Jane Lythell: ‘Flawed people are interesting. It doesn’t matter if your readers dislike them’

Brought to Book Q&A: Former Bafta CEO on her favourite authors and writing her own novels

Jane Lythell lives in Brighton. She was a producer at TV-am and commissioning editor at Westcountry Television, before leaving to become deputy director of the British Film Institute and later chief executive of Bafta before joining the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. She now writes full time. Her second novel After the Storm has just been published by Head of Zeus, following the publication of her debut The Lie of You last year. She tweets @janelythell

What was the first book to make an impression on you?

It was probably the Ladybird book of The Three Billy Goats Gruff when I was very little. I was scared of the troll under the bridge but found the book thrilling and wanted to hear it again and again.

What was your favourite book as a child?

The Borrowers by Mary Norton. I loved the idea of the little people borrowing, not stealing, the things they needed and they had their own code of honour and were never wasteful.

And what is your favourite book or books now?

The Shipping News by Annie Proulx and Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.

What is your favourite quotation?

On writing it is: “The first draft of anything is shit.” Ernest Hemingway

Who is your favourite fictional character?

Elizabeth Bennet and Augie March

Who is the most under-rated Irish author?

I don't know but I do know that I love the work of J.G. Farrell, John Banville, both as JB and as Benjamin Black, and Colm Toibin.

Which do you prefer - ebooks or the traditional print version?

Traditional print version as objects but I do read e-books.

What is the most beautiful book you own?

A book called Coleridge among the Lakes and Mountains which has maps and illustrations and extracts from his notebooks, letters and poems.

Where and how do you write?

I write standing up in my workroom in Brighton. I have rigged up a wooden tray on legs on top of my desk so that my laptop is at the right height. I find it makes me much more alert and it’s good for when I need to pace.

What book changed the way you think about fiction?

Great Expectations. I was reading it as an undergraduate and grasped how Dickens was not just telling the story of Pip’s coming of age he was also telling the story of his age and his society. I was enthralled by the way Dickens turns the class and moral order on its head so that it is Magwitch the convict who is the true gentleman and it is Miss Havisham the lady who is the crook. It is heady, radical, brilliant stuff.

What is the most research you have done for a book?

My second novel After the Storm needed a lot of research because it is set in Belize City and the island of Roatan in the Caribbean Sea. I have been to both places but I wanted to get the details right about sailing boats, about fishing and about the food of the region.

What book influenced you the most?

The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer which I read when I was 19.

What book would you give to a friend’s child on their 18th birthday?

I would give them a copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. I gave this to my daughter around that age. Who can resist: "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."

What book do you wish you had read when you were young?

I only recently read Troubles by J.G. Farrell and thought it was magnificent. I wish I had read it earlier.

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

I would say that it’s all about the characters you create. Don’t worry if your characters are flawed or have some nasty sides to them. Flawed people are interesting. It doesn’t matter if your readers dislike them or adore them. But it does matter if they don’t believe in them.

What weight do you give reviews?

I read them with interest and sometimes a theme may emerge. This can be revealing and helpful.

Where do you see the publishing industry going?

It will transform itself but it will keep going because people need stories.

What writing trends have struck you lately?

There seem to be a lot of crime series, often with a flawed character at their heart. As a former TV producer I can see the appeal of such series as readers, and later viewers if they are adapted, like to get to know a character in depth and to watch their development.

What lessons have you learned about life from reading?

Such a big question: for me reading has been such an important part of my life since I was a child and books have formed who I am. One thing I learned from reading is that life is full of possibilities.

What has being a writer taught you?

That I am finally doing something I wanted to do for years, that I have stories to tell and that it is always about the characters.

Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?

I would invite Samuel Taylor Coleridge, George Orwell, John Banville, Sue Townsend, Tariq Ali, Stephen King and Germaine Greer. But with Coleridge present I don't think any of us would get a word in edgeways.

What is the funniest scene you’ve read?

There are so many superbly funny sequences in Sue Townsend’s brilliant Adrian Mole novels that I can’t name one. My favourite of those books is Adrian Mole: The Prostrate Years. I think Sue Townsend was a comic genius.

What is your favourite word?


If you were to write a historical novel, which event or figure would be your subject?

My subject would be Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He fascinates me.

What sentence or passage or book are you proudest of?

I like this passage from The Lie Of You, my debut novel: “It was a dazzling day. I was lying on my stomach with my book in the long feathery grasses beyond the vegetable garden. It was so bright. The sunlight was bouncing off the pages and the black print crawled in front of my eyes like a procession of ants. I could smell the life in the earth and hear tiny scratchings and scurryings going on around me.”

What is the most moving book or passage you have read?

I would say the most moving novel I have read is Home by Marilynne Robinson

If you have a child, what book did you most enjoy reading to them?

I loved reading Pig in a Muddle to my daughter Amelia when she was little. It involves a pig who escapes from prison and has all kinds of adventures including being locked in a department store. It is told in satisfying rhyming couplets and the authors are Mira Lobe and Winfried Opgenoorth.

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