Lisa Jewell talks about her new novel and shares her experience of coercive control

Lisa Jewell, 20 novels, successfully transitioned from one genre to another while selling best to the end – 10 million and counting. Starting out in romantic comedy, she now writes psychological thrillers – her latest, The Family Remains, begins with the discovery of a bag of human bones near the Thames. It’s a far cry from his 1999 debut, Ralph’s Party, about roommates falling in love with each other – written after a vacation bet with a friend who promised him dinner in exchange for writing the first three chapters. Jewell got her dinner.

“That was always a question for me when I would start writing psychological thrillers,” she tells me on Zoom. “I started writing in the mid-90s, when I was in my twenties, madly in love and embarking on the best part of my life, and even though the books I loved to read and the movies I I liked to watch were very dark, the novel I ended up writing was nice and romantic and funny, and it turned out really well.

Ralph’s Party was the best-selling debut novel of 1999, and Jewell’s writing trajectory seemed well established.

“That’s what my readership and my editors expected, and so for years and years I tried to write romantic comedies, but using darker themes within those comedies,” says -she.

“As I got older and more confident in myself, and my readers grew older with me, I felt that I had a little more leeway and could start to push back a little bit. limits, so in my seventh novel, there was no romantic relationship at heart and in my eleventh novel, I killed one of my characters under suspicious circumstances, so it was book by book, step step by step, increment by increment, slowly moving from one genre to another. It was very gradual.”

Now 54 – she looks so much younger – Jewell lives in her own private rom-com in north London with her second husband and their teenage daughters.

“I’m the number one teenage girl fan in the world,” she says. “I find them fascinating – it’s like living in an actual TV show. I love them. It’s been by far my favorite part of parenthood – I have no nostalgia for changing nappies.

Yet before she met her second husband, her life was more of a psychological thriller than a romantic comedy, populated by three generations of more or less terrible men; grandfather, father and first husband.

She met her first husband, “a manipulative Svengali type who thought it was his job to improve the woman in his life, to sculpt her”, shortly after a family barbecue where Jewell and her sisters were told by their mother that their father was leaving for someone else – the same evening. They had no idea of ​​his long-term infidelity. It caused, she says, “earthquake trauma in our family.” Shortly after, Jewell responded to a personal ad from a guy who loved “Tom Waits, Thai food and picnics in the park.” She was 21, three years younger than the man in the ad.

“I had no idea I was going to spend the next six years married to someone who was a coercive controller,” she says. He love-bombed her with gifts and compliments, and even though she wasn’t in love with him, she liked the way he treated her.

“We were equal at the start,” she says. “I don’t know why I married him – after our engagement the red flags were going up every hour. He was not the man of my dreams. But I was so young and stupid – I had a ring on my finger and felt like I couldn’t back down, and everyone was so invested in my love story.

“So I married him and we left my beloved London for a little red brick box in the suburbs. I didn’t have a key or a phone, I had to come home from work at the same time every day, otherwise he wouldn’t talk to me. “We were getting Blockbusters videos on a Friday night and I had to wait in the car while he went to get them. I wasn’t allowed to see my friends, and when I did occasionally see my family, he was this heavy, moody presence. He tried to control the way I dressed. I was so young – in dress pants and a blouse instead of shorts.

She’d had a decent job at the fashion label Warehouse, but lost it because she couldn’t work late; the abuse, even if not physical, was totally coercive. “He totally controlled me psychologically,” she says. After his dismissal, she “spent a year totally trapped, just waiting for him to come home from work, living with his moods.”

She pauses. “Friends have sometimes tried to stage an intervention, which is the worst thing you can do in this kind of situation because it only makes things worse. People always tried to get me to participate and come to parties, putting pressure on me.

“I’ve lost so many friends in those six years – almost all of my friends, in fact. But there were a few who made it clear they were there and would be waiting.

Things started to change after he got a job with former shirt maker Thomas Pink. “I met this guy at work and we developed a friendship in the office,” she says of her second husband. “Almost from the first moment I knew he was the man I had to be with. There was no chance of having drinks after work, but we had lunch occasionally in the park, and he knew that I was unfortunately married to an overbearing man.” I fantasized that he would fall in love with me. And then about a year into our office friendship, when he told me he had, I went home and left my husband the same day. It was one of the most extraordinary moments of my life. Nothing was going to stop me. It was that simple, after being caught in his web for six years.

Jewell had grown up with a narcissistic father. “My dad is a narcissist, yes,” she says. “The kind of person who decided when our dog died of natural causes shortly after leaving my mother for another woman that the dog had died of a broken heart. It was always about him.” our house was decorated to his taste. Every family vacation was about what he wanted to do. Everything revolved around him – no one else’s opinion mattered but his. He was very vain, very popular, very well liked , very superficial, but assuming a great depth of insight and wisdom. It was no fun growing up with him. A very difficult father and not a good husband.

However, it is his grandfather Albert who wins the most awful prize. Both grandparents were born in India and emigrated to England in the 1940s – the grandmother leaving with twin babies, Albert would follow with Jewell’s mother, then aged four. Except he didn’t. He stayed in India, settling as a teenager – “We’re all pretty sure he was bigamous” – and tried to give his baby girl to the gardener.

“Instead, they sent her to boarding school when she was four,” Jewell says. Her mother then moved to England, but the rift between mother and grandmother was irreparable. Unlike Jewell, who is closely related to her sisters and her mother: before her death from cancer in 2005, she says her mother spent six years “bragging about her daughter the author” and “going into the bookstores to reorganize my books”.

Today, as she raises her own daughters, she reflects on the depth of writing that has changed her life, and not just financially.

“Before writing Ralph’s Party, I had no map of life, no idea where my life was going,” she says. “But from the minute he came out, my life had structure, meaning, purpose, forward momentum – I went from a life where I had no idea what I was doing to a life that’s set in stone, in the best possible way. It’s very satisfying. And all from a vacation bet.

Lisa Jewell’s Daughters

The Family Remains by Lisa Jewell will be published by Penguin and available for purchase from July 21.

Irene B. Bowles