Interview: SJ Watson

by Fiona Rae / 10 March, 2012
The British thriller writer's debut novel Before I Go to Sleep is the first selection of the new Listener Book Club.

It’s just as well SJ Watson himself has a good memory. He realised recently it had been two years since he’d read Before I Go to Sleep, his best-selling thriller about an amnesiac wife who starts to spot discrepancies in what her husband tells her about her past. “I thought maybe I should read it again in case I start answering people’s questions with something that isn’t there.”

From his research before writing the book, and subsequent further reading on the subject, Watson knows about the fallibility and distortions of even a good memory. “It does seem almost that in the act of remembering something you then invent details and it’s even possible we invent details about events that never ­actually happened. And those details become cemented as though they’re memories and it becomes increasingly difficult to tease apart which are memories and which are inventions.” Then there are the memories that elude us completely.

“The section where [narrator Christine Lucas] can’t remember inviting [her doctor] around and he says, ‘I’m here because you invited me’ – one of the reasons I put that in was because I wanted to remind the reader we don’t need to be suffering from amnesia to sometimes just completely forget things.” Watson adds that he, for one, relies so much on his iPhone that “I’d forget my own birthday if it wasn’t on there”.

It’s the beginning of February and Watson is on the phone – landline rather than iPhone – from a freezing London. He is back from two days in Norway, however, “and compared with Oslo, it’s actually not bad”. Oslo was just one of Watson’s international stop-offs in support of the global success of his million-selling debut, which is the first book for the newly launched New Zealand Listener Book Club (see below).

In Oslo, as everywhere else, he’s had to be extremely careful about what he says about Before I Go to Sleep, a novel full of meditations on memory, imagination, truth, love, ageing and identity, but one where you aren’t very far in before to say anything at all is to spoil the suspense and tightly controlled unravelling of the plot.

“My favourite passages are from the end of the book but I can’t read them because they’d give too much away either in themselves or because I’d have to explain so much for them to make sense I’d be there all day,” says Watson. “I never sat down and thought, ‘I’m going to write a thriller.’ I just let the ­characters lead me into the story. But the kinds of book I’ve always loved are the kind that do have a strong plot ­element to them. I think also because of the nature of Christine and the claustrophobia of her world, it needs that plot element.”

Christine is a 47-year-old who since she was 29 has woken each morning with a virtually blank memory about the ensuing years and much of what went before, only able to retain memories for a day. “The person in the mirror is me, but I am 20 years too old. Twenty-five. More,” she says in the opening chapter.

Christine’s condition was inspired by the obituary Watson read in 2009 of American Henry Molaison, who, after a brain operation in 1953 when he was 27, was unable to form new memories of more than 15 minutes and retained only a few older ones. Watson had just quit his job as the deputy head of a hospital audiology department, working instead part-time as a more junior clinician, because he increasingly realised writing needed to be more than a hobby for him. “It was really a ­fundamental part of me.”

It was quite a leap of faith from a pretty senior position. Did his colleagues think he was mad? “Yeah,” he laughs. “Some people very much so. I don’t think anyone actually said, ‘You’re crazy’, but it was very obvious some people were thinking it.” Watson had signed on for a creative writing course at the Faber Academy and was looking for an idea to work on. With Molaison, he found it, returning again and again to the image he formed in his head of a woman looking in the mirror and expecting to see someone much younger.

It was a necessary literary device to give Christine a longer memory span of 24 hours because otherwise, since he wanted to write the novel in the first person, “it was going to be a very, very repetitive book”, he says. “At the time I was writing the book, I did think it was something that wouldn’t happen naturally, but since finishing it I’ve heard of a couple of cases, one in particular of a woman over here in the UK who had a very similar condition.”

Watson did toy with the idea of writing the novel from a male perspective. “But I realised very quickly it would have been a very different story and I wouldn’t have been able to explore some of the ideas I’d been thinking about for a while. Also there was an element in it of me wanting to get as far away as possible from my own life as I could. Although now the book has been finished for a couple of years, I can see there are bits of me everywhere.”

Such as? Well, the topic of ageing, looking in the mirror and at your life and wondering how you came to be there, how far you have drifted from the ambitions of your younger self – it’s no surprise that came as he was approaching his 40th birthday, “when for me anyway you start to lose that sense of having all the time in the world and you’re starting to have a sense of if you want something to happen you need to get a move on”.

What Watson wanted to happen was to write a novel and have it published. Having it sell a million copies worldwide and pick up such awards as the Crime Writers’ Association John Creasey New Blood Dagger and the Galaxy National Book Award for Crime Thriller of the Year must be nice cherries on the cake. “It’s been pretty spectacular. The book has succeeded in ways I never even dared to hope for.” And in one way he always hoped for – that he’d be taken for a woman. Going under the initials SJ instead of his first name Steve (the J is for John) was Watson’s way of putting Christine’s voice to the test.

“I did feel the whole book would fall apart if the voice didn’t sound authentic, so it is really nice when people come up to me at events and say, ‘I’m really sorry, I thought you were a woman.’ They ­apologise and my answer is always, ‘Please don’t apologise, it’s incredibly flattering – in the field of writing at least.’”

BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP, by SJ Watson (Text, $19.95).

The New Zealand Listener Book Club

To join the Listener Book Club conversation about Before I Go to Sleep, visit the Book Club section of our website,, follow the Twitter account @nzlbookclub and hashtag #nzlbookclub, or go to the Facebook page New Zealand Listener Book Club. Over the next four weeks, you will find a podcast discussion with three booksellers, a book group's verdict and more besides. Most of all, though, we want to know what you think, and will be posting your comments from our website and social media at the end of month, when back here in the magazine you will also find reviewer Craig Ranapia's take on Before I Go to Sleep, along with an announcement of next month's book.
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