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Cashing in on emotional carnage of pained lives

Lisa Jewell reflects on her own experiences when she writes about dysfunctional families and complicated relationships. Hannah Stephenson finds out what it takes to be a bestselling novelist

Bestselling women's fiction writer Lisa Jewell doesn't have to look too far for inspiration when she pens her contemporary stories of difficult relationships and torn families.

The award-winning novelist, whose previous books include Ralph's Party, One-Hit Wonder, 31 Dream Street and The Truth About Melody Browne, admits that some of her understanding of difficult relationships stems from her own parents' divorce when she was in her early 20s.

Her latest book, The Third Wife, centres on a serial husband whose third wife is killed when she is run over by a bus, but did she commit suicide or was it an accident?

Slowly the plot of their complicated family situation emerges, along with the baggage of his two previous marriages and a clutch of children, but essentially it's about the emotional carnage left by a man who keeps walking away from the family unit. Coincidentally, Lisa's own father left their family home when she was 21.

"My father, Anthony, was a textile agent who sold fabric in the West End and was away a lot. He was very glamorous. When he first met my mum, he swept her off into this big, social world.

"When there were three of us [she has two sisters] my mother was happy to let my dad go off and be glamorous and exciting. He wasn't particularly successful at parenting. His style wasn't very good. He was a strict disciplinarian, flying off the handle, thinking his children should be little soldiers who line up in a row and do as they are told.

"He'd come home and we hadn't seen him for three days, but all he wanted to do was look at our homework. He wasn't much fun as a dad. He smacked us. It would be, 'Upstairs, now, over my knee!' We weren't scared of him, but it was much nicer when he wasn't there."

But she'll never forget the day her parents told her the news they were splitting up.

"We'd all left home apart from my youngest sister, who was then 16, when we were invited home for a Chinese takeaway and told by my parents that my father was leaving my mother that night, for his girlfriend who he'd been having an affair with for three years, and who was four years older than me. I was 21, she was 25.

"All that glamour and jet-setting was just a backdrop to him abusing his freedom and having affairs."

He went on to have other relationships, but neither of her parents married again.

"My father is now 77 and we went to see him on his birthday. He has this girlfriend who's 10 years younger than him who is very confused about the fact that none of us three girls want to see him. He has basically given her this Walt Disney version of events and we are slowly but surely giving her the real version.

"My mother had breast cancer when she was 39. He felt he handled it well, as he got her to the right consultant, but actually, he went on holiday to Barbados on his own when she came out of hospital, because it had all been so stressful. My mother was 45 when he left her.

"He's re-written the whole thing, saying she was happier and he was happier after he left, but actually, he shouldn't have done it. He should have stuck with her."

Jewell's mother died from cancer in 2005.

"She never forgave him. Even though there were times when they were both single and they used to spend time together, he would never apologise, or admit that he'd done anything wrong, and that's why we'll never forgive him. We're still waiting for him to say he's really sorry."

Jewell (46) says that the saddest thing is that she has no proper relationship with her father now. She is married with two children, but he doesn't have a relationship with them.

She wonders now if her father's behaviour affected the way she formed relationships with other men.

"If you feel that your father was lacking as a husband, it affects your own choice of man," she reflects.

Shortly after her father left the family home, she rushed into a disastrous marriage devoid of freedom or fun.

"My first husband dragged me out of London and made me live in the suburbs in Surrey – not where you want to be when you're 23'', she has said.

Jewell was 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 later married Jascha Gordon, with whom she has two daughters, Amelie Mae, aged 10 and seven-year-old Evie, and a much happier life.

"The most important thing for me with my husband is how much we talk. We are very good at talking about our emotions," says Jewell.

She's currently working on her next novel about three families living in houses with a communal garden in central London, rather like her own, which seems an idyllic setting initially, as children run in and out of each other's houses and have camp-outs in the shared space.

But, as is Lisa's trademark, slowly but surely the layers start unravelling, as all sorts of dark things happen behind closed doors.

"I mean, who would write a book about a happy family?" she asks.

The Third Wife by Lisa Jewell is published by Century, priced £12.99

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