British author Lisa Jewell’s debut novel, Ralph's Party, was an international bestseller. Eleven years later, Jewell revisits her characters Ralph and Jem in After the Party to explore what happens to a perfect couple when the strains of children, careers and everyday life threaten to overwhelm them.
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Here, Jewell, who says she scatters “bits of herself” in all her novels, discusses what prompted this long-awaited sequel, and how her art parallels—and departs from—her own life.
Many authors who write sequels to well-loved books do so promptly, in a “back by popular demand” spirit. What’s the story behind your delayed sequel?
I always told anyone who asked that I’d never do a sequel. The only real joy I get from writing is in creating new people, so it wasn’t something that had ever particularly appealed to me. Then it was coming up to the 10th anniversary of the publication of Ralph’s Party, I was about to sign a new contract in an increasingly difficult market, and I decided to offer it as a kind of gift to my publishers. I think I was hoping they’d say no, but they leapt on it, as did everyone I mentioned it to, and then I was stuck with it.
So I turned it to my advantage and used some old characters to explore what happens after the happily ever after and what small children do to idyllic relationships. I’d just come through a tough year after the birth our second daughter, I was full of rage and disappointment, and I wanted to put it out there. It was a harsh thing to do to well-loved characters, but in retrospect I can't imagine how else I would have handled a sequel to a book like Ralph’s Party.
In your acknowledgements, you thank those who couldn’t wait for a sequel and said this “spurred you on and terrified you.” How so?
Ever since Ralph’s Party came out I have kind of distanced myself from it. I wrote it not as a writer but as a young woman fulfilling her part of a bet. I didn’t expect it ever to be published, and I always thought it suffered a bit from a lack of self-consciousness.
Over the years, though, I’ve been aware that lots of people disagreed. They read it in their youth at a time when it resonated—some used it as a template for their perfect love affair, their ideal man. It held lots of fond memories for lots of people. So as much as I have no real emotional connection with the book anymore, I was still scared to spoil it for those who did.
In what ways was writing this novel harder or easier than writing the first?
This book was so much harder—off the scale. I hated writing this book. I was stymied by all these conflicting priorities: keeping Ralph’s Party fans happy, keeping the story bubbling along without losing the realness, avoiding clichés, keeping both perspectives open and believable, trying to inject some brighter moments into the dark without it sounding fake. It was also painful just wading about inside the minds of these two unhappy people for a year of both my and their lives. I have never felt as euphoric with relief as I did when I finally typed “The End” on this one.
Could you comment more on the autobiographical element in your work?
Retrospectively, I can see how much Ralph’s Party was influenced by my then two-year love affair with my husband. I was high on love at the time, and my writing was almost evangelical on the subject. As far as I was concerned, finding your soulmate, as I’d done and as Jem did, was the answer to absolutely everything. So I borrowed heavily from small details of my own love affair for the fictional affair between Ralph and Jem.
Then 10 years passed, two small girls arrived, and I no longer felt evangelical about love, but about the unfairness of modern relationships, about imbalances between mothers and father, about how women still do absolutely everything. That was what I wanted to shout about. So again, I borrowed details from my own marriage to inform the fictional marriage. But at no point would I ever say that I was Jem and my husband was Ralph. They are totally separate from us. They just happen to think the same way as us at times.
What differences would you point to? And were you glad your husband didn’t read the book?
The main difference between us as couples is that my husband and I really talk. About everything. We’d never have got into the same state is Ralph and Jem do because we are amazing communicators. And even though my husband doesn’t read fiction, or nonfiction for that matter, I would not have had any concerns about him reading this book. He would probably just nod sagely with a small smile.