Second Life: An Interview With International Bestselling Author S.J Watson

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A long time ago, in another life, I was fortunate enough to be on the Junior Board of a well-known industrial company. At one of our meetings, the Main Board Director of Finance asked us a question: ‘What do you do with a business that earns 20% return on capital employed?’ The answer: ‘give it more capital’.

I’m reminded of that question now but in a totally different guise.

What do you do as a writer when your debut novel is an international bestseller, sells more than 4 million copies and is made into a film starring major Hollywood talent?

The answer, you would think, would be: ‘write another one’. But as we discovered with Harper Lee and To Kill A Mockingbird, it’s not always that easy.

The writer in this case is S.J.Watson, whose debut novel was Before I Go To Sleep. The film of the same name starred Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman and Mark Strong. Before I Go To Sleep came out in Spring 2011 and Mr Watson is only now touring the UK to promote his subsequent offering. Why has it taken so long to bring out another one? It’s called Second Life. Is there a clue in the title?

It’s the first question I ask when we meet. We’re sitting (comfortably) in a staff office somewhere in the bowels of Waterstones and I’m being shoe-horned in between his appearances in Leeds and Bolton. No pressure then – although of the two us he seems more relaxed and he’s generous with his time. He is under no pressure to produce another book either. True, when Before I Go To Sleep launched, there was a lot of promotional work, and then came the (minor) distraction of the film – but the real reason for the delay has been his desire to make sure the next book is right. After such an initial success, the responsibility to his readership and to himself seems to weigh heavily. Mr Watson, it would appear, has no intention of jumping on his own bandwagon and rushing something new out in a blaze of glory.


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In fact, Mr Watson doesn’t seem like the bandwagon-jumping sort. If he was he would doubtless have written about vampires, because that was what was in vogue when he began writing seriously in the mid 2000s. And rather than choosing psychological thrillers as a genre, he claims that it chose him. I find his advice to aspiring writers on the subject quite refreshing. Contrary to what our agents and publishers continually tell us, we should write for ourselves and draw on what’s in our hearts, he says, rather than concoct something purely for the market. In his case it’s clearly paid off. The psychological thriller is now very much the thing, with such titles as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train dominating the bestseller shelves – a trend for which he can count himself partially responsible.

What other pearls of wisdom can he offer the budding novelist? Does he always know the outcome in advance? Well, not always. He reveals that he doesn’t like to plan in too much detail, and with Before I Go To Sleep he had no idea where it was going. Was there an end point even? Yes, roughly – but stuff happens when you’re not thinking about it and if you’re not careful you can close off more doors than you open. So is he saying that his characters take control? Sometimes, and when they do he views it as a collaboration, as if they were working together. If you get blocked, walk away, he says, do some washing up, walk the dog. I now see why he’s done so well where I have failed. I don’t have a dog I can walk – I’ve always relied on doing the ironing for my inspiration.

With his level of success, Mr Watson can remain true to his colours – so it’s perhaps no surprise that Second Life is yet another psychological thriller.

Once again, his main protagonist is a woman; while I’ve often struggled with the female psyche, Mr Watson chooses to write 1st person in the present tense, a point of view with which he feels entirely comfortable. He finds it incredibly flattering to be told that his voice as a woman is really authentic. ‘The job of a writer,’ he says, ‘is to walk around in someone else’s shoes. But you should keep your own socks on,’ he adds.

So what’s the book about? Julia’s life is pretty good. She has husband and a son whom she loves and who love her in return. But her comfortable world is smashed into pieces when her beloved younger sister Kate is murdered in a seemingly random attack in an alley in Paris. As the weeks drag by and the police seem no nearer to finding an answer, Julia decides to take matters into her own hands. This premise provides an entry into the dangerous world of internet dating and that ‘other’ persona that we like to portray online. Julia naturally becomes embroiled and her own colourful past starts catching up with her. Addiction can be a patient disease…

These are topical issues and they’re bound to arouse interest. We all have ‘other’ lives. I began by talking about one of my own, although it’s nowhere near as dramatic as Julia’s. S.J Watson has his: a few years ago he was a physics graduate working as an audiologist. He still is, and always will be, a physics graduate, but in his ‘Second Life’ he’s rapidly becoming one of the foremost writers in psychological crime drama. If I were you, I should watch this space.


N.E David


N.E.David is an author based in York. His debut novel, Birds Of The Nile, was published by Roundfire in 2013. For more information please visit his website or follow him on Twitter @NEDavidAuthor


Second Life is available in hardback now for £14.99. Visit S.J Watson’s website for further details of his publications.