Lisa Jewell: The Writing of The Girls

Lisa Jewell: The Writing of The Girls

My editor was enchanted by the space and as we walked I talked about my ideas for my new book. I had three ideas I was toying with, one of which had been inspired by a moment earlier that same year. On a hot summer’s evening, the first Friday of the school holidays, as we sat in our back garden drinking a beer, a neighbour popped her head over our garden wall. ‘We’re putting a tent up in the garden,’ she said, ‘some of the kids are going to sleep out tonight. Do your girls want to join in?’

My daughters looked torn. I could tell they didn’t want to miss out, but that they also found the concept a bit scary. And I, for some strange reason, felt the same way. These were the same children our daughters played with during the day, who came into our house, whose parents I’d known for years. But somehow the idea of our girls being out after dark, all night, in an enclosed space with other children made me question how well I really knew everyone. Some of the children were slightly older; eleven, twelve, thirteen years old, an age that I remembered as being quite hard to define; half child/half teenager and a sprinkle of something else that could, in some children, be rather dark. I remembered things that had happened during my own free-range summers on a Norfolk caravan site when groups of us children were left to sleep out together; nothing scandalous, just a bit unsettling.

My children ran upstairs to get into their pyjamas, but by the time the sun had set and it was time to head out to the tent, they’d changed their minds and I breathed a sigh of relief. But the way I’d felt for half an hour that evening sowed a seed of writerly inspiration in my mind. What if they’d gone? And what if something had happened?

My original idea had been to take that exact scenario – the summer’s night sleep out, something bad happening – and write a story around that. My editor didn’t hesitate as I outlined the bare bones. ‘That one,’ she said, ‘write that one.’

I jumped into the story feet first. After all, this was a community and a setting that I already understood intimately. I began the story with Adele pushing her baby in a pram to collect her young sons from school on the last day of term. I then introduced the characters of Claire and her daughters, and very quickly, within the first few pages, Adele had invited Claire’s daughters to a sleep out in her new tent.

The third point of view in this first draft was provided by Dylan’s mum, who in this version was called Phoebe and lived next door to as opposed to upstairs from Leo and Adele. Around halfway through the book, the sleepover began, and something bad happened to Grace. And that was where the writing of the book completely fell apart at the seams. I could not for the life of me work out what might have happened to her and who might have done it. I wrote countless notes in longhand of possible scenarios and motivations but they all led nowhere. That summer I wrote to my editor and said, ‘I’m giving up on this book, it’s simply not working.’ I even attached twenty five thousand words I’d cut out of another book a few years earlier and said, ‘I think I’m going to write this instead.’

She invited me round to her flat for an emergency face-to-face and somehow managed to convince me to keep going with it. But still, I couldn’t get beyond the tent, I couldn’t move the story on.

Finally, three months before my deadline, I had a beautiful moment of clarity.

I’d started the story too late.

I needed to back right up and start the story months earlier, to when Claire and her girls had just moved into their flat. And I needed, very much, to bin the idea of the tent and see what other scenario I could conjure up. Finally freed up from the deadweight of a book that wasn’t working, I was able to write very fast. Having spent six months already writing about this fictional community I also knew what had been working and what hadn’t and one of the things that hadn’t worked was Adele’s children being very young. So I aged them all up to tweens and teens and turned them all into girls. Suddenly there was so much more meat in the relationships between the children on the garden and so much more potential for friction.

I also realised that Adele had the potential to be much more than just another north London, school-run mum, so I made the decision that she would home-school her children. Suddenly a whole new area of possible conflict and controversy was opened up for me, particularly when I brought Gordon over from Africa with his very diametrically opposed views on how to bring up children. I really enjoyed the opportunity to write about different approaches to parenting and learned quite a lot about my own parenting choices in the process.

Another thing that I knew was missing from the original version was a child’s voice and I felt very strongly that it should be a first person voice. So I introduced Pip’s letters to her father. Which left me with too many points of view, so I made the decision to cut out the character of Dylan’s mother, Phoebe entirely as she hadn’t, in retrospect, added anything to the story. The last decision left to make then was; what happened to Grace?

I did not in fact decide what had happened to Grace until very close to the end of writing the book. For the majority of the book I was vacillating wildly between possible culprits. But unlike with the first draft this was fine, because the structure supported it; there was inbuilt flexibility. I didn’t need to know. And actually, not knowing gave me the chance to explore the nuances that lay within all my characters.

By the closing chapters I had two possible outcomes to choose from and I went with the one that felt, whilst it was in no way a twist (I can’t write twists! I have huge respect for authors who can!), the least expected. I can say no more about the ending in case you’re reading this before you’ve read the book, but to me, it felt both very right and very wrong, a subversion of everything we want to believe about children and about people, but also horribly believable. I’ve read numerous news reports since writing my novel that have backed up the choice I made and confirmed that what I’d written was all too real.

In the end I finished this book in three months and delivered it two weeks ahead of deadline. It did, as some rare and wonderful books do, write itself. It just took six months and forty thousand discarded words to get there!