Daniel Mallory: ‘Without Gone Girl I’d never have written this book’

Daniel Mallory: ‘Without Gone Girl I’d never have written this book’

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Last year, Daniel Mallory had one of those weeks that all first-time novelists fantasise about. Through an agent he had submitted his manuscript to several publishers and was about to take a short holiday. The excitement started when he arrived at Newark airport in New York to take a plane to Palm Springs. That was when the first offer to publish his book came in.

After that, Mallory says: “It was the full dream.” His phone lit up with offers and messages like in the movies. “I was going on holiday with someone and he was taking a separate flight and he texted me in mid-air, and asked: ‘How is your flight?’ And I texted back: ‘Life changing.’ And he wrote back ‘LOL’, and I was like, ‘No, Really!”’

The book – The Woman in the Window – was already being talked of as the natural successor to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train. By the time Mallory returned to New York a few days later a worldwide auction was in place for his book, with offers reported in seven figures; by then the film rights had been pre-emptively sold to Fox.

Unlike the one or two other debut authors who, each year, win that particular lottery, Mallory, now 38, was not a stranger to this process. When he submitted his manuscript (under his “gender-neutral” pseudonym AJ Finn) he was a senior editor at the New York publishing house, William Morrow. Prior to that he had been the publisher of the British mass-market crime imprint Sphere. The authors he published – including Karin Slaughter, Peter Robinson and Nicci French – had known auctions of their own.

In the end Mallory sold the American rights to Morrow, the publisher he worked for (who did not initially know it was his work); his novel went on to secure him deals in 37 different territories (“We think it might be a record for a debut novel,” he suggests.) The Woman in the Window boasts blurbs from Stephen King – “Unputdownable” – and Gillian Flynn – “Astounding. Amazing.” The movie is being produced by Scott Rudin (Oscar winner for No Country for Old Men). Mallory is preparing himself for a blitz of publicity of the kind he has previously orchestrated for others. It is, on the one hand, something that fills him with dread – “I am an intensely private person” – on the other, a fascinating duty. “The Czechs, for example, have 30,000 copies in print!”

Getting away with it: a scene from The Talented Mr Ripley (1999), starring Matt Damon, Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow.



Getting away with it: a scene from The Talented Mr Ripley (1999), starring Matt Damon, Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow. Photograph: Miramax/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock

Having read Mallory’s book, it comes as no surprise to me that the Czechs (and others) have cranked up their presses. It employs all of the psychological candy for Girl on a Train addicts – an unreliable internalised viewpoint, a fascinating stranger’s home, a ragged edge of paranoia, an envy at different, more perfect lives – and gives them stylish and compulsive twists. Mallory is clever enough to have made a virtue of his reference points (“It is often said that ‘good writers borrow, great writers steal,’” he says. “If I had not read the work of Gillian Flynn or Kate Atkinson I wouldn’t have written the book I did.”) His heroine, the agoraphobic Anna Fox, who watches old films on a loop as well as her neighbours over the way, is herself archly conscious of her prime mover – Hitchcock’s Rear Window. For all this cleverness, The Woman in the Window is, too, a book that at certain points is so unnervingly in control, and suddenly dark, that it makes you want to know a little more about the mind that made it.

I met Mallory in the warehouse-chic bar of Soho House in London’s Spitalfields (he lived for several years, he says, just up the road, next to a Wetherspoons, and is enjoying the contrast). He is Hollywood-handsome, quick-spirited and intense in person, fresh back from the Frankfurt book fair and still high on his 37 territories.

There is a performative aspect to his conversation (to the extent that I half-wonder at one point if “Dan Mallory” might also be a pseudonym). He talks of the ways that the “stars have aligned” for him over this book. And he outlines how, if he had learned one thing from his time in publishing, it was the value of a commercial imperative. “There is no doubt worth in the kind of writing that only 12 people will appreciate, but I don’t consider that the best use of my time.” He laughs. “If I were to boil my publishing credo down to three words it would be: ‘Must Have Plot.’”

If this all sounds like a straightforward tale of calculated publishing success, however, the more you talk to Mallory, the more you understand that the journey to his million-dollar advance has not been a simple one.

He grew up in New York. His dad was a banker, first-generation graduate, who “put himself through school by working at a petrol station and playing baseball on scholarship”. His mother, by contrast, came from a well-to-do New England family and, as a young woman, worked in publishing herself.

‘Hitchcock’s characters are always seeking some kind of shelter’: a scene from Rear Window (1954) with James Stewart and Grace Kelly.



‘Hitchcock’s characters are always seeking some kind of shelter’: a scene from Rear Window (1954) with James Stewart and Grace Kelly. Photograph: Snap/Rex Features

Mallory is reflexively guarded about his childhood, except to insist that he was “not wildly popular at school”. He was a boy who wanted to escape from the day to day and his favourite destinations were crime fiction and classic cinema. “I grew up gorging myself on Agatha Christie and the Hardy Boys,” he says. “I loved the Hardy Boys. In fact, I loved Frank, who was the studious dark-haired older Hardy Boy. His younger brother, Joe, was sporty and blond, and even at that age I distrusted blonds!”

The great luck of his adolescence, he says, was that the family moved to a neighbourhood with an arthouse cinema a block away and, apparently mostly in the absence of friends, he camped out there at weekends, steeping himself in film noir retrospectives, Hitchcock marathons and classic movie nights. “I feasted on that stuff, still do,” he says. He lived, he suggests, through films and books during his college years. “I didn’t drink alcohol until I was 21. Never smoked. Not tempted. I didn’t have a kiss until I was 21 either.”

Did all the vices happen together?

“Yes they did! Twenty-one was quite the year, let me tell you!”

After undergraduate study at Duke University, Mallory came over to Oxford and pursued his passion for crime fiction, which had focused down to an obsession with the novels of Patricia Highsmith. He was attached to New College doing postgraduate work, looking at the ways the Ripley books, in particular, had a homoerotic dimension; the ways in which Highsmith’s characters’ sexual impulses became sublimated as criminal behaviour. Mallory describes himself as “not a rule-breaker” and therefore drawn to the idea of it. “I think one of the reasons I was attracted to Highsmith is that most crime fiction is morally educative: morals will be upheld, justice will be doled out, wrongdoers will be caught and punished,” he says. “But that did not happen with Tom Ripley and it fascinated me to see this character get away with stuff. It fascinated me more to find myself rooting for him. I still think that is a pretty nifty trick.”

While he was researching Ripley, Mallory was also trying to cope, he says, with some tough mental-health issues of his own. He is understandably wary of dwelling on that time, but offers the outline. He had suffered with depression in his final year at Duke and it steadily worsened, to the extent that at Oxford, and when he subsequently took up his role as publisher at Sphere, he was sometimes forced into periods of debilitating absence.

His Ripley-fuelled understanding of the possibilities of crime fiction saw him promoted rapidly to publisher at Sphere, but it was not until he was back in the States, having taken up his job at William Morrow, that a new medication got him consistently well. Getting his depression under control almost immediately gave him the energy to write, he says – and also a subject (his narrator, Anna Fox, shares that condition). Mallory felt extra-ordinarily grateful to have finally emerged on the other side of depression, and to have the perspective to understand it.

He was lucky in another respect, too. The kind of book he had always wanted to write, but never felt able to, was suddenly the kind of book that everyone wanted to read. “For a long time,” he says, “probably since 1988 when The Silence of the Lambs was published, the crime market was dominated by books about serial killers. I like a good serial-killer thriller, but, probably happily, I do not have one in me. Then Gone Girl changed the game. Psychological suspense is what I had studied and what I thought I would be able to write.”

How easily did the book come, I ask, once he got going?

“Quickly, actually,” he says. He was watching Rear Window, and thought it was interesting that a lot of Hitchcock has not been remade or rethought, and he believed it had plenty of relevance to our moment of fake news and nothing being all that it seemed. “I like the way, in Hitchcock, characters are always seeking some kind of shelter,” he says. He was thinking of “Highsmith and sociopathy”, and his own depression. “And all these things coincided and this character of Anna just sort of strode into my brain lugging her story behind her.”

Making headlines: Hitchcock on the set of Rear Window.



Making headlines: Hitchcock on the set of Rear Window. Photograph: Paramount/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock

The book hardly shifts from the claustrophobic vantage indicated in its title. Mallory wrote it in a rush parked at the desk in his one-bedroom flat in Chelsea in New York, across the street from a row of townhouses framed by his own window. “I live in a relatively ugly house and only occupy half of one floor,” he says. “But these houses across the street are vastly expensive, $13m homes. The view is the same as in the book, but I set the action 100 blocks north in Harlem, where it is credible that you might buy a $4m home.”

A good deal of his description through Anna’s eyes, depressive and drinking and, separated from her own family, possibly delusionary, comes from looking across the street. A few people have told Mallory that it seems improbable that people would never shutter their windows or close their blinds. But, he insists: “New Yorkers don’t do that. Actually Londoners don’t do that. You walk through parts of both cities in the evening and these houses will have lives on full display.”

Mallory has a writer’s fascination for the strange narrative of other people’s lives; his book reminds you that all novelists are at heart voyeurs.

“My editor had me nix as implausible the idea, say, that someone would leave a house key in a lantern beside the door, but that is actually something my neighbours in Chelsea do,” he says. “I have seen it. I could walk into their house at any time if I wanted! I am not so inclined. But time and again I have watched them do this.”

His book, and its sudden troubling acts of violence, hinge on the partial narrative we impose on other people, how we might get a completely false picture of who they are.

“Anna repeatedly does this,” he says. “Sometimes she strikes lucky, sometimes she is way off base. And, of course, the device that motors the plot is: ‘What did she see?’ Did she see anything at all?”

The book took him exactly a year to write. Mallory was still working full time at his publisher, and disclosed to no one that he was working on a book. When it came to submitting it he felt he had to do so pseudonymously “because I also didn’t want to put my finger on the scale, I didn’t want to sway anyone either way because they knew me or whatever”. He also liked “the fact that the dual identities help me keep my stories straight in a way”.

Because the writing comes from a different part of his head?

“That’s right. The publishing process is reactive. Whereas writing is almost wholly creative. I needed to keep the two apart.”

I wonder if finishing the book marked a kind of before and after for him, a stage on the path to what he calls his current “very good place”, the recovery of his mental health.

He says maybe, but not in any direct way. “Writing a book, for me, was a lot like assembling a puzzle,” he says. “That satisfying click when the last pieces fall into place.”

Before he embarks on his sing-for-his-supper book tour across the States he has been at work on a second thriller, this one set in San Francisco, “the only Hitchcockian American place that is not New York”. He is also in the process of giving up his day job as an editor.

“I didn’t have much choice, really,” he says. “I don’t like half-assing things.”

His new life as a writer, gamekeeper turned poacher, seems to fill him with both excitement and trepidation. He likes the idea of being in control of his fictional worlds. “Some authors say their characters surprise them,” he says. “I don’t ever want that.” At the same time he hopes that he can maintain some anonymity, that he can keep AJ Finn at one remove from Daniel Mallory. “I am not especially interested in author’s bios,” he says. “I am buying their novel, not their memoir. I view it as a sign of respect to not want to know too much.”

book cover


I wonder, given the way publishers put their authors through the publicity mill, how easy it will be for Mallory to maintain that line. He hopes to orchestrate a Hitchcockian walk-on part in the film of his book. “I want a cameo, of course I do,” he says. “There is that one scene in a café, I could be in the background – though I fear I might be too hammy…” You have a strong sense with him, perhaps like all writers, that he wants to be seen and not seen, and, above all, to be able to tell the tale.

The Woman in the Window is out on 22 January, £12.99. Order a copy for £11.04 at bookshop.theguardian.com



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