Top romantic novelist Lisa Jewell reveals how her stifling first marriage fuelled her writing career, her dislike of being branded a 'chick-lit' author and why some of the bad boys of Britpop may recognise themselves in her latest book, Before I Met You.
By Hannah Stephenson.
Anyone who was behaving badly during the Britpop years of the Nineties may recognise the anti-hero pop star in Lisa Jewell's latest novel, Before I Met You.
He's a handsome, charismatic, divorced father-of-three who has moved out of the family home in fashionable north London, womanises, drinks and parties too much and has a fling with his nanny. Sound familiar?
Award-winning novelist Jewell, 44, whose previous books include Ralph's Party, One-Hit Wonder, 31 Dream Street and The Truth About Melody Browne, well remembers the Britpop years when she was living in Camden and would sometimes see Damon Albarn walk past her in the street.
"They were the best days of my life. I'd just fallen in love with my soulmate, the man I would have my children with," she says.
The man she was in love with was to become her second husband, but her first marriage had just come to an end.
"I'd been in this horrible marriage (she won't reveal her first husband's name) for five years in my 20s, stuck away in the middle of nowhere. He controlled everything I did so I didn't have any freedom or any fun. He dragged me out of London and made me live in the suburbs in Surrey - not where you want to be when you're 23."
Jewell was 22 when she married her first husband and 27 when she left him, after years of not seeing her friends or family. She used the experience for one of her books, Vince And Joy.
"He was three years older than me but it was like living with an introspective, grumpy, slobbish 50-year-old," she says.
Yet it was her first husband who fuelled her interest in books and encouraged her to write, she admits.
"If I hadn't been married to him I wouldn't have ended up being a writer. He really encouraged me to read and he made me grow up. I was very immature when I married him and I came out of five years with him as a grown woman. I owe him quite a lot."
Before I Met You is about a young woman called Betty who leaves the island of Guernsey, where she grew up, to trace the mysterious beneficiary in her grandmother's will. She moves to Soho, where she becomes a nanny to the children of a divorced pop star and his high-maintenance estranged wife.
Betty's romantic entanglements all add to the plot - should she fall for the rich, good-looking pop star or the potentially more loyal, caring market trader she meets outside her door?
It's about her coming of age in Britpop-era London and is interwoven with scenes from her grandmother's coming of age 75 years earlier. The two women both find themselves caught up with famous musicians and having to make difficult choices.
"I wanted her to fall in love with a pop star. He was like an an amalgam of a guy from Supergrass, Damon Albarn and the Gallagher brothers," says Jewell.
"I fell in love during the Britpop era. In 1995 I was 27 and I completely got caught up in Blur and Oasis and the fashion of the time."
She met her second husband, Jascha, at work - she was a receptionist for a shirt-making company and he was their IT consultant - and from then Jewell's life started to pick up.
"We met and fell in love and I got caught up in his social life, which was very robust. It wasn't quite wild, but there were lots of nights out in the pub, late-night curries and drinks by the canal - and listening to all that music," she recalls of their north London lifestyle.
They married four years after they met and had their first child three years later.
She may be good at writing romantic fiction but she says she's not particularly romantic in her everyday life.
"Someone asked me the other day if I liked big romantic gestures. I shuddered and said no. Flowers would be wasted on me. I don't like Valentine's. I don't need gifts. I'm a pragmatic romantic. I like the fact that my husband and I have been together for a long time and have a warm and colourful history together.
"We were nuts about each other and still are, but in a different way."
They now have two daughters, Amelie, eight, and Evie, five, who are both at school. Jewell is extremely disciplined on how she divides her time.
"I divide it into two-hour blocks - two hours for housework and internet, an hour-and-a-half at the gym, and then two hours' writing without the internet in a cafe."
She can't write at home or when she's online because it creates too many distractions, she says.
"If I'm sitting in a cafe with my laptop and no internet, I have no choice but to write. My day is very nicely structured now."
Brought up in north London, Jewell was always a bookworm. She studied art at Barnet College and then became a fashion PR before going on a creative writing course.
"Then a few months later I lost my job and thought I'd use my redundancy money to use the time to write a book." That book was Ralph's Party, which became the UK's best-selling debut novel in 1999.
She's now writing her 11th novel, The Bird House, about a family who are reunited when their hoarding mother dies and they have to clear out her house, which is when the wounds and scars start to appear.
Ralph's Party remains her most successful title, even though her subsequent novels have been best-sellers.
"It's quite weird when your first book is your most successful book and when you feel that you are constantly writing the best books you possibly can write, but never quite matching your success of earlier years. It's quite frustrating, in a way. But I shouldn't feel disappointed because I'm doing all right."
However, she hates the chick-lit label her books have often been given. Indeed, her books are so much more grown-up and intelligent than that genre implies.
"I know a lot of people like chick-lit and I'm very happy if it has a positive connotation for some people, but the problem is that it has a negative connotation for so many other people.
"There are people out there who would enjoy my books but wouldn't pick them up because they think it's not going to be for them. I find it infuriating. There's a lot more going on in my books than just romance."
:: Before I Met You by Lisa Jewell is published by Century, priced £9.99. Available July 19