He wrote thriller from point of view of a woman

Crime author Steve Watson is known to readers as S.J. Watson.
Crime author Steve Watson is known to readers as S.J. Watson. PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

S.J. Watson signed off with gender-neutral initials on Before I Go To Sleep, which was made into a movie

Crime author Steve Watson recalls the responses he received shortly after his literary agent had first sent out his 2011 debut novel Before I Go To Sleep to publishers with his gender-neutral initials on it.

"I'd written this book in the first-person view of a woman and I thought it wouldn't work if people read this and went: 'This was clearly written by a bloke. That's not how women think.' So I was very gratified when they wrote in and said: 'What's she like?'" says the 44-year-old Briton, known to most readers as S.J. Watson.

He was speaking to Life after conducting a crime-writing workshop held last Saturday as part of The Arts House's World Lit programme.

Despite being born and raised in Stourbridge, a suburb in the industrial West Midlands of England, Watson is hardly your typical acerbic Brit.

Dressed in a no-frills outfit of crisp sky blue shirt and black jeans, he speaks succinctly in clipped tones, pausing at times to contemplate his responses.

He tweets furiously and is an avid pop-culture fan who cites works such as Gillian Flynn's hit novel Gone Girl ("It's such an interesting work because it changes genres from mystery to thriller midway") and the television series Lost ("I gave up on it - there were too many things unexplained").

Of the poor box-office performance of the 2014 film adaptation of his first book, starring actors Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth, he says measuredly: "It got good and bad reviews. Nicole Kidman divides people, though I think she's great. It was also an unfortunate timing for the film, opening on Halloween weekend."

The movie, written and directed by Rowan Joffe (Brighton Rock, 2010), grossed about US$15 million worldwide, Kidman's worst major film opening to date.

The book, about a chronic amnesiac who tries to uncover her true identity, has since been published in 40 languages and earned praise from reviewers including John O'Connell of The Guardian, who called it "a brilliant example of how an unpromisingly high- concept idea can be transformed by skilful execution".

Memory and identity also feature heavily in Watson's sophomore effort, Second Life, about a woman who tries to investigate her sister's violent, inexplicable murder.

"My first job was at a hospital and there were people with bizarre conditions, whose brains were malfunctioning. I got to work with them, so I was subconsciously interested to write about them," he says.

The title of the book, which was published this year in February, could also refer to how Watson's life has played out.

A straight-A physics student who went on to get a master's degree in audiology, he became a full-time author at the age of 37, after 17 years working at the NHS in London - and right when he was due for promotion.

"My boss was about to retire, so the next logical career step would've been for me to be a head of service. But I saw how busy and drained I was, and I could see if I did that, I'd never write again," he says.

He wrote Before I Go To Sleep during the weekends, in the evenings and in the two days a week he set aside for himself by taking up a part-time position at work.

"It was good to have a discipline - I very much treated it like another job," he adds.

Watson, who says he writes about 1,000 words daily, is now working on his third book, tentatively titled Tiny Pleasures, which he declines to provide more details on, except that it will be set in Britain.

He expects it to be out in 2017.

Second Life will soon be turned into a movie by Warner Brothers and Pacific Standard, a production company headed by American actress Reese Witherspoon which made the Oscar-nominated Wild (2014).

Watson says: "It's still early days and there's no news in terms of casting or directing, but Pacific Standard has made some brilliant films so it's enormously exciting."

  • Before I Go To Sleep ($16.05) and Second Life ($16.05) are available at major bookstores here.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 06, 2015, with the headline 'He wrote thriller from point of view of a woman'. Print Edition | Subscribe