Andrea Hanke spoke to S J Watson about his experience as a pupil in the Faber Academy’s first novel-writing course in the UK—and the resulting novel Before I Go to Sleep, out this month from Text Publishing.
S J Watson doesn’t have a conventional background as a writer, if indeed such a thing exists. The UK physics graduate worked for many years for the National Health Service in London while dabbling with writing on the side, until he decided ‘that to be truly happy in myself I would need to stop thinking of my writing as a hobby and give it the space and time that increasingly I thought it deserved’.
In 2008 Watson was accepted into the Faber Academy’s first six-month-long ‘Writing a Novel’ Course, a program that covers all aspects of the novel-writing process, and offers guest seminars by well-known writers, agents and publishers. The program is due to begin in Australia this year.
‘I loved every moment of being on the course, and really can’t praise it highly enough! I met, and learned from, some wonderful writers, and I made some lifelong friends. I learned so much—everything from how to capture the essence of a character to how to write a synopsis and pitch your book to an agent—but it was also incredible just to be surrounded by people who took their writing as seriously as I did, and who understood what the writing life involves.’
On the last night of the Faber course Watson was introduced to literary agent Clare Conville (of Conville & Walsh in London), who had been invited to speak to the class on what she looked for in a manuscript. ‘We chatted afterwards and Clare asked me what my book was about. Luckily we’d been working that week on a “25-word pitch” to use in just such a situation! Mine was, “My book is about a woman with no memory who has to rediscover her past every day …” (There was more, but I don’t want to give away the plot!) She said she’d like to read it, and so when I finished I sent it straight to her. She liked it and, after a few more weeks editing, sent it out to publishers she thought might be interested.’
The amnesiac character is a familiar trope in soap operas, the source of mirth in the romantic comedy 50 First Dates and the subject of the psychological thriller Memento, which bears the closest resemblance to Watson’s novel. But Watson says his story came to him after reading the obituary of a man who had undergone surgery for epilepsy in 1953, which left him incapable of forming new memories, living constantly in the past.
‘I wondered how it must feel to look at oneself in a mirror in 2008, expecting to see the same person as 55 years earlier, and straight away the character of Christine came to me. After that, it was just a case of working out her story, and how a woman in her position might tell it.’
Before I Go to Sleep has made headlines for the Faber graduate after it was sold into over 30 languages and acquired for film by Ridley Scott’s production company, ‘an absolute dream come true,’ says Watson. ‘I met with the producer and writer/director and straight away could see that they understood the heart of the book and would make a film that reflected that. It’s going to be weird to see my book on the big screen, but I can’t wait!’
Andrea Hanke is editor of Bookseller+Publisher magazine. This interview first appeared in the April issue.