Wednesday 25 April 2018

Daniel spots a window of opportunity

Daniel Mallory has penned the most successful debut novel in a decade. He tells our reporter about sudden success, and the mental health struggles that inspired his first book

Daniel Mallory. Photo: AJStetson.com
Daniel Mallory. Photo: AJStetson.com
Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl

Julia Molony

The day I meet Daniel Mallory, currently the world's hottest popular fiction author, he is racing around London on a whirlwind publicity tour. He is long, dark and lean, wearing casual clothes and a baseball cap, which he pulls off to reveal a sharp widow's peak of closely cropped, thick black hair.

Now 38, he's been an avid fan of film noir since childhood, a passion he lends to his protagonist Anna, in his new novel, The Woman In the Window.

And there's a touch of film noir about him in the flesh - in person Mallory is affable and expansive in the way that only Americans manage, but beneath that, there lurks an intensity worthy of a Hitchcock hero.

He lives in Chelsea and is unmistakably a New Yorker. It's most evident in the way that he talks - expressing himself in stylishly constructed, rapid-fire sentences, that could have been scripted by Aaron Sorkin.

Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl
Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl

The Woman In The Window is his first book. Published under the gender neutral nom de plume AJ Finn, it is no exaggeration to say that it is the talk of the publishing world. Hyped as the next Gone Girl or Girl On The Train, it is a psychological thriller about an agoraphobic, Merlot-slugging, pill-popping child psychologist who believes she witnesses a murder while spying on her neighbours. When it was released last month, it achieved the near-impossible for a first novel, debuting at the No.1 spot on The New York Times' best-seller list. A few months prior, film rights had been snapped up by Fox Pictures for $1m.

Even Mallory, who racked up over a decade of experience in the publishing business as an editor (he worked for publishing house William Morrow before quitting after the book took off) admits he's never seen anything like it in his career so far. "I've never seen a global campaign of this scale. We've sold in over 40 territories. We got two more yesterday - bless Vietnam and Macedonia," he says with a smile.

"The film is in development, we went straight to No.1 on The New York Times' list - the first time in over a decade a debut has achieved that." At the time of writing, the book was still riding high at No.4.

It is, Mallory admits, all a bit surreal. "I've pinched myself to the point that I am one giant hematoma at this point. I'm very grateful and more than a little disbelieving."

It took him 12 months to complete The Woman In The Window. He wrote in the evenings and at weekends to fit it around his day job. But then, Mallory has been making a study of suspense storytelling since childhood. And all those years of study had turned him, it's now evident, into a fully-formed master of the art. He has been "steeped in the genre since childhood", he says. He grew up watching film noir and "gorging myself on Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes" as a child.

"Then as a teenager I discovered Patricia Highsmith, the pioneer of what we now term psychological suspense. Intending no disrespect to Gillian Flynn, who I love, Highsmith beat her to the punch by 60 or 70 years," he says.

His years as an editor were clearly good preparation as well. But he denies that he went into the field as a writer in disguise from the off. For a long time, editing was his chosen career and he loved it.

"It occurred to me early in my publishing career, as I think it probably occurs to many twentysomethings who major in English at university that I might one day try to write a book," he says.

"As a graduate student in Oxford I focused on crime and detective fiction and then got into crime publishing. So yes, early in my career I thought it might be fun to write a book. But I didn't have a story.

"Moreover the market, for decades, at least since 1988 when Thomas Harris published The Silence of the Lambs, had been dominated by serial killers; James Patterson, Patricia Cornwell. I enjoy a good serial killer thriller but I didn't have one in me," he says. "Not sick enough," he adds with a wry smile.

For him, his path to his first novel began when Gillian Flynn came along and changed the game.

"After I read Gone Girl I thought, 'Aha!' This is the kind of book I have read, I have studied. And I would like to one day try to write."

His heroine, Anna, came to him fully formed. It felt natural to him to write from the perspective of a woman. And the decision to choose her was driven by a sense of purpose.

"I think at some level I was trying to correct what I perceive to be a really worrying trend in fiction, particularly in genre fiction. The female characters, especially those in starring roles, are often (not always, but often) wet. They fret about men, they whine about men. They rely on them. They're highly reactive.

"And this is not like most women I know. Most women I know are at least a match, if not more so, for the men in their lives. And I don't understand why so many authors, male and female, portray women this way. It's just not realistic. They're completely disempowered."

Anna, by contrast is, admittedly "a mess", he says. But she's "a mess of her own making. And she owns her own mess. She's not a damsel in distress which I like about her".

It's not that he necessarily understands "how a woman thinks, I don't know how other men think", he says. But more that he understands exactly who Anna is.

"This character did present herself as a woman. I think if I were to drill into my subconscious, that would be for two reasons; the first is that at the heart of the story is a parent/child relationship. I felt that the mother/child relationship was even more powerful and poignant than a father/child relationship." This he says after a millisecond of reflection, "could be because I'm closer to mother".

Thinking about it further, it occurs to him that Anna owes quite a lot to his mother.

"I'm very, very fond of my mother. I hope most people are. She's very funny. And that was a quality I thought to imbue in Anna. I find Anna quite good fun. I think she's witty, and sparkly and no bulls**t - which are all adjectives I would apply to my mother. I didn't consciously draw on her in styling the character or shaping the book but, now... I can absolutely see her influence."

His mother, he says is "opinionated as hell. And I'm very lucky to have her on my side and in my genes".

Mallory grew up in New York. His father was a Wall Street financier and his mother worked briefly in publishing. He wasn't an enormously social teenager, and spent most of his time hanging out at the local arthouse cinema instead.

He studied English at Duke University and then went to Oxford to continue his studies.

"I was there for six years over the course of 10 years, because it attracts such a diverse student body from all over the world, it was informative, in that you are exposed to so many different perspectives and experiences.

"I found it tremendously helpful in developing a sense of empathy. I learnt about things that had never occurred to me. I met people whose existence I could not have imagined," he says.

Throughout this time, he was struggling with mental health issues. For years, he was treated for various depressive disorders until he was finally diagnosed as bipolar.

His experiences add another layer to Mallory's empathy for and understanding of his protagonist. She is agoraphobic - terrified to leave the house after suffering a traumatic event. And Mallory himself is old pals with anxiety.

"I've wrestled with anxiety. Anxiety, as well as agoraphobia are co-morbid with a lot of depressive disorders. And there were days, weeks, even months, at a stretch during the 15 years I struggled with this depressive disorder in which I felt unable to prise myself out of bed, let alone leave the house, so I could relate to her on that level."

His suffering also speaks to his lifelong interest in stories which examine the darker, more Gothic parts of the human experience.

"When I was struggling with depression and recovering from my diagnosis of bipolar disorder, which I received six weeks before I started writing, I would always seek comfort in books I loved - usually mysteries and thrillers and films like Hitchcock.

"I gravitated towards these things. I don't want to watch happy people. I feel I'm suffering by comparison. I like to watch people who are similarly afflicted, whose lives are actually worse than my own. I take comfort in that. And I like watching them try to improve themselves. That to me is comforting and reassuring. Not a rom-com."

In The Woman In The Window, he draws brilliantly on the insidious self-doubt that is often a feature of mental health disorders, the way that sufferers can lose trust in their own judgment, even their senses. Anna's vulnerability means when her account of what she witnessed is called into question, she begins to lose faith in her own version of events.

"This, for me, was a recurring feature of my struggle with mental health," says Mallory. "I would routinely hear people, friends of mine, family - you have so much to feel good about, you're lucky enough to be well educated, you've got friends, you've got a successful career, can't you just haul yourself out of it?

"Initially you bristle. But then when you hear it often enough, you start to think, yeah, can't I haul myself out of it? You can't, of course. But you start to doubt yourself. To question whether or not you have the right idea of what you are experiencing."

For Mallory, getting his final diagnosis and ultimately, a prescription for an appropriate drug regimen changed everything. It liberated him to be able to write.

"For years I was on Zoloft, which I found very numbing," he says. "I'd cycled through a few medications, but this was the first time I felt, not altogether restored, not totally transformed, but significantly improved." Released from acute suffering, he found he had a subject to examine in fiction. "I was so excited about that, I wanted to look back, from a safe distance, much as I'd watch these films from a safe distance so as to feel both comforted by and, at removed from the experiences of the characters," he says.

"I didn't want to write about depression because that is f**king depressing. One of the things I like so much about thrillers is that sometimes they can be experienced on at least two levels. You can savour the twists and turns, the reversals and about faces, the plotting. Scratch the surface and there is a different, more substantive even more resonant experience.

"The books I love are resonant. You think about them after you turn the final page. I'm not saying I succeeded, but I tried to write a book with more depth and dimension than your average psychological thriller."

His bipolar disorder remains well controlled to date. "It's not something that's ever going to go away," he says. "I'll never be free of it, barring some sort of medical breakthrough or miracle." And he's especially conscious of it at the moment, with all the upheaval that is going on in his life.

With success comes new pressures. "I don't think it's an accident," he says, "that a recent wobble was tipped off in Dallas when I was at a Barnes and Noble event. They had invited me there, along with nine or 10 other authors, for their annual conference... It was quite a privilege. The next day as I awaited my flight to the UK, I locked myself in a bathroom and wept for half an hour and felt completely overwhelmed.

"I've felt overwhelmed in the past and always dealt with it pretty capably. But this, I felt like I was, not cracking up but certainly teetering. All of this upheaval is on a scale that I've never experienced before, and that was pretty overpowering."

It's all good things happening though, and he's confident he can cope. His book tour is scheduled to last nine months. He's got another book to finish.

"The movie adaptation will be occupying a lot of my attention. I've got to plan my career beyond my second book, which I believe will involve script writing. But having gone through this low point during the autumn I do feel, OK, this is something I know how to handle."

The Woman In The Window, Harper Collins €12.99

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