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Why Dan Mallory is grappling with the success of his author alter ego, AJ Finn

Dan Mallory aka AJ Finn. Photo/Alamy and Getty

Dan Mallory is slightly struggling with the success of his debut thriller, The Woman in the Window, 2018’s biggest work of adult fiction. But his author alter ego AJ Finn is enjoying the ride, one that brings him to WORD Christchurch this month.

Poor Dan Mallory. Here he is, the former book editor, in his New York apartment, talking to strangers on the telephone from such far-flung places as New Zealand.

He lives alone except for a pet plant. He wouldn’t mind a boyfriend and he longs for a French bulldog. For now it is just him and the plant. I ask how he is and he says: “I’m fine. I’m just reading about the latest Trump shitstorm so I’m feeling thoroughly depressed, but that’s how I feel most days.”

That’s Dan Mallory. AJ Finn, his pen name (the Finn bit is the name of a French bulldog owned by a family member; they are all dog crazy), is doing a bit better than fine. His debut thriller, The Woman in the Window, is this year’s number one adult fiction seller in the world. He has a US$2 million two-book deal. It is being made into a film starring Amy Adams as Finn’s agoraphobic, dipso, sufferer of post-traumatic stress syndrome and watcher-of-other-people’s-lives-through-windows protagonist, Dr Anna Fox.

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He says: “It’s strange, Michele, my book was acquired in 2016, and that of course was at the end of a year that found most people shaking their fist at Trump and Brexit, as I was. But this horrible little voice in the back of my head kept murmuring: ‘well, you’re having a pretty good year’. And that’s how I feel about 2018. The world is burning but I’m secure in my little corner. But I would say, all things considered, I would trade all of this to have that man out of office, to have those kids out of their prisons and I know we’re not supposed to be talking about politics but …”

I believe him. He’s just lovely, the now very rich Dan Mallory who is set to be even richer when the film comes out. Also, it doesn’t hurt, gushed one interviewer, that “AJ Finn, in real life, is tall, dark and Gyllenhaal-ish on the handsome scale”.

He laughs, a lot. He says: “I assume they’re referring to Jake Gyllenhaal and not Maggie. She’s quite cute but neither one of them, frankly, does much for me. But that’s very kind. I tend not to read my own press.”

Listen to AJ Finn at the WORD Christchurch Festival:

That there is so much press he finds quite odd and a bit tricky because there is Dan and there is AJ. They differ, “oh, quite fundamentally in many respects, and I don’t mean to speak as though I’ve got multiple personalities. But, as Dan Mallory, I’m very much disinclined to talk about myself … but, as AJ Finn, bring it on! Lest it sound as though I’m faking it, I’ve realised that I can access an aspect of my personality of which I was previously unaware. I can be outgoing, I can be transparent. I can be gregarious. I’m still dreadful with social media.”

Mallory is quiet, very private, happy to be in his own company, except for the plant.

I have to ask: does the plant have a name? “I’m looking at it. I think it’s a him. He doesn’t have a name.”

Roger would be a nice name for a plant. “That’s lovely! Oh! That’s lovely. I’m going to get a little pot with that inscribed on it. Thank you!” He has already named the French bulldog Ike, “which I think is a cute name for a bulldog”. This is the dog he doesn’t yet own but will acquire after his crazily busy year of travelling the world to promote his book is over. He has spent 29 days this year “in my own bed”. Next stop, New Zealand, where he will no doubt be the star turn, Gyllenhaalishly, at the Word Christchurch Festival. He will be bringing his mother, and they are both wildly excited.

“Only one of us will make it back alive. She’s quite spirited.” They are both huge fans of Ngaio Marsh and he plans to re-read a number of her novels on the flight. So he doesn’t have to talk to his spirited mother? “Ha, ha, ha. We’ll just get in a fight.”

What good fun he is. He has always been able to “present well”.

AJ Finn.

“Oh, that’s kind of you.” Actually, I was quoting him. “Oh. Yes. Thank you for parroting my own self-praise to me!”

It is not quite self-praise. What he means is that he has managed to present well. He achieved an Oxford degree (his thesis was on sexuality in the works of Patricia Highsmith, Graham Greene and Henry James; he is obsessed by psychological thriller writing and film noir), then a successful career in the book-publishing trade while suffering, or so he thought, 15 long years of severe, crippling depression. He says he “cycled through” every possible form of treatment, including electroconvulsive therapy, meditation and various medications. Then, in 2016, he saw a Russian psychologist who diagnosed him as being bipolar. “I argued with him because I’m argumentative. And, you know, I’ve seen Homeland! And he said: ‘I think you’ve got a variant of bipolar where the highs are not as manic but the lows are lower and more enduring.’”

For most people such a diagnosis would be devastating, for Mallory it was transformative. He got the right treatment and six weeks later began writing his book. “It was a huge relief and for so many people this would, as you say, offer a difficult road; for me it marked the end of one. The flip side is that I spent 15 years misdiagnosed, but there you have it, them’s the breaks. But, yes, I’m in a much better place now and have been for three years. And this isn’t to say I don’t feel down from time to time. The trick for me is trying to determine whether I’m just feeling down because, hey, everybody feels down from time to time, or whether this is the beginning of a descent.”

He talks about these things because his book “engages with the idea of mental health” but mostly because so few people do talk about mental health. “I’ve got to tell you, Michele, it was so gratifying and even now I’m almost moved to tears when I recall how people in the audience would approach me afterwards just to say they found it refreshing or encouraging …”

He gives money to a mental health charity, an animal charity and to the Rainbow Railroad, which helps get gay people out of places where gay people are persecuted.

He is very sweet. Who would not be glad that he’s feeling – Trump notwithstanding – so much happier. Of course, when he’s feeling down he can just go and look at his bank account online. “That,” he says, “is exactly what I do. I have a stuffed pillowcase full of cold hard cash and I roll around, hugging it!” He’s just like a rap artist. “Exactly right. I’m about that dignified.”

Now that he has his pillowcases of cold hard cash, what will he spend it on, other than Ike? “It will change my life in material ways once I buy new property, which I’ll be doing in New York and London and, possibly, Paris,” he says as nonchalantly as a very rich rap artist. Wow! He is awful. “I know, right – I kinda want to smack myself.”

Now that he is so rich and awful, I do hope he won’t neglect Roger (who by the way, because you really want to know, is an ivy plant). “No. Roger will always be first in my heart. I really appreciate you naming him.” That is an absolute pleasure, as was talking to Dan Mallory and AJ Finn, top chaps, the pair of them.

AJ Finn appears at Word Christchurch in the Great Word Debate on Saturday, September 1; in conversation with actor-writer Michelle Langstone on September 2. He is also a presenter at this year’s Ngaio Marsh Awards for local crime fiction.

This article was first published in the August 4, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.