Today, we wish a happy publication day to Jane Lythell. Her new novel, Woman of the Hour, is a twisty drama of rivalry, manipulation and deceit in a London television station. This is the first in a new series featuring the powerful but vulnerable Liz Lyons, producer at StoryWorld. Christine Breen, fellow Prime Writer, met Jane in London where they chatted about her new novel.
One of the major themes of your novel is mothering. Liz Lyons, the central character, is referred to as being the mother of the television station. Being a mother to Flo is central to the novel as Liz continues to juggle life as a career woman and a single parent. In your life as a television producer, Jane, how did you balance the two? Is it still a balancing act — now that you are a full time novelist?
It is a theme that is very important to me. I worked in TV for 15 years, mainly in the area of features and live TV. It’s a seductive industry because you feel you are at the centre of things and it’s difficult to give that up. But it can be a burn-out industry. You are expected to work until the show is ready – of course, and it is difficult for mothers, especially when your child gets ill. I left TV when my daughter Amelia was nine as I felt I wasn’t spending enough time with her.
I wanted to write about women in the workplace. Many books focus on women as mothers, lovers, daughters and sisters, the stresses and strains of our home and our emotional lives. I’ve seen much less about a woman struggling with the pressures of work. Yet that had been my life. A working mother, trying to keep all the balls up in the air, feeling conflicted about competing pressures. I wanted to explore that.
For me it isn’t a balancing act any longer as my daughter Amelia is all grown up and working in fashion. In fact she gave me expert advice on the fashion elements in Woman of the Hour. I am lucky to have much more control over my working life than ever before and it is a joy.
You’ve said that you write up a page on each of your characters: What food they like to eat, what home they would live in and what single thing they fear most in their lives. It’s a very useful tool that helps you create characters that your readers will believe in. In Woman of the Hour there’s a point where Liz is training a newbie about research for guests on the show and advises her to find out everything she can. She says: ‘You know: the stuff of life that reveals the real person.’ It’svery clear that Liz likes to cook. And there’s a chef in the StoryWorld TV station. I was wondering if cooking is something you love doing in your down time and what other things you do when you’re not writing.
I love cooking now but I didn’t have much time to do it when I was a TV producer. I put the cooking scenes in the novel because it’s a way for my heroine Liz Lyon to de-compress after a demanding day at work. I have her cook comfort recipes like macaroni cheese and spaghetti carbonara and it’s to reveal her character.
Food has featured in all three of my novels and I think you can learn a lot about a character from their approach to food. I included some recipes at the back of the book under the heading Comfort Recipes for the Stressed-Out!
Another of my great interests is gardening and I’ve recently got involved with a community garden in Brighton. It’s small and yet we grow many varieties of fruit, vegetables and flowers. For the first time ever I’ve grown sweet peas, sweetcorn, tomatoes and basil from seed and watching them unfurl from tiny seedling to flourishing plant does remind me of the writing process. When you start out on a novel, even if you have prepared a treatment, there is no real knowing how it will turn out. It’s only as you start to write the scenes that the characters emerge like seedlings.
You refer to Hitchcock’s Marnie in your novel. And in the book’s acknowledgments you mention your conversations about Marnie with fellow Prime Writer Rebecca Mascull as being helpful. Was the character, originally created by Winston Graham in his novel of the same name, an inspiration for your characters?
I did have a fantastic discussion with Becca about Marnie and in fact when I’m asked who inspires me I always say Alfred Hitchcock for one, a film-maker rather than a writer. I worked in film for years and for me Hitchcock is the master at creating suspense and I learned a great deal from repeated viewings of his films.
However the reason I included the film Marnie in the novel was because the film has a near-rape scene in it and I wanted that to act as a comment on the plot of my book. I can’t say too much without giving the plot away but let’s just say that my heroine Liz Lyon is very uncomfortable while she is watching the film.
Astrology also features in your novel as a sub-theme. Did you decide on the star sign of your characters? Do you think, like the character Gerry the astrologer on StoryWorld,, that knowing a person’s star sign is revealing?
I love my character Gerry Melrose the Astrologer to the stars. I don’t believe in astrology although I find the idea of Star Signs and Types rather intriguing and entertaining. I used the astrology angle for its comic potential. There’s a scene where Gerry in all seriousness warns Liz to ‘Beware Scorpio women!’ Liz has to act as if she’s grateful for this advice as Gerry gets offended if anyone disrespects astrology.
And yes I did decide what star sign my key characters would be. Fizzy Wentworth the star presenter of StoryWorld has to be a confident and ambitious Leo. Gerry himself is a sensitive and intuitive Pisces and Harriet is a less than straightforward Scorpio. By the end of the book we are still unsure about Harriet’s motivations so maybe there is something in it.
Ha! I always stay clear of Scorpions too. Finally, your debut novel The Lie of You came out in 2014 and After The Storm in 2015. Now your third novel is being published. A book a year. That’s impressive. Do you write 9-5? Can we expect book four, which will be the second in the series of StoryWorld, to be out next year? Will the readers see many of the same characters? I imagine we haven’t heard the last of Harriet!
It has been a bit of a whirlwind though I did have a draft of The Lie of You from before. It’s a book that had been growing in me for a long time. I feel I have a lot of stories to tell but I couldn’t possibly write from nine to five, I just don’t have the stamina or levels of concentration. But I am quite disciplined. I write in the mornings and refuse all invitations to see mates until the afternoon, my downtime for walks and socialising. Sometimes I manage to write in the evening for a couple of hours too. I write standing up. I’ve rigged up my laptop on a tray on legs and it’s a bit Heath Robinson but writing standing up makes me feel more alert.
Head of Zeus has commissioned a second book in the StoryWorld series and I’m really happy about that. I got very fond of my characters and Liz Lyon the producer, Julius Jones the scary boss, Fizzy the presenter, Ledley the chef, Gerry the astrologer and Harriet the enigma will all be back in summer 2017.