It’s one of those publishing-world stories journalists just can’t resist: a first-time novelist writing under a pseudonym sparks a bidding war with his au courant psychological crime thriller and winds up selling it to the publishing house where he works as an editor (handling Agatha Christie books, no less), then instantly enters the New York Times best-seller list at number one.
In this case, the publisher is William Morrow, the bookwhich is damn good, by the wayis The Woman in the Window, and the author is A.J. Finn, known as Daniel Mallory back when he grew up in Charlotte and studied literature at Duke. We recently reached Mallory, whose background is part Southern but whose accent is Oxford, to learn about how his love of classic film and his experiences with agoraphobia fueled his Hitchcockian tale and how he was totally courting certain marketable comparisions with that title.
INDY: I just got the book and plowed through the first hundred pages in one sitting. Those short, day-at-a-time chapters are pretty ingenious. You keep thinking, just one more day, and then it’s two in the morning. What’s the idea behind that device?
DANIEL MALLORY: Oh, I stole it. It’s patented by James Patterson. I don’t read a lot of James Patterson, but when I tried, I found myself thinking, just one more.
Mysteries and thrillers never really left, but they seem to be back in a big way. Why do you think they’re so popular right now?
Going back to the inception of this genre in the nineteenth century, they’ve always been popular. This is the world’s dominant genre when it comes to best-seller lists and box office performance. I think that’s because it’s morally educative. When you read a Sherlock Holmes story, you know that by the end the guilty will be punished, the virtuous rewarded or redeemed, and justice upheld or restored. We find that reassuring.
Since Thomas Harris published The Silence of the Lambs in 1988, the market took a hard swerve toward serial-killer thrillers. I enjoy the serial-killer thrillers, but I didn’t have one in me. I’m not sick enough. By the time Gillian Flynn published Gone Girl, I think readers were perhaps a bit burnt out on serial-killer narratives, in part because they’re so alien to us. So-called domestic noir hits closer to home. It’s pretty impossible to imagine we’ll be carved up by a cannibal, but it’s a bit more credible to suspect someone you know or love might not be who they represent themselves to be.
As a fan of these modern psychological thrillers, I have to ask you about my favorite author of them, the American-Irish writer Tana French.
Oh, yep. The three formative influences on me amongst contemporary writers are Tana French, Gillian Flynn, and Kate Atkinson. Tana French in particular because she’s such an exquisite prose stylist. I could just bask in her sentences.
Your book is inevitably being compared to Gone Girl and Girl on the Train. Were you courting those comparisons with the title?
Oh, sure. I spent over ten years as a publisher of commercial fiction, so market imperatives are not lost on me. I liked the title, too, because it recalls a 1944 Fritz Lang film of the same name. I’m sometimes asked, do you find these comparisons flattering? Absolutely. Those two books were cultural touchstonesbona fide phenomena. I should be so lucky as to achieve those heights.
Of course, the difference is that those female-perspective books were written by women. Did you have any trepidation about embodying that perspective?
Not really, which might sound incredibly presumptuous. This character just strode into my brain. She was a woman. I think I craved a female protagonist in part as a corrective to a worrying trend in genre fiction: namely, that the female leads are often passive, reactive, they fret about and predicate their emotional welfare on men. In my experience, this is not how most women behave. Most women I know are at least a match for the men in their lives, if not more so. I think this is why Amy Dunne of Gone Girl and Lisbeth Salander of The Girl with the Dragon Tattooand indeed, the characters in Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad novelsmake such an impact. They are more than a match for the men in their lives. So whilst Anna Fox in my novel is a mess, she owns her mess, and I’ll say this for her: not once in the novel does she rely upon a man. She’s not a damsel in distress.
It’s clear that one of the book’s major influences isn’t even an author. It’s Alfred Hitchcock, with the copious allusions to Rear Window, among other filmmakers. So you have this cinematic plot, which of course has already been optioned for a major motion picture. Why did you want to make it a book instead of trying to make a film?
One, I assumed, perhaps wrongly, that writing a book would enable me to acquaint myself more intimately with the characters, as opposed to writing a screenplay, which is just dialogue. Secondly, I was influenced by Hitchcock’s sensibility and style, but principally by other crime writers. That’s what I grew up reading, studied as a graduate student, and launched my career publishing. It never occurred to me to write it as a script. Now I’m wondering if I missed a trick.
Speaking of cinema, the New York Times story on you mentioned an anecdote in which you were eight years old and saw The Vanishing at an art house theater in North Carolina. Which theater was it, and what did seeing movies there mean to you?
I believe it was the Manor Theater in Charlotte. I remember feeling disturbed and horrified but absolutely riveted. As a teenager I lived down the block from the Manor, and every weekend they had classic movie nights and Hitchcock marathons. I was a very well-behaved kid. I did not drink or smoke or party. I did camp out every weekend in the front row of the Manor and steep myself in all of it. That’s where I watched everything from Sense and Sensibility to Vanya on 42nd Street as well as a lot of old thrillers. I have very positive associations with that cinema, even though the seats were unbearably uncomfortable.
What is your family’s connection to North Carolina?
When I was a teenager we moved there, so I went to high school in Charlotte and then went to Duke. I’ve not been back to Duke since graduating; I don’t know why, because I loved it there. But my family moved back to New York not long after I left.
So you studied literature at Duke before you went to Oxford. When was this, and was there any way in which your time here influenced your life and work?
Duke was ’97 to ’01. I got to work with some amazing professors and peers, none of whom had a direct bearing, I would say, on this book, although I remember in one class we were reading The Godfather, and I thought it was interesting to see a professor acknowledge literary merit in a quote-unquote “genre novel.” I think the most crucial development for this book was not at Duke, though it was during my time there. I went to Oxford for a year as a junior and really loved it, and that’s why I returned and spent six more years there and then hung around the UK for another four.
Your book sparked a bidding war and wound up at the publishing house where you worked as an editor at the time. Did this create any problems when your identity came out?
The book was submitted pseudonymously because I didn’t wish to put my finger on the scale for the excellent acquiring editors who know me. But we outed me to publishers before we accepted any offers. Happily, no one, including my employers, backed off. It’s actually made life easier. It would have been very challenging to say to my employer, I know you wanted this book, but Random House got it and, by the way, can I have time off to promote it? But we sold it to them by and large because I thought they would do the best job and, lo and behold, they have done. This is the first debut novel since 2006 to enter the New York Times list at number one.
Anna Fox suffers from agoraphobia. Is that something you approached through research or personal experience?
I did consult psychiatrists and agoraphobes to make sure I was representing their experience correctly, but when I was twenty-one, my senior year at Duke, I was diagnosed with severe clinical depression. It persisted for fifteen years, during which time I resorted to every treatment imaginable, before the diagnosis was adjusted. It turns out I’ve got a variant of bipolar disorder, bipolar II. As soon as proper medication was dispensed, I felt immeasurably improved, and that’s what sparked the idea for this story. I wanted to explore depression. The thing is, no one wants to read about that because it is, well, depressing. In the guise of a thriller, I thought it might be more palatable. This is not a treatise on depression, it is a murder mystery. But I was able to tap into my own experiences of not being able to leave the house for days or weeks at a stretch.
It seems like this is the book that has been building in you for your whole life. Do you have any sense of what you’ll do next?
I do, I’m about two-thirds of the way through my next book, another psychological thriller, this one set in San Francisco. Just as the first book traffics pretty heavily in suspense cinema, this one traffics pretty heavily in classic suspense fiction.