Tuesday, 21 August 2012

SJ Watson | Before I Go To Sleep | Interview with the author

BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP has been the debut thriller of the year, racking up impressive sales critical acclaim and a raft of award nominations. I spoke to the author, SJ Watson, quite recently.

So when you started BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP, is it true you didn’t actually mean to write a thriller?

Well, in a way. I wasn’t really sitting down to write a thriller. I just wanted to write a book as well as I could. But those are the books I’ve always enjoyed, the ones with a strong plot. Of course in the second draft I emphasized the thriller aspect a bit more and I decided what kind of book it was. But it happened organically though.

You wrote the novel on the Faber Writing Academy course – but the book is published by Transworld.

The course was very separate from the publishing aspect. With good reason, so that anyone who entered the course didn’t have any illusion that they would be picked up by Faber…

Do you believe writing is a craft that can be taught then, not a God given gift?
My take on this is that the only way to write is by doing it, and teaching yourself almost. If you are on a course and being exposed to some great writers and working with a tutor and so on it can shortcut the process.

It wasn’t a prescriptive course. It didn’t say this is how a book must begin. You must use the first person. Present tense. Anything like that. It was about encouraging you to try new things and to stretch yourself I suppose…

Explain the inspiration behind BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP.
I was working in the field of hearing and balance. It wasn’t directly from my day job or work though looking back on it I can see why those topics were interesting to me. The idea for the book came from an obituary I readabout a man who had an operation at the age of 27 to try and cure his epilepsy. And he died …he couldn’t form any new memories, his memory was erased every few minutes. And even at the end of his life, he died 82, the most recent memories were when he was 25.

I saw parallels in what I was doing. My first job was working in a hospital in London for patients with lots and lots of bizarre debilitating neurological problems and some of them were memory loss…

So I had kind of been exposed to amnesia and neurological conditions but it didn’t directly influence the topic I chose to write about.

What I took from your book and from other novels and films that deal with memory, is that it is our memories that really define us as individuals.

That is not something I appreciated fully – and then I realized how lost I would be without our memories. It was really interesting as well, I was writing about a character who is relatively young. Memory loss affects millions with Alzheimer’s and dementia. Members of my own family have gone through it. There is a very real sense of losing your own identity. So yes, very much so.

And the book has done...rather well. You’ve sold about a million copies, and keep getting mentioned for awards...
To say it has surpassed my wildest dreams is a huge understatement. It is my first book. I daydreamed, hoped, I had a sense that I was finding my own voice and had found a subject that was interesting – and that it would interest other people. I was reasonably optimistic that it might find a publisher but it didn’t feel in any way a foregone conclusion

And then my mission was just to get the book on the shelf. Sometimes I almost normalise it and take it for granted – and then it hits me again.

I thought what would be a success for this book? I thought if I see anyone else reading it – that I am not related to – I’ll call it a success. So that was a special moment when I saw it on the tube…

You decided to use a female narrator even though you are, unquestionably, a bloke...
At the time it didn’t feel like a brave decision. The job of a writer is to imagine themselves into the head of someone else. The fact I was writing as a woman was less of a problem the fact I was writing about someone with no memory.

By extension, the name on the jacket is SJ Watson – not Steve.
That was a conscious thing. I remember when we sent the book out to different publishers, although my agent suggested it, I would have mentioned it to her had she not done so. I felt the whole book would not work if people read it thinking this is a man pretending to be a woman. I wanted to be ambiguous. My hope was that they wouldn’t be sure whether I was male or female. I was really pleased when people emailed and said what is she like, ahs she got any more books... and Claire had to say, well he’s a man, his name is Steve...

It’s a reversal of the norm. Female authors like JK Rowling and PD James used initials to disguise the fact they were women...
I find it fascinating, there are a couple of countries where the book has been published and it is with Steve or Steven on the cover -- because people don’t buy books by a woman, or where they suspect it is by a woman. I find that hard to believe that you might pick up the book, be intrigued by the premise, the title, and then put it back on the shelf because it is a woman who has written it. It’s ridiculous. But clearly it does happen.

And what’s next?
The book I am working on at the moment is another psychological thriller. I might want to explore different things. I am drawn to those books --  I do love books that get inside people’s heads. And have an element of mystery. Books where exciting things happen. For the foreseeable future I will be writing psychological thrillers. But who knows…

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