About The Author
Steve 'S J' Watson was born in the Midlands, lives in London and worked in the NHS for a number of years.
In 2009, Watson was accepted into the first Faber Academy Writing a Novel Course: Before I Go to Sleep was the result, a novel that attracted attention from many of the UK's major publishers. Right have already been sold in 30 languages and a film version is due to beginning shooting later this year.
It's a thriller with an ingenious premise: owing to an head injury sustained in mysterious curcumstances, Christine wakes up every morning with no memory of the previous twenty years. At first she can only trust her devoted husband, until a doctor specialising in cases like hers make contact and helps her uncover the truth about the missing years of her life.
Steve told us about how her came to create this ingenious thriller, what it's like to be published for the first time and what he plans to write next.
Questions & Answers
Christine's amnesia, which blocks her memories over twenty tears following an accident, is a deeply disturbing disability; did you base her conditions on specific cases?
The book was inspired by a man called Henry Gustav Molaison. He died in 2008 but since undergoing surgery for epilepsy in 1953 had been unable to form new memories and so lived constantly in the past. I read about how he had been working with the same doctor for years but every time they met he had to be told who she was and why she knew so much about him. I wondered if he was equally unfamiliar with himself, and thought how terrifying it must be to wake up every day thinking it was 1953 and you were still young, only to find it was decades later. Though the book isn't about him that was the springboard into the novel, and during my research I learnt of other cases, among them Clive Wearing who was a conductor with the BBC until he contracted a virus which left him with one of the worst cases of amnesia ever seen. Watching footage of him is heartbreaking - he constantly lives in the present, with no idea of how he got to where he is. So the book is based on a number of cases, and I wanted very much to make the novel faithful to these people who suffer terribly because of their amnesia and didn't want to trivialize their condition in any way.
The opening pages, which describe Christine's shocking discovery of the years she has lost, do create an instant empathy for her situation. Was this always the way you planned to open the book?
Yes, it was. When I read about Henry Molaison I straight away had a very strong image of a woman looking in a bathroom mirror in a strange house to find that, instead of a teenager reflected there, she had become a middle-aged woman, and the house was her home. I knew straight away that this was the story I wanted to write, and also that that would be the opening scene of the book. I also knew that I wanted the reader to identify totally with Christine's condition and so, while it was technically very challenging to do so, I decided to write the book in the first person.
Much of the power of the book comes from keeping the reader as in the dark as Christine; how did you go about planning when and how clues would emerge?
I don't like to plan things too much - I like to leave room for the book to surprise me, and in fact there were a few twists and turns that even I didn't see coming until I'd begun to write them! But, yes, I wanted the reader to always know only as much as Christine does, and no more. So really it was just a matter of working out how Christine would go about gradually discovering the truth and then taking the reader on the same journey.
Much of Christine's disorientation comes from small domestic details that don't make sense to her; do you think this true of all of us unfamiliar situations - we can cope with the big picture, but we're wrong-footed by unexpected details?
It depends on the situation of course, but yes, I think it can be. It's the little details that trip us up, the things that we're not expecting. Christine can cope with having amnesia, but it's only when she realises she doesn't know where she lives, or how to use the phone, or who chose the clothes in the wardrobe and whether they're really hers, that she realises the true extent of her situation and how reliant she is on other people. It's the little things that take a situation from the abstract to the specific and make it real. Take grief, for example. It's the first time you wake in an empty bed or realise you only need to put out one plate for dinner that really hurts.
You honed your writing skills at the Faber Academy; what were the most valuable lessons it taught you about your writing?
There were so many things! So many practical tips, and we heard from some wonderful, talented writers. But mostly the course taught me that writing isn't a hobby or a pastime for me, it's something that I need to do, something that is fundamentally tied up with my identity and the person that I am. I learnt that to become a better writer you need to treat it like a job, and to put the hours in, whether you feel like sitting at your desk or not. Novels don't write themselves and a good idea will carry you only so far. There comes a time when the initial excitement has dissipated, yet the end is still months away. Then it's just hard work. But there's no feeling quite like finishing a book, knowing you've created a world and told a story that now, hopefully, has the power to move other people.
Are there any writers you would cite as an influence on your writing?
I'm never totally comfortable answering this question - I'm inspired by great writers and to even mention them feels like I'm comparing myself to them, which I'm not! My tastes are eclectic - a few years ago I used to love writers like Michel Houellebecq, Chuck Palahniuk and Douglas Coupland and lately I've been enjoying Paul Auster and even rediscovering people like Agatha Christie and Ira Levin. The one constant is Margaret Atwood, though. She's my favourite living writer. I've always written bits and pieces, but it was after reading her that I said to myself 'I'm going to sit down and write a novel and not stop until I've finished'. So she influenced me in that way, at least!
A number of publishers were very keen to take on your book; why did you choose to work with Transworld?
My editor at Transworld, Selina Walker, is wonderful and she totally understood the book. I spoke to a few people who were interested but it was Selina who I felt really knew where I was coming from as a writer. And they're a great company - I feel in very good hands with them!
You've got lots of events and festival appearances, both in Britain and aboard, lined up to help promote the book; how are you feeling about the prospect of coming face to face with readers?
I can't wait! Writing is a very solitary experience, and as I was writing Before I Go to Sleep I wasn't really thinking about who might one day read it. But now, particularly as it's getting such good reactions, I'm really looking forward to meeting some of the people who have enjoyed the book. I'm keen to hear what they liked about it, and maybe what they didn't like, too. Everyone seems to have their own ideas about the story so I can't wait to hear some of them! A novel is all about communication, after all, and it'd be very gratifying to know that my book has got people talking.
Rowan Joffé, responsible for the recent remake of Brighton Rock, is already signed up to direct a film version of Before I Go To Sleep. Are you going to be involved in the film's production?
I actually don't want to be too heavily involved! What works in a novel may not work on screen, and vice versa, so this is totally Rowan's project - he's the expert! In any case he's such a great director and screenwriter that I know my book is in safe hands. And I love the idea of someone else taking my ideas and putting their own spin on it. I'd love to be surprised by the film - it'd be perfect if they cast someone as Christine who is totally different from how I imagine her, for example, or set it elsewhere. That'd be really exciting.
What can you tell us about what we can expect from you next?
I'm writing my next novel now. It's called Nine Lives and it'll be different from Before I Go to Sleep, though still recognizably me. I want to explore new territory and so it'll have a few surprises. But I think people who like Before I Go to Sleep will like it!