[missing asset] Jo Case, editor of the Readings Monthly newsletter, interviews S.J. Watson about his debut psychological thriller Before I Go to Sleep, which was borne out of the Faber Academy writing program in the UK.
Your narrator, Christine, is afflicted with a rare kind of amnesia, in which her memory can only retain the events of the day. Each time she wakes, she starts her identity from scratch, not knowing how the years between childhood and middle age unfolded. How did you learn of this neurological condition, and what was the impetus for building a character and situation around it?
I was about to start my course at the Faber Academy and I was looking for ideas for a new novel to be working on. I came across an obituary of man called Henry Molaison. He’d been 82 when he died, but, since an operation at the age of 26, had been unable to form new memories. The obituary described how every time he saw the doctor with whom he’d worked for decades and who considered him to be a friend, he had to be introduced to her as if they’d never met. He lived totally in the present. I was immediately struck by a mental image of a woman looking in the mirror, in a house she did not recognise, expecting to see a young girl reflected there, but instead seeing a woman approaching 50 years of age. The character of Christine came to me almost immediately, and I realised that hers was the story I wanted to be working on. I felt that through it I could explore some of the issues I’d been thinking about, to do with identity and love, and also power. I knew that to do that, I would need her to be able to retain memories for a few hours at a time, so her condition is not exactly the same as Molaison’s, but his story was the trigger. In fact, as I was writing Before I Go to Sleep I didn’t think my character’s condition could exist at all, but since finishing I have read of one case in the UK of a woman with an almost identical condition, so it wasn’t all artistic license after all!
Christine is, as she reflects in the opening pages, ‘vulnerable as a child’, uniquely reliant on her husband and doctor to structure her days (and even her self). Yet she also proves uncannily resourceful. What interested you about that blend of helplessness and agency?
I knew that it would have been terribly easy to make Christine a victim, and that didn’t interest me. I wanted the reader to understand that she was a resourceful, confident woman, who had been living a full life until something terrible happened to her. The fundamentals of her character are unchanged; that woman still exists, even if she is buried deeply. In some ways Before I Go to Sleep is the story of Christine’s attempts to reclaim herself, to take back some control, and to discover who she is.
Christine is the ultimate unreliable narrator. She can never entirely trust her own ‘memories’ or assumptions – are they real or imagined? What challenges and opportunities did this present for you, as a writer?
The biggest challenge was writing it in the first person! It was technically very difficult to write the story of a woman who doesn’t remember what has happened previously. Yet writing it in the third person would have resulted in a very different book and, once I’d found a structure that worked, the first-person narrative became one of the things I most enjoyed about writing this book. It meant that, throughout the story, the reader is always in the same place, mentally, as Christine. The reader knows what she knows – no more and no less – and believes what she believes. I enjoyed taking the reader on exactly the same journey that Christine is on. It also meant I could play around with the idea of ‘false memory’. It fascinates me that we can have very strong ‘memories’ of something that never actually happened, or we can misremember events that did happen, and these false memories affect us as strongly as if they were true. It leads to the uncomfortable conclusion that the idea of ‘truth’ is really quite nebulous.
Before I Go to Sleep makes conscious the way we assemble our lives from fragments of experience and personality. Christine refers to ‘these trivialities … these small hooks on which a life is hung’. Were you consciously interested in exploring this everyday assembly of the self?
Yes. I think we rarely look at ourselves and think about the reasons why we act a certain way, or have a certain set of beliefs, yet in some ways we are an accumulation of our memories. Sometimes there are big events that shape us, for better or worse, and sometimes our memory of those events can be repressed. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind looked at that brilliantly. Yet I’m also interested in how the smaller things, the trivialities can have a cumulative effect, how they can shape our beliefs about the world and about ourselves us.
This is such a gripping read – it seems there are new revelations and questions raised on almost every page, and the reader is sucked deep into Christine’s quest to discover the truth about her situation from the start. How hard did you have to work to get the pacing and the timing of the revelations just right? Was it a tricky book to work with, structurally?
Thank you! It was hard to find the right structure for the book. For a long time I struggled with how to tell the story honestly, in Christine’s voice, without making it repetitive for the reader. But once I’d found a form that worked it came relatively easily. At times it almost felt as if the story already existed, and I was just discovering it. During the edit I had to make sure it had the right pace, but at no point during the writing did I find myself thinking ‘Oh, I’d better have a revelation here.’ It all just came quite naturally!
You are a graduate of the first Faber Academy, a creative writing course recently launched here in Australia, too. How important was the course for you, and how did it help you?
It was incredibly important. I think really the only way to learn to write is by sitting down at the desk and writing, but a course like the one I did can really help you to speed up the process. First, it encourages you to think like a writer and to put the hours in, and second it teaches you to identify when you’ve taken a wrong turn, when something isn’t working. My coursemates and I were incredibly close and became very invested in each other’s work, and we learned from some incredible tutors. It might not be for everyone, but the Faber course was exactly what I needed at that time to help me take my writing to the next level.
The story is told using two narrative modes – told by the narrator, Christine, in the present tense; and through a series of journal entries that catch us (and her) up to what has happened in her life. It reads seamlessly: were there any challenges in making these two techniques work to tell one cohesive story?
The scenes written in the present tense all take place in one day, yet it is a day on which she makes the most profound journey. She literally learns who she is. The challenge was to make that a journey that the reader would experience with the same sense of excitement and trepidation that she does, and also to meld the two narrative strands so that we believe, as Christine does, that the journal entries were written by her, but a ‘her’ that she has no knowledge of.
The novel has already had praise from writers as diverse as Lionel Shriver and Dennis Lehane. Who are some of your favourite writers? Did any influence you in the writing of this book?
I read as widely as possible, and with every book I read I try to take something that I can use to inform my own writing. Having said that, I deliberately didn’t read any fiction while I was writing Before I Go to Sleep (which I found tremendously difficult!) as I wanted to find the right voice for the book without the risk of another’s influence. My favourite writer is probably Margaret Atwood, yet I wouldn’t say her work directly influenced Before I Go to Sleep in any way other than the fact that my desire to one day write something as brilliant as The Handmaid’s Tale is what caused me to pick up a pen all those years ago and take seriously what until then had been a hobby.