A J Finn: I simply wanted to write a thriller with emotional and psychological overtones

I had studied the plot, read interviews with the author and I was intrigued and obsessed even before I picked up the book. The writer’s own story was sufficient reason in itself. He was once an editor in a publishing house and now he has written his own great thriller. FOX bought the film rights before the novel was published. Did I mention that the book was his debut?

A.J. Finn is a unique narrator. He’s so good that as soon as I read the first lines, I was in absolutely no doubt as a reader that I was reading the narrative of a woman. With his attention to the detail, the characteristic expressions and manners of first-person narration, Finn authentically presents the extraordinary condition and exciting story of his intriguing heroine: a remarkable, intelligent woman with a sense of humour and a tangible sense of pain. Did I mention that Anna suffers from agoraphobia?

You will have read about 1/3 of the book before sensing the intrigue. This is no accident. Every gesture and every word, every little meeting has its place in the story to prepare you for a true thriller. The story doesn’t begin in proximity to the main event. The author first familiarises the reader with the setting and characters to such a degree that they begin to believe the perceptions of an unreliable character. They find themselves able to reiterate her own conclusions, support her in her fear, sorrow and loneliness, grieve with her, and sympathise with her to the very finale. Did I mention the exceptionally natural dialogues?

J. Finn is the pen name of Daniel Malory – until recently editor-in-chief of one of the biggest American publishers William Morrow/HarperCollins, a former literary critic who graduated from Oxford and who lives in New York. His novel, „The Woman in the Window,“ is the first debut in nearly a decade to head the prestigious New York Times ranking the moment it came out onto the market. The book held the position for four weeks, ahead of Dan Brown’s „Origin“, and was greeted with rave reviews by writers such as Stephen King, Gillian Flynn and Ruth Ware. Within 3 months of its release, it had sold over 1 million copies in the English-language market, and the publishing rights of the novel were sold for 40 languages, as well as for filming by FOX. Did I say I wanted to ask the author about so many things?

And so now I’m having a very pleasant conversation with A.J. Finn. We are discussing his inspiration, the reason for his pen name, the secret to creating a bestseller, writing and filming a story, working with authors, agents and editors, bad advice and even many, very personal themes . Join us!

Special thanks to David Mossop for the English translation!

 

A J Finn: If my characters ever surprise me, it means that my medication isn’t working!

An interview by Valentina Miziiska

Photo: Raphaël Neal

 

You were an editor in a publishing house. Did your experience help you write a bestselling debut novel? In other words, did it teach you the secret of how to write a bestseller?

Here’s the secret: There is no secret! If there were, every single novel I published would have been a huge bestseller, and that definitely wasn’t the case. Luck is a key component in the success of any book; in my case, I’d also read a lot of novels over the years – as a child, in graduate school, throughout my publishing career – so I picked up quite a few tricks and techniques. And psychological suspense is an enduringly popular genre.

Did you know you could write before „The Woman in the Window“? Have you ever wanted to become a writer before?

Not really – in part because I worked with authors, and saw how frustrated and unhappy many of them are! Also, I love reading, and would rather read than write. Mostly, though, I didn’t plan or hope to become a writer because I didn’t have a story to tell. Until, one day, I suddenly did.

Why did you publish under a pseudonym? What would have happened if you’d published under the name Daniel Mallory?

Until six months ago, I was a book editor at William Morrow in New York. I wrote my novel in secret, and when it came time to submit it to publishers, I opted to do so under a pseudonym because odds were excellent that other editors in New York and London (the two markets in which I had worked) would know me, or at least know of me… and I didn’t wish for them to buy – or more likely not buy! – the book because of its author. I wanted the novel to stand on its own merits, such as they were. To my delight, the industry got quite excited about the submission, so much so that I outed myself before anyone could plunk down any cash. This took the publishers aback, none more so than my own employer, who ultimately won the book.

I don’t know that using my real name would have made a material difference to the book’s publication, but the pseudonym certainly generated media interest, even though my identity was no secret by the time the book was acquired.

How did you come up with this name?

A.J. is the name of a cousin I admire a great deal (her full name is Alice Jane), and Finn is the name of another cousin’s French bulldog, one of my favorite canine breeds.

I’ve read somewhere that using a pseudonym means that your ego doesn’t stand in the way of success, that you’re not obsessed with the celebrity of your name. But why publish under a pseudonym if you reveal your name so soon?

Well, I had a few reasons. The first was that I intended to remain a book editor (and indeed I stayed in my job for more than a year, until just before the book was published this past January), and I didn’t want to pursue two careers under a single name. Besides, I thought it might be disconcerting for the authors whom I published to see their editor’s name on a book (or indeed on a bestseller list!). More importantly, though, I find that my pen name helps me organize myself psychologically: AJ Finn is outgoing and responsive in a way that Dan Mallory isn’t. I don’t wish to see my real name everywhere; I feel quite protective of it, even though it’s a matter of public record.

Did you easily convince your publisher to invest in your book? Did you have an agent or did you use your inside connections?

Oh, I used an agent. In the English-speaking word, authors must be represented by agents. There’s virtually no other way to land a book deal with a mainstream publisher. Because my publisher sincerely liked the book (presumably that’s why they bought it!), I didn’t need to persuade them.

And why did you resign your job?

About twelve months after the book was acquired, and three months before it was published, I realized that I couldn’t continue to work at my day job and promote my novel and write a second book. There simply weren’t enough hours in the day. And my writing career paid me quite a bit better than did my publishing job. So with reluctance, I resigned. I miss my colleagues, but I’m very pleased to be working with them as an author.

I read that you sold the movie rights before you sold the book rights. How could this happen?

We never submitted the novel to Hollywood, but movie studios – many of which employ so-called ‘literary scouts’, whose job is to share manuscripts on submission in the publishing world – are usually able to access most material. The executives at Fox read the book quickly and enthusiastically, and made a seven-figure offer within about 48 hours.

Great! Aren’t you afraid your idea might be misunderstood? It won’t be the first case of a bad interpretation of a good book. Something you care about a lot (for example a lead character appearance or a setting) might not be respected accordingly.

Interesting question. What I’ve found is that some readers experience the book solely as a thriller, without subtext or deeper meaning. And that’s fine – it is a thriller, after all. But I’m especially delighted to hear from those who have adopted the novel for their book clubs, who tell me that although they don’t typically read ‘crime fiction’, they found this book involving, challenging, even moving. I believe this is why it’s connected with millions of readers around the world.

To that end, my hope is that the filmmakers will engage with the book’s more serious themes of loss and loneliness. My one demand was that the studio cast an age-appropriate actress – someone in her late thirties or early forties. (Amy Adams was born in 1974.) I emphatically did not want a younger actress.

And what about the movie script? Didn’t they ask you to write it? Will you have any control over the process in order to keep it from straying too far from the book?

Fox did invite me to write the script, but I declined the offer – I’ve never written a script, and this is a major movie, not an opportunity for me to experiment. I feel very confident in the talent the studio has assembled; the screenwriter, for example, is a Pulitzer-winning playwright. So I suspect he knows what he’s doing.

More to the point, I’m interested to see someone else’s vision. A very literal adaptation of the book might prove somewhat redundant.

How did you get inspired for this story?

I struggled for fifteen years with very severe depression. Not until 2015 was my diagnosis corrected; I learned that I had a form of bipolar disorder. After new medication was prescribed, I felt significantly improved – and I wanted to explore what I had been through in print.

A few weeks later, while parked on my sofa watching Rear Window, I noticed a light in my peripheral vision: my neighbor across the street, switching on a living-room lamp. I watched her – a solitary woman in a bathrobe – as she settled herself in her armchair and aimed a remote at the TV. Behind me, on my own television, Thelma Ritter spoke up: “I can smell trouble right here in this apartment,” she chided Jimmy Stewart as he peered into Raymond Burr’s window. “You look outside. You see things you shouldn’t. Trouble.” When I turned back to the screen, she was glaring at me.

And just like that, the character of Anna Fox strode into my brain. She closely resembled my neighbor, and her grief, though circumstantially very different from my own, felt to me comparable in intensity.

How long did it take you to write the novel?

Exactly one year, start to finish. (My second book, by contrast, has already occupied me for a year and a half, and I’m still not done with it.)

Tell me more about your writing process. Did you have a routine? What was your daily word count, did you have any deadline at all? How did you deal with your day job?

I made time at nights and on weekends to write. I like to listen to electronic music when I’m at my computer, or pop music in a language I don’t speak (I’ve listened to quite a lot of Bulgarian songs!). And I aim to write 1000 words every day, although I often end up discarding most or even all of them. Because no one except my agent knew that I was writing the novel, I wasn’t in any hurry.

You write as a woman and this is really a compliment! Your voice is distinctive, very emotional, sometimes imbalanced, sometimes distracted and with attention to detail – I truly believed that there is a woman writing in the first person. Why did you choose this narrator type instead of telling the story from a third-person POV?

That’s a lovely compliment! Thanks so much. I chose to write as a woman for a number of reasons. I was raised, as everyone should be, with a healthy respect for women. So often in fiction, women –even and especially those with starring roles – spend a lot of time obsessing about men, or relying upon men, or generally identifying themselves in relation to men. In my experience, this isn’t very realistic. Most women I know are more than a match for the men around them. The heroine of my novel is a mess, and a mess largely of her own making; but I’ll say this for her: She pursues an inquiry, unravels a mystery, and tests her limits, all without the help of a man, or indeed anyone. She’s no damsel in distress. She’s a grown-up. She’s a woman—hence the title. And that’s a great thing to be.

Also, I knew that I would be exploring some issues of personal relevance, and I didn’t wish to confuse myself with the character. I was writing a novel, not an autobiography.

Finally, I decided that a first-person narrative would be more effective than a third-person narrative because the story is quite interior – much of it takes place in Anna’s head. So I wanted to give the reader direct access to Anna’s thoughts, without an ‘interpreter’.

Did you know your story would turn so powerful, when you first sat at your computer to write it?

Oh, not at all. I simply wanted to write a thriller with emotional and psychological overtones. Yet readers seem to find real resonance and meaning in the story. I had no idea that anyone would even read my book, let alone respond to it that way.

I always ask authors who are very good at crafting their lead character’s arc this question: how much of you is Anna?

Ha! Well, we’ve got a lot in common: We both speak French (I speak it better than Anna does); we both play chess (she’s much better than I am); we both love old films. And of course we both struggle with our mental health. That said, Anna is not me, and I am not Anna. She has (or had) a family, and I don’t; she’s locked indoors, and I was usually able to leave the house, even when very depressed. So also we share DNA, we’re not the same person.

How much and what kind of research did you do for this plot?

In plotting the book, I watched a lot of old films, and borrowed (or stole!) elements that seemed to me particularly intriguing or successful. The character of Anna and her specific mental-health issues required more research; I spoke to psychiatrists and psychologists specializing in anxiety disorders, and I also chatted online with agoraphobic individuals around the world. It was important to me that I represent Anna’s condition accurately.

Did you have a full picture of Anna’s character and character’s arc or did they develop during the writing process?

The arc was mapped out in its entirety at the outline stage, before I began writing the book. My 7500-word outline not only detailed every major element of the story, but it also tracked Anna’s shifting emotional and psychological states – for example, I knew that two-thirds of the way through the novel, she would reject everything she saw and come to disbelieve herself. And I know that about thirty pages later, she would suddenly change her mind.

Have you experienced unexpected plot changes because of your characters’ decisions/actions that seemed more logical at certain points? Did you know how the story would end from the very beginning? Do you plot actually?

Some authors claim that their characters ‘surprise’ them as they write their books. If my characters ever surprise me, it means that my medication isn’t working! I knew every twist and turn of the story by the time I had completed my outline, and the finished book departs very little from that outline.

And this is something I really want to ask you: Was your agent/editor more strict and demanding than you were to your authors?

Ha! What a great question. My agent is quite exacting, and pushed me to finish the book even though I didn’t feel a particular sense of urgency. (I’m very glad she did so!) My editor is more hands-on than I was with my authors, and I feel very lucky to be working with someone so thorough and attentive. Now I feel sorry for all the authors who worked with me instead of with her!

Now you’re an author, what do you think is the most stupid advice you’ve ever given to your clients/authors?

Another great question – this made me laugh out loud! I regret those instances when I’ve told authors not to worry about deadlines. It’s important to write the best book you can, but equally, it’s important to involve your editor at some stage, and deadlines give the editor a chance to step in.

Was there anything your agent/editor asked you to consider for editing? What were the main revision elements you worked together over your manuscript? Dialogue, structure, characters, conflict, backstories, anything else… I am sure there was something.

My agent edited the manuscript very thoroughly before we submitted it to publishers, so ultimately, my editor didn’t need to adjust much in the novel. Certain scenes, particularly towards the beginning, were too ‘busy’ – I supplied too much information about Anna’s habits, and it felt overwhelming. So I revised those chapters to make them easier and more accessible.

Do you write anything currently? Tell us about it.

I’m working on a psychological thriller set in San Francisco. It’s a more ambitious story than The Woman in the Window – and the characters actually go outside!

What’s your writing advice for the aspiring Bulgarian writers who read bgstoryteller?

I’d offer three pieces of advice.

First, you should read as much as possible. Reading exposes you to new voices and new techniques, and it will help you generate new ideas of your own. Trying to write without reading is like trying to make music without listening to anyone else’s songs.

Secondly, remember that writing is difficult – and, like any job, it isn’t always fun. Try to focus on the more enjoyable aspects of the process, but don’t feel discouraged if you’re not having a good time.

Finally, don’t be too hard on yourself. As I said above, writing is difficult. Aspiring writers in particular should take time to congratulate themselves on their courage and ambition, and they should remember that even very experienced writers frequently run into trouble with their books.

 

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