SJ Watson I presume? Shining a light on a star of domestic noir

SJ Watson’s second novel Second Life deals with all of the layers that makes up an individual. He spoke to Declan Burke about his first domestic noir thriller.    

Second Life

SJ Watson

Doubleday, €16.99; ebook, €9.99.

THRILLER writers can be touchy when reviews reveal plot twists, but it’s a matter of satisfaction for SJ Watson — author of Before I Go To Sleep (2011), the best-selling novel that established him as a leading light of ‘domestic noir’ — that fans are taken aback when they meet him. “It’s still nice when, as often happens in signing queues, people say, ‘Oh, I’m really sorry, but I thought you were a woman,’” Steve Watson tells me in the Merrion Hotel. He is talking about his second novel, Second Life.

“But that’s a great compliment to me, and it’s still quite nice to hear. They are my real initials, Steven John,” he says. “It was really just because the first book is narrated by a woman, in the first person, and because I thought the whole book kind of fell apart if somebody read and thought, ‘well, this is clearly written by a man’. So I wanted to send it out with my initials, in the hope that at least people wouldn’t be sure, and it was really refreshing and reassuring when some of the foreign publishers, in particular, were phoning up and saying, ‘What’s she like? Has she written anything else’?”

The central character in Before I Go To Sleep is Christine, a suburban housewife and amnesiac who wakes up every morning not knowing who she is, unable to retain any memories (the book was adapted by director, Rowan Joffe, for a stylish psychological thriller starring Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth, which was released last year). The reader becomes aware that someone close to Christine is manipulating her amnesia for their own cruel purpose, thereby reshaping her identity.

In Second Life, suburban housewife, Julia, takes to the internet when she discovers that her sister, Kate, recently murdered in a vicious mugging in Paris, frequented online dating websites. Convinced she will find Kate’s killer among the men Kate dated, Julia begins to mould her online persona into the kind of woman who might attract a psychopath, thereby warping her own identity.

“That wasn’t really something I sat down and deliberately chose to do,” says Steve about the recurring theme.

“But, then, as I was writing Second Life, I realised that I was writing about identity again, and this idea of ‘who are we, really? What is it that makes us what we are? How easily can we manipulate that’? With Second Life, it’s done in a much more knowing way, because, in some ways, Julia is manipulating her own identity, whereas, in Before I Go To Sleep, it’s Christine who is being manipulated by somebody else without her knowledge. It intrigues me, that I’m sitting here talking to you, but I’m a different person to who I am if I’m sitting at home with my partner, and I’m a different person again if I’m with my family. And all of those are different people to who I was when I worked in the health service. We all kind of carry this multiplicity of self within us.”

In a sense, Second Life is a mirror image of its best-selling predecessor, a compelling meditation on the essence of what makes us who we are, and the dangers inherent in an absence of self-awareness. That theme, and the recurring character of an ostensibly ordinary suburban housewife as the central protagonist, contribute to SJ Watson’s reputation as an innovator of ‘domestic noir’, thrillers in which the threat of violence and murder is given an added frisson by the emotional intimacy of the relationship between pursuer and pursued.

“I’m particularly interested in those stories and books in which the danger is close to home, when it’s the person you share your life with, or that you see every day. Are they who they say they are? Are they telling you the truth? Who can you trust, and can you trust yourself? Those kind of questions are very interesting to me, and they tend to feature in ‘domestic noir’. I’m always slightly wary of genre, though, and of bandwagons.”

Apart from their themes and storytelling styles, Before I Go To Sleep and Second Life share another similarity, as Steve acknowledges with a rueful smile.

“Somebody pointed out to me, and it’s kind of true, that both of the books start in a bathroom — Before I Go To Sleep begins in a bathroom, and even though Second Life doesn’t physically open in a bathroom, you’re with someone looking at a photograph of themselves in a bathroom. Bathrooms kind of intrigue me. It’s the one room in the house that has a lock on the door, so it’s the one room where you can be alone and keep the rest of the world out, but also there’s a mirror in there, and quite often you’re literally and metaphorically naked. Is that when we’re actually ourselves, when we’re alone behind a locked door?”

He shrugs. “But I don’t know if that’s not just another construction, another version of our self.”

The 44-year-old author read physics at university, had a career as an audiologist with the NHS, and wrote a number of books that were ‘thinly-veiled autobiography’.

“I was a little too fascinated by my own story,” he says. “And then you realise that, actually, your own story probably isn’t all that interesting to most people.”

It was only when, inspired by a newspaper article, he started writing a story about an amnesiac woman betrayed by those closest to her that Steve Watson grew into his own identity as an author. Not that he had any plans to write a thriller.

“I just wrote the kind of book I wanted to write,” says Steve, “and it wasn’t until afterwards that my agent — she wasn’t even my agent then — said to me, ‘You do know this is a thriller, don’t you?’ It’s probably because the books I really love aren’t necessarily all mysteries, but books in which things aren’t what they seem, and they’re page-turners — you don’t want them to end, and yet you do because you want to find out what happened. Those are the kind of books I’ve always loved, so it was almost inevitable that those elements would kind of creep in. Because they tend to be crime novels, and they tend to be psychological thrillers.”

Even so, and despite writing two of the most interesting crime thrillers in recent years, SJ Watson still isn’t sure he will always write crime/mystery novels. “I’m very happy for these two books to be called crime thrillers, or psychological thrillers,” he says, “and if all of my books are that kind of book, then okay. But I’d rather go on a kind of book-by-book basis, and see what each one turns into. I’m greedy, I want to keep my options open. I mean, I’m not about to write a sci-fi trilogy or anything like that, but I’d like to have the option to do so if I wanted to.”

“I don’t consciously think of genre when I write,” he says. “Writing Before I Go To Sleep was the same as Second Life — it was the character that came first, not one kind of story.” He grins. “I think if I sat down to write a proper thriller, I’d probably just get it completely wrong.”


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