New York Times Review of Books & Other Press Updates


The last week has been an excellent week for reviews following the launch of What Has Become of You on May 1st. The one I’ve been anticipating most– the one most writers want– appeared in the Sunday New York Times Review of Books supplement, as seen below in pictorial form. “Guilty as Sin” indeed!


Little old me appears on page 29, in an issue packed with such distinguished writers as Gillian Flynn, Anthony Doerr, and Michael Cunningham. You can read the review in its entirety under my ‘Reviews’ section, but the novel is described, in part, as a ‘shivery thriller’ that is ‘written with subtle skill.’

Also appearing this week was an Associated Press review picked up by such major outlets as the Washington Times and, which closed with: “Vera is a tricky character, not entirely likable, but arguably identifiable to many of us, and Watson treads that line with grace and precision. There are several reasons to recommend this book, not the least of which is the intricacy of the plot, which doesn’t twist so much as it winds and loops in ways that even if one may predict where it will go, the how is still surprising.”

Huffington Post also had this to say a few days ago, in part: “Jan Elizabeth Watson latest novel is a lurid, murky book that swallows the reader up in a maze of mystery.”

What Has Become of You was also selected as one of Apple’s 20 Best Books of May (10 fiction titles and 10 nonfiction) on their iBooks page. If Apple likes me, then my nerd cred has risen exponentially, and that’s a good thing.

Pax et lux,



Book Launch Day: A Photo Diary


What Has Become of You hit bookstores on May 1st, and I’ve been a busy bee ever since. Things kicked off on Thursday with a debut reading in Portland, Maine– the visual highlights of which I will post for your amusement.

First things first: I had to hit up some local bookstores to see who had actually put the book on display on pub date. Lo and behold, I found myself at this display table, prominently featured under a biography of Kiss’s Paul Stanley (and wouldn’t Paul Stanley approve of my outfit here?) as well as the new Gone Girl paperback:




Then I moseyed on to a second bookstore and found this on the shelf. Would it have been wrong of me to move the ‘Staff Pick’ sign under What Has Become of You? (I was well behaved. I didn’t do it.)



All that book-spotting gave me an appetite, so I went to one of my favorite local haunts for a bite to eat. Seated at a prime spot right near the restrooms, I noticed a new bit of decor– a signed photo of the Brady Bunch on the Men’s Room door! If this wasn’t a good omen on pub day, I don’t know what was. I love me some Bradys.



Under the gentle auspices of Greg, Peter, and Bobby, I moved on to my next venue: the reading site itself.  There was quite a bit of poster action going on here.


Inside the bookstore, people began to trickle in– some familiar faces, and some not. The seats filled quickly, the books sold in record time, and I read for a good half hour, being sure to select passages that were intriguingly creepy without giving too much plot away.



Even the bookstore cat listened attentively. (Okay, fine, maybe he was distracted.)



There was a Q and A section afterwards. I am gathering by my facial expression here that I am responding to the question, “How much are the characters based on yourself?” (The answer: Only superficially!)


All in all, a wonderful event.  The next day, a friend of mine, Amy, posted a photo of the novel in her bookstore in Ohio. Note how I’m just casually hanging out here with Donna Tartt and Danielle Steele…


More to come! In particular, stay on the lookout for links to new reviews. We have some good ones coming up…

The Books Are Coming!

Thursday, May 1st is the official publication date for What Has Become of You. It looks to be an eventful weekend, so I will be posting updates in the next couple of days. In the meantime, check out these scary faces…


A Tribute to “Action Jackson,” First-Grade Teacher

Image(The author at age 6.)


The story of how and when I knew I wanted to be a writer is one that I often share with students in my College Composition courses.  It is the story not only of my first grade teacher, Mrs. Jackson, but a story that emphasizes the value of student-teacher connectedness and of the far-reaching power that simple acknowledgment and validation in the classroom can have—in short, a story that may have resonance for us all.

I started my first grade year armed with the preconception that Mrs. Jackson was not ‘nice.’ I believed this to be true because it had been whispered among my classmates, and my older brothers had memories of Mrs. Jackson (whom they had dubbed “Action Jackson”) being especially strict and punitive in the classroom.  Though I did not know this at the time, Helen Jackson had been teaching elementary school for decades—an astonishing track record, when you think about it. She was a literal personification of the ‘old-school’ teaching mentality, having taught at a time when desks were still bolted to the floor and when all students quaked under the authority of their teachers. On the very first day of class, in preparation for an exercise in penmanship, Mrs. Jackson marched up and down the rows of desks, barking “Heads up! Backs straight! Bottoms out! Feet flat on the floor! Pencils ready!” (This was her mantra, I soon learned, and I can still here her giving these directives whenever I start to slump at my work desk today.)

I should insert here that I was not exactly your run of the mill kid. Already pegged with a Gifted and Talented label at a time in our pedagogical history when no one really knew what to do with Gifted and Talented kids, I was in my own reading group and had privately begun to write stories that I shared with my mother at home. As you can imagine, my Language Arts reader (entitled Helicopters and Gingerbread and chockablockwith monosyllabic stories of Jill and her brother  Bill) was dull for me, as were our writing assignments, which mostly involved rote spelling and vocabulary lists. For the first week of classes, I went along gamely with Mrs. Jackson’s simplistic exercises, but during our second week I decided to take a gamble and do something different.

The result was an original short story—written on three sides of wide-ruled yellow paper—called “The Fairy and the Lamb.” The gist of the narrative was this: A fairy had lost beloved lamb but never gave up her search for him. At the story’s stunning denouement, the fairy—surprise, surprise!— is finally reunited with her lamb. The last line went more or less as follows: “The lamb was old and fat, and his white coat had turned gray with age. He didn’t look like the lamb she remembered. But the fairy still loved him with all her heart.”

At some point during the day—perhaps during lunch, which Mrs. Jackson always ate at her desk with a stack of papers before her—my teacher must have looked at our vocabulary drill exercises, for when we came in from recess she had an announcement. Addressing the class, she said, “Jan has written a short story, and it is very good. I would like to read it to you.” I felt a great mixture of embarrassment and delight and tried not to squirm in my seat when the other children swiveled around in their chairs to look at me. I kept my eyes glued to my desk as Mrs. Jackson read the story out loud, but when she got to the part where the lamb was old and fat but the fairy still loved him, her voice grew thick, and I looked up to see her wiping away a tear from behind her bifocals. “Isn’t that sweet?” she said, glaring meaningfully at my classmates, who were far too young to understand that they’d just heard a tale about age and change and the vast pull of unconditional love. But I wasn’t worried about what the other students thought. All I could think was: I made Mrs. Jackson cry—not a bad cry, but a good one, like when my mom cries at the end of every episode of Little House on the Prairie! This was a heady, exhilarating feeling, and an addictive one. It was then, in that defining moment, that I knew I always wanted my words to elicit feelings in other people.

Once I knew I had a receptive audience of one, the stories poured out of me, and sharing my writing with Mrs. Jackson seemed to draw us closer. I would not like to say that I was her favorite, but I know that she held me in special regard. Many years later, when I was living in New York City and was enrolled in my Masters of Fine Arts program, my mother spotted Mrs. Jackson at a local supermarket, and my former teacher—now so old that the fact she could shop on her own was impressive—asked, “How is Jan? Does she still write stories?” When my mother told her I was working on my first novel, Mrs. Jackson reportedly beamed and said, “I knew it! I always knew from the very beginning that that girl would become a writer!” A few months later, Mrs. Jackson’s obituary appeared in the Kennebec Journal. Though she did not live to see my first two books published, I am glad to know she had she was able to get this confirmation of her early hunch before she went on to whatever world lies beyond this one.

The story of Mrs. Jackson and my early experience with storytelling reminds me of many things now as an instructor of writing. It reminds me that simple praise can have a profound effect on learners of every age.  It reminds me that the written word can forge connections between people and cement a respect that can last for the better part of a lifetime. It reminds me, most importantly, that one of the greatest gifts you can give to students is to highlight their strengths. The joy of teaching comes from watching them bask in this light and then, with an almost incandescent confidence, to run with it.



ImageEverything was going so swimmingly. The cover image for my upcoming novel, WHAT HAS BECOME OF YOU, had been locked into place since September; a bounty of blurbs from distinguished authors (eight in all!) had arrived just under the wire. The book jacket for the hardcover was ready to go to press, and then– BAM– the unthinkable happened: My publisher received word that my cover image had been purchased for use by another author’s upcoming book. And not just any author, but a formidable, bestselling one– an industry titan!


Let me backpedal a bit to give you more context about how the original cover came to be. My publisher acquired the image of a young, glowering girl and worked their design magic to superimpose the longish title over her face; the mode’s expression was neutral, but her arresting eyes, I imagined, would jump out at the reader from any bookshelf. I admit that I was not initially in love with the cover image, but the girl’s face– presumably a representation, if not a literal one, of my teenaged character Jensen Willard– began to grow on me. And as the image appeared on more and more websites and confronted me from the gleaming galley copies, I began to feel more and more like this was my girl and my image– the novel itself, personified.


Now, with no time to make a significant change, I was told that this could no longer be my girl or my image because someone else wanted it. Being relatively naïve still about how publishing and marketing work, I was shaken at first, and a little indignant– but the more I thought about it, the more I gained perspective and realized this is a pretty world-class problem to have, and as someone who does know real problems from minor ones, there was no point getting steamed about something so out of my control. So I took the words of advice of that old sage Ann Landers and “quit my bitching,” waiting instead to see what alternate image we could find in time to save the day.


The picture you see here is the new model for WHAT HAS BECOME OF YOU. The wizards at my publishing company worked hard to capture the essence of the original photo, and while the girl is clearly not the same, I am warming up to her just as I did with the first girl. Soon, I think, she will be mine, and I present her here to share with you. Ta-da! For those who have already pre-ordered, you might notice that the image is slightly different from what you have already seen on websites– but chances are, you might not even have noticed had I not pointed it out. I share this little story just to let you know that the publishing world is a funny one and that I truly work with a resourceful team right now.

Coming Out of the True-Crime Closet


When you are a reader and writer of literary fiction, confessing to a fondness for certain ‘lesser’ writing genres casts one’s tastes and sensibilities into question. But I’m going to admit it here: I am a reader of many, many classics and an avid follower of some of the most brilliant writing minds of our day– and yet I cannot enter a bookstore or library without scouting out its true crime section to see if there are any titles I’ve missed.

If you are a ‘serious’ reader or writer, you might understand why I am hesitant to own up to this secret obsession of mine. True crime books deal with ugly subject matter– so ugly, in fact, that some stores won’t even sell them. I recently had this is experience in a large used bookstore when I asked where I might find the true crime section; the shopkeeper looked at me as though I had laid an egg and icily responded, “We don’t carry true crime. The owner doesn’t like it.” Suddenly, I felt the same shame I used to witness on men’s faces when I walked past them, as a nubile youngster, perusing the dirty magazines at the local book chain (this, before the days of plastic wrappings and easy-access Internet sites).

Why true crime, you might ask? (Or, for that matter, why any crime at all?) The protagonist of my upcoming novel, What Has Become of You, has this to say on the subject of committing crimes and writing original works: “It’s all about creation vs. anti-creation. Building vs. destroying. They both require a lot of energy, don’t they? The difference between the two vocations might as well be arrived at by a coin toss.” I am happy that my vocation falls on the creative side rather than the anti-creative one, but I have always wanted to understand the mind that takes the darker road in hopes that perhaps we can stop the anti-creation folks in their paths. It is because of this that my second novel is partly a crime novel, though to call it a ‘thriller’ or ‘psychological suspense’ seems a little reductive.

There are many crime books that have influenced and affected me over the years; more commonly, I have seen those pulp-ish, quickly churned out true crime tomes that come and go and have bypassed most of them. You know the ones I am talking about– the ones with the slick paperback covers, the tawdry titles, and “22 pages of never-before-seen photos” (usually consisting of a blood spatter snapshot and the exterior of somebody’s death house). In order for a true crime book to speak to me, it has to offer a bit more than a salacious headline. Generally, these are the criteria that help me decide whether a true crime book is worth my while:

-1. Does the book teach me something about human nature that I might not have known before? Or, alternately, does it reinforce a belief I had about human nature– one that seems fairly credible?

I will give you an example of a book that did exactly that. Killing for Company, by Brian Masters, is an account of Scottish killer Dennis Nilsen, who slaughtered and dismembered fifteen men between 1978 and 1983. A pre-Dahmer-esque figure, Nilsen attempted to preserve men’s bodies in hopes that he might be able to keep these people with him always– until, of course, the decomposition process made this impossible. Nilsen’s diaries figure heavily into the text of Killing for Company and add stunning insight into the tormented mind of the serial killer:

“I did it all for me. Purely selfish. I worshipped the art of death… Afterwards it was all sexual confusion, symbolism, honoring the ‘fallen.’ I was honoring myself. I hated the decay and the dessication.”

And later, poignantly, Nilsen stated: “It must be the most wonderful gift to be able to throw your arms around someone and just weep.”

Anyone with a heart and soul cannot help but weep (metaphorically, at least) for those  whose lives were lost at the hands of Dennis Nilsen. But the more we hear his words, the more we understand the fractured psyche that created the monster– and while that may not make us feel compassion for him, it certainly adds to the layers of grief.

  1. Is the book beautifully written?                                                                                                               When I think of beautifully written true crime books, the canonical ones come to mind: The Executioner’s Song; In Cold Blood. But the one that often gets overlooked– the one I would like to mention today– is Emlyn Williams’s Beyond Belief, a novelization of the Moors Murderers.

The so-called Moors Murderers were Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, a young couple who had tortured and slaughtered at least five young persons between 1963 and 1965 and buried the bodies in the moors of Northern England. By all reports, Ian, who was a devotee of Nietzsche and of Mein Kampf, was the brains behind the killings,, while Myra– a pliable young woman who was used to rough ways– became his devoted accomplice, resulting in the perfect folie a deux that is the hallmark of many serial crimes. The fact that Emlyn Williams took on this subject matter is interesting in and of itself; Williams was an extraordinary writer and actor and bon vivant, perhaps best remembered for his plays and film work (The Corn Is Green and the tragically neglected Night Must Fall, starring Rosalind Russell).  For such a distinguished man to easily assume the voice of a working class killer with grandiose aspirations must have been a stretch, and the results are not only colloquially accurate but almost Joycean in its poetry.

  1. Is the writer objective where objectivity is needed and compassionate where compassion is called for?

A book that meets this criteria, to my thinking, is Gitta Sereny’s Cries Unheard: The Story of Mary Bell. This is is a biographical account of a young girl from Newcastle-on-Tyne who was convicted of the strangulation deaths of two young boys (ages 3 and 4) when she herself was only eleven years old. When this conviction went down in 1968, the child killer was an unknown phenomenon, and Mary herself was regarded (rightly or wrongly) as a ‘bad seed.’ Sereny explores Mary’s early childhood and later years in a manner that balances fact with heart and makes a compelling case for the notion that this was a young girl who simply had too many strikes against her from the get-go.

I tend to believe that anyone who reads should not be ashamed of his or her reading choices; after all, in a society where fewer and fewer people take the time for ‘pleasure reading,’ shouldn’t we applaud those who endeavor to read for the sheer joy of it, regardless of subject matter? And in the case of true crime readers, I would say that that they still stand a chance of stumbling upon some human truths, some aesthetic beauty, and an all-embracing compassion that, in the right hands, can equal that found in our finest artistic works.

The Not-So-Fine Art of Blurbing, OR: Why Writers Are Actually Nice People


There are many tasks in a writer’s life which go against the grain of their very nature, which often is introverted, self-effacing, and loath to call attention to itself. (This does not take into account those sunny, extroverted writers who bask in being the center of attention; much as I envy them, I am still trying to come to terms with the fact that writing is a private act that I feel compelled to make public.) For the shy and retiring writer who is at the early stage in her career, asking other writers for blurbs carries the shame and humiliation of those elementary school days when she was forced to shill magazine subscriptions door to door in order to raise money for upgrading the school gym. In my own case, those door to door excursions were nothing short of excruciating. I would slouch in the doorway, mumbling ‘Would you like to buy a magazine subscription?’ with the defeatist air that sealed my fate: a firm, quick, unrepentant No, and a closed door in my face.

Maybe I’ve honed my sales pitch since then, or maybe my fellow writers are nicer people than many people may realize. (The stereotype of the drunken, miserly writer holds true in a few cases, but for the most part, I’m finding, even the most successful writers are kind people who remember how dismal it was to ask for favors when they were still a relative unknown.) In the process of seeking out blurbs for What Has Become of You, I have had a largely warm reception from people who owe me absolutely nothing– and I find that humbling, and heartening. After all, most writers have a lot on their plate. Most have tight deadlines, and many teach full-time or offer editorial services that absorb a good many of their hours when they are not writing. Some of them might even have actual lives. So why would they offer a blurb to Joe Schmoe (or in this case, Jan Schmoe) at no personal gain to them? I don’t know the answer, but if and when the time comes for people to ask me for blurbs, I hope I will be as gracious.

For the reader who might be asking himself, “What the hell is a blurb and why does it matter?”, I will tell you, Grasshopper, exactly what and why. A blurb is one of those nifty quotes and endorsements you see on the back covers of books– a seal of approval that gives the book credibility, piques interest, and even tells the potential reader what they might expect from the book they hold in their hands (or are contemplating adding to their Kindle). Some people, I’m told, don’t even bother to look at blurbs. To me, this is a little shocking– like buying a house without having it inspected first– but maybe that’s just me. I like to read endorsements, and from my own writer’s perspective, I enjoy seeing who blurbs what and what these blurbing writers have to say for themselves.

With my first novel, Asta in the Wings, I was not personally engaged in the blurbing process; it all happened behind closed doors, as it were. Taking a more active role in this process has taught me a lot about other writers and has restored my faith in the profession in ways that I hadn’t expected. Even the “No’s” which I’ve received thus far have been kind and supportive. And as for the silences– those writers who don’t respond at all to the blurb request– I respect that, too, because (A) the writer might not even have time to respond, and (B) a non-response is easier for some people than saying ‘No,’ and a person who dislikes saying ‘No’ directly must be a softhearted sort. I have yet to receive a response from any writer saying, “Who do you think you are, bothering me? Go away, you filthy peon.” (Which some of these esteemed writers certainly could say, if they wanted to.) I think this says a lot about the industry and the people who comprise it. We might be a flaky lot, but we aren’t bad people. Take it from me– arguably, as flaky and as nice a person as you could ever meet.