The bestselling author of ‘The Woman in the Window’ on his second crime thriller, ‘End of Story’, the influence of Alfred Hitchcock, and more

American crime thrillers in recent years have followed a pattern: A ‘girl’ or a ‘woman’ in the title and, viola, you have a bestseller. In 2012, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl became a literary phenomenon. Six years later, A.J. Finn (Daniel Mallory’s pseudonym) published his debut novel, The Woman in the Window, which was part of the two-book (and $2 million) deal with William Morrow; it sold millions of copies worldwide. The novel, centred on an agoraphobic woman living alone in New York who begins spying on her new neighbours, and becomes witness to a disturbing act of violence, was translated into more than 40 languages, and was even made into a film starring Amy Adams, Julianne Moore and Gary Oldman.

Finn lived in England for many years before returning to his native New York City. In 2019, the literary world was taken by surprise by a rather damning profile of Finn in New Yorker, which showed that the writer was as much an unreliable narrator in real life as in his fiction. His second novel, End of Story (HarperCollins), which was due to be published in 2020, was released in February. Described as yet another ‘taut and twisty Hitchcockian thriller’ by the publisher, it is about a mystery novelist Sebastian Trapp, whose life is unravelled by detective fiction expert Nicky Hunter at his lavish San Francisco mansion, in the presence of his wife and daughter.

In this interview, Finn (45) talks about End of Story’s premise, his thematic preoccupations, how he develops his characters, the abiding influence of master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock, and more. Excerpts:

End of the Story, which was part of your two-book deal with William Morrow, has been a work in progress for long. What would you ascribe its long gestation to?

Well, there are several factors here. First, I wanted to try to follow my debut with a book that would satisfy both thriller fans and readers of emotionally intense fiction — the two demographics that supported The Woman in the Window. And the plot of End of Story is quite intricate — far trickier and more elaborate than I’d originally envisioned. Also, though, I became quite depressed after Woman; I have a pretty tough time with my moods, as I’ve described elsewhere, and it took me years to power through this new book. At the risk of sounding immodest, I’m proud of it — and proud that I wrote it despite that noise in my head.

In this thrilling work of detective fiction, Nicky Hunter finds herself immersed in the world of a celebrated crime writer, Sebastian Trapp. How did you arrive at the premise?

In September 2016, I was reading a newspaper article about a so-called ‘personal biographer’ — a sort of memoirist for hire whom you could commission to write your own private life and times. And I wondered — without judgment — why you’d invite somebody else into your life like that: why you’d entrust your narrative to a stranger, why you’d expose your family to scrutiny… Most of us, I think, want some control over our lives and legacies. Why surrender that?

Sebastian Trapp is quite an interesting character (he is also a potential suspect). Can you talk about your process of creating a character? How does it begin and develop?

In talking about my ‘process’ as a writer, I’ve discovered over the years — and this is faintly disconcerting — that I don’t appear to have one. Or else it remains inscrutable to me! I knew I needed a writer at the centre of the story, a sort of heliocentric character the other characters could orbit; I wanted him to be a crime writer, because that’s the genre I know best; and I reasoned that I’d better make him good company, as we’d be spending some time together. Sebastian is a mix of adventurer, wit, snob, self-made man, joker, and intellectual. He’s an attentive father and husband. Above all, he’s aware of himself, so whenever you begin to find him ridiculous, remember that he’s already ahead of you.

In The Woman in the Window, you explored themes of perception, reality, and psychological turmoil. What would you say are your thematic preoccupations in the new novel?

I’m interested in storytelling, or narrative: the stories characters tell themselves — and each other — in order to make sense of their lives, or to make those lives more liveable. You could even call these illusions.

In mysteries, plot is a key element; one can’t afford to go wrong with cues etc. What elements do you draw upon to keep readers guessing about your characters’ true intentions and not give too much away too early?

I learned with my first book that readers do a great deal of the work for me — they’ll devise theories and project plot developments or eventualities that I’d never thought of. So I try to give away very little, or at least to disguise it as something else. When a character sighs, for example, might there be a reason for that? But generally, less is more (as long as you play fair).

The setting of End of Story in San Francisco adds a distinct atmosphere to the narrative. Did you consciously work on the city’s ambiance and culture to enhance the tension and intrigue within the story?

There are plenty of interesting cities in America, but not too many I’d describe as mysterious. San Francisco is the exception. Perhaps that’s why it’s home to a number of my favourite thrillers, on both the page (Dashiell Hammett) and the screen (Vertigo, The Game). The city is remarkable both for what’s on display — its spectacular natural beauty, those iconic townhomes, the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz and the rest — and for what’s hidden: whatever that famous fog might be concealing, for example, and whatever might be very literally shifting beneath your feet.

What do you think sets your novels apart from traditional genre conventions, and how do you approach familiar tropes to subvert them?

I try — I don’t claim to succeed, but I try — to write novels that a reader can enjoy both (or either) as twisty entertainments and (or or) as more layered stories. Many of the authors I like best, both past (Graham Greene, Daphne du Maurier) and present (Tana French), write like this. I like emotional intensity and psychological intricacy in the crime novels I read, and also in the crime novels I write. I like to subvert expectations in my characters, too: in End of Story, for example, there’s a showstoppingly beautiful second wife, much younger than her husband, who in other stories might be a chilly villainess, but here she’s portrayed as warm, vulnerable, and genuinely unaware of or uninterested in her beauty. This genre is defined by its tropes and rules, so it’s a fun and interesting challenge to find ways to push back against them.

There is an unmistakable cleverness to your stylistic choices. How do you balance maintaining a distinct authorial voice while ensuring the narrative remains accessible and engaging for readers?

That’s very kind of you! I like a novel with a voice, but voice can interfere with plot, which is why thrillers are often written in a neutral style. In both books I’ve written, I’m trying something perhaps a bit more distinctive, whether that’s experimenting with form (as in the different texts and diary entries we read), dialogue (the characters in End of Story are wittier and pithier than I am, certainly), or… I’m not sure how I’d describe this: in several sequences, the narrative point of view is expressly likened to that of a film, so as to invite the reader to think of the story as cinema.

The Woman in the Window was a global bestseller. How do your experiences in publishing influence your approach to crafting and marketing your own novel?

My most useful takeaways from my publishing career — which I miss! — were lessons in how to conduct oneself as an author and how to understand the business. I feel fortunate that I learned how the business works — it helps me manage my expectations, recognize opportunities, and so on — and I like to think that I’m a reasonably well-behaved author, because I know of one or two who weren’t.

How do you look at the landscape of crime fiction today? What would you say are the reasons for its proliferation and growth?

I like to read, and am trying to write, mind-game novels that also involve readers emotionally and psychologically and even intellectually, but I feel there’s an awful lot of emphasis in the market on ‘the killer twist.’ Some novels really are just wind-up toys, so the twist is the payoff — fair enough. In times of economic uncertainty or political instability, I believe we’ve historically witnessed a surge of interest in fantasies and romantic comedies, so I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a bit of a retreat from thrillers in the short term.

You have spoken about classic film noir (Hitchcock et al) and suspense fiction as your influences. Could you name some specific ones that you keep revisiting?

For End of Story, I watched Vertigo quite a lot — which was a pleasure, as it’s one of the greatest films ever made, although it’s also almost unique amongst Hitchcock’s films in that it’s entirely humourless. I revisited David Fincher’s The Game, a highly underrated psychological thriller also set in San Francisco, and I re-read a children’s novel called The Westing Game, a whodunit as slippery and clever as any that I’ve read for adults. Very boldly structured storytelling, wall to wall, and I found this inspiring as I tried to chart my course through this book.

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