Read this exclusive Q&A with A. J. Finn, author of The Woman in the Window, then make sure you're signed in and comment for a chance to win a copy of this electrifying debut psychological thriller!
A. J. Finn is the pseudonym of veteran editor Dan Mallory, whose debut novel, The Woman in the Window, has been sold in 38 territories worldwide and is in development as a major motion picture from Fox. Finn, a native of NY, spent 10 years in England before returning to the Big Apple.
Recently, Finn kindly answered questions about his transition from editor to author, his debut novel, and the inspirations that helped shape The Woman in the Window, among other things.
What was your inspiration for creating an agoraphobic character? How much research went into the condition before writing the book?
On my birthday in 2015, six weeks before I began writing The Woman in the Window, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. (Happy birthday to me!) For many people, this would have signaled the beginning of an arduous journey; for me, it marked the end of one.
For more than 15 years, I had grappled with severe depression, which infested and infected all aspects of my life: my relationships, my studies, my career. It also routinely confined me to my home; some days I found it impossible to extricate myself from my bed, let alone leave the house. And in combating depression, I resorted to every treatment imaginable: medication, meditation, talk therapy, hypnotherapy, et cetera—with mixed results.
Then my diagnosis was corrected, and a new drug regimen was prescribed. A month and a half later, I felt significantly improved … and liberated to pursue a creative project. That project was The Woman in the Window—a novel in which the heroine, not incidentally, is a depressive—and in writing it, I had the opportunity to examine my own struggles.
In the book, Anna is always watching classic films. The book is often described as “Hitchcockian.” There's even a film noir from 1944 titled The Woman in the Window. Did any films, in particular, serve as an influence while writing this book?
Rear Window inspired the story. Shadow of a Doubt and George Cukor’s Gaslight also shape the narrative. Beyond that, though, I’m reluctant to cite specific titles, as some of them might clue readers into what’s happening. There are almost four dozen films name-checked in The Woman in the Window—some of them indisputable classics, some of them justifiably more obscure … but I like to think that they all contribute to the book’s atmosphere of menace and mystery.
What makes The Woman in the Window different from all of the other psychological thrillers out there right now?
To begin with, The Woman in the Window has been sold in 38 territories prior to publication, which—we believe—makes it the most widely acquired debut novel in history at this point in its lifecycle. And the film rights were bought outright by Fox. So I like to think that three dozen publishers and a cadre of studio executives can’t be too wrong.
Moreover, the protagonist isn’t your average woman-in-jeopardy. 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 grownup. She’s a woman. And that’s a terrific thing to be.
Beyond the protagonist and the pre-pub activity, though, this book is the product of what I think of as my life of crime. Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle introduced me to the abiding pleasures of suspense fiction when I was a child, and during my teen years, I dove headfirst into the work of Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell, two writers whose novels bristle with psychological acuity. Later, as a doctoral student at Oxford, I studied Highsmith and Graham Greene, and then I launched a career publishing crime fiction and thrillers. So I bring to The Woman in the Window more than 30 years of experience in the genre.
How did your experience as an editor influence your writing? What was it like being on the other side of the process?
In my case, there was very little editing—in part because, as a professional book editor, I’m able to review and critique my own work, but also because my agent had provided extensive notes before we submitted a revised manuscript to publishers. So the book as you read it is what my editors leafed through when they received the submission.
I’ve worked in publishing for 10 years, during which time I’ve often seen authors react badly to editorial guidance—even when it’s exactly what they need! As a writer myself, I resolved to grow a thick skin. I’m not writing for myself, after all, and I defer to the judgment and expertise of the talented professionals whose job is to improve my thoroughly improvable scribbles.
The Woman in the Window has already had its film rights sold to Fox. If you had your dream movie cast, who would play Anna, her husband Ed, and daughter Olivia? The Russells?
I suspect that 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 60 or 70 years ago: 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 to 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 Gregory Peck.
What was the hardest part of writing this book?
There were two primary challenges. The first was steeping myself in the mind of a character besieged by self-reproach, doubt, and panic. I empathize deeply with Anna, and I often found her excellent company, but her emotional and narrative arcs are pretty intense, so I frequently felt drained after spending time with her.
Elsewhere, I found it surprisingly difficult to compose basic sentences when it came to ushering a character—physically, not psychologically—from point A to point B. Managing a transition like that without calling too much attention to it while at the same time keeping the reader looped in proved tricky.
What are you currently reading?
I tend to shuttle between a broad range of books. I loved Golden Hill, a pitch-perfect picaresque set in 18th-century New York. I’ve just finished Madeline Miller’s spellbinding Circe, a retelling of the Greek myth; The Soul of an Octopus, Sy Montgomery’s exploration of invertebrate consciousness; and Strange Weather, Joe Hill’s stunning four-novella collection. Right now, I’m halfway through both Carl Hiaasen’s Native Tongue—among his dizziest, daffiest capers—and Uncle Silas, which I only pretended to have read in grad school. Tomorrow, I’ll turn the last page of Amor Towles’s magnificent A Gentleman in Moscow. Next up: Manhattan Beach, the new Jennifer Egan novel, and a fantasy called Smoke by Dan Vyleta.
What is something that readers would be surprised to learn about you?
I’m left-handed, but as a schoolchild was forced to write with my right hand. To this day, I hold the pen in my right hand as though I’m using it in the left, with my fingers curled around the paper. It’s pretty damn uncomfortable. I’m slightly worried about signing books in this fashion.
Also, although I struggle mightily with anxiety, I never get particularly anxious about public speaking or interviews. Not sure why. But I won’t question it.
Finally, I’m desperate to adopt a French bulldog, to be named Ike. He’ll become a star on social media. I’d like to create a series of web shorts called Everybody Likes Ike in which the pooch will play my inconsiderate flatmate. It could work.
What would be your murder weapon of choice?
Poison. I’m fascinated by it. My library shelves are stuffed with ranks of books like The Poisoner’s Handbook, a compelling history of the stuff in Jazz Age New York, and numerous accounts of celebrated poisonings throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. I’ve even devised a method of delivery, although I’ll keep it to myself for now, in case I need it for a novel—or indeed for a murder. All that said, the fatal furniture in Wilkie Collins’s short story “A Terribly Strange Bed” is not without its charms.
Desert island. Three books. Go.
This is a punishing question. (I can omit a couple of my all-time favorites, as I’ve more or less committed them to memory.) Gun to my head, and in alphabetical order by author:
- The Annotated Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle (and edited by Leslie Klinger), which not only comprises all 56 canonical stories as well as the four novels but bursts with fascinating notes, addenda, and other bonus material. It’s an extended study in both iconic literature and fin de siècle history.
- Howards End, E. M. Forster’s big-hearted, clear-eyed, thoroughly lovely novel of Edwardian England in which lives and loves collide in ways both wholly unexpected and almost unbearably moving.
- The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin. This Newbery-winning murder mystery is ostensibly for children, but Raskin’s plotting is so fiendish, and her writing so sharp, that the book continues to thrill and reward me 25 years after I first read it.
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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.