Hot from his US tour and just ahead of his appearance at this year’s Harrogate Crime Writing Festival, S.J.Watson was very kind to offer some time to give Books and Writers an interview on the success of his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, his writing and the way ahead for a much anticipated second novel.
Keith B Walters: As a fantastic ambassador for the Faber Academy and creative writing classes in general, could you pinpoint the one key thing or tip you personally gained from the experience of doing that course?
S.J. Watson: It’s difficult to choose just one! I learned so much, but one of the main things was that there really is no magic secret to writing a novel. For every tutor who said they write at night there was one who told us they’re at the keyboard by 6am, and for every one who said they planned their book out meticulously before putting pen to paper there was one who said they just dive in with a general idea. But the one consistent message was that the only way to become a better writer is to sit at the keyboard or with a notebook and write. You have to write when you feel like it, and write when you don’t. You have to write when the words are flowing, and also when they’re not. Writing a novel is a long process, with a lot of hard work, and there are no short cuts. But it’s a wonderful experience, which is why we do it of course!
I know you are now teaching novel writing classes at Faber yourself now – does it seem a lifetime since you were there yourself? Is there the risk you’ll take the wrong chair when you enter the room and sit at the back ready to learn more?
It does seem a lifetime, yes! And there’s a real danger I’ll sit in the wrong chair one of these days. That wouldn’t be a bad thing, though – I don’t think we ever stop learning – though I suppose the students might be a little shocked!
Before I Go to Sleep has, of course, been a huge bestselling first novel – have you since been given any advice from other authors as to how to deal with approaching a second book in the wake of such a hit?
I haven’t. But all I can do with the second book is write the book I want to write, and there’s no point in worrying about following on from the success of Before I Go to Sleep. I want to explore new territory with my next book, and to stretch myself as a writer. As long as I’m happy that I’ve done that then for me the book is a success.
Was there any relevance in the fact that your Transworld publicist is Ben (Willis) and you have a key character in the novel to whom the central character finds the message in her diary that she must not trust Ben? Surely after such a storming job on your book’s publicity the guy deserves a break, or does he still hold a key to something in a locked box by way of blackmail?
Well, Ben is full of surprises so I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s got something up his sleeve! But yes, he’s done a terrific job. Interestingly there’s also a character called Claire in the book, and there are also lots of Claires involved in publication – my agent, my US editor, the designer of the UK jacket… the list goes on!
Do you think that social media added a lot to the buzz and success of the book and its launch and, if so, how do you manage to work away from the time-sucking demons that are twitter and facebook etc?
I love social media. I think I’d be using Twitter and Facebook just as much even without a book to promote, though perhaps my updates would be less interesting! I don’t really see them as “time-sucking”, and in fact they can be a great way of staying in touch with other writers. Writing a novel can be a lonely business. I remember after my course finished a writer friend and I used to encourage each other via Facebook updates, and that probably helped me reach the end of my first draft. I do have to ration myself , though, and know when it’s best to turn the internet off…
Do you have a particular writing regime or any quirks/habits that you think we should know about or that could maybe help other ‘one-day-will-be’ novelists?
Just to work, really. You have to put the hours in. I personally get up early and write before the rest of the world wakes up, and I have to have a huge bucket of coffee within reach, but they’re just my habits. Every writer has to find what works for them! One good piece of advice is ‘just open the file’. Even if you feel uninspired or think you have only have a few minutes to spare, you’ll almost certainly find yourself tinkering with what you’ve previously written, and more often than not you’ll begin writing more and will emerge two hours later with another thousand words done.
Yours has been the top book on many reader’s lists this year. Assuming you’ve had any time to read at all, what’s been your favourite read so far in 2011?
“Paradoxical Undressing” by the musician Kristin Hersh. I’m a huge fan of her music, so it’s perhaps an obvious choice, but it really is a wonderful book. It’s her memoir of a particularly formative year when she recorded her first album, was diagnosed as bipolar and also discovered she was pregnant. It’s exceptionally well written and reads almost like fiction, and people who’ve never heard of her music will still love it. I’m also currently reading “The Warhol Gang” by Peter Darbyshire and I’m loving that.
Pleased to see that you’ll be at Harrogate for this year’s New Blood panel. Will it be your first trip to the festival? (you’re in for a great weekend if it is).
I assume you’re staying within the crime genre for your second novel – can you give any clues at this stage as to what we expect next?
It will! And I’ve been warned about how much crime writers and fans like to party, so I can’t wait! As for the second novel – it’ll be another psychological thriller, and again I’m exploring issues around identity and our sense of self. But it’ll have a different feel from Before I Go to Sleep.
And finally, will the alternative ending of Before I Go To Sleep ever be published (maybe in the back of the paperback like an alternative DVD extra?)
I’m not sure which alternative ending you mean! At one point I was toying with a couple of alternative ways of ending the book but they were never written. So no, the one in print is the only ending and there won’t be any others! Interesting idea, though…!
Thanks for your time, Steve.
I’m so glad I got those questions down in one go.
I have this habit of getting halfway through things, then it gets late, I go to bed and when I wake up I find I’ve forgotten where I was and what I was doing and I have to start all over again – who’d have thought of such a thing…..
I know how you feel…..