SJ Watson on his childhood dream coming true when his agent secured a book deal for Before I Go to Sleep, the psychological thriller that went on to become a phenomenal international success
Not exactly! I’d started a few – but with some I’d only got as far as a title or perhaps an opening scene. They were hardly novels, more ideas I was playing with. The number 20 arose when I fell foul of a fact-checker following an American interview I did. She wasn’t happy with ‘a few’ so forced me to give a figure. ‘Fifty?’ she said, and I said, ‘No, fewer than that.’ ‘What, five?’ ‘More than that.’ Eventually we agreed on ‘twenty’ but little did I know that the figure would be reported as fact, and then find its way into my biography. That’s the power of the internet….
I’d sent nothing out to anyone, though. I wanted to wait until I felt I was ready.
During your talk at the Mountains to Sea book festival in Dún Laoghaire earlier this year, you mentioned that you were on track to get a promotion at work but instead opted for a more junior position so that you could focus on writing. Was this a very difficult decision and what did your friends and family make of it?
Not really. By that point I knew I wanted to be a writer, and to devote much more time and energy to it than my full-time senior position would ever allow. My family and friends were always supportive, because they knew how much writing meant to me. A few friends of friends took it upon themselves to warn me that it wasn’t a good career option, and tell me there’s no money in being an author, and wonder whether I was making a stupid decision. But they clearly didn’t know me very well.
You have said in the past that one of the best things about doing the Faber Academy Writing a Novel course was that it gave you the confidence to call yourself a writer. How important is it for aspiring authors to take themselves seriously as writers?
I think it’s essential. You have to be prepared to take yourself and your work seriously if you expect anyone else to. It’s not the act of being published that makes you a writer, it’s the act of writing.
Could you recount how you met your agent Clare Conville?
I met Clare on the final night of the course I did. She came in to talk to us about her role as an agent, and what she looks for in a manuscript, etc. We had a little party afterwards and she stayed on. Eventually I plucked up the courage to go and speak to her, and we just really got on. We instantly clicked, and luckily when (hours later) I told her what my novel was about she liked the idea.
Clare sent the manuscript out and told me to be patient. She said she’d give it a week and then start chasing, so for the first time in months I relaxed and tried to forget about the book. Then the next day she called to tell me a German publisher had read it overnight and was going to make an offer that afternoon, and I should buckle my seatbelt! It was a wild, crazy time, but I do remember one moment, sitting on the tube on the way home from a friend’s house, when I thought ‘My childhood dream is going to come true.’ It was the most wonderful, strange experience, and cliché though it is, I celebrated with champagne and a lovely meal with my partner.
Was the advance (and subsequent earnings) enough to change your lifestyle?
I gave up my day job, which meant I could devote my time to being a writer. So, yes.
What is your writing routine? Do you set yourself a daily word count?
I have to do something every day, when I’m in the thick of a project, and I aim for 1,000 words. But if I look at my schedule and realise that’s not going to be possible, I’m happy with 500, or even 100. Anything that keeps me engaged in the world of the book. But I don’t write at a certain time, or with a special pen in a sacred notebook. Doesn’t work for me.
Too difficult to choose one. I’ve met some wonderful people and been to some amazing places. But in a way nothing really beats hearing that I was going to be published for the first time.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve received along the way?
The only way to learn to write is by doing it. And don’t expect much from your first draft – books are created in the edit.
SJ Watson’s second novel Second Life was published in 2015.