Richard and Judy Interview: Lisa Jewell on The Girls

Richard and Judy Interview: Lisa Jewell on The Girls

Setting this book in a communal garden is a stroke of genius, a brilliant way to tell the story. What gave you the idea?

My husband and I moved into a flat on a communal garden fourteen years ago. The estate agent showed me the garden and I remember thinking, flippantly; ‘great, somewhere to sunbathe.’ I was pregnant with our first child at the time and had no idea of the impact that the space would have on our lives as our family grew. Like Virginia Gardens, our garden is shared by many different types of households; there’s a lot of cooperatively owned and social housing around our garden, (including, as in the book, a halfway house for recently released female prisoners with young children.) This means that a lot of people have lived on the garden since they were children themselves. One neighbour in particular, who’s lived here since she was teenager, was a source of much salacious history and many hair raising anecdotes about the things she’d seen and the stories she’d heard. As a writer my antenna went up immediately but for a long time I couldn’t think of how to make the garden itself into a story without just writing about my neighbours. It wasn’t until my children were much older and starting to become more independent in the garden that I realised there was a very different kind of story to be told; the story of the flipside of all that freedom, the running in and out of other people’s houses, the close-knit community – the story of the worst case scenario.

You manage to make the community garden seem at once gloriously innocent and yet deeply sinister. As you live near a place like this, is that your experience in real life?

I do remember my mother, the first time I took her out into our communal gardens, saying; well, you know you won’t be able to let your child out here on her own. You have no idea who’s behind those closed doors.’ And of course she was absolutely right, I did have no idea. But I have lived here now for fourteen years and not once in all that time have I heard or seen anything that has made me uncomfortable about allowing my children to roam free. But that of course would make a very boring book! Creating a ‘parallel’ communal garden was a brilliant opportunity to really explore what makes us feel ‘safe’, to look at what it is about certain people that can set alarm bells ringing, the legacy of bad reputations, how we decide who to trust and what to believe and how that can change in a second if the worst thing happens. And rather than peopling my book with goodies and baddies, I created characters who encompassed both sides of the coin. At each twist and turn you can believe the very worst or the very best of each of them. And the walled in garden acts as a kind of crucible, bringing together all these issues, all these people, the long, hot summer turning up the heat under them.

The children in your book are mostly on the verge of puberty and their emotions are labile and quite dark. Have you observed groups of children interacting like this?

When I was a child we went to Norfolk for six weeks every summer and stayed on a caravan site with three or four other families. We had similar levels of freedom as the children on my garden. We formed gangs and cliques and boys were a thing but we weren’t quite sure what and there were hormones and small rebellions and convoluted plans and people were in or they were out and some of us were young for our age and some were old for our age and it just took a new child arriving or a boy suddenly becoming handsome to completely tip everything over. One of the most interesting things about living in a community like mine, where people rarely move is that you get to see other people’s children growing up over a long time frame and at quite close quarters and unlike children of that age group in more traditional communities, they have a safe space to hang out together away from their parents. There are certain benches and nooks in our garden that are colonised by the tweens and teens every summer and there is a very particular atmosphere about them. I find that age group – eleven to thirteen – quite fascinating; their thoughts and preoccupations can be so dark, almost twisted, yet in another setting they can play happily with Sylvanian Families for an hour. I was particularly fascinated by the difference between a twelve year old and and a thirteen year old which is why I gave Grace and Pip such a small age gap. And of course I wanted to explore what would happen if a child at that precarious, ambiguous age was tipped over the edge by circumstances.

Is Pip your favourite character?

For a writer there are always two favourite characters in each book: The one who was the nicest and the one that was the most fun to write. In the case of this novel I’d say that yes, Pip was my nicest character. She is pure, very aware of the darkness around the edges of everything but not yet holding it within herself. She is also perceptive and articulate in the way of a very particular type of young girl, the sort of girl you know will always make good decisions and be true to herself, the sort of girl you’d like your own daughter to be friends with in fact! But the character I had the most fun writing was Gordon, without a doubt. I hadn’t originally intended for him to come to London, he was meant only as a backdrop to Leo and Adele’s story, but I couldn’t stop thinking about him and his swollen foot and his African bride and his terrible reputation so I brought him over to see what he would do. I got slightly carried away at times writing for Gordon; because he is clearly so unutterably awful that I had free rein to let him say, think or do whatever he wanted. In the end my editor made me cut out a fair amount of his more politically incorrect and unsavoury observations for fear of putting the reader off him entirely! It’s hugely important to me that no matter how badly my characters behave, my readers still retain a little fondness or understanding of them.