A.J. Finn Takes Suspense to the Next Level | Debut Spotlight

Debut author A.J. Finn, the pen name of William Morrow’s VP and executive editor Dan Mallory, has already received plenty of industry buzz for his psychological thriller, The Woman in the Window (starred review, LJ 8/17). The novel centers on an agoraphobic woman who witnesses—or thinks she witnesses—a horrific crime in her neighbor’s home. Attempting to determine whether she’s in danger herself or losing a tenuous grasp on reality keeps the suspense high until the story’s twisty end. Here, the author discusses the editing process, his love of movies, and more.

Have you always been passionate about the psychological thriller genre, or were you responding to the success of Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train and the like?
All organic! I grew up gorging myself on detective stories, from Sherlock Holmes to Agatha Christie to Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game. As a teenager, I dove headfirst into the works of Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell, two pioneers of what we now term psychological suspense. During my graduate years at Oxford, I studied crime fiction, particularly Highsmith’s novels. Like many English majors, I thought I might write one day…but for years—ever since The Silence of the Lambs in 1988, and until [Gillian Flynn’s] Gone Girl changed the game in 2012—the market was dominated by serial killer spectaculars. Much as I enjoy a good serial thriller, I didn’t have one in me. Then Flynn ushered in a new era of suspense—the sort of suspense I’d read and studied for years, and the sort I felt I could write. After Gone Girl, a long comet tail of best sellers confirmed the appeal, durability, and potential of the genre. It was the moment I’d waited for, however subconsciously. Around the same time, totally uninvited, a character strode into my brain.

As an experienced editor writing fiction, do you find that you have to turn off your “editor brain” in order to let the creative juices flow?
You know, as I see it, editing is itself a creative process. Even as you absorb a text, you’re engaging with it, responding to it, sometimes challenging it. In that respect, it’s much like writing (or my kind of writing, anyway). As I drafted the story and crafted the characters and chiseled the language, I read and weighed and assessed; then I redrafted, reread, and so on. A sort of internal back-and-forth.

One of my favorite things about The Woman in the Window is the variety of references to Hitchcock movies and other film noir. Are you a film buff?
Oh, massively. As a teenager, I lived down the road from an arthouse cinema, where I camped out every weekend. The managers hosted classic-movie nights, film noir retrospectives, Hitchcock marathons—I was steeped in the stuff. To this day, I watch a couple of films a week, often those I’ve seen many times before.

Many librarians and editors I know, even before reading the book, remarked favorably on the use of the word woman in your title—which stands in contrast to the “girl”-centric titles of recent years (despite that the leads are almost always several years, if not decades, out of girlhood.) Was that intentional?
Very much so. First off, the market is now teeming with “girls.” It’s like a Harry Styles concert. More to the point, females over the age of 18 legally are women. They might be young women, but they’re women all the same. True, Gone Girl gives the word girl a costarring role in its title, yet the novel—one of my all-time favorite thrillers—both satirized and railed against the way we patronize and taxonomize women (remember its scorching appraisal of the “Cool Girl” myth?). If you ask me, that title bristles with irony. I don’t scoff at other “girl” books, many of which feature female characters in a state of arrested development, but the heroine of my book is nearly 40 years old. She’s a grown-up. She’s a woman. And that’s a great thing to be.

How did protagonist Anna Fox emerge for you as a character? Did you know from the start what her arc would be?
Anna took shape very quickly, like a figure approaching through mist, dragging her story with her pretty much intact. Throughout my adult life, I’ve struggled with severe depression, but at the time Anna introduced herself, I was (and indeed I remain) in a better place. Her trauma and grief, whilst circumstantially very different from my own, felt comparable in intensity; so I was able both to study and empathize with her. As an old-movie fan, I’m attuned to shapes and shifts of a classic suspense narrative, and Woman recalls a number of films. But Anna is the fuse box of this book—she supplies its voltage.—Kiera Parrott, School Library Journal and Library Journal


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Kiera Parrott About Kiera Parrott

Kiera Parrott the reviews director for School Library Journal and Library Journal and a former children's librarian. Her favorite books are ones that make her cry—or snort—on public transportation.

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