Thanks so much to Ross Armstrong for agreeing to do this Q&A with me.The Watcher is a tremendous debut novel, a definite read for all mystery thriller lovers out there!
1. The Watcher is your debut novel, but is it the first book you’ve ever written and completed? Or has writing and creativity been a long time passion of yours?
Like many other authors I think, The Watcher is not the first novel or section of a novel on my laptop, in a draw somewhere or in my head. I’d finished one before but have more or less discarded it. Which is quite a nice feeling. You pour a lot into something like that. But at some point saying ‘I learnt a lot from this, and in a way I love it, but I’d a rather learn from it than show it to the world’ is quite nice. It was something that I sent around for a while, but then realised it probably fell into a genre that doesn’t exist and that that was probably a problem!
I have discarded whole plays too. Marking things down as experience is very rewarding somehow. I would advise everyone to enjoy throwing things away as much as you can enjoy paying your taxes. You need to do it and it’s for the greater good. Plus every page you write makes you better, I do feel like that. I’ve always written as long as I can remember. But it always was in second place acting. Which takes up time if you’re doing something like the RSC like I did last year. Or even auditioning. But I found room to put it first for The Watcher. As it was an idea I loved. And from sitting down to write it, to now? Has been an amazing ride. It was definitely the right first book for me.
2. Lily was a really complex character and I can imagine it was quite difficult conjuring her up. Did you take any real life influences or inspirations for her character?
Lily is a composite of a lot of things and people. It is the female part of my brain I suppose in a lot of ways. But also interesting people, men and women, who I have known over the years. She’s a bit of a truth sayer. Someone who knows her own mind and also doesn’t at all. She feels on the edge of being a great something and a worrying something and that’s a mix I like in people!
I didn’t over complicate the process of writing a woman. Voices come to me fairly quickly, luckily, and only occasionally did I consult my fiancé and say, ‘would a woman think like this?’ Also, a character is very much defined by the people around her. I thought a lot about her childhood and everything that had a happened to her up until the book starts. And also who she associated with and her views about the world. That’s all important to me and helps a lot I think.
3. Bird watching is a primary theme throughout The Watcher, but is it a personal hobby of yours, or did the idea just spring into your head one day?
The idea of bird watching came to me as a key to her one day and it’s difficult to say how. It was a sort of dissociated thing that occurred as thought about people watching and the nature of that. I like people watching but didn’t do a lot of it as research or anything like that. I didn’t hang around in cafes looking disturbing, which could have been one way to go. But rather I considered how close we are to people on London and how we judge or observe them like creatures. Taking in their basic components, noting them down and then moving on. Making a genuine connection is harder and harder for people these days I think for various reasons. So instead we kind of indulge in just observing. Bird watching seemed like a pretty nice way to suggest that idea.
4. Although not an overly long novel, The Watcher definitely has a lot of twists and turns that must have taken time to come up with. Was writing this novel a fast or slow process?
It was a very fast write. It came in an obsessive flurry. I almost made myself ill really. I wrote for every hour I was awake at one point. Perhaps this comes across in the novel, I don’t know. I’ve been told that. The before and after took longer. I love the creation mostly. (Although retrospect is a great thing. I imagine I wasn’t loving it so much when I was getting my head round certain things as I wrote) the after was about judging credibility, making it still feel domestic and something that could happen on some kind of reality. The before, the planning, was me sitting on tubes and thinking and hoping the ideas come. I am great consumer of books and movies and all sorts of culture. I try to figure out where I want the story to go. That takes time. But you can almost take too much too. Ultimately it involves hours of silence at home when I write up a plan. Which I stick to about 70 per cent. You have to leave some room to find things in the writing.
5. Are you in the process of writing another novel currently? And if you are, can you give us a sneak peek of what it’s going to be about?
I am indeed writing my second novel and am quite a few drafts in. It’s about a man trying to solve a crime after suffering brain damage. It leaves him seeing the world in a very different way, perhaps as a very different person. It’s about perception, memory, obsessiveness. Again it’s looking at the inside of someone’s head. To a neurological level this time. It’s kind of about people’s brains.
6. For you, what’s the best scene in The Watcher?
Hmm. Best scene is an excellent question. I enjoy how the first scene turns out. The book opens with a certain tension and you don’t see the second half of that scene until quite far into the book. I think what happens in the second half of that whole scene, how the opening chapter resolves itself, is perhaps my favourite.
7. Lastly, who do you associate as being your all time favourite author? And could you pick an all time favourite book?
Favourite author and book? Well, this changes so often for me. Often it’s the things I read last. So for a new book, I’d go Eileen my Ottessa Moshfegh. An early one would be Catcher In The Rye, which I’ve always loved so much. But Jonathan Franzen is probably my favourite ever. So I’ll go with his book Freedom. I’ll stop there but I could go on and on and on…
Ross Armstrong is an actor and writer based in North London. He was born in Manchester and grew up in Droitwich Spa. He studied English Literature at Warwick University and acting at RADA. The Watcher is his first novel.