Author Interview with SJ Watson

  1. You previously worked for the NHS, what did it take for you to move into the arena of writing, and can you tell us about your journey?

It was a long-ish process of realising that I would never be truly fulfilled while my writing was taking second place to my NHS career. As I got more senior in my post in a children’s hearing service in South East London, I found I had less time at the end of the working day, and more importantly, less energy for my writing. It was making me miserable, as I’d always wanted to write and publish novels and that dream was slipping further away. So I decided to go part time in a more junior job and use the rest of the time to write. I told myself I’d give it a couple of years of really throwing my energy into writing and then assess how it was going. Not long after that, I enrolled on a creative writing course at the Faber Academy, and started work on the book that would become Before I Go to Sleep.

  1. Your debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, was turned into a film staring Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth, how closely did it remain to the storyline of the novel, and how much input did you have in the script?

I had no input, directly, but I had a good working relationship with Rowan Joffe who wrote and directed it, and also Liza Marshall who was the producer. So they ran ideas past me and checked I was happy with what they were doing, which was great, and in almost all cases I was. It was like having the best of both worlds – creative input without responsibility! But for the main part I let them get on with realising their vision – I see the movie as being like a cover version of a song. It’s a different piece of work, Rowan’s job was to take something that worked as a 350 page book and make it work as a 90 minute film. So, while it doesn’t incorporate every element of the book, and some things have been changed to make it more filmic, it’s very much true to the story.

  1. Do you have a writing routine and what is your workspace like?

I try to do my creative work in the mornings, with afternoons left for admin and ‘life maintenance’ tasks, though if my writing is going well I’ll find it bleeds into the afternoon. I don’t work well with rigid boundaries, I prefer having a vague plan for the day. It depends on what I’m working on, too, and what stage I’m in. When I’m drafting I aim to write at least 1000 words, at least five days a week. Sometimes it’s much more, when it’s going well, but when it’s not I’ve learned not to force it. It’s important to trust what the work is telling you. When I’m editing I can get through a lot more in a day, though much of that is cutting and rewriting. I’ll often do that in the evenings, when I seem to have more of a critical head on.

My workspace is messy. There are books, notebooks, post-its, pens, ink, receipts, bills, plus of course my laptop and keyboard and so on. I’d like to be someone who keeps it tidy, or who refreshes it at the end of the day, but I’m… not. And I’ve accepted that, now.

  1. Do you plan the structure of a novel, and do you begin with the plot or the characters?

I’m getting to be more of a planner with each novel. Before I Go to Sleep was very much ‘dive in and see where I end up’, whereas Final Cut, my new book, was planned fairly meticulously. I like to leave some room for the book’s own alchemy to take hold though, space for the unforeseen bit of magic. I usually begin with an idea, an area I want to work in or explore, and from there I think, ‘what could happen?’ and also, ‘what kind of person would that thing happen to?’ So, I suppose I’m thinking of the two things in parallel. A book can’t really happen for me until the characters are up and walking and talking, though, so that becomes the main thing.

  1. What can you tell us about your forthcoming third novel, Final Cut, and the inspiration behind the story? 

Final Cut I was inspired by several different things. I’d been thinking about voyeurism and filmmaking, and I started to become fascinated by documentaries, particularly those dealing with ‘ordinary life’, and reality TV. I was thinking about the everyday moments, dramatic and otherwise, which make up a life. Alongside that, I’ve long been interested in the modern-day urge to document, to record and share everything, almost as if otherwise it doesn’t seem real. When I was growing up I took 24 or 36 photos a year, on my annual holiday, now some people get through that many a day. These ideas coalesced into a narrative about an ordinary town in which dark secrets were hiding under the surface, which would be brought to light as a documentary filmmaker examined the village.

So this was the surface, but underneath my subconscious was also working away, and when I came to write the book I realised that my main character, Alex, was someone who once again only had a partial understanding of who she was. So, like Before I Go to Sleep, I was once again looking at the realm of memory and identity, albeit through a different lens and in a very different story.

  1. Can you share something about the book, or about you, that readers won’t know?

I scrapped an entire book before writing Final Cut. I liked it, and loved the characters, but in the end decided it just wasn’t good enough.

  1. Which book has had the greatest impact on your life, and why?

That’s sort of easy, and sort of impossible. Before I Go to Sleep changed my life completely, in almost every imaginable way. But I suspect you mean a book written by someone else! It’s so hard to choose one, but I’d probably say either The Lord of the Rings, which I read as a child and which first made me want to write, or The Handmaid’s Tale. The latter isn’t even my favourite Atwood novel, but it’s the book that, when I read it about fifteen years ago, made me realise I needed to revisit that childhood ambition and take it seriously.

  1. What advice would you give to writers wanting to get a book published, and what do you enjoy most about the publication process?

I’d say, concentrate on writing the best book you can. When I speak to groups of aspiring writers I always ask why they think most books aren’t published. Too often they say it’s because the writer hasn’t got a big enough social media profile, or they’re not famous in a different field, or whatever. The truth is, the books that most people write aren’t good enough. So an aspiring writer needs to concentrate less of their energy on ‘getting published’ and more on being the best writer they can be. Once their book is unassailably good, then is the time to start to think about getting it into the hands of readers, or agents, or whatever. That bit is relatively easy, believe it or not. Agents are looking for books to represent just as much as writers are looking for agents. The tricky thing is that the books have to be amazing.

There are lots of really special moments along the way in the publishing process – seeing the book typeset for the first time, seeing the jacket the designer has come up with, when it first appears on your doormat in physical form. But I think I love meeting readers the most. It’s always lovely to hear how people have connected with the work. It’s going to be very different this time round, with most festivals having to be online. I shall miss it.

  1. With photography as an interest outside writing, and an Instagram page of creative photography, does this link with or inspire your writing?

Very much so. When I’ve been writing intensively I’ll go out and take some street photographs, and when I’ve done that for a few hours I return to my desk energised. Each seems to feed the other. One is physical, one sedentary, and both require intense observation, but also I think it’s because they’re almost exact opposites. In writing fiction I’m trying to take a narrative and from it create images in someone’s head, whereas in photography I’m trying to weave a story out of a still picture. So each compliments the other – they’re ultimately both narrative arts. Or maybe I just love both because I’m incredibly nosy.

S J WATSON’s first novel, Before I Go To Sleep, became a phenomenal international success and has now sold over 6,000,000 copies worldwide. It won the Crime Writers’ Association Award for Best Debut Novel and the Galaxy National Book Award for Crime Thriller of the Year and has been translated into more than 40 languages. The film of the book, starring Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth and Mark Strong, and directed by Rowan Joffe, was released in September 2014. S J Watson’s second novel, Second Life, a psychological thriller, was published to acclaim in 2015, and his forthcoming novel, Final Cut, will be published in August 2020.

You can find SJ Watson on Twitter @SJ_Watson or on the website sjwatson-books.com

A Library Snapshot

I have been reading a mixture of books recently and many of them are too good not to share, so I’d like to dip into each one and give you a glimpse of what makes the books stand out in a crowded bookshelf. I haven’t finished all of them so these are just outlines and glimpses.

101 days            orkney       amity and sorrow    first-light-charles-baxter-paperback-cover-art     irish short story

A Hundred and One Days by Åsne Seierstad

Author Åsne Seierstad is a freelance journalist and who writes about everyday life in war zones. From her first hand experiences, she has written about Kabul, Baghdad and Grozny. I particularly enjoyed The Bookseller of Kabul, so I have finally picked up this gem, A Hundred and One Days, set in Baghdad during the US invasion of Iraq. I enjoy non-fiction and stories set in conflict areas so her books appeal to me. Seierstad focuses on the lives of Iraqi citizens, providing an insight into their days lived under the constant threat of attack, first from the Iraqi government and later from American bombs. She also describes in vivid detail the frustration felt by journalists in their attempts to sort truth from propadanda. The book looks at the ‘before,’ ‘during,’ and ‘after,’ of the war without casting moral judgement on the situation, and looks at everyday lives with a sharp understanding of human nature, a trait in her writing which I have enjoyed in her other books.

Orkney by Amy Sackville

Amy Sackville is a creative writing teacher at Kent University, and this is her second novel, set on a remote island in Orkney. It is a poetic and lyrical story of an unusual couple: a 61 year old literature professor and his pupil who is never actually named. The  book spans their fortnight honeymoon in this barren landscape and, as she spends an obsessive amount of time by the sea, he realises how little he knows her. We don’t know why his wife is so obsessed by the sea, but it has something to do with her father, who disappeared when she was young. The language of the book is beautiful and intriguing, and I couldn’t put it down.

Amity and Sorrow by Peggy Riley

Riley is a writer and a playwright. There is so much to say about her but I’ll save it for my upcoming author interview next week. Released on March 28, this book is shocking and gripping story of a mother who rescues her daughters from a cult, their father and a fire,  driving for days without sleep until they crash their car in rural Oklahoma. The girls, Amity and Sorrow, can’t imagine what the world holds outside their father’s polygamous compound. Rescue comes in the unlikely form of Bradley, a farmer grieving the loss of his wife. This is an unforgettable story which I was fortunate enough to receive as an advanced reader copy. I would recommend picking it up when it is released in the next few weeks. It has already had some wonderful reviews.

First Light by Charles Baxter

I discovered this out of print gem and managed to find a second hand copy. Charles Baxter’s short stories have appeared in the Best American Short Stories and in two of his own collections. This novel, his first, was supported by a Guggenheim Foundation grant. He takes us backwards through the lives of Hugh and Dorsey Welch who are brother and sister. We meet them as adults, while Hugh is a Buick salesman and Dorsey is an astrophysicist, and discover their dark and difficult pasts. The author traces their paths back to the day of Dorsey’s birth with an unusual subtlety. His opening paragraph includes this vivid description: ‘Hugh keeps both hands near the top of the steering wheel the way cautious men often do, and he does not turn to argue with her, not at first.’

The Grant Book of the Irish Short Story

I am reading both the Irish Short Story collection and the Best American Short Stories, but I wanted to focus on this collection in particular, edited by Anne Enright. Ireland has produced some of the world’s most celebrated short story writers and this, a collection of the best works of contemporary Irish short fiction writers, includes works by  Roddy Doyle, William Trevor, Colm Toibin and Kevin Barry. It  begins and ends with a road accident. The first, which proves fortuitous, involves an out-of-work labourer and a carload of nuns; the second – which is fatal – occurs when a mechanic decides to earn a few extra euros ferrying tourists to a shrine where a statue of Mary is said to weep. Between these two tales we meet a mother who finds her son suspected of abuse and we glimpse the consequences of Irish abortion law. The subjects are heavy and, sometimes dark, but the writing is tight and distinctive. My favourite story so far is John Banville’s Summer Voices. His book, The Sea, won the Man Booker Prize in 2005 and his short story is carried off with the same elegance of style with phrases such as these: ‘The radiance of the summer afternoon wove shadows about him.’ The story follows a young boy and girl who discover a body in amongst an almost eerie description of the landscape.

What I Learned In 2012 About A Book Release, Time Management, and Keeping Your Head (in the words of Kipling).

A very HAPPY NEW YEAR to all of you and every blessing for 2013.

I thought I would kick off the year with a look back at what I have learned through the process of writing, editing, publishing and marketing my book. Thank you to those of you who have downloaded or ordered a copy. I look forward to reading many of your books this year as I am planning to spend more time reading…hurrah! (and writing short stories).

Here is what I have learned through the process of a book release:

Don’t Sweat The Small Things – Yes, this is a cliché and a badly structured phrase but it is true. Don’t worry about the small things – whether or not everybody will like your book (they won’t, no one book inspires all readers), whether it will become a best seller (the chances are slim, it is more important that you gain readers who want to read more of your work), or whether you will be given good reviews (again, not everyone will engage with your voice/style). You can only write to the best of your ability and keep learning the craft of writing.

Stick to a Daily Writing/Work Schedule At All Costs – Your writing may be a passion but it is probably also your job, so you need to treat it as one and stay at your desk, or wherever you are comfortable writing, for a set period of time each day. It may be in your free time if you are studying, after work or early in the morning if you have a full-time job, small children, or other commitments, or all morning or all day if you have the luxury of time on your side. I have sat down at 8.30/9 a.m almost every weekday morning since I began writing in 2007 and I treat my writing with the same commitment that I did teaching a class of 35 children. They are entirely different experiences but it is easy to let writing slip when you have no pay cheque, schedule or boss on your heels. Take your writing time seriously.

Remember That Your Friends And Family Will Still Be There When you Resurface – Writing can be an isolating pursuit, and even more so for those of your who are extroverts. In the final stages of preparing your work it can be difficult to keep up with birthday cards (I just about managed to remember them all, and Christmas!), the phone calls you didn’t quite make, the social life that might have dwindled. Those who care about you will still be there when your head resurfaces and you exhale, ‘I did it!’ It is all right to hide away when the rubber hits the road and you need to stay up late to keep editing and keep working, when you say, ‘no’ to invites and events. You need to prioritise your writing in order to get it finished. A half written book is an unread book. It is really hard work and requires all of the dedication you can muster. Getting through the first draft alone can sap your creative juices but there is so much more required when it comes to editing your work.

Don’t Spread Your Time Across Too Many Platforms – Faced with the plethora of internet options it is easy to feel overwhelmed by them all. You can use a blog, email, twitter, facebook, google +, linkedin, tumblr, stumbleupon, pinterest. Help!! And there are more. The best advice I can give, having tried many of these, is to find the ones which suit your personality and the ones which generate the most engagement and then focus on these. I would recommend two or three.

Value Your Blog Readers – Your blog readers deserve to be  appreciated and valued. They have agreed to let you into their email inbox each time you create a post. This can be invasive and many people are face with far too many emails already. Don’t abuse their trust by posting half-heartedly or by over posting. Most bloggers post between 1-5 times per week, some post each day, but more that that can be a source of irritation. I try to post once or twice a week. Take the time to research, think and plan what you write so that it is valuable. If people have taken the time to comment then be courteous and respond. A lack of response shows a lack of interest and the internet can be very impersonal if people don’t engage.

Engage With Other Writers – I have found twitter and blogs to be a good place to get to know others. It can be a great encouragement when someone asks how you are getting on, promotes your work, or answers questions. It is an unusual profession and  it is difficult to talk to non-writers about what you are doing and why. Writers, as I also found with teachers, are like-minded in many ways, they are deep thinkers and are generally inspiring and intelligent people. Engage, encourage and interact with them.

Write Guest Blog Posts – Long before your book is due to be released it can really help to increase your visibility if you offer to post on blogs which you read and enjoy. Ask a few bloggers politely and professionally if they would be happy to let you write a guest post. Choose a run of days, I chose three, and think about what might be an appropriate post for each individual blog. Elizabeth Craig from Mystery Writing is Murder asked me to post on ‘A Sense of Place’ as she knew that I loved travel. Coincidentally, I wrote my Geography dissertation on this subject some years ago. Chose your topic carefully and you will find that you meet people who comment on your posts and are interested in what you have to say. I will add here that I am really happy to accept guest posts.

Be Kind To Yourself – After a few years of writing solidly on one project you need to come up for air, breathe, take stock and relax before you begin again. I plan to write many more novels but I want to focus, as you know, on short story writing and on reading more of a range of fiction and other short stories. A novel is a wonderful thing but it is hard work and can be exhausting if your time is already squeezed. Enjoy the reviews and the feedback, you have worked hard.

Let me know about your experiences with book releases and what you have learned from them. I look forward to hearing from you.

Book Release: ‘Take Me to the Castle’ by F.C. Malby

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Today is the release of my debut novel, ‘Take Me to the Castle.’ You can buy it on Amazon in paperback and on kindle. It can also be ordered in bookstores from January 2013.

Thank you for following my blog so far and I am enjoying your comments and your own posts. I wanted to let you know that I will be guest posting on some other writing blogs over the next few days. It would be great see you over at:

http://mysterywritingismurder.blogspot.co.at/ hosted by Mystery writer, Elizabeth Span Craig. She blogs daily and her website was named by Writer’s Digest as one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers for 2010, 2011, and 2012 (19/12/12).

http://www.aliventures.com/ hosted by Ali Luke, author of ‘Publishing eBooks for Dummies’ and a writing coach. Ali is full of information on writing and publishing and is a well-respected blogger. (20/12/12)

http://www.30daybooks.com/blog/ hosted by Laura and Brandon, who post great articles on marketing and publishing. Laura has been featured on CNN and has just released ‘Fire Up Amazon.’ (21/12/12)

Do leave comments and join in with the discussions. I look forward to seeing you there.