The Books That Made Me: SJ Watson, author of Second Life and Before I Go To Sleep

The former NHS audiologist talks about the books that have influenced his life

The Books that Made Me: SJ Watson, author of Second Life and Before I Go To Sleep

credit: Annabel Staff

SJ Watson burst onto the literary scene in 2011 with Before I Go To Sleep, a dark and disturbing thriller about a woman whose memory is erased whenever she falls asleep. It became a sensation, selling four million copies in over 40 languages and being adapted for the screen, featuring Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth.

Four years on, the ex NHS audiologist – who penned his debut in his time off from working in a London hospital – is back with the follow up, Second Life, which tells the story of a married woman who is drawn into the world of online dating while investigating the murder of her sister.

Ahead of its highly anticipated publication, we caught up with him to discover the books that made him the writer he is today.

What book first made you fall in love with literature?
It’s impossible to answer this one! I really can’t remember a time when I didn’t love books. But the first books I read, or had read to me I suspect, were Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree stories, so if I’m being forced to choose I’d say those.

What was the first book that made you want to become a writer?
The Lord of the Rings. It’s an obvious choice, perhaps, but it’s the truth. I was given it when I was ten years old, it by a teacher who could see how much I wanted more after reading The Hobbit. I loved it so much. I immersed myself in the world it created. I’d been reading for years, but this was the first book that made me really understand how powerful and transformative books could be, and on some deep level I knew I wanted to write.

Which book has had the biggest emotional impact on you?
Paul Monette’s Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story. I was lost, struggling with my sexuality, unsure of how I could build a life. I read Monette’s story, of the years he spent ashamed, trapped in the closet, hiding his sexuality, and of his eventual happiness, and the effect it had on me was instant and profound. I began it on the Friday, and by the Sunday I’d begun my own process of coming out.

If you were to lose your memory, like Christine Lucas in Before I Go To Sleep, what book would you like to be given first to (re)read?
Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott. It’d remind me I was a writer, and why, and how. Once I was back in the saddle I think I’d like The Swimming Pool Library, by Alan Hollinghurst. No reason, other than the fact I love it.

Which novel(s) have had the biggest impact on your writing?
Everything I read impacts on my writing. If I love a book I try to work out what's made it great, how the engine of the book works. If I don’t like it, I try to work out why, what to avoid, how it could’ve been better.

Who's your favourite writer?
Margaret Atwood. She seems to be able to do anything, from historical fiction, to poetry, to science fiction, and yet it’s all undeniably her.

What’s your favourite opening sentence in fiction?
I’m not sure! But the only one I can remember, word for word, is from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. 'It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York.' I think it’s impossible to read that without wanting to know at least a little bit more, which is all an opening sentence really has to do.

Second Life features a protagonist leading a double life – which literary character would you like to become for a day?
Holly Golightly. But only for a day, yes?

What book(s) would you say was/were an influence on Second Life?
In the Cut, by Susanna Moore, and Gordon, by Edith Templeton. I can’t really say why, without giving too much away! There’s also a non-fiction book by Brett Kahr, called Who’s Been Sleeping in Your Head? The Secret World of Sexual Fantasies. That was very helpful.

What single book should be on everyone’s reading list?
Right now, I'll say Rebecca. It’s a classic, so lots of people think it’s difficult, or not for them. Yet it’s just so good, a page turner, with a great story. Ask me tomorrow and you’ll get a different answer, though.

Second Life is out now.

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