite the fact Hollywood has long beckoned and four of her thrillers are currently under option including The Family Upstairs and Watching You.
But she's not looking to write the screenplays or be involved in the TV box-set-making process.
“Obviously I wouldn't want the rights to go to a dodgy studio but if it's a respected production company then I think, ‘You're the experts'. I'm happy to take a back seat. If they want to pull me in more, then of course I'd be willing to get involved as long as I don't have to do any scriptwriting.”
Moving from romcoms to nail-biting thrillers has in many ways freed her from literary snobs who sneered at the sort of romantic fiction and family sagas she once wrote.
“I don't need to defend myself as much and I don't have that flipping ‘chick lit' label following me around wherever I go,” she bristles. “That's finally died and I'm so glad that I don't have to have that conversation with anybody any more.
“It's made it much easier to be respected as a writer and not having to defend my position, which I had to do for so long.
“But I think there is still snobbery about women writing thrillers, unfortunately, from a certain type of reader who would snaffle up an Ian Rankin but would turn their nose up at a Clare Mackintosh.”
Her sixth thriller, Invisible Girl, centres on a teenage girl who goes missing, resulting in the mysterious loner who lives opposite becoming the prime suspect. But nothing is as it seems in Jewell's twisty tales.
The story delves into the world of incels, ‘involuntary celibates' – members of a chilling online subculture who are unable to find a romantic partner despite wanting one.
How did she hear about incels?
“Oh, I have a finely tuned radar for anything that's dark and weird and twisted,” she says wryly.
“There was a story a few years ago about a woman who infiltrated all these incel forums, pretending to be a guy, and then reported the conversations these sad men were having with each other about abusing women. It's so dark, so bad, so wrong, that I was totally drawn towards it.”
She got the idea for the mysterious loner one winter when she noticed a man walking through the snow who looked a little uncomfortable in both his stance and his facial expression.
“I wondered what it would be like to be this sad-looking bloke and then I put him in a situation where something bad has happened to him and see how he reacts.”
The appetite for thrillers is now greater than it is for the type of romantic comedy she used to write, she agrees.
“There's never been a bigger appetite for crime novels and from my own point of view, particularly during the pandemic, you only have to look at your social media feed about the virus to know how clueless we all feel.
“Then you get a thriller, this thing which has been painstakingly knitted together, and everything means something and there's a reason for everything. And you read the novel and you start to understand what's going on, until the end, when you know exactly what's happened.
“At this time, when everyone wants answers, a thriller really satisfies that need.”
So, what prompted her to change genres?
It happened by chance while writing The Third Wife, which she intended to be another family-based drama, but then a key female character dies, which launched her on a different path, she recalls.
“I thought I'd enjoy writing 350 pages about this guy with his messy life, but realised half way through that it wasn't messy enough. So I threw in this suspicious death of his third wife, which made it into a mystery.”
The positive feedback prompted her to move into the realms of the psychological thriller.
“Each book's got slightly darker and more twisty than the one before. And if you write in that genre, your publishers make you go to every crime festival and put you on every panel, because there's a massive target audience.”
She's not quite rubbing shoulders with the likes of Ian Rankin and Lee Child yet, she chuckles.
“When I go to these things and I see really famous writers, I recoil. I'm really scared of famous people. I don't rub shoulders. I can be in the same room but I'll be at the other end of the room, going ‘Oh my God, it's Ian Rankin! I'm not worthy!'”
When she discovered that Rankin had waxed lyrical on social media about her last book, The Family Upstairs, she was euphoric.
“You just feel you've crossed the Rubicon. It's one thing being accepted by your peers and the people you've known for years, but to cross over to someone who I'd never imagine would have read one of my books, who's a total genius and a legend, was quite an extraordinary feeling.”
When she's not writing, she enjoys time with her husband, software consultant Jascha Gordon, and their two teenage daughters, Amelie (17) and Evie (13).
After a disastrous first marriage, she met Jascha at work – she was a receptionist for a shirt-making company, he was their IT consultant.
They have just celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary and Jewell says she knew as soon as they met that she'd found her life partner.
Unlike some writers who find it difficult to extricate themselves from the imaginary world they are writing about, her dark stories don't affect her mood at home, she says.
“I'm very businesslike. I open up my laptop and write words. Sometimes I lose myself, but mostly it's mechanical, putting words on to a screen without any emotional connection.”
Being a thriller writer can attract some trolls on social media, but it's not something Jewell has experienced, although she did receive an unsettling personal message on Instagram from a prisoner who told her he'd spent the whole time reading all of her books ‘and now I finally get to see your face'.
“Luckily he's in America, not looking through my window,” she says.
She's already halfway through her next novel – working title Dark Place – about a young couple who go out for the evening, leaving their grandson with his grandmother – and never return.
“I'm enjoying writing more now than I ever have done because I truly feel that I know what I'm doing,” she reflects. “Success has a lot to do with it – and being older and wiser.”
:: Invisible Girl by Lisa Jewell is published by Century, priced £14.99.