S. J. Watson
author of Before I Go To Sleep
Ten Terrifying Questions
1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
I was born in a part of England called The Black Country, so called because of pollution from the coal mining, steel mills and iron foundries that choked the area in the nineteenth century. There was still a lot of heavy industry in the area when I was growing up there, and even though that’s all but disappeared now the area still has a very distinctive feel to it. Growing up there, miles from the coast, has left me with a love of the sea. I only saw it once or twice a year, and even now I live in London the coast feels like a magical, special place.
By the time I was twelve I’d given up on my early ambition to be a bin man and decided I wanted to be a writer. When I was eighteen I wanted to be the guitarist and lead singer in a terribly serious guitar band but I contented myself with writing streams of lyrics and pretending I was Morrissey. By thirty I’d swung back round to wanting to be a writer. My career as a Clinical Scientist was becoming more established, but still I wasn’t feeling fulfilled. I was starting to realise that writing would never just be a hobby for me, or a pastime, but something I needed to do in order to be happy.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
That security is the most important thing in the world. I used to be very frightened of taking risks. I was always thinking of the future, rather than the present. Now I know that safety isn’t everything, that there’s a value in risk and that doing something that feels right is more important than doing something that makes sense.
4. What were three works of art – book or painting or piece of music, etc – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer?
Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has had the most obvious, direct influence on me, so I’d choose that first. I read it when I was in my late twenties, and it was so perfect that as soon as I’d turned the last page I said to myself, ‘I always wanted to write novels. So why am I not writing?’ I guess it was the book that reconnected me with my childhood ambition.
Second, I absolutely love the photographs of Nan Goldin. It’s hard to choose one, because for me they have a sort of cumulative effect, but her book The Devil’s Playground is one I go back to again and again. I love the intimacy of her work, and the way it manages to be both brutal and beautiful.
Third, I’d have to say the TV series Six Feet Under. I think TV is a very underrated medium, and this series in particular is a work of art. I watched all five seasons over a few weeks a couple of years ago and it’s just a staggering achievement. It’s so moving and profound, and the characters are wonderful. I’d love to one day write something as powerful.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
I’m in love with language. I love the way that in a novel the writer allows the reader to cast the characters and dress the scene and choose the props. I love the fact that no two readers will see the characters in exactly the same way, and that everyone will bring their own perspective to the book. Reading a book is a collaborative process. Also, I wanted to express my creativity and couldn’t really do anything else! (BBGuru: Great answer!)
6. Please tell us about your latest novel…
It’s called Before I Go to Sleep and is about a woman who has no memory. She wakes every day with no knowledge of who she is or how she came to be in this strange place she doesn’t recognize, and the book tells the story of how she begins to piece her life together and learn the truth, which isn’t what she might have expected.
It has its origins in an obituary I read about a man called Henry Gustav Molaison. He had 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 wondered how it must feel to wake up every day thinking it was 1953, and was struck immediately by a mental 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. So while the novel isn’t about Molaison, it was inspired by his condition.
Order you copy of Before I Go to Sleep
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
It’s a thriller, and there are a few surprises along the way, so I hope people finish the book with a feeling that they’ve been on an exciting journey. But I also wanted to ask some questions about identity, about what makes us who we are, and also about ageing and the nature of love, so my hope is that people will be thinking about those kind of issues, too.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
It changes daily. Right now I’m loving reading J M Coetzee, but last week I’d have probably chosen DBC Pierre and the week before that Kristin Hersh, whose memoir Rat Girl is brilliant. The one writer I keep going back to is Margaret Atwood though, so if you’re forcing me to choose I’ll say her.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
It’s a terrible cliché, but there’s no getting away from it. The only way to write is by sitting down and doing it. There’s no magic formula, there’s no fairy godmother who’ll create your manuscript while you sit around having clever thoughts. So I’d say write, every day, even when you don’t feel like it. Especially when you don’t feel like it. Writing’s a job. It’s a fantastic job, but it’s still a job.
Mr Watson, thank you for playing.
About the Contributor
While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. Now, as the Director of Books at booktopia.com.au, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection. His novel, The Girl on the Page, will be published by HarperCollins Australia in October, 2018.