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Author Talk: August 11, 2022

THE FAMILY REMAINS is a stand-alone sequel to Lisa Jewell’s 2019 thriller, THE FAMILY UPSTAIRS, an intricate and affecting novel about twisted marriages, fractured families and deadly obsessions. In this interview, Jewell explains some of the challenges she faced in writing this much-anticipated follow-up (which so many of her readers were asking for) and what excited her the most about it. She also talks about the character whose development surprised her the most from the first book to the second, reveals her ideal future for the Lambs and Rachel, and previews her next novel, which is very different from THE FAMILY REMAINS.

Question: What were you most excited to return to in writing a sequel to THE FAMILY UPSTAIRS?

Lisa Jewell: I think you would not be at all surprised to guess that I was most excited to return to the voice of Henry and to find out what happened when he and Phin finally had their reunion! But I was also worried that I would miss the joy of bringing new characters to life on the page, so once Rachel Rimmer and Samuel Owusu arrived on the scene, that’s when the book really came alive for me.

Q: What were some of the challenges you faced writing a sequel?

LJ: So many challenges. So many. I shan’t be writing another one, let me put it that way. The most challenging aspect was trying to provide enough detail from the first book for a stand-alone reader to know what was going on, without clumsily info-dumping every few pages. The second most challenging aspect was not being able to tinker with the first book so that it would fit better with things I wanted to do with the second book! As a writer, you’re so used to being able to go back and change things to make the book work better. But with a sequel, you’re stuck with things you wrote years earlier and there’s nothing you can do about them.

Q: Did reader reactions to the first novel influence how you wrote this second novel at all?

LJ: Absolutely. I always pledged that I would never write another sequel after I wrote AFTER THE PARTY, the sequel to my first novel, RALPH’S PARTY. I hadn’t enjoyed the experience and didn’t like the resultant book, and thus was very adamant at first when readers were asking for a sequel to THE FAMILY UPSTAIRS that I would not do one. But as the weeks and months passed and the pleas kept coming, I started to wonder about Henry and Phin and what might be happening in Botswana. Then I wondered about Michael Rimmer’s wife, Rachel, and then I wondered what might happen if someone found Birdie’s remains. Then I thought, you know what, let’s give the people what they want, but make it something that I will really have fun writing. So I did.

Q: You must have felt you knew the characters pretty well when you started writing this follow-up. But as you wrote, did they develop in any ways that surprised you?

LJ: They certainly did! Especially Phin. I really had no handle on Phin at all. He was an absolute enigma in the first book. In particular, I had no set idea about his sexuality. I had always sort of assumed that he was gay, but it wasn’t until I started to write the scenes in Chicago that I found my way to who he really was, and by the end he had surprised me. I think he needed to be less ambiguous than Henry, to balance out that slipperiness of his nemesis. He needed to be solid and absolutely at one with himself. I was excited to get to the last scene, which I knew I would write from his point of view, and to be inside his head for the first and only time. I liked him very much, more than I expected to. Henry surprised me too, by not being as malevolent as I’d imagined he was going to be. But as I say, there's still potential for him to go darker!

Q: Why did you decide to have the Lambs leave London? What intrigued you about showing them away from home?

LJ: I knew that Henry was going to leave London, of course, from before I wrote the first word. The whole impetus for the sequel was to show him finding Phin, who was very much in Botswana, at the end of the first book. I had always assumed that Henry would go to Botswana, but I changed tack at the last minute and sent him to Chicago instead. I didn’t decide until halfway through to send Lucy after him, but realized their stories needed to align more closely as the book developed. So it wasn’t a case of wanting to show the characters away from London; it was more that they could not feasibly be in London in order for it work as a sequel to the first book.

Q: After Henry is caught by the police and then let go, he thinks to himself, “Chicago has healed me…. When I get back to London, I will reclaim my identity. I will reclaim Henry Lamb. I will own the little boy who I last saw looking at me in a mirror in a Chelsea townhouse all those years ago.” Do you think Henry will ever really be healed? Do you think he can actually reclaim his childhood self and live as Henry Lamb?

LJ: I do not believe that Henry will ever be healed, and in the corners of my mind I see a dozen more adventures for Henry to have in various guises. He could be a real Tom Ripley if I were prepared to revisit him. I also do still believe he could kill again, in certain scenarios! But I think I will leave him there, in the corners of my mind. It is time to move on from Henry now.

Q: Why were Birdie and Michael’s murders the crimes you wanted to focus on for this follow-up novel? What about them made for good entry points into revisiting the Lamb family?

LJ: As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t really want to do a sequel. I like starting each new book as an empty canvas and filling it with new and exciting things. So the only way I could make myself want to write a whole book about the Lambs was by introducing new people, new angles, new backstories. I wouldn’t have written the sequel if it had been merely a rehash of all the points of view from the first one.

Q: We don’t hear from Libby as much in this novel as we did in THE FAMILY UPSTAIRS. Why did you decide to use her less in the narrative?

LJ: Libby was the detective character in the first novel. Along with Miller, it was her job to find out what had happened at the house on Cheyne Walk, to uncover its secrets and rediscover her family. That was her function, and she did it well. I genuinely did not engage with her very much as a character when I was writing the first novel, especially compared to writing Lucy and Henry’s scenes, which I found utterly consuming. Libby was the archetypal “good girl,” simple and uncomplicated, and I did not think there was any room for any more development of her character. She didn’t have any detective work to do, so I was happy to leave her in the background.

Q: What most interested you in telling Rachel and Michael’s story? Were there elements you wanted to make sure you incorporated to highlight themes in the Lamb family story?

LJ: The original motivation for bringing Rachel’s storyline into the sequel was to see how she felt about the death of her husband. I wasn’t sure if she would be devastated by it, or relieved. I had mentioned her so fleetingly in the first novel that I felt like she was just waiting to be brought fully to life, and I wouldn’t know who she was or what her marriage had been like until I started writing her. The true horror of her marriage played out slowly as I wrote it and went to places I had not been expecting it to go. Coercive control is something I’ve written about a lot over my career, even in my very early “feel-good” novels. I experienced it in my first marriage in my early 20s, and it’s something that I think I will always revisit in my writing.

Q: The Lamb family home plays a large role in the first novel, but it’s being sold off in this one and we barely spend any time in it. Why did you decide you wanted to set THE FAMILY REMAINS outside of the home, and what did it allow you to explore by not being as tied to one location?

LJ: The story of the house was all told and finished at the end of the first book. One of the final scenes is Libby receiving the funds from the sale of the house, and so really there was no need to go back into the house. My detective, Samuel, obviously needed to see it once he realized it had been the backdrop to the death of Birdie Dunlop Evers, but apart from that, the role for the house in the story of the Lamb family was done. The house belonged to someone else now, not the story.

Q: Do you have an idea of what happens to the Lambs and Rachel in the future?

LJ: I wrote this sequel in an effort to comprehensively complete the stories of all of the characters from both books. So in my mind, Lucy settles into her beautiful new home in the country and goes to music school to learn to play the violin classically, while Rachel’s jewelry business goes from strength to strength and she finds a wonderful man who finally give her what she’s looking for. Libby and Miller get married, of course. And Phin goes back to Botswana, but now has a close relationship with his daughter, Libby, and his mother and sister down in Cornwall. It’s only Henry, really, who is a loose end. And that he shall remain now, forevermore.

Q: Can you tell us about what you’re working on next?

LJ: I am nearly at the end of writing my 21st novel. It doesn’t have an official title yet, but it is entirely different from THE FAMILY REMAINS, in terms of both scope and setting. THE FAMILY REMAINS is a big, globetrotting book with a huge cast of characters, backstories, police investigations and so much going on. This one is small and quiet by comparison, about two women who live in the same corner of north London. Alix is a podcast journalist who interviews successful and fascinating women about their lives and careers. On her 45h birthday, she meets a woman called Josie at her local pub. Struck by her utter ordinariness, Alix decides to see if she might make an interesting podcast out of what looks like a very small and uninteresting life. But as the recording sessions go deeper and deeper into the truth of Josie’s life, Alix soon realizes that Josie is not as ordinary as she appears. She is hiding some very, very dark secrets, and soon Alix is sucked so deeply into the darkness of Josie’s life that she fears she may never see the light again. It will be published in summer 2023.