The PEN Pod: On Loose Ends and Plot Twists with Lisa Jewell
Lisa Jewell is the internationally bestselling author of several novels, including The New York Times bestseller Then She Was Gone as well as I Found You, The Girls In The Garden, and The House We Grew Up In. Her novels have sold over two million copies across the English speaking world, and her work has also been translated into 16 languages. Lisa lives in London with her husband and their two daughters. She joins us today on The PEN Pod to talk about her newest thriller book, Invisible Girl, how she began writing domestic suspense, and how she comes up with her famous twists.
How did you start writing domestic suspense, transitioning there from writing primarily women’s fiction?
The transition from my first few books were romantic comedies, and I started writing my first book when I was 26. And the transition from there to here has been so gradual that if you had stuck with me from the first book through to now, you probably wouldn’t even notice the changes as they came. It was just a matter of indulging my interest in the dark side, more and more with each book, seeing how far I could push it, seeing what the comfort zone was for my readership, seeing what the conversation was from my publishers obviously, as well. And with every book, I just managed to push the darkness a little bit more into the foreground of the narrative until you find me as I am here today, writing about very dark themes, indeed. It’s been a very organic evolution, rather than making a jump from one genre to another.
The domestic space is often really fraught with areas of darkness as well, which lends itself well to the thriller genre, and thrillers of course have a complicated history with sex and gender—themes that are really important to Invisible Girl, particularly with its discussion of incel culture. In what ways do you think telling stories in this context can address important societal issues such as violence against girls and women?
Well, I think it absolutely can. But if you were to ask me, in order of importance where addressing big themes and issues comes when I’m starting my books, it would come really, really low down. What actually evolves first, for me, is the person I want to write about, and in the case of this book, the person I really wanted to write about was Owen. So Owen, as you just mentioned, has a connection to incel culture, running through the book. I didn’t create Owen because I wanted to write about incel culture and violence against women. Incel culture came into the book because it was a natural place for Owen to find himself, given the circumstances in the book. It’s much less in terms of the chicken and egg thing. It’s very much the character comes first, the feeling of the book comes first, the idea of the book comes first, and then the bigger themes that encompass society and where we find ourselves now come much further down the line.
“It’s very much the character comes first, the feeling of the book comes first, the idea of the book comes first, and then the bigger themes that encompass society and where we find ourselves now come much further down the line.”
I’m fascinated too, by the ways in which you really seamlessly weave in all this information. How much research did you have to do, either into this world or into other aspects of the book while writing it, and what was that process like for you?
So many of the things that I write about, people ask me if I had to research it, like in The Family Upstairs—there’s a cult aspect to it. And a lot of people ask me, did I research cults? But because I’m a writer and I have a massive interest in the world and I have a massive interest in the darkest corners of the world, I’ve already picked up so much of this stuff. There was a blog journal going around the internet, probably three or four years ago, written by a woman who’d spent some time infiltrating incel forums. That went viral, and I read that. I’d already kind of got a really good handle on how these forums operate and what sort of man is attracted to being in them. I watched a documentary as well, I think on Netflix a couple of years ago, about incels, which I couldn’t resist watching—not because I ever thought I was going to write a book about incels, but purely because I find it fascinating. So, it’s already in there, because I’m fascinated by these things, anyway.
I mean, even something like that, my earlier books, The House We Grew Up In, which was about a mother with obsessive compulsive hoarding disorder. I didn’t have to do any research because I’d watched all the TV shows about people who are hoarders. For me, I write about things that are already in there, because they’re already interesting to me and I’ve already kind of absorbed them by osmosis almost. I didn’t do any research, but I read the Wikipedia posts because I needed that definition to show to the reader, because I knew a lot of readers wouldn’t know what an incel was. But that was as far as it went; the rest of it was already there.
You mentioned that for you, the characters always come first, and then the other parts of it are filled in later. Did you have a knowledge or maybe intuition that this interest in incel culture was going to come out about this character, or was it something that kind of organically flowed while you were developing him?
Yes, it very much organically flowed. I wanted him to be a guy who would be unfairly, unjustly accused of a crime. So, I needed to paint him as someone who would have some really dodgy aspects to his character, so that the police could build a case around him. I kind of led him into this incel culture because I thought, if the police see that he’s been on these forums, then he would be prime suspect number one, and it would obviously cast a really dark light over him. What I didn’t know when I brought him into these forums and developed his fascination for them, was how far he would go. I left that really open. I just thought, “I’m introducing him to these men.”
Someone makes an attempt to radicalize him in the book, and it wasn’t until I was actually in the process of writing those chapters, where he meets a guy who wants to radicalize him, that I decided whether or not he would go down to the very end of that road or whether he would stop and turn back. So, with that sort of thing, I just let the character show me. I won’t say obviously, because it is a spoiler, how far down that road he does go. But it was just to let him tell me whether he’s prepared to do that or not.
“I deliberately make the end of every chapter a cliffhanger and then make the beginning of the next chapter an immediate sense of being into the next place and keeping it moving, so that the reader gets ‘the hit.’ So, they’ve got the cliffhanger at the end of Chapter 11, and at the beginning of Chapter 12, they’ve got a hit of something that they wanted. That’s all completely deliberate, and that’s how I write. And a lot of the reason why I write like that, is because I don’t plot. I’m kind of along for the ride with the reader as well.”
I was so drawn to so many of the characters in the story, and I think that my personal favorite was Sapphire, because her voice was just so arresting on the page. Did you have any particular favorite voices or characters to channel while you were writing?
Very much. Owen was my favorite to start with because he was the guy who I’d wanted to write about from the outset. He was the inspiration for the whole book, and I absolutely loved writing him. I always particularly liked writing from, the more opposite to me—that is more interesting to me. There’s another character in the book called Kate, who’s very similar to me, and I found her less interesting to write about for that very reason, whereas Owen was obviously completely different to me in every way, and I loved being Owen.
But with Sapphire, that was actually quite interesting because originally, the story was going to be told from the points of view, like Owen and Kate, who live opposite each other on the same street in North London, and she was going to play a part in him being unjustly accused of this crime. Very early on in the book, I mentioned in passing that Kate had been going through her husband’s medical records—he’s a child psychologist—and found the records for a young girl called Sapphire Maddox, who’d been brought in to him because she’d been self-harming. It was only supposed to be a throwaway reference—it wasn’t supposed to have an impact on the rest of the book at all, apart from, to show Kate meddling in her husband’s affairs.
But the minute I wrote that name of the page—Sapphire Maddox—I wanted to know who she was. It just bounced off the page at me. And I just thought, I need to find a place in this book for this child, because she’s bizarrely and unexpectedly interesting to me. So, Sapphire then came very much lost through the gates. Because I didn’t know her at all, I wrote her in the first person, and I always do that when it’s a character who arrives unexpectedly, because I haven’t had a chance to think about them. I need them to talk to me, as well as the reader, in the first person to tell me who they’re going to be. She was such a lovely surprise, and writing her in the first person was so exciting. I loved, equally, writing Owen and Sapphire in this book. I found them both incredibly satisfying characters to get into.
Something that’s continually said about your books is that they are “unputdownable.” I felt the same way when I was getting caught up in the world of these characters. Is that something you’re consciously thinking about when you’re first drafting a book? Are you thinking about how the reader is going to interpret this new twist? And what do you think is the most important element of a book that makes it truly “unputdownable?”
It’s very much what I was talking about before—my priorities when I’m coming to write a book and character being one of them, and big themes being very low down the list. Writing a page-turner is very high up my list of things that I try to do when I’m writing a book—I want the reader to be addicted. I want the reader to get to the end of every chapter and not want to stop reading. I deliberately make the end of every chapter a cliffhanger and then make the beginning of the next chapter an immediate sense of being into the next place and keeping it moving, so that the reader gets “the hit.” So, they’ve got the cliffhanger at the end of Chapter 11, and at the beginning of Chapter 12, they’ve got a hit of something that they wanted. That’s all completely deliberate, and that’s how I write. And a lot of the reason why I write like that, is because I don’t plot. I’m kind of along for the ride with the reader as well, because I need to set those things up for myself as a writer, so I’ve got something to hook my plots onto, because there’s nothing anywhere.
“The other big thing for me is a satisfying ending, and that can take any form. In Then She Was Gone, the satisfying ending wasn’t a twist, but it was just a really, really emotional epilogue that left a lot of readers crying, which I thought ‘That’ll do for me.’ Or sometimes, it can be a small twist at the end, or just an unexpected denouement, or something that the reader hadn’t considered.”
There’s no notes anywhere. There’s no Post-It notes stuck on a whiteboard. There’s nothing for me to hang anything onto, apart from what I’ve already written on the page. It’s absolutely deliberate that I write like that. In terms of twists—the huge twist that you never saw coming—I don’t think of those. I work very hard not to work those into my books, because that’s how you can kind of warp lots of really, really winning narratives, if you’re desperately trying to fit something in to surprise the reader. I’d much rather just keep the reader gripped, and if I can surprise them, all the better. That’s not my main incentive when I’m writing. I just want them to keep turning the pages.
The other big thing for me is a satisfying ending, and that can take any form. In Then She Was Gone, the satisfying ending wasn’t a twist, but it was just a really, really emotional epilogue that left a lot of readers crying, which I thought “That’ll do for me.” Or sometimes, it can be a small twist at the end, or just an unexpected denouement, or something that the reader hadn’t considered. It’s all very much deliberate. None of it happens by accident, although it does happen very organically.
I’m totally with you on the satisfying ending thing. There’s such a sense of catharsis that comes from walking away from a book after feeling like it was such a ride, and that ends have been sort of tied up.
Exactly. Not just tied up because sometimes I think, with a really good thriller, they might have spent so long tying up all the loose ends that it loses momentum, and it just sort of runs out of steam toward the end of it. It’s important for me that I tie up all those loose ends, but then at the end manage to sort of chuck something in the last few pages, or sometimes even in the last few lines, that just makes the reader go, “Okay, now I’m rethinking everything. Now it’s not what I thought it was.” Or possibly, as in Then She Was Gone, “Now I’m crying.” I always try to make sure that I haven’t done that sort of petering out thing that a lot of thrillers do in the closing chapters.
Lastly, I’d love to know what you’re reading, watching, or listening to right now that might be helping you with providing some comfort or escape or context during this moment, when we’re all in this interminable little sort of stay-at-home period.
I wouldn’t say that I’m reading or watching anything different from what I was reading before the pandemic hit. I’ve always had a massive appetite for the thriller genre that I write in. I read back-to-back thrillers, I watch all of the Netflix box sets that you would imagine a thriller writer might watch in the moment. I’ve just finished watching the first season of The Sinner, which was a new discovery to me—the one with Jessica Biel in it, which was absolutely incredible, and a bit of a masterclass in thriller writing, I thought. I actually found that really inspiring. The last brilliant thriller I read was called The Push by Ashley Audrain, which I don’t think comes out until January, so I’m a bit ahead of the game there. It’s slightly We Need To Talk About Kevin-esque, about a slightly scary young child, which was gripping as well. There’s some very high-quality stuff out there at the moment.