His debut novel sold in its millions, attracted the attention of a leading film director and a stellar cast of actors, so when it was kept off the top spot by 50 Shades of Grey, SJ Watson didn’t lose too much sleep. He talks to Sarah Freeman.
A couple of weeks ago SJ Watson was in London watching an early cut of a film based on his debut novel Before I Go To Sleep. Written and directed by the award-winning Rowan Joffe and starring Mark Strong, Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman, by anyone’s standards the screening was the culmination of a pretty phenomenal two years.
Rewind to 2010 and Watson was working in the NHS as an audiologist. Treating children with hearing impairments brought a significant degree of job satisfaction, but for as long as he could remember he’d harboured another dream. He wanted to be a writer.
It’s the kind of idle fantasy that for most remains just that, but not only did Watson get his book – a thriller involving a woman whose memories are wiped one day to the next – into print, but to date it has sold in excess of four million copies in 42 countries. Not bad for a first time author.
“The day the book came out feels like a very long time ago,” he says. “It is the stuff of dreams.”
Later this month Watson will be sharing some of the secrets of his success as part of a two-day creative writing workshop in Harrogate. Some authors will tell you that you can’t teach the art of fiction writing, but with his own turning point having come after winning a place at the Faber Academy, a creative writing scheme run by the international publishing house, Watson’s not so sure.
“Over the years I’d had various writing projects on the go, but I hadn’t completed what you’d call a finished novel. Basically I’d never got to the point where I was happy enough with a book that I’d have sent out to anyone.
“When I found out that I’d been accepted on the course I wanted to come to it fresh. It was only a couple of days before the first session that I had the basis of the idea for Before I Go to Sleep.”
The seeds of the book were sown when Watson read about a man called Henry Molaison who suffered severe amnesia following an operation when he was 27. He died at the age of 82 and for all that time could form no new memories.
“I reckoned there was a good book to be had which revolved around a character who can’t remember what they’ve done the day before, but it was only through that course that I really learnt how to write.
“Probably one of the most important things it taught me was that books aren’t written they are rewritten. It’s tempting to think when you have put the last full stop on the final chapter that’s it, but in fact it’s only the beginning. Even more than that it made me feel confident as a writer and it was just good being around people who took writing as seriously as I did.”
Determined that this time he would give himself the best shot of becoming a published writer, Watson swapped his full-time, high pressured job for a more junior three-day-a-week role programming cochlear implants.
“My friends started calling me part-timer. I’d tell them that I’d gone from having one to two jobs, but it is difficult to convince anyone that writing novels for a living is proper work. For the course we had to present our novel in successive 5,000 word chunks and at the start I was writing just to get ahead of the game, but very soon I was writing because I just couldn’t stay away.
“There was a pretty good impetus, though. My salary had basically halved and I didn’t want that sacrifice to be for nothing.”
It wasn’t. Six months after he wrote the first line of Before I Go To Sleep the first draft was ready; a year later Watson was ready to take it to Clare Conville, a literary agent who he had been introduced to through the Faber course.
“She’d said that she’d like to take a look at it when I finished. Of course there was no guarantee that she would want to take it on, but when I was back home writing it did stop me from falling into a black hole of daytime television
“I took the finished volume to her personally. I thought I’ll give it two weeks and if I’ve not heard anything I will give her a call. She rang the next day to say she was halfway through.”
With a deal with Doubleday signed, it meant the pay cut and the months spent bent over the keyboard had paid off. Watson was going to be a published author, but with that he admits expectations changed
“First my only aim was to get the book published, but when you know that’s going to happen then you start questioning what success will mean. Is it selling 5,000, 100,000 or a million copies? Is it being in the top 10 bestsellers list or number one? In the end I decided that if I saw someone who I wasn’t related to reading my book then I would be happy.”
Watson didn’t need to look too far for confirmation he had arrived. Before I Go To Sleep was published in April 2011 and became both a Sunday Times and New York Times bestseller. It has since been translated into more than 30 languages and when it reached number seven on the US bestseller list, it was the highest position for a debut novel by a British author since JK Rowling. Little wonder then that the film rights were soon sold. In fact one of the few accolades denied Before I Go To Sleep was bestselling paperback of 2012, pushed into third place by 50 Shades of Grey by EL James and Sylvia Day’s Bared To You.
“I like to tell people it was the best non-erotic paperback of the year and given everything else that happened it would be churlish to have some kind of grievance against 50 Shades of Grey.”
The success of his debut meant he could give up the day job although he admits sidelining years of professional training didn’t come entirely easily.
“The NHS allowed me to take a two-year, unpaid career break. I was due to go back last September and I did get an email from my old manager saying, ‘I know you probably don’t want or need to come back, but I thought I’d best ask’. In many ways the harder decision was when my professional qualifications came up for renewal more recently. I’d spent such a big chunk of my life as a clinical professional and deciding not to renew did feel like I was drawing a line in the sand.”
While it was science that drew him as a first career, books have always been a backdrop to Watson’s life and he can trace his love of reading back to his childhood growing up in Stourbridge in the West Midlands and on holidays at the seaside.
“I must have been nine or 10-years-old and I remember sitting in a caravan in Cornwall with the rain pelting down.
“My mum was cooking eggs and bacon and I was reading JRR Tolkien’s The Silmarillion. I didn’t understand a word, but I loved sitting there turning the pages. I’m still quite old-fashioned when it comes to books. I do read e-books but there’s something romantic about a physical copy. It doesn’t matter if sand gets in it or you drop it in the pool and when it becomes dog eared you feel like you’ve been on a bit of a journey together.
“I love picking up books after a few years and seeing a train ticket drop out – it reminds you of a particular time in your life.”
While Watson had nursed his debut into print, when the film rights were sold he decided on an arm’s length approach to the adaptation. The results won’t be seen until next year, but having been given a sneak preview he says it is faithful to the spirit of Before I Go To Sleep and it should hit cinemas as he is finishing his second novel.
He won’t be drawn on detail, but admits the writing process is different this time around.
“I wrote my first book in a bit of a bubble, thinking that if I was lucky maybe an agent might read it. Now the bar has been raised. It’s hard not to start trying to second guess what readers want, but that way madness lies. I’m working hard not to fall into that trap and I hope to finish it next year.
“What’s happened over the last two years is incredibly flattering, and when the reviews started coming out I was like a child in a sweetshop devouring everything I could.
“I know that doesn’t mean anyone will buy the next book, but someone tweeted me the other day to say, Before I Go To Sleep had reminded them why they fell in love with reading in the first place.
“That’s a pretty incredible thing to say and whatever happens next I can always hang onto that.”
SJ Watson will be a guest at Random House’s Writers Academy workshop at Hotel du Vin in Harrogate. Led by Henry Sutton, author and senior lecturer in creative writing at UEA, the two day creative workshop runs from September 20 to 21 and places cost £375. To book call 0207 7840 8480 or online at www.thewritersacademy.co.uk. There is an exclusive 20 per cent discount for Yorkshire Post readers, enter YP1 at checkout.