Imagine dreaming of your own second life, a parallel world in which you follow a path you always longed for yet felt, for whatever reason, was impracticable. Imagine then, waking up one day and realising that the dream has become a reality, in ways beyond your wildest imaginings. It’s exactly what happened to SJ [Steve] Watson, whose first book, the psychological thriller, Before I Go To Sleep, published as he turned forty, went on to sell four million copies in 42 countries around the world and was turned into a film with Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth and Mark Strong.
Such a successful debut sets a tremendously high bar for any follow up novel. Yet Watson need not worry – as we meet for The Books That Built Me, Second Life is riding high at number three in the Sunday Times Bestseller charts.
A nail-biting domestic noir, Second Life tells the story of Julia whose comfortable, conventional life begins to rapidly unravel as her own attempts to find her sister’s murderer pull her inexorably into an addictive online world where no one is quite who they claim to be, least of all Julia herself. As Watson says, ‘For me the title Second Life has several different connotations: what you might think of as a parallel life – you’re one person at home with your family yet online you can be another person – and a sequential second life – I was one person and now I’m somebody else. I’m intrigued by that idea of can we ever really change, and is change ever so sudden that you can say, this is my second life, my third life, my fourth life and so on’.
Of course, with a first life as a respected NHS audiologist, and a second as that rare of rare beasts, a commercially successful novelist, it’s tempting to ask if Watson doesn’t regret following the writing dream a little earlier; ‘For a second, I probably thought, why didn’t I do this twenty-five years ago, but I also realised, I wasn’t ready twenty five years ago. I’m just incredibly glad I made the jump when I made it.‘
SJ Watson’s Books That Built Me
Lord of the Rings: JRR Tolkien
This was given to me by a teacher after I got into CS Lewis and the Narnia Books. It’s the book that first made me want to one day write and see my books on shelves.
Written on the Body. Jeanette Winterson
I thought I read it when I was seventeen or eighteen but just discovered I was 21 when it came out. One of the books that rekindled my love of writing. So beautiful, and I loved the ambiguity of the ending, and of the sex of the narrator.
The Swimming Pool Library: Alan Hollinghurst
I read this when I first started working in London, so I would have been about 22 or 23. I found this book incredibly moving and very sexy. Made even more affecting because I was working in Russell Square and socialising in the bars of Soho, where much of this book takes place, plus I read it during a hot summer. So I almost felt I was living the book, or wanted to at least.
Becoming a Man: Paul Monette
Becoming a Man describes a man struggling with his sexuality, trying to hide his same-sex attraction, the pain of unrequited love, and then finally seeing two men happy and in love and realising it was an option for him. I read it on the train on the way to visit my parents for the weekend, and on the Sunday before I came back to London I told them I was gay.
The Handmaid’s Tale: Margaret Atwood
I knew nothing about Atwood when I read The Handmaid’s Tale when I was about thirty. I finished it and thought ‘Wow’ and instantly decided I need to reconnect with my desire to be an author. This book began the process that saw me write Before I Go to Sleep.
In My Skin: Kate Holden
Read about seven or eight years ago. Picked it up, not knowing anything about it. It’s a harrowing, yet beautiful memoir of a woman who became addicted to heroin which led her into prostitution and made me really think about what writing can do. It also really made me think about how society treats those (particularly women) who are sex workers. Later I met Kate as we share a publisher and she’s wonderful and funny.
After Dark: Haruki Murakami
Currently I’m loving Murakami, and this book kicked it off. I like it because it’s short and weird, and it really makes me think about what writing can be and the places it can go.
Read Second Life on Kindle