The press materials for “The Woman in the Window,” the debut novel by AJ Finn, describe the work as “Hitchcockian.” It’s an apposite description for a novel that is smart, suspenseful, and cinematic. Appropriately, the novel has already been purchased by Fox 2000, with Scott Rudin (“No Country for Old Man,” “Lady Bird”) slated to produce. Finn recently discussed his new book with us, as well as his literary and cinematic influences.
A: The novel is sort of a “Rear Window” for the twenty-first century. An agoraphobic woman, who was once a respected psychologist, believes she witnesses a crime in the neighboring house, but she cannot convince anyone to believe her and, being agoraphobic, she cannot get out to investigate the matter. As things progress, she begins to doubt her own sanity, but is the danger real or is it imagined?
Q: You mention “Rear Window,” and there are many allusions to classic film and fiction. Can you describe the influence that classical-era mysteries have had on you?
A: As a teen, I grew up near an art-house cinema and every weekend the owners hosted Hitchcock marathons, classic movie nights, film-noir retrospectives, and the like. I spent a lot of time at those. I love old films, because they are produced, written, acted, and directed with such care and craft, as opposed to many of today’s motion pictures, which hurdle forward without care or craft. I specifically like Hitchcock for his style, urgency, and wit.
Q: Your novel also seems inspired by the golden age of detective fiction.
A: There might be a criminal twist in my family’s DNA, because everyone to whom I am related loves a good detective story. I grew up in a house filled with books by P.D. James, Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, and Josephine Tey. As a teenager, I discovered the novels of Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell, works we now categorize as “psychological suspense.” As a graduate student at Oxford, I focused on Patricia Highsmith, Graham Greene, and Henry James—whose novel “The Turn of the Screw” was a pioneering work in the field of psychological suspense.
Q: Apart from these golden-age influences, your novel is very modern.
A: I’ve spent many years working in the publishing industry, working on books by J. K. Rowling, Patricia Cornwell, Val McDermid, Karin Slaughter, and Sarah Paretsky. In that capacity, I had the vague notion that I would one day write my own novel. I began thinking about it more seriously in 2012, when Gillian Flynn published “Gone Girl.” That was a game changer for the industry, ushering in many more psychological suspense novels. As I noted, this terrain was staked out by Highsmith and Rendell some 60 years ago, and it’s seen a resurgence with Flynn, Kate Atkinson, and Tana French, authors who create three-dimensional characters.
Q: Speaking of that, how do you go about creating a protagonist who is beset by psychological problems, while also making the character someone with whom readers can identify?
A: First, I treat the protagonist realistically. I endowed Anna with relatable habits and hobbies. She likes to play chess; a lot of people like to play chess. She spends a lot of time on the internet. She enjoys a glass—or seven—of red wine. I tried to create a person. That was one technique. Second, I tried to spend time in the first part of the book acclimating the reader to her daily routine. The beginning of the book is suspenseful, but then I take some time adjusting the reader to what a day as an agoraphobic person might be like. Then, when that routine is disrupted, I hope it is that much more shocking and jarring to the reader—as it is to the protagonist.
Q: This novel has created an unusually impressive buzz in the industry.
A: Yes. From what we can determine, we think it is the most widely-acquired debut novel of all time.
Q: Did your years in the publishing industry help you identify—and, in turn, create—elements that make up a best-selling commodity?
A: I think that experience is an advantage. As I wrote, I would ask myself, “Does this word or phrase work?” “Is the book progressing fast enough?” I knew that the market was ripe for this type of a novel, one involving psychological suspense. But you have to have a story, and I wasn’t going to publish a novel until I felt comfortable with the narrative. I have what I think is a substantive book that readers of literature can enjoy for its style and depth, but as an editor and a reader, I also know that big blocks of text and long chapters can be daunting. So I divided the narrative into short chapters, which I hope will help the readers maintain some momentum. In the end, I think it was a happy confluence of my instinct as a writer and my expertise as a publisher.
Mike Yawn is the Director of the Center for Law, Engagement, And Politics at Sam Houston State University.