Debut Author Snapshot: A.J. Finn

Posted by Goodreads on January 1, 2018
The Woman in the Window is Rear Window for the 21st century: An agoraphobic woman, once a successful psychologist, believes she's witnessed a crime in a neighboring house—but can't set foot outside to investigate. And soon she feels unsafe even in her own home. Is the danger real, though, or has she imagined it?

Debut author A.J. Finn is no stranger to the publishing world. He grew up reading Agatha Christie, the Hardy Boys, and Ellen Raskin's murder mystery The Westing Game. In his teens he discovered Patricia Highsmith, Graham Greene, and Ruth Rendell. As a doctoral student at Oxford, Finn focused on detective fiction, after which he moved to London and joined a publishing house, overseeing the company's adult commercial imprint. Authors acquired or published during his time at the publisher included J.K. Rowling/Robert Galbraith, Stephenie Meyer, Patricia Cornwell, among many others.

In late 2012, Finn moved to New York, where he published a range of crime writers, from Karin Slaughter to Agatha Christie herself. He talked to Goodreads about making the switch from editor to writer and how his love of Hitchcock and a bout of depression led to his debut thriller.

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Goodreads: How did you come up with the idea for The Woman in the Window?

A.J. Finn: At some point during my career I had a notion that I might one day write a suspense story of my own, but for ages—probably since 1988, when Thomas Harris published The Silence of the Lambs—the market was dominated by serial-killer thrillers. I didn't have one of those in me. Then, in 2012, the runaway success of Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl changed the game. Here—as with the novels of Kate Atkinson and Tana French—was intelligent, character-driven mystery storytelling of the sort that Highsmith had pioneered 60 years earlier…the very kind of book that I had read and studied and felt I might try to write.

Trouble was, I didn't have a story, even though the market conditions were favorable. Not until 2015, when I started to rebound from a serious depressive episode, did it occur to me to write about a protagonist who, like me, had trouble leaving the house. By this point, I'd wrestled with severe depression for nearly 15 years, the entirety of my adult life; after my diagnosis and medication were adjusted, I felt significantly improved and ready to tackle a creative project. 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 pry myself from bed.

GR: Let's talk about building suspense: How did you map out your novel to keep readers on the edge of their seats?

AJF: I'm an outliner. I've heard many authors talk about their characters "surprising" them, but before I tap out a single word, I need to know exactly what's going to happen, and when, and to whom. Once I've plotted the story in depth, I can focus on the sentence-level writing. Having read, studied, and published countless thrillers in my life—literally countless, although remember that I am a writer and as such can really only count to 11 or thereabouts—I knew a thing or two about structure; but the pace required more attention. The first quarter of the story proceeds at a moderate tempo: The idea is to acclimate the reader to a life spent indoors, measured by routine. Then the speed picks up rapidly. And bite-size chapters keep the momentum strong.

GR: Tell us about your main character, Anna Fox. What is it about her that made her such a compelling protagonist?

AJF: 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. I like that Anna persists with her hobbies: watching old films, playing chess, squinting into her camera. It occurred to me while writing the book that quite a lot of fictional characters are without hobbies or habits; they exist solely within the dimensions of the primary narrative.

GR: Even though this is your first novel, you are an industry insider, having worked as executive editor at the publishing house William Morrow. Did you tell your co-workers you were writing a book? How did being in the industry help and/or hinder the process of getting published?

AJF: I told no one except my friend Jenn—the best literary agent in New York. Because I work in publishing, I had a pretty clear notion 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 in September of 2015, I submitted a 7,500-word outline to Jenn, who read the pages overnight and encouraged me to proceed. So a year later, the finished novel was on submission, thanks to Jenn and my equally well-regarded U.K. agent Felicity (also a friend—I like to work with friends).

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I kept mum about my secret life so that I wouldn't be embarrassed, should the book go unsold—which seemed to me a distinct possibility, given how difficult it is to find a home for a manuscript. As a publisher, I know this firsthand. For the same reason, I chose to use a pseudonym; I didn't want anyone to offer (or not offer) on the book because they knew me. And after The Woman in the Window was acquired and I was outed as the author, I kept the pseudonym so as to draw a clear line between my writing career and my publishing job. So apart from enjoying ready access to an agent, I feel my experience was similar to that of most debut novelists.

GR: It's been reported that Fox 2000 has purchased the film rights to your book. Tell us about that process and what's next for a big-screen adaptation.

AJF: Fox 2000—makers of Life of Pi, Hidden Figures, The Fault in Our Stars, and Bridge of Spies, among many other splendid films—bought the movie rights before we sold any of the publishing rights. The film will be produced by Scott Rudin, who won an Oscar for No Country for Old Men and has made everything from The Social Network to The Grand Budapest Hotel to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to Clueless (a personal favorite) to this season's Lady Bird. He's a visionary genius. As is the screenwriter, Tracy Letts, who won a Pulitzer for his play August: Osage County. Once the script is submitted—which should be any day now—the studio will attach a director, and finally they'll cast an actress so that they can charge straight into production.

I was in LAX when my agent rang me to say that Fox had made an unsolicited offer; even better, they were so determined to put the film on the big screen that they wanted to skip the "option" phase, whereby a studio offers a certain amount for the rights but only pays the author a portion unless the movie actually gets made. So after I agreed to the deal, I looked around the terminal in disbelief. There was no one near me aside from a lovely Japanese family. I smiled at them and gave them a thumbs-up. And—I'll never forget this—they all turned to me, mother, father, and child, and gave me a thumbs-up in return. What a lovely moment. (They never call; they never write.)

GR: Which writers are you influenced by, and how do those influences show themselves in The Woman in the Window?

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AJF: Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle introduced me to the abiding pleasures of suspense fiction when I was a child. And as I mentioned, I studied Patricia Highsmith and Graham Greene, two writers whose novels bristle with psychological acuity. So they're formative influences. Among contemporaries, I'd cite Gillian Flynn, Kate Atkinson, and Tana French, all of whom write substantive books inhabited by three-dimensional characters.

I like tart, crisp dialogue, as perfected by Dashiell Hammett and Andrea Camilleri; and for atmosphere, no one tops Dickens. In a nutshell, I enjoy—and aspire to write—stories that feature credible, compelling characters, artful writing, and a strong, twisty plot.

I tend to resist novels that strike me as too cynical or despairing; after all, most of us read crime fiction in part because we like to see order restored, the guilty punished, and the virtuous rewarded or avenged. I admire a few authors who subvert that formula—Highsmith springs to mind—but for the most part, I don't want to finish a book and feel disconsolate about the state of the world.

The Woman in the Window is also obviously influenced by classic films: The setup was inspired by Rear Window, and the sense of creeping menace owes a debt to Gaslight, Shadow of a Doubt, and other iconic film noirs.

GR: What are you currently reading, and what books are you recommending to your friends?

AJF: I tend to shuttle between a broad range of books. Right now I'm rereading Kate Atkinson's Started Early, Took My Dog; such a bighearted novel, such a well-oiled plot. 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' magnificent A Gentleman in Moscow. 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. Next up: Manhattan Beach, the new Jennifer Egan novel, and a fantasy called Smoke by Dan Vyleta.

GR: What's next for you? Any preview you can give readers?

AJF: My next novel is a psychological thriller set in San Francisco. It nods to both Vertigo and The Count of Monte Cristo. One of the characters keeps a French bulldog as a pet; this is largely an excuse for me to get a French bulldog. Research!

Comments Showing 1-16 of 16 (16 new)

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message 1: by Candice (new)

Candice I was so impressed by this book and reading this interview made me even more so! Congratulations on your success!

Thumbs up!

message 2: by Mindy (new)

Mindy That's awesome. Cannot wait for your next novel. Hope you find the perfect puppy.

message 3: by Jenna (new)

Jenna L Hughes “Having read, studied, and published countless thrillers in my life—literally countless, although remember that I am a writer and as such can really only count to 11 or thereabouts...”

This made me laugh for about five straight minutes! As a writer, I totally understand! Great interview, and I look forward to reading this.

message 4: by Jennie (new)

Jennie Look forward to hearing you speak in Charlotte this spring... I loved the book and wish you great success!

message 5: by Trudy (new)

Trudy It' so fun reading about how normal and human the author of an excellent book is. I'll be on the lookout for anything by him in the future.

message 6: by chiara (new)

chiara Being able to read the ARC was indescribably exciting, and I can already see the author and this book blowing up in the near future. So excited for the movie and the author's future stories, I'm certain they will be amazing!

message 7: by Rosanna (new)

Rosanna Brand As a Hitchcock fan, Rear Window was not one of my favs. Vertigo and The Birds were inspirational to me as an author. As a thriller movie fan, did not like Gone Girl that much either. Shadow of a Doubt was good. I am interested in this author's book, however, and will order it especially since he used to read thrillers for a living. He must have developed lots of style and ideas.


message 8: by Deb (new)

Deb I was thrilled to have won a copy of the book as it was on my "to read" list. It was terrific. Having grown up loving old black and white films, especially suspense, it was interesting to see Mr. Finn's comments regarding his influences and how he used them. Look forward to the film version and his next book.

message 9: by Robert (new)

Robert Sounds a lot like THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN. I might be wrong, though...

message 10: by Jennifer (new)

Jennifer Shanahan You're the best!!! Love you and your book TONS!!!!

message 11: by DJ (new)

DJ Johnson The Woman in the Window was read in 4 days. That might sound like a long time to devour a book but I am a Doctoral (Psychology) student who works full time as an advisor in the day, and teaches adjunct college classes at night. My free time is almost non-existent. I read this book every chance I got. Lunch breaks, while getting dressed for work, while cooking dinner, folding laundry, etc. I could not stop. Truly one of the best reads I have had in ages. Each time I thought I figured it out, I was wrong. So thrilling. I'm anxious to see more work by this author.

message 12: by Donna (new)

Donna Taylor The Woman in the Window was by far one of the best mysteries I have ever read. The way you intertwined various movies and your awareness of mental health issues was so impressive. I read the book in one setting, just unable to put it down! Can't wait to see what you come up with next.

message 13: by Donna (new)

Donna Taylor Robert wrote: "Sounds a lot like THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN. I might be wrong, though..."

Not at all.

message 14: by Nata (new)

Nata Hayashi "So apart from enjoying ready access to an agent, I feel my experience was similar to that of most debut novelists. "
I totally disagree with him. He had a huge foot step in the big publishers houses already because he had strong contacts. So he shouldn't compare himself to debut authors with no money to get professionally edited, no Oxford education and no chance to stand out from the slush pile because they don't know anyone in the publishing field.

message 15: by Diane (new)

Diane Best Too much like other books I've read. Won't be going to see the movie.

message 16: by Deb (new)

Deb Only picked this up because it was my book club pick this month. I was not looking forward to what I thought was another "Girl on the Train" and have been pleasantly surprised to enjoy this much more!

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