Recently, dozens of book critics, print and online editors, and others involved in or on the fringes of the publishing industry offered a handy guidepost for readers—their choices of 2017’s best books.
Of those hundreds of titles, some appeared on multiple lists. In fiction, for instance, were Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward and Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. In nonfiction were The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity by psychotherapist Esther Perel and Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson.
Obviously, readers pay attention to titles on any “best of” list, but let’s remember a simple truth: Books are like wines in that the “best” ones are those we enjoy the most, regardless of accolades. On the other hand, it certainly saves time to get guidance from experts.
The novel that did it for me last year was the wise and moving The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman, the witches-centric prequel to her 1995 mega-hit Practical Magic. Themes run through Rules like deep, rushing rivers—loyalty, second chances, self-discovery, surviving losses and, most of all, the desire to save from harm those we love.
In an interview a few years ago, Hoffman told me, “My message is about the triumph of the human spirit.” Fittingly, the novel’s last sentence is, “Know that the only remedy for love is to love more.”
From enchanting to menacing: Yes, 2018 is in diapers, but there’s already a compelling thriller destined for bestseller lists. The just-published The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn is a debut getting the kind of buzz usually reserved for new releases by veteran A-list authors.
Note that “A.J. Finn” is the pseudonym of Dan Mallory, 38, who until recently was senior vice president and executive editor for the William Morrow publishing house in New York City. Mallory left his job in December to write a second psychological thriller, set in San Francisco.
William Morrow points out The Woman in the Window is “officially the most widely acquired novel of all time prior to publication ... selling in 38 territories around the world.” Also, Fox 2000 is making the movie.
I ripped through an advance reading copy in December and found it literally un-put-downable. The masterfully plotted story is told by unreliable narrator Anna Fox, 38, a “once respected child psychologist” transformed by a tragic event into an agoraphobic shut-in, given to mixing way too much wine with her meds. She’s smart and compassionate (counseling other agoraphobics online), but bored and in denial, separated from her husband and daughter, wasting her days watching classic movies and playing online chess.
Then, one day, while pursuing her “hobby”—spying on the neighbors from her New York City townhouse—she believes she witnesses a horrible crime. But there is no proof and, worse yet, no one believes her. That is, until...
Mallory brought a solid foundation to his project, having “spent more than five years as a master’s and doctoral student at Oxford University focusing on detective/crime fiction, especially the work of Patricia Highsmith and Graham Greene,” he said.
By the way: The Woman in the Window is also the title of a 1944 film noir starring Edward G. Robinson and Joan Bennett.
Q: Hitchcock’s Rear Window and the works of Patricia Highsmith have been invoked in the coverage and publicity of your novel. So have Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. How do you feel about that?
A: Pleased as punch. I’d describe Highsmith as one of the early pioneers of what we now term “psychological suspense,” the genre that Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train both inhabit. They achieved extraordinary success worldwide, so I’m only too happy for my book to be named alongside them.
Q: Would you call Woman an updated homage to the 1954 film Rear Window, only more complex?
A: Like many novels and films released over (recent) decades, “The Woman in the Window” was inspired by and shares crucial DNA with Rear Window. But I wanted to steer my story in a different direction. I admire Rear Window for many of the same reasons I admire so much of Hitchcock’s work: clockwork plotting, nuanced characters, a refreshing disregard for gore and cheap scares, all of which I’ve tried to emulate in the book. I’d suggest it’s a mash-up of Rear Window and Gaslight (1944).
Q: Anna is infuriating. She self-medicates, is cynical and a voyeur. Yet she is empathetic, witty, intelligent, educated and vulnerable. How did you create such a complex character?
A: I enjoyed spending time with Anna, even as I wanted to shake her by the shoulders. I’ll say this for her: So often in suspense fiction, female characters spend a lot of time relying upon men or generally orbiting men. One of the reasons why Lisbeth Salander ofThe Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Amy Dunne of Gone Girl made such an impact was because they’re more than a match for the men around them.
So, although Anna’s a mess, to her credit she pursues an inquiry, unravels a mystery and tests her limits, all without the help of a man, or indeed anyone. She’s no damsel in distress.
Q: The very disturbing secret Anna is hiding is revealed not by her, but by one of the detectives investigating her claim of a crime. What a powerful moment. We don’t get it until the last quarter of the book, but worse is to come.
A: While the moment in question might not surprise every reader, it illuminates the distinction Hitchcock drew between surprise (which he likened to a bomb suddenly exploding beneath a table) and suspense (that same bomb ticking away prior to detonation). Whatever the reader brings to this particular exchange, it’s designed to connect with the force and clarity of a gut-punch.
Q: The novel is so multi-layered, please tell us something about the research involved. For instance, you deal with agoraphobia, psychiatry and vintage movies.
A: There’s quite a lot of me decanted into this story and its lead character. Throughout my adult life, I’ve struggled with severe depression. I resorted to every treatment imaginable, from medication to talk therapy to hypnotherapy...but nothing helped for very long. Frequently I was housebound, unable to leave my bedroom, much less the house.
In July 2015, on my 36th birthday, my diagnosis was corrected when a psychiatrist suggested that in fact I was struggling with incorrectly diagnosed bipolar disorder. My medication regimen was adjusted and within six weeks I felt significantly improved.
It was at that time that Anna introduced herself to me. Her trauma and grief, whilst circumstantially very different from my own, felt similar in intensity; so I was able to both study and empathize with her. I tried to bring my experiences and hard-won empathy to the character of a complicated woman trapped in extraordinary circumstances.
Q: And the vintage films part?
A: We both love old movies. As a teenager, I lived down the road from an art-house cinema, where I camped out every weekend. The managers hosted classic-movie nights, film noir retrospectives, Hitchcock marathons, and I steeped myself in all of it. I love the look, tone and pace of older films. They’re stylish, sophisticated and take their time establishing their characters and building suspense. By contrast, many modern films rocket forward at a breathless pace, and look as though they’ve been shot and edited without much care or craft.
Utterly alone, Anna augments her reality with black-and-white films. Of course, those movies aren’t strictly monochromatic; they’re saturated with shades of grey, which applies to Anna’s life as well. Attempting to parse what’s real and what isn’t, she is forced to confront the half-truths of her own story—the grey areas—and to fill in its blanks.
Q: At one point, Anna thinks, “Who knows what goes on in a family?” The novel’s a thriller, yes, but it’s also about some of the universalities of our daily lives and interpersonal dynamics.
A: Absolutely agreed. Although it interests itself in the classic Hitchcockian themes of (mistaken?) identity and voyeuristic obsession, it is ultimately a story about loneliness. Anna is physically and psychologically isolated, seemingly incapable of forging a meaningful connection with anyone else. In every instance, she attempts to engage with others on her own terms and inevitably fails. I suspect this experience is at least passingly familiar to many of us living in an era when, for all our technologies, we’re disconnected as we’ve never been before.
Q: As an editor in the publishing world until last December, what was the connection between your professional life and your debut novel?
A: The story—one underscored by trauma and fear, much of which I’d experienced myself—presented itself to me only shortly before I started writing it, but I’d had a notion that I might one day take a whack at a novel.
Yet at the time the market was dominated by serial-killer thrillers, and I didn’t have one of those in me. Then Gillian Flynn changed the game with Gone Girl. Here was intelligent, character-driven mystery storytelling, of the sort that Highsmith had pioneered 60 years earlier. It was the very kind of book I had read and studied and felt I could try to write.
But I didn’t have a story and I refused to bash one out simply because the timing felt opportune. Then my mood-disorder diagnosis was corrected, and this character promptly strode into my brain, more or less fully formed, dragging her story with her.
Q: What about the mechanics?
A: Because I work in publishing, I approached the process differently than most writers would. I already knew a number of agents, and had pretty clear notions as to whom I’d want to represent my work and where I wanted to see it published.
After hatching the idea for the story, I submitted a 7,500-word outline to my friend, a well-regarded literary agent in New York. She read the pages overnight and encouraged me to proceed, so a year later the finished novel was on submission.
That said, I don’t feel my agents would have taken me on had they not believed in the book. And when we submitted it to publishers, we did so under a pen name (A.J. Finn), so that a given editor could assess the manuscript on its own merits rather than focusing on my professional background. Only after editors indicated they would be tendering offers did I out myself.
Incidentally, my training as both editor and publisher helped me considerably. I was able to critique—at least to a point—my work and respond to my own notes. Although it’s fair to point out that my agents and editors provided much more valuable feedback.
Q: There’s a movie in the works. If you could cast it, who would play the key roles?
A: I could name six actresses, only to see the filmmakers cast a seventh. So instead, I’ll tell you whom I would have cast were Hitchcock making the film: Gene Tierney. She wasn't a “Hitchcock blonde” or indeed any kind of blonde, and perhaps that's why he never worked with her. But her life was marked by a series of traumas that would have helped prepare her for the lead role. And she radiated both steeliness and vulnerability.
I describe David, the mysterious tenant, as a Gregory Peck lookalike. So in his case, I’d have cast—wait for it—Gregory Peck.
Q: Please have the last word...
A: The most gratifying aspect of this entire experience has been the opportunity to meet so many people on all sides of the book business, from my international publishers to American librarians, from literary journalists to booksellers. And, best of all, the readers who have overwhelmed me with their engagement and enthusiasm. It’s enormously rewarding. I wish I’d done it sooner.