This week we talk to SJ Watson, writer of the critically acclaimed Before I Go to Sleep, Second Life and Final Cut
Q: Hi, Steve, how are you doing? What are you looking forward to this year?
I’m very well, thank you, though that’s a relative question these days! I’m very lucky in that even in the middle of lockdown, I still have my work, and so on, so I’m relatively unaffected by what’s happening. It’s still tough, though, isn’t it?
On a personal level, I’m looking forward to going out and seeing friends and travelling. I’m also looking forward to finishing a new book, and there are a couple of other projects I want to get stuck into.
Q: Ten years have passed since your critically acclaimed debut novel Before I Go To Sleep, which became a movie. How do you feel about it now looking back?
I’ll always have a soft spot for that book. It gave me the life I have now, in many ways. And, of course, it was tremendously exciting to see it made into a film with Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth! But I hope my writing is maturing. In some ways, it’d be quite sad if it wasn’t!
I’m just starting to edit my new book, the title of which I’m currently keeping to myself. It’s another psychological thriller, though, and is my best book yet. Hopefully, it’ll be out next year.
Q: Your protagonists – Christine, a traumatised amnesiac, Julia, an internet sex addict, and Alex, who has repressed memories – pose questions about our sense of self. Why do you find psychological disturbance a good vehicle for exploring this?
That’s a really good question, and one I’m not certain I can answer! I don’t try to pick things apart too much – I think that kind of thing comes from a deep place within, and scrutinising it too closely can make it too ‘conscious’. But I’m fascinated by what happens when extraordinary things happen to ‘ordinary’ people and the effects on the psyche of these very extreme events. Something about the fragility of the self intrigues me.
Q: You are a physics graduate who obviously also had a flair for creative writing. Have you any advice for similarly versatile students struggling to decide on a career path?
You spend a lot of your time working, so make sure it’s something you want to be doing, at least some of the time. Always ask yourself what you’d want to do with your time if it made no money at all and, if you can, try to incorporate at least an element of that into your path.
Q: You trained as an audiologist working with deaf children. How good was access to suitable reading and learning material for the hearing impaired at that time?
You know, I’m not sure! I was very much involved in the scientific and medical aspects of patient care, and there were specialist teachers of the deaf who were supporting the children’s education. Discussions in the tearoom would suggest there was room for improvement, however.
Q: 1 in 8 schools across Britain do not have a library – have you had experience of the educational inequality within the school system or met anyone who has?
I’ve been very lucky in that I haven’t. But that statistic is shocking! I don’t know how I’d have coped without the library at my school.
Q: What book or books do you think all children in schools should be given to read?
I can’t answer specifically, but I think it’s important to read about people who are ‘different’ or marginalised. Reading allows you to go on a journey of discovery and learn empathy with people who might not be like you. It would be a shame if all the books read by children were written by or about middle-class, white, heterosexual, cisgender people, for example.
Q: Ok, so the final question, SJ Watson – if all the libraries in the world were burning and you could only save three books, what would they be and why?
I hate questions like this! Right. Today, I’d save the book I’m reading, which is Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart (because I want to finish it), Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming-Pool Library (because I’ve promised myself I’ll reread it soon) and the book I’m writing (because I’ve worked so hard on it and I don’t want to have to start again). Ask me tomorrow, though, and you’ll get different answers…
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