SJ Watson: "Writing as a woman didn't feel like a brave decision"
First-time author Steve Watson tells a charming story about the moment he decided his first novel was a success. It was when he saw someone he “wasn’t related to” reading it on the Tube.
In fact, the London-based author’s debut thriller, Before I Go to Sleep, has spent 17 weeks at number one with more than a million sales in the UK alone. This summer, the only paperback on the beach more ubiquitous is Fifty Shades of Grey.
In the case of Watson’s novel at least, this is well deserved. Among other accolades, it scooped best thriller at the Galaxy National Book Awards 2011 and has been featured in Channel 4’s TV Book Club. A film – with Nicole Kidman whispered to be interested in the lead role – is also being developed. Not a bad start for the 41-year-old audiologist turned author.
“To say it has surpassed my wildest dreams is a huge understatement,” he says. “It is my first book. I daydreamed, hoped, 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. Sometimes I almost normalise what has happened – and take it for granted – and then it hits me again.”
Watson’s book is helped by a startling premise – the narrator loses her memory every time she falls asleep and must be told each morning who she is – and the breathless unfolding of the story.
“Writing as a woman didn’t feel like a brave decision at the time,” he says. “It was less of a problem than the fact I was writing about someone with no memory.
“When we came to put the book out to publishers, we used initials because I didn’t want anyone to 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, has she got any more books?’ And my agent had to say, ‘Well, his name is Steve…’.”
The importance of memory has been mined quite often – notably in film by 2000’s Memento and 1990’s Total Recall (a remake of which, starring Colin Farrell in the role Arnie Schwarzenegger had, will be released on August 29). But the domestic setting of Watson’s book sets it apart. This is a memory thriller played out at the kitchen sink – and in the bedroom.
Watson came to the subject via an obituary in a newspaper. “It was about a man who had an operation at the age of 27 to try and cure his epilepsy but afterwards he was unable to form any new memories – his memory was erased every few minutes,” he says.
“He died aged 82 and his most recent memories were of when he was 25. I was working in a hospital in London with patients who had lots of bizarre, debilitating neurological problems and some of them were memory loss.
“What I hadn’t fully appreciated until I was working on the book was just how lost we would be without our memories. My character is relatively young but this affects millions with Alzheimer’s and dementia. When you lose your memory, there is a very real sense of losing your own identity.”
Not surprisingly, Watson is working on a second psychological thriller but insists he wants to keep his options open. “I’m drawn to books that get inside people’s heads and have an element of mystery,” he says. “But I might want to explore different things in the future, so who knows?”
SJ Watson’s Before You Go to Sleep (Black Swan, £7.99) is out now. The author will be at the Edinburgh Book festival on August 16.