'I thought he was being chivlarous but actually he was controlling me' – Lisa Jewell on how her early family life and troubled first marriage inform her work
For Lisa Jewell, an internationally bestselling author, inspiration for her novels often walks into her life on two legs. That’s how it happened with her latest book, The Family Upstairs. She was on holiday when she caught sight of the woman who sparked the idea for the story.
“I saw this woman smuggling her children into a very posh, members’ only beach club shower block in the south of France,” she says. “There was something very interesting about her – she was very thin, very brown, very sort of bohemian looking. But she looked very middle class.
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“She seemed to be carrying something with her. I couldn’t get her out of my mind and I wondered what her story might be.”
From this spark of curiosity about a compelling stranger, she’s constructed an imaginary narrative that would leave you hoping that the woman she saw – the real one, knows nothing of such horrors. In The Family Upstairs a wealthy family, troubled from the outset, descends into unimaginable dysfunction.
Jewell started and established her career as a writer of romance fiction. She fell into writing almost by accident. Over 20 years ago she’d been let go from her job as a secretary and was on holiday with friends when a chance conversation with one of them changed her life.
She confessed to a friend that she harboured a secret ambition to write a book. The friend set her a challenge – she’d take her out to dinner at her favourite restaurant if she invested the next month (and her redundancy pay cheque) in writing the first three chapters. The result, was Ralph’s Party – an upbeat tale about a love triangle between three flatmates.
After a string of rejections, it was picked up by an agent and went on to become the bestselling debut of the year. A few years ago, she took another chance and, under the stewardship of a new editor, transitioned gradually from romance fiction to dark psychological thrillers, and hasn’t looked back since.
“My publishing story still gives me goosebumps when I think about it,” says Jewell. “Because I was very much that person who didn’t know what they were going to do in life, who ended up working in offices. Thought maybe one day I might meet a rich man, that was kind of the summit of my ambition.
“Without that, I couldn’t think of any way that I could achieve anything, I had no desire to climb up any ladders.”
Jewell is tall, blonde and glossy. She’s warm, without being gushingly so. In conversation, there’s a keenness to her expression, as if for her, every interaction is a study. She’s also rather unusually open.
Complex and layered human stories are her stock in trade and, it seems, endlessly fascinating to her.
“My natural instinct is to want to know about people and to try and imagine what it might be like to be that person,” she says. It’s also, perhaps, why she so readily reflects on her own personal history.
Jewell grew up in North London, the eldest of three girls in a comfortable family. Her interest in families, and the truth about what goes on beyond closed doors for example, springs from her own experience. Though her life has been pretty normal by the standards of her fiction, a rupture happened in her early adulthood that prompted her to look more closely at life.
“Until I was 21, if you ever asked me about my childhood I would have said it was perfect,” she says. “My mum and dad had stayed together, we lived in this lovely cottage in north London – very sociable. We went on nice holidays, we had lovely dogs, I had my two beautiful sisters. So I would, up until then, have said my family was perfect.
“And then my dad left my mum when I was 21 and it just went hideous, hideous, hideous – for years and years and years.
“That sort of makes you unpack things differently,” she says. “The energy between my parents was completely wrong the whole way along. I think I’d sort of known that on a deep level, but hadn’t quite processed it.”
The result, she says, is that as an author she writes “both from the point of view of someone who didn’t have a traumatic childhood wanting to imagine the lives of people who did, but also in the way of sort of searching through my own history as well,” she explains. “Finding the dark bits.”
The Family Upstairs features a disturbingly unhappy marriage. Jewell herself has firsthand experience of life in an uneasy union. She married, for the first time, in her early 20s at a vulnerable time. Though if the husband in the book is violent, she is at pains to stress her first husband never was.
“I didn’t have any front door keys. I didn’t have a phone. I felt that I wasn’t allowed to see my family,” she says.
“It’s the most extraordinary experience to go through something like that.”
She thinks most women who end up in relationships like that are just “happy-go-lucky, normal women” and “they meet someone who just completely sweeps them off their feet, because that’s the way it always goes.”
She was at a vulnerable life stage at the time. “My mum and dad had just split up. I had this fabulous boyfriend at the time, who I was madly in love with and he kept dumping me,” and along came a man who “told me I was a goddess…
“I think all women are susceptible to being told that they are the most beautiful, amazing woman and this man has been waiting for you… it’s very hard not to go along with that. I had so many voices in the back of my head going: ‘He’s not quite right, he’s not really your type.’ But his adoration of me overrode all of that. And then you just get these little shocks…
“He used to collect me from the tube station every night after work. At first I thought he was being chivalrous – but actually I think he was controlling me to make sure I was not going out with my friends after work. To make sure I was in his car at the same time every day.
“And if I was 10 minutes late, he wouldn’t even talk to me after I got in the car. Little things like that, and then they build up and build up and then one day you suddenly feel that your whole world is being controlled.”
Luckily, she’d never really been in love with him. “I always knew that the moment would come when I’d feel like I could just walk out the door and he wouldn’t be able to exert any pull on me once I’d got to that stage. When he said bad things about me, like I was bad at sex and all of that, I never believed him… I was just waiting for my moment – and then the moment came, and I left.”
That moment, she says “was actually another man saying ‘I’m developing very strong feelings for you and I wondered how long you wanted me to wait?’ And I went home that night and left.”
These days she’s happily married with two teenage daughters. The lessons she learned in her “starter marriage” she says, have served her well.
“My husband is an awesome person anyway, but I have very much fine-tuned everything in my relationship with him, in his relationship with our children. My relationship with our children is that everybody is allowed to be entirely and utterly themselves and communication and openness and nobody playing mind games with anybody. It really did teach me a lot.”
The Family Upstairs (Century) is out now, priced €18.19
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