AUTHOR INTERVIEW: S J Watson on ‘Before I Go to Sleep’ (Text Publishing)

Andrea Hanke spoke to S J Watson about his experience as a pupil in the Faber Academy’s first novel-writing course in the UKand 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.

Wordstorm 2010: the festival of Australasian writing

The weather at this year’s Wordstorm writers festival (held 13 to 16 May in Darwin—officially in the ‘dry’ third of the year), was humid enough for even the locals to admit things were ‘warm’. But for those who sweated and fanned their way through sessions in the lush (unairconditioned) Darwin Botantic Gardens, there was the reward of hearing voices that don’t always carry as far south as Victoria and New South Wales—or get as much airtime when they do.

Of course some big-name guests sold out special event sessions at other venues—Wendy Harmer, Tim Flannery and Germaine Greer among them—but the shelves in the Dymocks bookshop tent in the gardens were packed with titles by authors less familiar to my non-Territorian eye, books by writers from Timor, Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia—a mix which justifies Wordstorm’s recent rebranding as the ‘festival of Australasian writing’.

Ha’u Maka Lucas/I Am Lucas, which won first prize in the Timorese National Short Novel Writing Competition, for example, was stocked by the bookshop in its original Timorese edition, its author Teodosio Babtista Ximenes hoping to find Australian support for an English translation of his story, which is based on the removal of Timorese children from their families by the Indonesian army in the late 1970s. Nearby was the anthology of Indonesian work in translation, Reasons for Harmony, published by the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival.

The bookshop shelves were also full with poetry, fiction, nonfiction, plays and anthologies by Aboriginal authors from around the country, including Marie Munkara, Yvette Holt, Wesley Enoch, Lionel Fogarty, Lorraine McGee-Sippel, Philip McLaren, Marcia Langton, Melissa Lucashenko and Margaret Kemarre (M K) Turner—several of whom appeared at the Indigenous Writers and Educators conference which ran as part of the festival on 12 and 13 May at Charles Darwin University.

From this overwhelming mix, I came away with Ali Cobby Eckermann’s book of poetry little bit long time (Picaro Press), a collection that’s direct, personal, moving and beautiful; the anthology Fishtails in the Dust: Writing from the Centre (Ptilotus Press), which includes some of the poems from Eckermann’s collection among short stories and other works by a range of Central Australian writers; Terra, a bilingual English/Indonesian anthology of work by writers who have appeared at Wordstorm between 2004 and 2006, edited by festival director Sandra Thibodeaux; and M K Turner’s Iwenhe Tyerrtye: What It Means to Be an Aboriginal Person (IAD Press), which was launched at the festival. Opera soprano Deborah Cheetham read from a section of Turner’s book in a panel on ‘Home, Land, Homeland’, emphasising the importance of words to human identity: ‘Words makes things happen. Words makes us alive… That’s how I got taught these things, how I’ve learned through out my life, how I’ve always seen the world, how I understand it, and how and what in all those ways life has always been.’ Continue reading

ADELAIDE WRITERS WEEK: Some advice from the published

So according to new figures from the Australia Council of the Arts, seven percent of Australians are ‘writing a novel or short story’.  Reassuring (I’m not alone!)? Or depressing (I’m not alone?)?

Shockingly, there’s been a whole lot of talk about writing at this year’s Adelaide Writers Week. Here’s the advice I liked best (in terms of fiction writing), for all you seven percenters out there:

Inspiration v perspiration

Prime Minister’s fiction prize winner Steven Conte believes ‘there’s no way of switching on inspiration’. ‘Just write’, he says. What counts is ‘the hard graft to make those moments [of inspiration] come about.’ ‘Writing is, in other words, work,’ as Jeff Sparrow recently put it. (Or, as one of the characters relays in Michelle de Kretser’s The Lost Dog, quoting Renoir—you need to spend a lot of time collecting firewood if you want a blazing fire.)

Perfectionism v production

Jim Crace said writers needed courage: ‘be prepared to write a bad version of your novel’, or you may never write anything. ‘Inspiration isn’t worth waiting for. Don’t be tormented by the blank page, just scribble something down.’ (Crace himself wrote the first half of his most recent book before realising he would have to change everything from ‘baggy’ past tense to the ‘thrillingly democratic’ present tense, but at least he had something written to alter.)

Michelle de Kretser said that most days writing she thinks ‘that’s terrible’, occasionally, ‘that’s not bad’. ‘Distrust both reactions,’ she said. ‘Good looks tragically bad’ the following morning and vice versa. ‘Get to the following morning,’ she says.

Procrastination and other ‘enemies of promise’

Jim Crace mentioned Enemies of Promise by Cyril Connolly (that’s him behind all the books up there), which chronicles the myriad distractions, excuses, obstacles to actually sitting down to write. (And is somewhat famous for this line, among others: ‘There is no more more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.’ Hmm.)

Michelle de Kretser: ‘keep the email button off, that’s quite important’.

Be there (wherever ‘there’ takes you)

My favourite and perhaps very obvious advice was from Marina Lewycka, whose description of writing reminded me of those I’ve heard from Sonya Hartnett and from Caroline Jones, among others. ‘Be in the place [you’re] writing about,’ she said. Once you’re ‘in the place’, in the scene, as a writer, all you need to do is ‘look around’ at what you see, listen to what you hear—‘smell’, says Lewycka.

And when it comes to the question ‘to plan, or not to plan’ I’m with Charlotte Wood (and Kate Grenville, and Anne Michaels, and many others): ‘The pleasure comes not from expressing what’s on my mind but discovering what’s in my mind,’ says Wood  Or, as Jim Crace put it: ‘If you plan in advance, you’re denying yourself the joys of discovery en route.’

Our dark and private spaces

Citing the rise of text-based social interactions such as Facebook and Twitter, Margaret Simons made the point at last night’s first official ‘Meanland’ event, that ‘text is everywhere, there is more text being used than ever before’. Like fellow panelist Sherman Young (The Book is Dead, Long Live the Book), she predicted that ereading would soon be widespread. ‘In 10 years most of our reading will be on ereaders’, with coffee table and children’s picture books remaining in print, along with ‘precious’ books: ‘I have no intention of throwing out my Jane Austen collection.’

None on the panel, which also included Marieke Hardy and Peter Craven, doubted that ereading would soon be upon us (Simons herself thinks ‘you’ll see ereaders everywhere by the end of the year’); the question that remained was whether reading on a screen would change what we read or the way we create.

Sherman doesn’t believe ‘screens will make us do things … that paper doesn’t’. So long as we still write and publish it, we will still be reading long-form fiction. But Simons didn’t seem so sure we would remain unchanged by the digital age. Social networking and developments like the forthcoming Google Wave are enabling a public collaborative process that may dilute our sense of the author, she suggested. Reading and writing ‘becomes less private’.

Authors on Twitter update followers on their works in progress, responses altering the work. Blogging authors invite readers to help decide the fate of their characters. The idea of collaboration in fiction writing is at least as old as, well, the word editor, I suppose, but Simons was suggesting something more dispersed than that–and that new technology was hastening it. We are in danger, she says, of ‘losing our dark and private spaces’. Fellow-panellist Hardy exhorted writers to ensure they were not being ‘watered down’ by their social networking, urging creators to be ‘light online’ but complex in their works Continue reading