S.J. Watson and the start of a new novel
S.J. Watson, author of the hugely popular Before I Go To Sleep, writes for us about how different ideas over the years can come together to become something bigger. In this case, his second novel Second Life.
I’ve always thought the best ideas are magnetic. One attracts another, they fit together, or meld into something new, and gradually build. And then, if you’re lucky, they reach a critical mass, or else another idea comes along that unlocks all the others, and suddenly you have the raw material from which a book can be forged. I didn’t realise it, but all the time I was busy working on Before I Go to Sleep — first writing that book, then publicising it – that exact process was happening. While I wasn’t looking, while I was attending events and meeting readers, whilst I was preparing for paperback publication and talking about the movie, another book was growing. Second Life. But what’s its story? Where did it come from?
Years ago, whilst I was still working in the NHS and dreaming of being a writer, I stumbled upon a blog. It was written by a woman, a little older than me, someone I didn’t know and had never met. Blogging was fairly new then, to me at least, but I was struck by this woman’s honesty, and the beauty of her prose. She updated several times a day, writing insightfully, and eloquently, of her day. She described incidents at work, or social events with friends, she talked about politics, art and culture, she described concerts she’d been to, restaurants she visited, even perfumes she wore. I caught up with her writing several times a week, yet over time I realised two things.
First, I’d begun to feel like a voyeur, yet in a weird way it felt almost as if we were friends. I felt I knew her, but this was an illusion. I was following the story of her life, yet she was only sharing what she chose to. A lot of what I believed I knew about her was a projection; like all of us she was presenting an edited version of herself, revealing only the bits she chose to share with a world of anonymous readers. For all I knew she was nothing like the image she was presenting.
Second, there were several hundred, if not thousands, of those readers. And this woman shared a great deal. She posted photographs of herself. She talked about the city she lived in, the area, if not the street. She mentioned the bus route she took to get to work, the location of her nearest shop, the fact she regularly had coffee at the local park. If one of those readers wished to it would be relatively easy to work out exactly where she lived, to ‘accidentally’ bump into her. One could pretend to be interested in the same music as her, the same cuisine, even to like the same perfume. If they wanted to, someone could pretend to be her perfect romantic partner. I imagined them dating, getting married. It might be years before she discovered the truth. Terrible things might happen if she attempted to reject an advance.
Of course I now realise that was the writer in me, extrapolating from fact into fiction, imagining frightening ‘what if’ scenarios. At some point I stopped reading the blog and got on with writing Before I Go to Sleep, but those thoughts stayed with me. Over the next few years I began to think a great deal about online life, about how much of ourselves we share, about how the anonymity of the internet allows and encourages people to behave in ways they’d never dream of in ‘real life’. I saw journalists and authors seemingly unable to resist taking an anonymous pop at their peers, I began to meet people ‘offline’ who I’d previously only known ‘online’ and even felt a split in myself as I realised the ‘S J Watson’ who posts on Twitter and Facebook is only one version of me, different from the ‘Steve’ my friends and family know, but also somehow the same. All these thoughts swirled around, coming together, bouncing off each other, and the idea began to form for a book called Nine Lives that would deal with the multiplicity of self that several online personae can allow.
Yet I wasn’t ready yet. I didn’t want to write a book set in cyberspace, but more importantly I didn’t know who I wanted to write about. Christine, from my first book, had arrived fully formed, but Julia, the character in my second, was being more coy. I’d have to discover her, it seemed, bit by bit.
But then, a couple of years ago, a friend said to me, ‘Well, you know addiction is a very patient disease.’ A different friend told me that her mother had received two marriage proposals in her early twenties – one from a leather clad biker, the other from someone rather more conservative – and has always wondered what might have happened if she’d chosen the other. These two comments were added to the mix, and became the key that unlocked Julia, and the novel. I began to think about how we can live through different stages of life, almost become different people as we grow up, yet still our core is the same. I realised Julia was someone who has moved on from her first life and is living another, yet not without regret for what she’s left behind. I realised I wanted to explore what might happen if she decides to explore her other life, the one she didn’t choose, and realises the internet might allow her to do that. I began to wonder what might happen if some traumatic event, something terrible, meant she wasn’t as in control as she thought she was.
Before I knew it, I was writing. Nine Lives had become Second Life.