Lisa Jewell, THE FAMILY REMAINS: A Novel

Lisa Jewell, THE FAMILY REMAINS: A Novel

#1 New York Times bestselling author (and repeat MDHTTRB guest) Lisa Jewell joins Zibby to discuss her latest book The Family Remains, the spellbinding, perfectly plotted, and shocking sequel to The Family Upstairs. Lisa talks about her initial reluctance to write this book (she was bullied into it by her fans!), all of her haphazard editorial choices (that are actually just brilliant), and the books she is working on now (including a top-secret, never-done-before project in a brand new genre?!). Finally, she shares her best advice for aspiring authors.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Lisa. Thank you so much for coming back on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Family Remains.

Lisa Jewell: Lovely to be here. Thank you for asking me.

Zibby: I know that so many people were begging you to write this sequel. While I didn’t beg, I was so excited to see that you had done it. Here it is. Tell listeners a little bit about why you decided to write a sequel to The Family Upstairs. You said it was a very reluctant sequel, but you’re glad you did it. Let me hear more about it.

Lisa: It was. I had already written one sequel in my career. That was a sequel to my first novel, Ralph’s Party, which came out in 1999. I did a sequel ten years after that. I really, really did not enjoy writing it. I really, really don’t like that book. The fact that I wrote it has always upset me. I always think, why did I write that book? It absolutely made me even more determined that I was never going to write another sequel. I always say my favorite thing about writing novels is starting novels and creating a whole new world and introducing myself and the reader to a whole new cast of characters. Having said for many, many years I’d never write a sequel, I let my readers talk me into this one. It kind of was my fault in a way because I’d ended The Family Upstairs on a note that suggested there might be a sequel, even though that wasn’t my intention in the least. Of course, a lot of readers took that to mean that there was going to be a sequel and wrote to me on social media. Is there going to be a sequel? Please tell me there is going to be a sequel. Eventually, I just got ground down a bit and started saying, yeah, all right, I’ll do one. It was a much, much happier experience and outcome. I’m glad I let myself get bullied into it.

Zibby: It was so neat. I hadn’t read, honestly, a sequel to a book in — I can’t even think of the last sequel I read. It felt like taking up with old friends, kind of odd friends in your book, and getting to live life fast-forwarded in only a couple years. It was a very neat readerly experience for anyone who’s read the first book, but I’m sure that you could just jump right into this one.

Lisa: It was designed to be read as a standalone, but I do secretly tell readers that they’ll have more fun with it if they’ve read the first one as well.

Zibby: Yes. You do back up and explain a lot, too, in your very funny way.

Lisa: You have to have a very soft touch with those. Otherwise, they sound a bit like info dumps. I had to be quite careful with those.

Zibby: I was sort of confused as to how Chicago got thrown into the mix here. How did you enlist that city to be a key player here?

Lisa: There’s an interesting background to that in as much as, the end of The Family Upstairs, it sounds very much as if Finn is in Botswana. In fact, Finn is in Botswana. Henry, our character from The Family Upstairs, is obsessed with Finn and is delighted to have finally found where Finn is after twenty years of trying to track him down. Thus, I thought going into writing a sequel that Henry would be going to Botswana to find Finn. Then the pandemic hit. Finn works as a big-game ranger at a safari park in Botswana. I thought, I can’t write about this if I haven’t experienced it. Obviously, I’m going to have to go to Africa and go on safari and have that experience. I couldn’t do that because I couldn’t travel. I had to backpedal pretty quickly and think, okay, if he’s not in Botswana, where is he? Because in the back of my head I’d always assumed that Finn was gay, even though that’s not stated explicitly in the first book, but in my head, he was gay, I just randomly thought of a place that was associated in my mind with a big gay community. Parts of Chicago have very big LGBTQ communities. That was where Chicago came from. Very random. A decision made in a split second. I don’t think I realized quite how much of the book was going to actually be set in Chicago from that point on. It’s a pretty full-on Chicago novel.

Zibby: Do you sniff people’s heads to see if you’re compatible? I have to ask because you have this — can I read this? You said, “Rachel turned and quietly sniffed the crown of Michael’s head. If you liked the smell of someone’s scalp, she’d always theorized, then you were probably sexually compatible, and she did like the smell of Michael’s scalp. It had the scent of someone who shampooed daily, who never slept on grubby pillowcases or pulled on a sweaty baseball cap or ate a cheap burger and then ran their fingers through their hair. It had squeaky-clean tones of sandalwood and citrus but just enough musky hormonal tang to differentiate from a spray of cheap room perfume.” That is quite a scalp description.

Lisa: That is. I had no idea I spent so much of my book just discussing Michael’s scalp, and particularly as I don’t think I’m that obsessed. I’ll tell you, my husband is obsessed with the smell of scalps. He just loves the smell of scalps. I think you shouldn’t be able to smell a scalp. If you get near someone’s hair and you can smell what’s underneath their hair, I don’t like it. For me, no smell is ideal. I don’t know about the sexual compatibility. I guess if you like the way someone smells, full stop, it’s a good thing.

Zibby: That’s probably true, yes. You also had this other funny line, just because I love how you write. This is further forward. We were talking about Finn and Henry. You said, “He told me when he was fifteen years old that he was going to be a safari guy one day. I have no idea what route he took from the house of horrors we grew up in to get there, but he did it. Did I want to be the founding partner of a trendy boutique software-design solutions company back then when I was a child? No, of course I didn’t. I wanted to be whatever life threw at me, the thing that I would be after I’d done all the normal things that people do when they haven’t grown up in a house of horrors and then spent their young adulthood living alone in bedsits with no academic qualifications, no friends, and no family. I wanted to be that thing.” You’re so funny.

Lisa: Poor Henry. It’s so sad. Poor all of them. It’s so sad. That is also a thing that I often think. When parents — their children are small, and their child shows some sort of talent or propensity for something. The parent immediately thinks they might be a surgeon. They might be a ballerina. They might be a writer. They might be an actor. There’s all these fantasy roles that you imagine that your child could fulfil taking their innate skills out into the world. Most people end up with jobs with really, really long and unwieldy titles that don’t really mean anything. Most people just end up working in an office, I think is the bottom line. That’s obviously what happened to Henry with all his other options taken away from him.

Zibby: Last funny line. Then I’ll stop quoting lines that I liked. You said, “Luckily, I have my mother’s physique, but sadly, more than my fair share of my father’s coarse facial features. I have done my best with what nature gave me. Money can’t buy you love, but it can buy you a chiseled jaw, perfectly aligned teeth, and plumped-up lips.”

Lisa: There you go.

Zibby: There you go. That’s all you need to know about love and life and money and all the rest.

Lisa: That’s a massive fault of Henry’s character in this sequel. You become much more aware in this sequel of how obsessed he was with Finn. All those things he’s done to his face have been an attempt to make himself look like Finn. In reality, if you were actually to see Henry Lamb on the street, you’d probably be slightly thrown by the look of him because he’s done a little bit too much to his face over the years. It’s funny, but it’s also quite sad.

Zibby: One of my favorite moments was the cringe-worthy scene when he was trying to track down Finn in the apartment. This poor young landlord showed him inside. He wanted to take the pictures. Then he’s like, should we hang out after? He was like, no, thank you. No, I’m good.

Lisa: Yes, that’s right, when he finds Finn’s apartment, but he’s not living in it.

Zibby: That was so funny.

Lisa: I really enjoyed writing that scene because it was a perfect opportunity to capture how uncomfortable Henry makes other people feel. The reader feels a slight connection with Henry and maybe even a slight fondness. It’s good to put him in situations where the reader is reminded that, actually, if you were in a room with Henry, you’d be feeling very uncomfortable and wanting to leave.

Zibby: I don’t want to give away things towards the end. How you tied everything up, I was not expecting. Well done. So you decide to write a sequel. How did you even approach this? Did you know? Was it all as haphazard as your choice of Chicago?

Lisa: Yes, it was really pretty, pretty haphazard. I just jumped in. I knew without any shadow of a doubt that Henry was going to be my star turn, obviously. His pursuit of Finn was going to be the main thrust of the novel. Even at the beginning, I wasn’t sure if I was going to revisit Lucy. I wasn’t sure how much more gas was left in the tank of her story. She came in. I made that decision quite late on in the process. The only other thing I knew for sure was I wanted to explore Rachel’s relationship with Michael. In the first novel, in The Family Upstairs, Michael is killed by Lucy in an act of self-defense. It’s mentioned briefly that his wife Rachel is in London. That’s why she’s not there in the house in France at the point at which Lucy kills him. It always occurred to me that there was a whole story waiting to be played out there. Who is Rachel? What does she think when she finds out that somebody’s murdered her husband? Is she going to be sad? Is she going to be elated? Was he as bad to her as he was to Lucy? What’s the story with Rachel? I knew that. I knew we were definitely going to have Rachel. We were definitely going to have Henry. I thought about Lucy. She was a last-minute decision.

Another huge surprise in the novel is Samuel Owusu, my London detective. I had not for a moment suspected I was going to have a whole police procedural thing playing out in the background. I knew that I wanted this scene where these bones are found on the shores of the River Thames. I wanted to write that scene. That involved creating a detective who would appear at the scene of this discovery of these bones. Then he sort of stuck around for the rest of the novel. I wrote my very, very first literary detective. I’ve never written one before. It was haphazard. It did all come together in a kind of clanking, amazing, thrilling mess of, oh, what am I going to do now? Then as I always write, because I don’t write with a plan and I do just throw things into the mix as I go, had to find a way to so very, very neatly tie up all that sort of messiness and chaos into a lovely, neat hem at the end so that everyone would feel satisfied. There’d be no loose threads. That was challenging, but I think I did it.

Zibby: You did it. Bravo. It was great, really satisfying, very satisfying. Amazing. What are you doing now that this is out?

Lisa: At some point between finishing that book and starting my next novel, I was also invited to write a full-length novel in another genre, which I can’t talk about because it’s highly confidential at the moment. It was an irresistible offer. In accepting that offer to write a different genre, full-length novel, it’s meant that I’ve had to write — I write a novel a year. I now need to write three novels in two years instead of two novels in two years. I’ve had to very quickly turn around the novel that comes after The Family Remains, which is coming out next summer. It’s called None of This is True. It’s totally different to The Family Remains. It could not be more different if it tried. Now I’ve started writing this out-of-genre special project, top-secret novel, which needs to be finished by April. Then I’ll start writing my next normal Lisa Jewell novel, which will be finished by the end of 2023. Not a lot of downtime going on for me at the moment.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. How many hours a day do you have to write to crank all of this out? Don’t you take big breaks and things?

Lisa: I do take big breaks. I just realized the minute I accepted this extra project, I thought, the big breaks, they’re not going to be happening for me this year. That’s fine. I’m very happy. I can sleep when I’m old. It’s fine.

Zibby: You have to say more about this secret project. What do you mean it came to you? Somebody thought of an idea for a project?

Lisa: My London agent phoned me up with a slight tone of disbelief in his voice. He said, “I’m not sure I can explain this to you, so I’m just going to read this to you, this email that’s just arrived in my inbox.” We were both laughing nervously because it’s a massive — I’m trying to talk about this without letting you know what it is. It’s something that’s never been done before for a fictional universe that’s very, very famous. I can’t really talk about this. It’s an experimental, brand-new thing. There’s never been a novel in this genre before. Mine will be the very first novel in this genre. It’s an experiment. I’m kind of a guinea pig.

Zibby: I got it.

Lisa: It’s going to be exciting. It’s the sort of thing where you think, you’re only on this earth once. If somebody offers you something where you’re going to be part of something that’s so huge, you can’t say no. You can’t say no, even if it does mean you don’t get to take your nice, big summer break as I normally do. It’s exciting. It’s challenging. It’s pushing me. It’s making me do things I don’t normally. For example, I never normally do any research at all. For this project, I’m having to do research.

Zibby: I’m dying to hear. I’m trying to guess. This is another mystery.

Lisa: I think you probably have. I think you’ve probably already guessed it.

Zibby: I have not guessed it.

Lisa: I can’t do poker face.

Zibby: I’ll leave it at that. That’s amazing. I’m really excited about all of that. How do you balance it when you’re — okay, you’ll sleep later, but what are you going to do to make sure —

Lisa: — I can’t write all day anyway. Even writing at this pace, at this level of productivity, I’m only going to be writing for a maximum of four hours a day, three usually. What it does mean is it’s less of those sorts of weeks where if your friend says, “What are you doing on Wednesday? I’m in town. Let’s go for lunch,” you don’t say yes. You say, no, I can’t because then I won’t get my three hours of writing in. It’s less that I’m working around the clock and staying up all night and burning the candle and all that sort of business and more that I just have to be much more professional, much more present, and much more disciplined about being at my laptop for three or four hours a day. Don’t feel too sorry for me. It’s not so bad.

Zibby: Okay, I won’t. A couple missed lunches. Sounds good. Do you find time to read? Do you make reading a priority?

Lisa: God, and this is the title of your podcast. It’s such a difficult thing for me at the moment. Something flipped when the pandemic started. I think a lot of people, when the pandemic started and they were forced to be at home all the time, thought, cool, I can get going on my TBR pile. I’m going to just read my way through this pandemic. I went the other way. I just became addicted to my phone during the pandemic because everything I really wanted to know about, all the stats and reports and announcements and everything, they were all on my phone. I just lost the habit of reading. Now I find it really, really difficult. The only time I can read happily and satisfactorily is on a sun lounger on holiday. I can’t really look at my phone properly in the sunshine, so that’s probably why. I’ve really struggled to read at the moment. It’s really sad and terrible. I’m hoping it’s something I can fix, not least because I have, literally, about two hundred and fifty books in my TBR pile, all of which I want to read because I only put them on that pile if I seriously want to read them.

Zibby: Don’t feel bad. You’ve acknowledged the problem.

Lisa: Yes, acknowledged the problem. That’s the first step to solving it.

Zibby: Exactly. There’s a season for everything. It sounds like you’re super busy.

Lisa: That’s a nice way of thinking about it. I have to visualize myself in maybe a year’s time or two years’ time sitting in an armchair flying through the pages of the books reading happily with my phone nowhere to be seen, in another room.

Zibby: It is true. Sometimes I look up from my phone long enough — I was at the hair place yesterday. I took my daughters both to get their haircuts. Every woman in the line getting the shampoo before the haircut had a phone held up while they were having their shampoos done. I was just thinking, we can’t even — that’s the equivalent of taking a shower. You can’t even stop long enough to get the five-minute or two-minute shampoo. What’s going to happen in those two minutes? I do the same thing. It’s like, really? Is that productivity really that important right then?

Lisa: I don’t even know if it’s to do with productivity and just to do with the fact that we’re not used to just staring into space or closing our eyes or not having anything to look at.

Zibby: It’s scary.

Lisa: Yeah, it is. It is scary. It’s insidious. It’s a habit I hope to break. Like you say, acknowledging the problem is the first step.

Zibby: I’ll be cheering for you, Lisa, with your reading rehab and all of it. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Lisa: Oh, god, yeah. It’s really hard. It’s really hard because I think every aspiring writer comes to writing with a different sort of mindset. Some can want to write a book but not know how to start. Some can want to write a book but have too many ideas and not know how to decide which is the idea. Some have the wrong motivations for it, wanting to write a big book and have a huge best-seller. Some people have been writing all their life but never quite got to the point of writing a novel. Some people haven’t written a word but want to just break out onto the page. There are so many different types of want-to-be writers out there with different motivations and points of view. All I can talk about is how I managed to do it. For me, it’s almost like that “dance as if nobody’s watching” kind of thing. You’ve got to be really un-self-conscious and really in the moment. You’ve just got to be in the moment and not think about the market and not think about that book that just came out that sold a million copies or not think about what so-and-so would think if they read it or not think about, will you be judged? Do you sound silly? Is this literary enough? Just be in the moment and present with your book. Concentrate on getting words onto the screen because that’s the only way it’s going to happen. Every time you type a word, you’ve done a good thing. Don’t need to worry too much about that word or what it means or where it’s all going. Just keep making those words appear on the screen until you have got a draft. Then once you’ve got your first draft, you just need to polish it until it sings. I think a lot of writers starting out overthink it all a bit much and think there’s more to it than there is. There really isn’t that much to it apart from putting words on the screen, so do that thing.

Zibby: Do that thing. We will do that thing. Amazing. Thank you for writing The Family Remains and tying up so many open questions and opening up a few new ones.

Lisa: I hope not too many. I’m not sure there’s going to be a third one.

Zibby: Full circle. We saw each other right before the pandemic. Now here we are. I’m glad, at least, I got to meet you in person before all of that happened.

Lisa: Absolutely. Everything that happened before that felt like just such a gift in retrospect.

Zibby: I know. It’s so true. Delighted to chat with you again. Good luck on your secret project. I can’t wait to hear what it is.

Lisa: Thank you. Hopefully, I’ll be allowed to tell the world about it soon. Thank you so much for having me. It was a wonderful chat.

Zibby: Bye, Lisa.

Lisa: Take care. Bye.

Zibby: Take care.

Lisa Jewell, THE FAMILY REMAINS: A Novel

THE FAMILY REMAINS: A Novel by Lisa Jewell

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