When you’ve been as successful in the publishing world as A.J. Finn, you know a thing or two about what makes a really good book. With his debut novel The Woman in the Window, Finn has done just that: capturing the key element that makes psychological thrillers so captivating and mixing it perfectly with the hallmarks of the noir genre, we can’t wait for you to read this complex, twisted debut.
Anna Fox is a recluse unable to go outside of her New York City home. Once a child psychologist with a family, she now lives alone, separated from her husband and young daughter. She spends her days drinking a lot of wine, watching old movies, and spying out the window on the new family that just moved into the townhouse across from hers. While the Russells seem to be picture perfect, Anna witnesses a terrible event in their living room. Unable to leave, and unable to convince the police of what she saw, Anna’s faced with the question of if she’s actually starting to lose her mind, or if someone’s just trying to make her think she is.
While the dark atmosphere, electric conversation and tense, gritty mystery of the noir genre might seem like a classic relic, there’s a reason why it’s one of the most beloved genres of all time; and The Woman in the Window only proves this further. Here, Booktrib talks with author, A.J. Finn about his debut novel, writing literary noir and how create the perfect protagonist.
Booktrib: Reading The Woman in the Window kept me up until the early hours of the morning because I just could not put it down! What do you think the secret is to a good psychological thriller?
A.J. Finn: I’m so pleased you enjoyed the book! If you ask me, a successful psychological thriller situates three-dimensional characters in a plausible (yet still surprising) narrative. Plenty of popular psychological thrillers don’t do this, of course. It dawned on me whilst writing my book that quite a lot of fictional characters are without hobbies or habits; they exist solely within the dimensions of the primary narrative—a primary narrative that often strains (or even snaps) credulity. And that’s okay, too, depending on the reader. But this reader likes his psychological suspense credible, and his characters relatable.
Booktrib: What I really loved about this novel is the genre you’ve tapped into – it really is a modern-day noir – and it’s so rare nowadays to find anything that captures the essence of the noir genre. Was writing in the noir genre something that you had consciously decided on?
A.J. Finn: It was indeed a conscious decision—hence the references to almost four dozen noirs, some of them classics (and some of them less so), which in the novel play a dual role: They contribute to the dark, moody ambience, and they also serve as signposts indicating the direction the story might take. (Or do they?)
I love the class, sophistication, and craft of classic noir cinema; I love too how these movies eschew gore and cheap thrills in favor of deliberately paced suspense and pungent atmosphere. And I’ve tried to evoke that same timeless spirit in ‘The Woman in the Window’.
Booktrib: Anna Fox, the protagonist, is such an intriguing character. Can you tell us a little bit about what was behind her creation, and how she came to be this complex character?
A.J. Finn: I’ve struggled with depression throughout my adult life. In 2015, my diagnosis and medication were adjusted, and I felt significantly improved—so much so that I wanted to tackle a creative project. It occurred to me that I might write about a protagonist who, like me, had trouble leaving the house. I wanted to bring my hard-won empathy to bear on the character of a woman who had lost all faith in the possibilities of life. And I wanted too to invoke the spirit of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, which had entertained and inspired me on those days when I could barely prize myself from bed.
What I like best about Anna is her self-reliance. Often in genre fiction—not always, but often—the female characters, even those in starring roles, are helplessly, hopelessly dependent on men. They fret about men; they rely upon men; they orbit 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 a damsel in distress. Anna Fox isn’t as crusading as Salander or as controlling as Amy Dunne, but over the course of the book, she pursues an inquiry, unravels a mystery, and confronts an antagonist, all without the help of a man. She’s a grown-up. She’s a woman. And that’s a terrific thing to be.
At first, Anna is a mystery: We learn very early on that she’s been housebound for ten months, but we don’t know why until later in the story. We also learn that she was once a well-regarded child psychologist, yet this too is in the past. As mentioned earlier, I like that Anna persists with her hobbies: watching old films, playing chess, squinting into her camera. To me, this makes her feel relatable and rounded. For all her faults, I quite enjoy spending time with her.
Booktrib: So I understand that there’s a bit of a story behind your book getting published with William Morrow, and the pseudonym. Can you tell us about that story, and what the process of being published was like?
A.J. Finn: I work in publishing, so I approached the process differently than most writers would. Because I already knew a number of literary agents, I had pretty clear notions as to whom I’d like to represent my work, and where I wanted to see it published. After hatching the idea for the story, I submitted a 7500-word outline to my friend Jennifer, a well-regarded agent in New York. She read the pages overnight and encouraged me to proceed, so a year later, the finished novel was on submission, thanks to Jennifer and my equally well-regarded UK agent Felicity (also a friend—I like to work with friends).
We submitted the manuscript under a pen name, for two reasons: First, as a publishing professional, I wanted to ensure that editors would assess the book on its own merits (or lack thereof), instead of taking into account my standing in the industry; and secondly, in the (unlikely, it seemed to me) even that an editor were to acquire the novel, I wanted it published pseudonymously, so that the authors with whom I worked as an editor wouldn’t feel disconcerted.
Within 36 hours of submission, we found ourselves fielding offers from publishers around the world. As soon as they indicated that they would be making offers, I ‘came out’ to them; it seemed only fair that they should know what they were getting into. And as it happens, we would up selling American rights to my employer, which delighted me; I think the crew at William Morrow is the best in the business.
My experience with my colleagues—former colleagues, I should say, as I embarked on a full-time writing career at the end of 2017—has borne this out. I feel extraordinarily lucky to find myself working with such an inspired and inspiring team of pros. It helps me appreciate anew all they do for me and for all Morrow authors.
Booktrib: You were an editor for years, and now you’re a novelist. Do you have any advice for others who want to get into writing? And are there any plans in the works to write another novel?
A.J. Finn: I’ve three pieces of advice—none especially novel, but this is popular counsel for a reason:
First, you must read. Reading the work of others exposes you to fresh ideas, new techniques, and different perspectives. It’s oxygen for a writer. Stephen King is an excellent example: Here’s one of the world’s biggest-selling and most prolific authors, yet for all that, the man reads voraciously. I like to think this helps inspire and inform his books.
Second, remember that writing—as a job, I mean—is exactly that: a job… and like most jobs, it isn’t always fun, or even often fun. Nor is it reliably lucrative; most writers don’t earn their primary living from writing. Which isn’t to discourage or dissuade, as creative work can frequently be stimulating, liberating, and rewarding—but prepare to spend time glaring at your laptop (or typewriter, or notebook) and cursing the written word.
Finally, whilst it’s important to pay attention to the market—if you’re hoping to get published, you want to make sure that you’re writing in a publishable genre, after all—you should also keep it authentic, organic, honest. As an editor, I can usually tell when an author has hopped on a bandwagon. Which isn’t to say that these books aren’t worth publishing, but I’d argue that the writing process is more enjoyable when you feel sincerely interested in your work.
For my part, I’ve got a second book due to my publisher soon. It’s another psychological thriller, this time set in San Francisco. So far, so good…
‘The Woman in the Window’ is now available for purchase, and is in development as a major motion picture from Fox. For more information on the author, please visit his twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
A.J. Finn has written for numerous publications, including the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and the Times Literary Supplement (UK). A native of New York, Finn lived in England for ten years before returning to New York City.
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