Creepy scenes: The year’s best thriller writer gets a grilling
AJ Finn chills with us
One of the most talked about thrillers, The Woman in the Window, is also one of the most well received by critics and other authors who are heaping praise on it. Simon Toyne, bestselling author of the Sanctus trilogy, gives the novel a great review. He says: “The Woman in the Window reads like a classic Hitchcock movie in novel form, in fact I was half expecting a cameo. Dripping with suspense. Creaking with menace. Beautifully written. There’s a lot of buzz around this book and every single bit of it is totally justified.”
AJ Finn, whose real name is Daniel Mallory, sold his book anonymously. Most readers wondered whether the author was female or male. His background as a book editor helped him to refine his writing.
The author talks about the male gaze, agoraphobes and the success of his debut bestseller:Anna’s agoraphobia is intriguing. You’ve reported that you suffered from debilitating bipolar depression – why did you choose agoraphobia instead of Anna being in, say, a manic phase when she witnessed the crime?
Agoraphobia in the novel serves a dual rule. It’s a device to keep the protagonist housebound, in the tradition of Hitchcock films like Rear Window, Rope, Dial M for Murder and Lifeboat, as well as later classics Dead Calm, Wait Until Dark. I wanted to watch (and help) Anna grapple with and ultimately overcome her demons. This seemed to me a more compelling journey than simply waiting for an injured limb to heal, per Rear Window.And secondly, I thought that agoraphobia served as an effective metaphor for the character’s situation: She is locked in mentally just as she is locked in physically.
There’s a lovely slippery Patricia Highsmith tone to the novel. Along with Hitchcock she is an important influence in your writing, isn’t she?
High praise indeed! I discovered Highsmith as a teenager, and wound up researching her during my graduate years at Oxford. Highsmith’s work both fascinates and disturbs me because it subverts the norms of detective fiction, which is supposed to be morally educative: at the end of most crime stories, we can rely on the guilty being punished, the innocent redeemed or rewarded, and order upheld or restored.Not so in Highsmith: her antiheroes, most notably Tom Ripley, commit and get away with serious transgressions. Yet still we find ourselves wanting them to succeed! It’s a kind of black magic I don’t understand … but I love it. That said, I don’t think The Woman in the Window is subversive in quite the same way. But it does reflect, I hope, Highsmith’s lean, succinct style, and her willingness to peer into the dark corners of the human mind.
I like the fact that this book avoids “the male gaze” of so much of thriller and suspense writing. Can you expand on that?Far too often in fiction, the female characters, even those in starring roles, are helplessly, hopelessly dependent on men. They fret about men; they rely upon men; they predicate their emotional welfare on men. Issues of “empowerment” aside, it isn’t very realistic – at least not in my experience. This, I think, is one of the reasons why Lisbeth Salander of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Amy Dunne of Gone Girl made such an impact: like many women, they’re more than a match for the men in their lives. I was keen to create a female lead who isn’t passive, reactive, or an obvious victim. Anna’s not as crusading as Salander or as controlling as Amy Dunne, but she’s no damsel in distress. Over the course of the book, she pursues an inquiry, unravels a mystery and confronts an antagonist, all without the help of a man – or indeed anyone.
She’s a mess, of course – yet she owns her mess. Anna doesn’t feel consistently sorry for herself; in fact, she counsels fellow agoraphobes on the Internet, using her expertise as a psychologist to help them improve their lives. She’s smart; she’s funny; she’s self-aware. Readers seem to find her relatable, sympathetic and intriguing.
And I was keen to describe her as a woman in the title – not a girl. If you’re over the age of 18 (or younger, depending on where you live) and you’re female, you are legally, and in most cases biologically, a woman. And that’s a terrific thing to be. With a few exceptions, including Gone Girl (a title that bristles with irony), these “girl” books seem to condescend to women readers. I didn’t want to do that – can you imagine if we referred to grown men as boys? Creepy.One of the most difficult aspects to thriller writing must be the “reveals”: how much you let the reader know, and when. I assume your experience as an editor of the genre helped you greatly in this regard.
Certainly my experience as an editor helped me edit the book as I wrote it; I’d finish a chapter, revisit and revise, refine and hone, and then move on to the next one. But what benefited me more, I’d say, was having spent a lifetime reading this genre: as a kid devouring Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie; as a teenager diving headfirst into Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell; as a graduate student researching Highsmith and Graham Greene; and as a publisher of mysteries and thrillers. I can’t stress it enough: writers must read. Reading aerates the imagination.
Were you concerned that the plot of your novel was too close to that of 'The Girl on the Train' – alcoholic, lonely, unreliable female narrator spying on others’ lives?
The setup of Rear Window is so timeless, and so ripe with dramatic potential, that it has inspired everything from The Girl on the Train to the teen thriller Disturbia, among many other books and films.Voyeurism, it seems, is a primal instinct; we humans are programmed to feel curious about our environments and those who inhabit them. And the tradition of the unreliable female narrator dates back at latest to The Turn of the Screw in 1898. I’m always interested to see how storytellers try (and sometimes fail) to innovate the premise. Anna certainly shares some qualities with the heroine of The Girl on the Train – just as she does with the heroine of Henry James’s novella – but I do think the two books are very different in terms of narrative development, characterisation, and tone.I imagine your life has changed enormously in the past months. What is the best – and worst – part of your success?
I’ve had the opportunity to meet and/or hear from my publishers and readers around the world, which is enormously gratifying – as is the chance to speak to audiences about mental health, a topic too little discussed. And I was able to pay off my student loans. On the downside, I don’t much enjoy social media; I’m an intensely private person in most respects, and I feel uncomfortable sharing many aspects of my life. That said, I’m always ready to talk about my Woman in the Window adventure.