Meet the lit world’s newest million-dollar baby
“I live in the same apartment, work out at the same gym and use the same laundry,” Daniel Mallory says, when asked how life has changed after The Woman in the Window.
That, though, is all that remains unaltered for the man described as the ‘megastar author of 2018’, whose debut novel has been hailed as the year’s instant bestseller, sold in an astounding 37 territories outside the United States, making it to the top of The New York Times bestseller list, and winning a $1 million movie deal with Fox.
Thirty eight-year-old Mallory has now become a full-time writer, having relinquished his job an executive editor at William Morrow, publisher of The Woman in the Window. He is presently travelling extensively, promoting the book in the United States and in Europe. “I’ll probably move into a new apartment and get a couple of dogs,” he says, speaking on the phone, from his home in New York’s Chelsea neighbourhood.
Mallory loves dogs – while he doesn’t own any at present, he volunteers at a dog shelter twice a week. He wrote his hugely successful novel under the pseudonym A.J. Finn, of which Finn is the name of a French bulldog, his favourite breed. The ‘AJ’ is from Alice Jane, a cousin he’s very fond of.
“I chose to go with a pseudonym because I wanted the manuscript to be judged purely on merit and not based on authorship, given my position in the publishing world. Also, I’m a private person and didn’t want to see my name everywhere. Another consideration was that I felt it would be disconcerting for
the authors I worked with to walk into a bookshop and see their editor’s name on a stack of hardcovers,” he says.
In any case, both Dan Mallory and A.J. Finn have acquired worldwide fame now and The Woman in the Window is that not-so-common phenomenon, a publishing sensation. Mallory says that with his years of experience in the business of books – he worked at Sphere, the crime imprint, in London before moving to William Morrow – he knows there is no such thing as a guaranteed bestseller.
“Who could have predicted Fifty Shades of Grey would become the hit it did or that erotica as a genre would come into its own?” he asks. The psychological thriller has, of course, been enjoying an upsurge in recent years, with the success of Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn – who has described Mallory’s work as ‘astounding, thrilling, amazing’ – and The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. Mallory has admitted these novels gave him the impetus for his work, but adds he did not give a thought to how it would fare with critics or on bestseller lists.
“When I began on this book in the summer of 2015 (he wrote at night and on weekends while he was still working at William Morrow) I was aiming only to type in those two words, ‘The End’,” he says. While working to reach that point, he focused on writing words that would coruscate with elegance and beauty. Consider ‘an archipelago of tiny moles, trailing across her back’, ‘a pulpy sunset, the dregs of dust, buildings paper-cut against the glow’, ‘Ingrid Bergman, never more luscious, slowly going insane’, ‘I shudder, wade deeper into my wineglass’, ‘Now the night has my heart in its claws’.
“While psychological thrillers are often written in a flat tone, one of my goals was to write distinct, memorable sentences,” Mallory says, much like the prose stylists he admires, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene and Henry James.
Blood vs brain
He doesn’t shy away from pointing to his other key reference points, the psychological thriller movies he is a fan of, particularly those of Alfred Hitchcock. His top film choices are Shadow of a Doubt (1943) – one of Hitchcock’s favourites, he points out – Gaslight (1944), and Rear Window (1954). Others include La Diabolique, the 1955 French classic and Dead Calm (1989), starring Nicole Kidman.
Mallory says he is drawn to these films because of the power of suggestion and the restraint they display. “Psychological thrillers can so often be saturated with blood and profanity. I have nothing against the latter – I swear a great deal myself – but violence puts me off,” he says.
He remembers as a teenager watching a gory slasher film and Psycho (1960) back to back, and finding the Hitchcock film much scarier. “There’s a timeless sophistication to these films,” he says.
Mallory says he hadn’t envisaged his novel as a film at the time of writing, but concedes it’s a cinematic book, especially given the leitmotif of films noirs. Is he going to have a say in the casting, especially who might play the protagonist, Anna Fox?
“No, I will leave that to the folks at Fox,” he says, “though I do know that many actresses have evinced interest in the part and all of them would be perfectly suited.”
Inside the mind
Fox, the eponymous ‘Woman’ of the title is, like Mallory, a Hitchcock fiend. She is suffering from a mental illness and Mallory has been able to nuance her character with his own experience of battling depression while he was doing his post-graduate studies at Oxford and, later, working at Sphere.
“Anna Fox suffers from agoraphobia,” he says. “And while she’s unable to step out of her New York apartment, there were days when my depression was at its worst, when I couldn’t bear to leave my bed,” he says. “So, I have poured a lot of myself into Anna.”
He also went online and connected with several people afflicted with agoraphobia to understand the condition better. “I declared upfront to them what my purpose was and I did do my homework,” Mallory says.
He now has a two-book deal and the second one is in the same genre. It’s set in San Francisco and if The Woman in the Window made liberal use of classic movies, a recurring theme in his next novel is going to be the detective fiction of Agatha Christie. Clearly, the classic and the timeless hold a particular charm for Dan Mallory. His elegantly crafted novel, praised as being ‘one of those rare books that really is unputdownable’ by Stephen King, could well stand the test of time, too.
(Priya Bala is a senior writer based out of Bengaluru. She specialises in food, travel and lifestyle writing.)
From HT Brunch, April 1, 2018
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