Category Archives: SJ Watson

Reading With Authors #8: At Swim, Two Boys – Jamie O’Neill; With SJ Watson

  

Firstly Steve thanks for coming all the way to Brussels to join me, especially after you’ve just been travelling to Oz and back. It was a very last minute work trip but I have found a nice quiet café where we can have a good natter, what would you like to drink, I’ll get us lots of Belgian chocolates to have with it. Oh, was the Eurostar ok? 

Hi Simon! Yes, thanks, the Eurostar was fine. I slept for the entire journey. I’m still suffering with jetlag, I think. But it’s nice to be back in Brussels. I was last here for New Year’s Eve about eight or nine years ago. There were some spectacular fireworks and very nice beer. I don’t remember much more after that… 

By the way, no chocolates for me. I’ve returned from Australia about a stone heavier than when I went. They do look good, though.

Oh well, maybe just one…

When you chose ‘At Swim, Two Boys’ by Jamie O’Neill you actually saved it from a fate worse than a charity shop, as I had had it on my shelf for years and just thought ‘it’s huge, am I really going to read it?’ It felt like fate. Why did you want us to read this book together and with readers?

There were a few reasons. I’ve been reading a lot of crime fiction, lately, so I fancied a change, and when it came time to decide what type of book I’d like to read I realised that it’s been a while since I read anything with gay themes. I remember loving things like ‘The Swimming Pool Library’, Edmund White’s books, ‘Becoming a Man’ by Paul Monette and so on. They were tremendously important to me as a teenager and in my early twenties, so I thought it might be nice to try something similar. Plus, if I’m honest, ‘At Swim, Two Boys’ has also been on my shelf for about five years – my partner loves it and has been nagging me to read it for all that time – so it felt like a good time to give it a go.

 But there’s something about a book that’s so long, isn’t there? It feels kind of daunting…

 Oh tell me about it, I was thinking ‘I am never going to manage this in time’. How did you get on with it as a read?

 Well, my first problem was finding it. We moved house earlier this year and haven’t unpacked all the books yet, plus I’d helpfully labelled all the boxes Miscellaneous. In the end I had to buy it again, out in Australia, so I began reading it on a beach in Sydney, on one of my days off. That was sort of weird, especially as the opening pages are so dense. I had no idea what it was about, so it was a bit of a struggle to get into it. But straight away I loved the poetry of the language – I think in some ways it’s a book to be read aloud – and that carried me through until I settled into its rhythm and started to understand the characters and their world. 

I thought this was going to be a real struggle for me for several reasons, the first being that it opened slightly like ‘Ulysses’, which I have tried and failed to read at least three times, I was expecting to be confused… then I was… and then suddenly I wasn’t did this happen to you? O’Neill introduces a lot of characters very quickly, but quite vaguely, so I was doing a lot of flipping back pages and keeping notes like ‘who on earth is Gordie’? Was this just me?

No. Exactly the same happened to me. It’s one of those books that creates its own world, but it’s not an easy read. Compared to many books today it asks a lot of the reader, but even in the early pages you can tell it’ll repay your investment.

How’s your coffee, by the way? I gave up caffeine while I was Melbourne so I’m kind of jealous. I did it on a whim, but I’m starting to wish I’d given something else up instead. Like chocolate. 

How can you give up on caffine, are you bonkers? It’s lovely, I am feeling very cosmopolitan right now. The book starts in 1916 as the famous ‘Easter Rising’ starts in Ireland, for the book is set in Dublin. I say famous, actually I had never heard of it and had to stop reading the book at about page 100 to go and find out. I don’t think the book sets it up for you, which I struggled with a lot, I was loving the characters (we maybe loving some, like MacMurrough who we will talk more about, is a bit extreme) but thinking what on earth is all this political/religious stuff? It was hinted at rather than explained for me.  

I agree. I was also pretty ignorant about that part of Ireland’s history. One of the things I loved about the book is that I feel I have a better understanding now of what happened at that time. But you’re right – the book doesn’t really give much of the religious and political background away. When writing it can be tricky to know how much background needs explaining, and how to explain it in a way that feels true to the story. You don’t want to end up in a situation in which characters are having conversations they wouldn’t have had, just to inform the reader about what was going on at the time! On balance I think the way O’Neill did it works, as the book is first and foremost a human story. 

What did you make of Brother Polycarp? I thought perhaps that was one element that felt unfinished, or unsatisfying at least. 

Did you, I thought there may be still waters running deeper, but he wasn’t a focus, or maybe I missed a trick? Once I got my head around the backdrop, which I would have liked O’Neill to paint in more detail, or maybe more clearly, the novel suddenly started to really set off. I think for me this was after the two boys, Jim and Doyle who are the great love story at the novels heart, finally met and also with the arrival of Anthony MacMurrough to the area after his release from prison, though this was about 100 pages in… 

I agree. I did wonder where the book was taking us in those early chapters. I didn’t get frustrated, as such, but I did feel that the story moved up a gear when Doyler and Jim met. I think it was because I still wasn’t quite used to the pace of the book. It’s almost languorous in places, and all too often we’re used to books with a bombshell on every page.  

More drink? Fancy some more of those chocolates, the pralines are lovely…

Thanks. I’ll have a hot chocolate, I think. And I will try a praline, but only because you’ve told me how nice they are. Oh, and pass me one of those marzipan fruits, would you? They’re fruit, so therefore have no calories, and quite probably contribute towards one of my five-a-day.

Hahaha, I have just eaten six of them so I won’t need the gym… this month. Hem, hem, moving on! I loved how the love story between the two boys developed, Doyler teaching Jim to swim seemed to me a great metaphor, and the aim of getting to Muglins Rock, a climax of sorts, though I was worried what would happen after… why is it there must always be a sense of dread in a love story, especially a homosexual one, why would I instantly think ‘uh-oh’? Did you, and did you enjoy how the love story developed?

I think the sense of dread, or threat, is probably vital in most love stories, if not all. Fiction has to have conflict, or else why read on? If they’d met and everything had gone swimmingly (pardon the pun!) then it would have been an unsatisfying read. But it’s interesting what you say about homosexual love stories. Maybe in some way the stakes seem higher, particularly in a story set in a time when homosexuality was totally unacceptable and gay people were regularly imprisoned, because there’s a feeling that these two boys have been incredibly fortunate to have found each other, against the odds, in secret, and that for their love to work they have to transcend a repressive and hostile society.

Of course things are better now, in the UK at least, but that’s still true to a large extent. And we mustn’t forget that there are parts of the world where even today Jim and Doyler would be imprisoned for life or even put to death for loving each other. But one of the things I love about the book is that it’s first a foremost a love story. The fact that it’s a love story between two men is almost immaterial

Of course the path of true love never does run smooth does it?

Certainly not in books, no!

I loved the MacMurrough’s even though I shouldn’t. Anthony is just letcherous and opportunist, whilst also almost mirroring the things that happened to Oscar Wilde, yet he is fascinating to read. His aunt Eveline is also a wonderful, if rather scary, character too. They were just so immensely readable I found, did you? I think the book needed them and not just for the plot.

I agree! I couldn’t stand Anthony at first, but his character opened up very quickly and I realised what a good person he is at heart. By the end he’s really teaching the boys how to love, and how to be who they are, knowing that their love for him will pale into insignificance next to their love for each other.

And Eveline? She follows a long tradition in fiction of slightly bonkers posh women that I love. I love them in real life, too, though I don’t meet them often enough. Maybe I’d meet more of them here in Brussels? More chocolates, by the way? I ought to get a box to take home with me. You know, as a present? Or maybe two. Just in case.

I did cry at the end, don’t take the mickey, but I did. Did you?

I didn’t, if I’m honest. I thought the ending was intensely moving, and I did have a lump in my throat, but I’m weird about what brings on actual tears. I think it’s more to do with me and the mood I’m in than the book. Sometimes I can cry at Coronation Street, other times I can be the only person in a cinema not blubbing away. But I would never take the mickey! I love it when books do make me cry. Isn’t that why we read, on some level? To be moved?  

Right, this is definitely my last chocolate.

Jamie O’Neill turned the book around for me. Initially I thought this was going to be a book I wouldn’t enjoy. It seemed a little pretentious and confusing, yet after the initial hurdle of 100 – 150 pages I was swept up in it and the last 400 or so pages flew by. Did you find this?

I did, yes. But, unlike with some books, I wouldn’t say those first 100 or so pages ought to have been edited. I think they were necessary to the book, in order to introduce the reader to its world.  

I wonder if the plodding start has put other people off and what makes you persevere. I don’t think I would have had we not read it together, so thank you. Will you be picking up any more of Jamie O’Neill’s novels? 

I’m sure the beginning has put people off, which is a shame. It’s really a fantastic book, poetic and beautiful and amazingly rich. I think I will pick up some more of O’Neill’s work, but I also intend to re-read ‘At Swim, Two Boys’ one day. I read it in less than a week, and with jetlag, so I think there’s a lot there that I missed. I think it’s a book that rewards the time you give it, so I’d like to give it more time at a future date.   

I’m glad you enjoyed it, though. It was a lot of pressure, choosing a book, so I’m glad I went for one that surprised both of us!

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Filed under Jamie O'Neill, Reading With Authors 2011, SJ Watson

Bookmarked Debut Night… The Report

It’s been over a week since an idea I had became a reality and the Bookmarked Literary Salon opened its doors in Manchester’s Waterstone’s Deansgate for its debut night. I thought I would give those of you who couldn’t be there a report on the event, which started with me being unusually nervous. In fact have to admit I don’t think I have been that nervous before. I went all giddy at about lunchtime however my Mum and sister aka ‘The Girl Who Read Too Much’ (who read both books the weekend before, impressive) had come to visit, sadly no Granny Savidge Reads, and offered support and calming words like ‘get a grip’ before I had to leave to pick up our Bookmarked t-shirts and go and meet the authors off the train.

After an initial slightly shy hello at the station, I had met SJ before yet still felt rather nervous, I took Sarah Winman, SJ Watson and their lovely publicists Helena and Alison off to the venue in style… on the free bus. Soon we were chatting away like we had known each other for ages, then shared some pots of tea and chips before being joined by my co-host Adam and getting holed up in the Managers Office so that the authors could prepare and also so I couldn’t keep popping in the events room had actually turned up. You might spot the slightly nervous smiles from em and Adam just before we were ready to go and meet our audience…

We then went in and couldn’t quite believe out eyes, the room was pretty much full; people were standing at the back (though there were a few seats at the front, why does nobody ever want to sit at the very front), I have to say I could have done a little weep of joy, instead – like true professionals – we introduced the authors and started with a reading. Sarah had everyone in stitches with her reading from ‘When God Was A Rabbit’ and SJ had us all on the edge of our seats when he read from ‘Before I Go To Sleep’.

Adam and I then lead a sort of ‘grilling/conversation’ about some of the in-depth themes of each book and how the books compared and contrasted…

 

Which seemed to keep the authors on their toes, especially when we asked about their debut author journeys and their writing process (I cannot for the life of me remember what I asked that got this response)…

Soon we handed over to the audience (some not in the photo below, my Mum managed to hide somehow) who all had great questions to ask, one included my mother who almost had me saying ‘yes Mum, what would you like to ask?’ she asked about the grieving process that leaving characters behind might cause. I don’t think the authors had been asked that before. The rest of my family who included my aforementioned mother and sister were joined by ‘The Aunt Who Doesn’t Read So Much’ (who had read ‘When God Was A Rabbit’ beforehand and has since read ‘Before I Go To Sleep’ in about three days and three sittings) and ‘The Bookboy’ kept unusually quiet…

 

These too kept the authors in great discussion as we discussed the second still in writing process novels, adaptations, and their previous books ever seeing the light of day and what their writing lives are like…

Then suddenly over an hour had vanished before our eyes and it was time to stop and also time for a quick photo again, can you see the mix of relief, joy and ‘oh no its finished’ on my face?

The authors then took part in a signing or several…

 

Before it was all over and we were saying goodbye as the authors headed back to the train station and I headed for a strong drink and a meal with friends and family. I did manage to ask Sarah which she preferred, a comfy chair with me and Adam or with Richard and Judy… I am too polite to share the response, hee hee. 

Thank you to everyone who came, we had a great time and we so hope that you did. I know Lucy has written up her thoughts, which was really kind, but Lucy why did you not come and say hello, in fact that applies to a few tweeters and followers who turned up. Oh and Emma, thank you for saying hello I am so sorry our conversation was cut short, email me and lets go for a coffee. We hope we will see you all on the 12th of September when we will be having a crime-fest with Val McDermid and a special guest. You can find out more here.

Right, I will stop waffling on and on but I am just thrilled it went so well. If you came, thanks again, if you didn’t thanks to those of you who wished me luck, it meant so much to me.

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Filed under Bookmarked Literary Salon, Sarah Winman, SJ Watson

Savidge Reads Gets Criminally Star Struck

As I mentioned on my book giveaway post this week it has been a funny old one. Some of it has been a bit rubbish for various reasons but there was one HUGE highlight. I found out quite randomly that Tess Gerritsen and SJ Watson were doing an event at Bolton Library. This is something I simply couldn’t miss, no work, no health issues, nothing would stop me from going. They were in Bolton, which I thought was miles away but is actually 20mins, to discuss their books at the library, little did I know I was going to be able to meet them after and have a natter (thanks to the lovely Alison at Transworld who I also had a lovely chat or two with). I was sooo nervous.

However it was lovely…

… Even if I did get rather star struck! It is something which very rarely happens in my day job, where I do ‘showbiz interviews’ and yet when I got the chance to meet Tess I went a bit shy and suddenly didn’t know what to say. I think it’s because Tess Gerritsen’s Rizzoli and Isles series (which I have just noticed is one of the only series I have started since blogging) have become such favourites. I have emailed her and interviewed her via email for her Savidge Reads Grills and yet still I went really shy and quiet. She was utterly delightful, really warm and friendly, happy to sign a book for me (and one for Polly, it’s in the post, of Novel Insights who first bought me a Tess novel) and we had a lovely chat.

However it didn’t stop there as the same thing happened when I met SJ Watson. I went all nervous in part as I was a fan of his debut ‘Before I Go To Sleep’ and both he and Sarah Winman were my two first choices for the ‘debut night’ of Bookmarked Literary Salon (so imagine my joy when they both said yes) but I hadn’t taken into account I would have to meet them. I know, I know. Anyway Steve was lovely and really excited about the event and now I am quite buzzing about it all. Though now of course I am very nervous about meeting Sarah Winman… and I haven’t even begun to think about Val McDermid and Sophie Hannah coming in September. Let’s move on before the palpitations start.

It did make me wonder why meeting an author you are a big fan of can make you so nervous? We have all had a moment like this (in fact me and Novel Insights had it together last year when we met Ian McEwan and both talked gobbledygook at him, lucky man) haven’t we? Is it because there is a worry that they won’t be nice and you will never want to read a book of theirs again? Or is it simply the awe of meeting someone who has created a world, or several, that you lived and loved? What do you think? Which authors have you met and gone a bit unnecessary over?

P.S I am slightly obsessed about that first picture of Tess, Steve and me, I feel like I could be a crime writer – though I’m obviously not, but one can dream.

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Random Savidgeness, SJ Watson, Tess Gerritsen

Bookmarked Literary Salon Launches… It’s ‘Debut Night’

I have been desperate to tell you all about this for weeks and weeks, but until everything was signed, sealed and sorted I didn’t want to jinx it. So excuse the slight self promotion as I bring you the exciting news of Bookmarked Literary Salon’s opening night, the appropriately themed ‘Debut Night’. I am actually so excited about the authors we have coming I could ramble on for hours, instead here is the official wording about it all (let me know what you think)…

Two stand-out debut British novelists launch “Bookmarked” – a new literary salon co-hosted by Simon Savidge and Adam Lowe at Waterstone’s Deansgate.

Monday 8th August, 6.30pm at Waterstone’s Deansgate in the heart of Manchester – “Bookmarked” aims to bring something new and fresh to the Manchester cultural scene. Two of the most talked-about and bestselling first-time novelists of 2011, Sarah Winman, author of “When God Was A Rabbit” and SJ Watson, author of “Before I Go To Sleep will be in conversation for the first time together – discussing their writing; plotting and characterisation – and how they travelled the rocky road to publication. 

About the Authors

S J Watson was born and grew up in Stourbridge, in the West Midlands.  After graduating with a degree in Physics from Birmingham University, Watson moved to London and began working with the hearing impaired in various London hospitals, eventually specialising in the diagnosis and treatment of hearing impaired children, whilst spending evenings and weekends writing fiction. In 2009 Watson was accepted into the first Faber Academy ‘Writing a Novel’ Course, a programme that covers all aspects of the novel-writing process. ‘Before I Go to Sleep’ is the result. Now sold in over 30 languages around the world, ‘Before I Go To Sleep’ has been also been acquired for film by Ridley Scott’s production company, Scott Free, with Rowan Joffe to direct. It was also chosen for a ‘Book at Beachtime’ on Radio 4 Extra.

“It’s exceptionally accomplished…The structure is so dazzling it almost distracts you from the quality of the writing.” Guardian

“SJ Watson’s debut doesn’t put a foot wrong… brilliantly simple… Unforgettable.” Financial Times Weekend

Sarah Winman grew up in Essex. She attended the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art and went on to act in theatre, film and television. ‘When God Was A Rabbit’ went straight into the Sunday Times Bestseller List and has been chosen by endless book groups over the year including Richard and Judy, Waterstones and Grazia. It was selected for Simon Mayo’s Book Club on BBC Radio 2 and it was also chosen as one of the ‘Waterstones 11’ which highlighted the debut novels to get excited about in 2011. Sarah lives in London and loves to escape to the family home in Cornwall as much as possible. ‘When God Was a Rabbit’ is her first novel and she is currently working on her next.

‘Gloriously offbeat… Winman’s narrative voice is beautifully true, with a child’s unsentimental clarity. A superb debut’ The Times

‘It’s rare to find a novel you’re recommending to friends, family and colleagues by page 60 but When God Was A Rabbit is just that kind of book… A truly great book to lose yourself in; prepare to bore everyone else around you by telling them just how much they need to read it’ Stylist 

Dates For Your Diaries

  • Bookmarked ‘Debut Night’ will be Monday 8thof August 2011 at Waterstones Deansgate with warm up drinks at 6.30pm.
  • Bookmarked ‘Crime Night’ will be the first week of September 2011 same venue, same time, with two of the biggest British female crime writers. More details to be announced soon.

Further Information

For further information on Bookmarked, the authors it is featuring, the hosts Simon Savidge and Adam Lowe (who are available for interview and features) email bookmarkedsalon@gmail.com you can also visit the website here.

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Bookmarked Literary Salon, Sarah Winman, SJ Watson

Before I Go To Sleep – SJ Watson

I was actually recommended SJ Watson’s debut novel ‘Before I Go To Sleep’ by none other than Tess Gerritsen, who you will all know I am a huge fan of, back in November when I grilled her. Just on her word alone (and indeed she is quoted on the cover of the novel too) I would have read this yet when it arrived at Savidge Reads HQ I also saw there were remarkable quotes from two of my other favourite authors Sophie Hannah and Val McDermid. The only problem with such high praise from sources I regard so highly is that there was a certain level of expectation before I have even turned the first page. I can tell you though that this praise is indeed founded.

Imagine waking up in a bed you don’t remember getting into and lying next to a man that you don’t recognise. Could this be another drunken night out? Imagine the fear of going to the bathroom only to find the face in the mirror isn’t yours, or is it? This is the daily sequence of events each morning for Christine Lucas, a woman who we discover wakes up every morning with the same feeling of utter confusion because she has amnesia and one that reoccurs every time she has a deep sleep. It transpires that the man she is lying next to is her husband, Ben, and that her condition has been lasting for decades since a terrible accident.

This could make for an interesting novel in itself; however SJ Watson adds something that takes this psychological thriller to the next level. You see as the day goes on Chrissie gets a call from a Dr Nash, a man who says he has been treating her for some time without the knowledge of her husband. Chrissie is naturally suspicious until Dr Nash tells her to look in her wardrobe for the journal that he knows she has been keeping. She does, and is distressed to discover on the very first page the words ‘DON’T TRUST BEN.’ From here we, along with Chrissie, read back through her history. Only of course the problem is as we read on, discovering many a secret, twist and turn, is who do we believe?

“I have the bedroom door closed. I am writing this in private. In secret. I can hear my husband in the living room – the soft sigh of the sofa as he leans forward or stands up, an occasional cough, politely stifled – but I will hide this book if he comes upstairs. I will put it under the bed, or the pillow. I don’t want him to see I am writing in it. I don’t want to have to tell him how I got it.”

The premise of the book is a good one, it’s the way that Watson writes and weaves the tale that really sets it apart. He really gets into the mind of a character who must face the fact that they in many ways have lost themselves as well as their trust in the people around them that they think are dear. Its this feeling of utter confusion mixed with a sense of self loss, and much more as you discover as the book goes on, that really makes you empathise with Chrissie. The way the novel is written gently forces you into her mind. This only adds to the helplessness of Chrissie’s situation.

“I had been right. I felt my mind begin to close down, as if it couldn’t process any more grief, any more of this scrambled past, but I knew I would wake up tomorrow  and remember none of this.”

The fact that we only have the journal, which is the form the novel takes for the main part of the book, means we can only learn what Chrissie learns and relearns each day. The problem is do we trust her very own word, can we be sure that what she is telling herself hasn’t been planted by someone else? Are we sure she can’t trust Ben? To top it all off Watson also uses the science behind amnesia to add to this too. People with amnesia tend to confabulate and invent history as a way of coping, as Dr Nash reminds Chrissie every now and again. This of course then makes us question why Dr Nash keeps saying this, does he know more than he is letting on? Who on earth can we trust? The answer is no one and that’s what makes this domestic thriller, there are no police detectives to be seen, so enthralling.

I did worry that the novel was going to become rather repetitive. In part because of the situation that Chrissie finds herself in, re-learning every morning, but also because for the first three quarters of the book there are only three characters to be found. Therefore there are going to be certain facts, explanations and scenes (I can’t say more for fear of giving anything away) which are going to be recovered now and again and again. Watson gets around this by adding a certain fact, or possible fiction, to these scenarios which only add to the doubts and questions in our minds. It’s the uncertainty that is the only certainty in this novel.

‘Before I Go To Sleep’ is a very clever book. It takes a relatively simple, and equally possible, scenario and flips it on its head. In fact it’s the very domestic and almost mundane ordinariness of the books setting which makes it so unnerving. The fact Watson does this, on the whole, in one house between three characters is truly impressive. It’s an original, fast paced, gripping and rather high concept novel. I am wondering just what on earth, Watson is going to follow this up with… and how? 9/10

This book was kindly sent by the publisher.

Who else has read ‘Before I Go To Sleep’? Which books have you read on the recommendation of your favourite authors? What was the last thriller you read that almost turned the genre on its head?

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Filed under Books of 2011, Doubleday Publishers, Review, SJ Watson