S J Watson is a novelist who was born in the Midlands, lives in London and worked in the NHS for a number of years. In 2008 Watson was accepted into the first Faber Academy ‘Writing a Novel’ Course, a programme that covers all aspects of the novel-writing process. Before I Go to Sleep is the result.
Now sold in over 30 languages around the world, Before I Go To Sleep, has been also been acquired for film by Ridley Scott’s production company, Scott Free, with Rowan Joffe to direct. Filming is scheduled to begin in 2011.
I love the idea you wrote this book in between hospital shifts – you must have felt very passionately about the story – what was motivating you to tell it?
Writing has always been my passion and I have always written in my spare time, but yes, I did feel particularly strongly about this story. It was inspired by a real-life case of amnesia – a man called Henry Gustav Molaison who died in 2008, and whose obituary I read just before I began writing the book. He had lost his ability to form new memories following surgery in 1953 and as I researched the book I found more and more cases of people suffering terribly because of their memory problems. I realised how fundamental memory is to our sense of self, and that intrigued me and became something I really wanted to explore.
Your book features a woman – Christine – what made you choose a female lead rather than a male, which I guess would be easier to write (as a man)?
In some ways I don’t feel I ever really chose to write Christine’s story – she chose me! When I read Henry Molaison’s story I was struck by an image of a woman looking at herself in a mirror, expecting to see a young girl when in fact she is approaching middle age. I considered writing it from a male perspective but I think it would have been a very different book had I done so, and I wouldn’t have been able to explore some of the issues that really intrigued me. In any case I think the job of a writer is to explore other people’s experiences, so for me the fact that I have written about a woman’s reality is secondary to the fact that I was writing about someone without memory.
It’s intriguing you were inspired by Patient HM. How did you approach incorporating these elements of a real man’s life into a thriller? Was it hard not to be pulled into being faithful to his life and story?
I was inspired by Henry Molaison’s reality, or how I imagined it must be. I was interested in how someone without memory can make sense of their world and their relationships. But I made the decision to write the book as complete fiction – I purposely didn’t research Molaison’s past, and chose a character very different from him, whose amnesia had a completely different cause.
Did you instinctively know how to write the story or was it a laborious process?
It felt quite instinctive, once I’d got to know the characters. I made the decision not to plot the story out in too much detail – I wanted the freedom to let my characters dictate the story to an extent. Of course that made editing the book quite laborious, as I had to make sure everything was consistent!
I imagine it must be incredibly hard to write a character who has no anchors or reference points, did you find Christine elusive to write?
Yes, in some ways. But of course Christine has anchors, and reference points, she just doesn’t know what they are! The trick was to stop her from coming across as being helpless, or a victim – I wanted the reader to have the sense that she’s actually an incredibly resourceful woman, but one that something terrible has happened to. And it was fascinating to write about a character whom the reader knows as well as she knows herself.
You did the Faber writing course, why did you feel the need to go on a course to write the book? Do you think you would’ve written it if you hadn’t?
I thought long and hard about doing the course. In the end I thought it would help me to focus my writing, and be an incentive to put the hard work in, work that I now know is vital if one is going to finish a novel! It turned out to be so much more than that. I made some great friends and learned from some amazing writers. I think I would have written Before I Go to Sleep if I hadn’t done the course, but it would have taken me a lot longer!
Before I Go to Sleep has been described as a meditation on love, loss and what it means to be alive. Why did you choose the thriller genre for these themes rather than straight literary fiction?
Perhaps naively, I never really thought that I had to choose one or the other! I’ve always loved books with really strong plots, books that keep the reader guessing and where things aren’t as they seem, so I think it was natural that I’d want to incorporate those kind of elements into Before I Go to Sleep. But I also wanted to explore what it means to be human and the changing nature of love and relationships, so it was never going to be a straight thriller. I didn’t see why the same book couldn’t incorporate all those different elements.
When you read Dennis Lehane’s quote (“An exceptional thriller. It left my nerves jangling for hours after I finished the last page“), what went through your mind?
It was incredibly exciting! To have a writer like Dennis Lehane even read a book I’ve written is a huge honour, but for him to say it jangled his nerves was incredible! I was walking round with a huge grin on my face for days after hearing that!
Everyone says what a lovely guy you are – has the fame and fortune changed you??
I certainly hope not! I think it’s a bit early to be talking about fame, in any case – the book isn’t even out yet. But if it does happen then I have a wonderful circle of friends and family who will keep my feet firmly on the ground.
I read in an interview with you that you fantasised about writing the book and it becoming a film. Firstly, who would be your dream actress for Christine, and second, has the reality lived up to the fantasy?
As I was writing the book I enjoyed imagining who might play the lead roles, but not for one second did I think it might actually happen! It was an amazing feeling when Ridley Scott, whose films I love, said he wanted to turn my book into a movie, and when I met Rowan Joffe, who has just remade Brighton Rock and is writing the screenplay and directing, I knew that the book was in safe hands. As for a lead actress? I’d love it if someone played the part who doesn’t fit in with how I see Christine at all. I’d love to be surprised by what someone else can bring to her character.
After such success, being published in 37 countries, were you scared to write the next book? Or is writing easier now you’ve got the acclaim?
I want to stretch myself imaginatively in my work, to explore new territory, so I think there’ll always be an element of fear in my writing. I want to surprise readers with what I’ve come up with – in a good way I hope! – which means surprising myself first. So yes, it is a little scary, but that’s also what makes it tremendously exciting!
Anything you’d like to add?
I’d just like to say how honoured I feel to be invited to Harrogate this year, and how much I’m looking forward meeting some of you! The film deal is amazing, as are all the publishing deals around the world, but really I just wanted to write a book that the reader can enjoy – I can’t wait to find out what people think of Before I Go to Sleep!
To keep up with SJ Watson’s blog, latest news and more, visit his website.