Richard McComb meets a Stourbridge author whose novel about an amnesiac has become a global publishing sensation.
For a man you probably haven’t seen and whose name you probably don’t know, Steven Watson is instantly recognisable.
There is the pale skin, the strong nose and the large spectacles. Most of all, there is the distinctive bald head which bobs along inside the glass-covered lounge at the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel in central London.
Ordinarily, Watson’s strong physical presence might be a marketing executive’s dream but on this occasion a cleverly manipulated anonymity and sexual ambiguity has helped to create a publishing sensation.
Watson’s ability to invent and write a gripping story has also helped this first-time novelist’s meteoric rise. Because Steven Watson, who grew up in conformist Stourbridge and wrote “dreadful” adolescent poetry, has gone global.
But I only know what he looks like because I googled him and saw some portrait pictures. The book which has delivered fame and an unspecified degree of fortune does not contain an image of the writer, or hint at his/her sex. The dust-jacket blurb and the author description are deliberately gender non-specific. There are only the initials and the surname – and the title, of course: S J Watson, Before I Go To Sleep.
Watson tells me later that it took the publishers an age to come up with a combination of words that didn’t imply “S J” was one thing or the other, so it could be Sarah Jane or Steven John, the latter of which is correct.
Christine Lucas, the first-person narrator of Before I Go To Sleep is an amnesiac living in north London. She awakes each day with no memory. She thinks she is in her mid-20s but when she looks in the mirror she observes the reality: she is 47. Christine doesn’t recognise the man in bed next to her, who has to explain he is her husband, Ben.
It emerges that Christine has suffered a traumatic episode in her past. Remembering what happened holds the key to unlocking the mystery that clouds the here and now.
Dr Nash, a shady neurologist, meets Christine without Ben’s knowledge and encourages her to keep a secret diary in an attempt to rebuild her memory. But does Christine trust him? Or Ben? Or herself?
The novel’s female voice had to be convincing. Watson says he didn’t want readers saying: “This is a bloke trying to write like a woman – and it shows.” If that happened, the work would fall at the first hurdle.
But if readers didn’t know if the author was a man or a woman and they thought Christine’s voice, feelings, behaviour and outlook were credible, then S J Watson, whoever he or she was, would have succeeded.
And so he has. Watson says there was no intention to deceive the reader with the identity ambiguity: “It is not a deliberate ploy to be dishonest. I am not pretending to be something I am not. I didn’t want it to be an issue. It’s also incredibly flattering when people come up to me at events and say ‘I thought you were a woman’.”
The writer says he wanted to explore themes such as love, relationships, power and domesticity and a female character was a perfect fit for him.
As Christine wakes every day not knowing what happened the day before, there is huge scope for dramatic tension as she tries to put the puzzle together. Watson adds: “I have joked that if it was written from a male perspective he would just watch football all day.”
Part of the success of Before I Go To Sleep can be attributed to its genre-spanning nature. It variously has been described as a psychological thriller, a literary thriller, a whodunit and a work of crime fiction. No doubt someone could make the case for it being Chick-Lit, albeit a very warped, macabre style of Chick-Lit, with a low cocktails and Louboutins count.
I meet Watson at the St Pancras Hotel because he is on his way to Paris, via Eurostar, having been shortlisted for the SNCF Prix du Polar for best crime novel, which he wins that night.
Watson, who is 41, is casually dressed in jeans, a T-shirt and trainers. He is trim and orders a latte with skimmed milk, no biscuits or cake. He must be used to interviews and public appearances by now but although he isn’t exactly nervous there is an air of vulnerability and a desire not to blow his own trumpet. So when I ask how many copies Before I Go To Sleep has sold, Watson says: “It’s over two million now, worldwide. It might even be approaching three. I’m not sure.”
Not sure? But then what’s a million copies between friends.
Watson says the success of the book, on sale in 47 countries, has been “crazy.” It is about to get a whole lot crazier. It was announced at last month’s Cannes Film Festival that Hollywood star Nicole Kidman is to play Christine in Ridley Scott’s production of Before I Go To Sleep. Watson, understandably, is in a daze.
He says: “Sometimes I will normalise it and go, ‘Like, oh yeah, Nicole Kidman.’ And then I will be sitting on a bus and it will hit me and I will drift off. Nicole Kidman is going to be in a film of a book that I wrote. It does feel incredibly surreal.”
Watson’s modesty can be traced to his upbringing in the West Midlands. Bragging wasn’t the done thing in Stourbridge in the 1970s and 80s. His father Stanley was a metallurgist at the Round Oak steelworks and was made redundant when the plant became Merry Hill shopping centre.
Wordsley-born Watson, who had a crush on singer Morrissey and a love of creative writing, says: “We were never poverty stricken, but it wasn’t a background of affluence. For me, being financially secure was always important. I was good at science, so I thought it was a good thing to do because it didn’t close too many doors career-wise.”
He left Buckpool School with a handful of O-levels – “I was armed with neurosis, mostly,” he says – and went to King Edwards College, Stourbridge, taking physics, chemistry and maths at A-level. “Writing was something I almost rejected because I felt if I couldn’t do it as a career then I didn’t want to do it at all,” he says. But Watson couldn’t help himself and kept jotting down “fragments of ideas and random thoughts”. He studied physics at Birmingham University, lodging in halls in Edgbaston and then in digs in Greenfield Road, Harborne. While he was at university, his parents’ marriage collapsed. I ask if it was a difficult time.
“Yeah, I think it was. My parents splitting up wasn’t the only thing. There was also kind of me being a teenager and being an only child and struggling with what I wanted to do in my life. I knew that was writing, but I still wasn’t facing up to that. And also struggling with my sexuality. So...”
Watson tumbles the issue into the conversation and quickly moves on. Hang on, I say. Has he spoken about his sexuality before?
“I haven’t not spoken about it,” he says, adding: “Not to a huge degree.”
Watson says his perception is that it is far easier today to talk about homosexuality than it was in the late 80s and early 90s. He assures me he is happy to talk about the issue now: “That’s why I’m telling a journalist... And I never thought I’d be able to do that.”
Watson and his partner Nick, an NHS manager, took part in a civil partnership last April, two days after Before I Go To Sleep was released. They live in the trendy Hoxton/Shoreditch area of the capital. The writer quickly adds: “I’m not one of the cool people.”
Watson became interested in audiology, or hearing science, towards the end of his degree in Birmingham and decided he wanted to work with “people not machines.” He did an MSc, specialising in audiology, at Southampton University and got a job at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in London. Although he worked primarily with patients suffering balance problems, the role brought him into contact with all manner of brain disorders and syndromes.
He says: “People have asked me if the subject matter of Before I Go To Sleep is in any way influenced by my work and I have always said no. Consciously, it wasn’t. I was trying to move away from my day job. But thinking about it, there were people I met who would have had memory conditions. If anything connects directly with the book it is that job, although I wasn’t working directly with people with amnesia.”
Watson won promotion and took a senior position working for a children’s hearing service in south-east London. Life got busier and there was less time for writing. The creative niggles began. If he didn’t take action now, the writing would never happen.
Then in 2008, Watson’s boss announced he was retiring. Watson, then aged 37, says: “I think I had an epiphany – or a mid-life crisis, depending on which way you want to look at it.”
If he applied for his manager’s job and got it, he thought he would never write. “That would be it as far as my ambition of getting published. I thought, ‘That’s not what I want’.
“I realised that, without being morbid, I didn’t want to be lying on my death bed looking back at what I had achieved and what I hadn’t achieved. I would rather look back at my life and say, ‘I took a risk and I had a go at writing a novel, a serious go, and it didn’t happen’ – rather than thinking, ‘I didn’t even give it a chance.’”
Watson took a backward career step and became a junior clinician, working three days a week, so he could concentrate on writing. He joined the first intake of the Faber Academy’s new six-month novel writing course in February 2009. The experience changed his life.
Watson says: “It was like six months’ load of light-bulb moments. I knew I had made the right choice and writing was important to me. It is part of me, it is part of my DNA. I remember saying to someone towards the end of the course that if Before I Go To Sleep wasn’t published I didn’t intend to give up. I would have written another book. And then another book. And then another book. It did make me realise I wasn’t going to stop unless someone put a gun to my head and said it isn’t going to happen.”
To get the most from the course, Watson decided to work on a new story idea. Sometimes things just fall into place. They did with Watson. He stumbled across a magazine obituary for Henry Molaison, who died in December 2008. Molaison suffered catastrophic amnesia following an operation when he was 27. Although he lived until 82, he could not form any new memories.
“I was struck by how crazy if must have been to have woken up in your 50s, 60s, 70s, expecting to be in your 20s,” recalls Watson.
“I had an image of a woman waking up in a strange house with a strange man, approaching middle age. That image wouldn’t go away.”
Like all the students on the Faber course, Watson had to submit a piece of writing to be critiqued in class. That first 5,000 words turned out to be the start of Before I Go To Sleep.
The writer says he had no idea where the story was going: “I wanted it to be an exploration of Christine’s situation, but pretty early on I realised because of the constraints I placed on myself – writing in the first-person as a woman who can’t remember things for more than a day – that to make it readable her situation had to be exciting. It had to be a plot-driven narrative. There had to be a guiding force.”
Within six or seven weeks, Watson came up with the novel’s devastating hook, the “truth at the heart of the book,” which would drive the story and allow it to be resolved.
Watson says: “There is no right way or wrong way to write a novel. Some people will sit down and plan everything in great detail. They will know exactly what happens in Chapter 47. They’ll write long character biographies and know where their characters buy their underpants. But for everybody who does that there are people who go in with a glimmer of an idea, or an inkling, and see where it takes them. There are pros and cons of doing both methods. But even when you plan things out, you have to leave room for the book to surprise you otherwise you can end up planning the life out of it.”
Top literary agent Clare Conville, who discovered Booker prizewinner DBC Pierre, attended the final session of the Faber course, chatted to Watson and asked him to send her a copy of his finished book.
Before I Go To Sleep took seven months to write and was completed in August 2009. Watson re-worked it and sent it to Conville in January 2010. The final version was sent to publishers in late spring and the first scout, for a German publisher, was on the phone the following day.
“It went on from there,” says Watson. “It’s a weird process. I was sitting on my own in this room with these imaginary people, hoping that one day somebody other than my family and friends might want to read it.
“It’s not about the number of people who have brought the book. It’s about the people who send me messages on Twitter and Facebook to say they’ve enjoyed it. It’s a nice feeling.”
Officially, Watson is on a two-year sabbatical from his latest job at Guys and St Thomas’s NHS Foundation Trust and is reticent about discussing whether he will return. The success of the book has allowed him to decide if he is going back, rather than when.
Watson says the cash from the film deal is not an “insignificant sum of money,” but it is not “mega bucks.” “I am not going to be buying an island in the near future or living in a castle,” he says.
Yes, but Nicole Kidman. Starring in his book. Will he get to meet her?
“I want to go on set. I might see her in the distance coming out of her trailer,” adds Watson.