SJ Watson’s first novel, Before I Go To Sleep, became a phenomenal international success selling over six million copies worldwide. It won the Crime Writers’ Association Award for Best Debut Novel and the Galaxy National Book Award for Crime Thriller of the Year, and has been translated into more than 40 languages. The subsequent movie, starring Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth and Mark Strong, and directed by Rowan Joffe, was released in September 2014. SJ Watson’s second novel, Second Life, received wide acclaim in 2015 and now the author has released his latest: Final Cut. Coming with the tagline: ‘They tried to hide the truth… but the camera never lies…’ we just had to ask SJ Watson more about this new psychological thriller.
How’s it been for you and your writing after Before (I Go to Sleep)?
It’s been an interesting time! Before I Go to Sleep was my debut and I wrote it with the hope it might find a publisher and then an audience, but I was totally stunned by its success. Seeing it resonate with so many people around the world was really wonderful, and then seeing it turned into a film was a dream come true. But of course my real job is writing books, so I then had to decide what next. The follow-up was surprisingly difficult to write. I think you have to write the first draft for yourself, as if no one will ever read it, and suddenly I had an agent and editors and a readership to consider, so it became harder to silence those voices in my head. It’s a very enviable ‘problem’ to have, but it took me a while to get my head around it. Now though, with the writing of Final Cut, I think I’ve managed to find a way of negotiating the contradiction inherent in writing both totally for myself and for my readers. It’s just a case of trust, I think. Trusting the book will lead the way. I really enjoyed writing Final Cut and I think it shows.
Can you tell us about Final Cut?
Final Cut is a psychological thriller about a documentary film maker who goes to a (fictional) fishing village in the north of England to make a film about everyday life. But once there she finds herself drawn to the story of two girls who went missing from the area some years previously, and in the course of making her film comes to discover that something sinister might still be going on in the area. It’s not too much of a spoiler to tell you she soon realises she herself might have more involvement than she’d realised.
What do you think Crime Fiction Lovers will love about it?
I love books that are a gripping page turner, with lots of twists and surprises, and that’s what I tried to do here. People have told me they didn’t see the end coming, which I love to hear. I like nothing more than surprising people.
Please tell us a little about the characters, what they face and how you created them?
Alex is a young, ambitious documentary film maker with a difficult past and some secrets she wants to keep. In the course of the book she meets several villagers, many of whom are not what they seem. There’s a mysterious loner called David who lives in an old house on the cliffs, a rather duplicitous landlady, and seemingly at every turn the figure of Daisy hangs over all, the girl who either took her own life, or was murdered.
The fictional former smugglers’ village Blackwood Bay in Yorkshire appears like a character too. Why did you decide to make a place a protagonist?
I’ve always loved books in which the setting feels very particular, and almost like a character in itself. I wanted to bring that to my own work, as the domestic nature of the drama in the first two books meant they could almost have been set anywhere. I was really pleased when early readers felt they should be able to go and buy a train ticket to take them to Blackwood Bay.
How do you separate the fact from the fiction when you are inspired by a real place like Robin Hood’s Bay, while evoking the atmosphere?
I think it’s a case of using the real place as a leaping off point – taking from it the things that are evocative and that lend the work the tone you’re looking for, while also bending it to my own fictional needs. Robin Hood’s Bay had exactly the atmosphere I wanted, but I didn’t want to set the book there as I needed to take liberties with the setting and the characters.
You return to exploring themes of memory and amnesia, identity and secrets through your storytelling. What do you find compelling about this?
I’m not sure! I’m just continually fascinated by memories, both real and imagined, and with what makes us who we are. I have a longstanding interest in psychology, and I suppose it comes from that. In this book I deal a bit with the effects of trauma, and how the mind tries to protect itself.
You are described as a master manipulator of suspense. How do you rachet up the tension?
When I’m editing in particular, I try to read as someone who doesn’t know the story. This is impossible, of course, but I try to imagine what the reader will be thinking and feeling at any given point. If it feels it needs a quieter section, I add one, and if I feel it needs an explosion I throw in a grenade! I like to surprise people, but to always keep things believable.
Which writers have inspired your work and who do you enjoy reading?
I read widely: a lot of crime and thriller fiction, but many other genres too. I love books that have atmosphere and pace, with characters I care about. If there are some twists, then so much the better. I think Erin Kelly is writing really good books right now. I love Gillian Flynn, particularly Sharp Objects. I’m enjoying Will Carver’s work, too.
What can we look forward to from you next?
I’m working on a new book. It’s another psychological thriller, but that’s as much as I’ll say right now!
SJ Watson’s second novel Second Life is reviewed here. Watch out for our review of Final Cut soon.