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Alex Michaelides: The Cypriot author behind the New York Times bestseller

July 23, 2019 at 9:29am
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Alex Michaelides’ psychological thriller The Silent Patient not only became an instant number one New York Times bestseller, but is being made into a Hollywood film.

Born in Cyprus in 1977 to a Cypriot father and an English mother, Michaelides is not new to films. He wrote the film The Devil You Know starring Rosamund Pike and co-wrote The Con in On starring Uma Thurman, Tim Roth, Parker Posey and Sofia Vergara.

The Silent Patient, his first novel, found overnight success and came as he was feeling disillusioned about his work as a screenwriter, he tells Pieris Panagi.

In the interview first published in Phileleftheros, Michaelides also talks about his childhood in Cyprus,  how Greek mythology has inspired his writing, his career and his future plans.

When did you know you were a writer? Were you dreaming up stories as a kid?

I believe being a reader makes you into a writer.  So in that case I suppose my mother made me into a writer.  I grew up in a house full of books, which contained pretty much all the major works of literature that I would go onto study at university.  My mother is English, and over the years she amassed a mini library that she gradually introduced me to.

Certainly all my favourite writers – Evelyn Waugh, Angela Carter, Tennessee Williams, Henry James, Margaret Atwood – were there on the shelves, so it was just a process of discovering them.  But that came later, when I was a teenager.

The first writer I became obsessed with, who ultimately shaped me, was Agatha Christie.  One of my sisters, I think, had bought at least thirty or more of her books, and when I was about twelve or thirteen, I went into my sister’s room and took one from the shelf.  It was ‘And Then There Were None.’  I didn’t sleep all night.  I was terrified.  And from then on, I read them compulsively.  I remember reading them all summer long at the beach in Ayia Napa, and going to the Dome Hotel bookshop to buy more when I had read the ones I had.  And to be honest, that time, spending the summers on the beach with my cousins, reading Agatha Christie in the sand, is among the happiest memories I have.

Something about reading a beach on the book, the nostalgia of her books, the glamorous world, the mystery and final inevitable explanation –I always knew that one day I would write a book – and when I wrote it, that book would always be a murder-mystery thriller.  An attempt to replicate that first magical reading experience.

As a child I was always writing stories – and little plays – and then I wrote my first novel at the age of sixteen, about my summers on the beach – but it wasn’t very good.  And I got discouraged.  So discouraged I waited twenty years before attempting another one!  For me, writing a novel is much harder than writing a script.  I have written three produced screenplays, and they take much less time and ultimately are less work.  But that doesn’t take away from them as an artform of course.

I think I am perhaps better at novel-writing than screenplay writing.  A friend of mine is a critic, and when he read The Silent Patient, he said it was obvious to him I was a novelist, not a dramatist.  And it was a relief to hear that.  As I found writing the novel relatively easy, and I had found writing screenplays extremely difficult.  It is easier for me to enter someone’s head than to stage a scene dramatically.

I must also say that my major inspiration as a writer has been, and always will be, the Greek myths.  I grew up reading about them, and then studying them at school.  And I have yet to encounter a British writer who has been as molded by Greek mythology as I am. And for that I am very grateful to my place of birth and my education, as it meant I was giving a whole mythological language in which to dwell as a writer.

I have plans for three more novels, and one screenplay, and they are all variations of, or my response to, Greek myths.  And I have Cyprus to thank for that.

What can you recall most from your childhood?

I would say by far the most defining feature of my childhood was the Cyprus Problem.  Growing up in a divided city, with an awareness of the presence of foreign soldiers and the potential threat of another invasion, was a big part of my life, and everyone else’s.  It would play out in my unconscious, looming large in terms of fears, and anxieties – I remember as a very small child worrying about my toys and our dogs, and what would happen to them if there was another invasion.  I sometimes wonder if this constant potential threat is what made me drawn to thrillers.  I certainly remember always feeling slightly afraid.

And as a teenager? What is the most vivid memory?

From the age of about 13, when I went to the English School, I had a pretty wonderful adolescence.  I hadn’t been very happy until then, and had struggled to fit in.  But as a teenager I formed some wonderful friendships, which I have kept until today.  We would watch movies constantly and smoke and drink coffee, and go to the beach.  No internet, no drugs.  Such an innocent time, really – and I feel so lucky to have experienced it.

Do you still come to Cyprus? How do you see the country now?

I do, yes.  My parents still live in Nicosia, and one of my sisters, also.  And my cousins and friends.  It’s changed so much from when I was a kid – I was born there and left when I was 18 – that I struggle to recognise much of the city. But to be honest, it feels more relaxed now than when I was a teenager.  Which is good. Cyprus will always be home to me.  One day I would like to set a book there.

You devote your first novel to your parents. What elements of personality do you think can be attributed to those?

I owe them everything, really.  They supported me for so long, and my father, despite protesting loudly, would always let us do what we wanted to do in life, even if it wasn’t the most sensible or financially rewarding choice.  He has an incredible work ethic.  I’ve never honestly seen someone work harder in my life than him.  And knowing how hard he works has always been there in the back of my head.

And I do believe the success of The Silent Patient was down to that ethic – I worked so hard on it, for years, until I was finally satisfied.  I’d never put that amount of dedication or work into something before, draft after draft, and that definitely comes from my dad.  My mother I have already spoken about.  She gave me my literary and intellectual life.  In a way they were a perfect complement to each other, and I’m grateful.

The Silent Patient is full of references to Greek myths and tragedies, especially the Euripides play Alcestis. How did the myths influence your writing?

I first encountered the myth of Euripides when I was at school.  It resonated with me immediately even if wasn’t sure why.  Then when I was at Cambridge, I took the Greek Tragedy paper, where my knowledge of Greek served me well – I am still in touch with the Professor who taught me Ancient Greek language and drama at Cambridge, he is helping me with my second novel, actually.  And that was when I fell in love with Euripides.

In my head, I can trace a clear line from Euripides to Tennessee Williams, and the Alcestis is one of my favourites.  Why she remains silent at the end of the play – this refusal to speak, to conclude, has haunted me my whole life.  It was an attempt to update this story that made me write The Silent Patient.

How did you know that the book will be released by a publishing house? Did you receive rejections?

It was a whirlwind process, to be honest.  I was feeling very disillusioned as a screenwriter. I kept seeing scripts being mangled in the production and this sense of frustration made decide to sit down and finally write a novel.  I didn’t even have an agent went I finished it.  I found the right kind of agency when looking online, and emailed Sam Copeland, who ended becoming my agent and also a good friend.  He agreed to read the book, took it on, and then about a week later, it went straight to a bidding war for the rights in the UK, with seven publishers bidding for it.  I went with Orion, in the end.  And at the same time, the US deal was done, and there was another bidding for the movie rights.

It was a bizarre experience, having producers I had been trying to meet unsuccessfully for twenty years, calling me at eleven pm in London trying to get me to sign with them.  And then the book ended up selling in 44 countries, which I believe is a record for a debut writer.  All of this was more than I could conceivably deal with, to be honest.  I had twenty years of never quite making it, and then this sudden massive overnight success.  It’s been an extraordinary and very surreal experience.

Was it surprising when you learned that the book was No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list?

It wasn’t even something I thought was possible, so I had no expectation at all.  My US publishers had an idea, but they didn’t tell me, in case they were wrong.  I was looking after my sister’s dogs in Hampstead, where I live, and I went for a walk at 11 pm, leaving my phone at home.  And I came back to all these messages on my phone, in capital letters from my publisher saying ‘CALL ME’.  So I did – and they told me it had gone in at number 1.  I didn’t believe them at first. And as I conduct this interview, I am in Los Angeles – and today the book has just celebrated three months in the New York Times Top Ten bestseller list.  Being here in America and seeing the book in all the windows of bookshops, it’s one of the best feelings.

Why do you think so many readers have embraced the book?

It’s a difficult question.  I feel the Israeli publisher put it best.  She said it’s a book for anyone who has ever loved deeply, or been to therapy.  I’m a romantic person – and psychology is a huge part of my life; and I think my attempt to get my therapeutic experiences on the page has resonated with people.  Along with the narrative structure of an Agatha Christie novel.

The idea of self-sacrifice runs through the book. What is the greatest sacrifice you have ever done in your life?

On the contrary, I believe the book is about being sacrificed by others.  In Euripides, Alcestis is sacrificed by her husband if you think about it. And that might be why people are connecting with the book – in my own life I have battled constantly with feelings of being unworthy, unloveable, not good enough – and Alcestis is ultimately deemed disposable by the man she loved most in the world.  And when she is reunited with Admetus in the end, my belief is that Alcestis doesn’t speak because she is so angry – and that silence is a woman’s last recourse when she had no other weapon.

Were your experiences as a screenwriter helpful in writing The Silent Patient?

Definitely.  The turning point for me was when I co-wrote a movie called The Con is On, which starred Uma Thurman.  She has been starring in movies since the age of fifteen – her first role was playing Aphrodite – and there is nothing she doesn’t know about filmmaking.  We ended up becoming good friends and talk about writing constantly – and all the advice she gave me transformed me as a writer.

Brad Pitt’s company has begun producing the movie that will be based on your book and you’ve got to write the script. Are you anxious?

I’m not anxious at all – excited is a better word.  I am working with some incredibly talented people and I’m sure I will learn a lot.  But to be honest, much as I love making movies, nothing gives me as much pleasure as writing a novel.  And that’s where I’m focused.

How does a story start for you? Does it start with the character? Or does it start with a title or a scene or something you’re feeling from your life that you need to spit out?

That’s a difficult question.  I’m not sure where a story starts .  It can be an emotion sometimes, or a song, or a lyric – I find Greek music and poetry very inspiring.  There is a lack of fear about being emotional – English music and poetry is all about fear of emotion – that I find truly inspiring.  You know, I don’t feel fully Cypriot – I don’t feel English either – but the culture that has had the biggest effect on me creatively is without a doubt Cypriot and Greek.

Once it was time to put pen to paper, how did the story come together? With such a tangled plot, did you follow an outline or did you identify major milestones first?

I went to film school in Los Angeles and was taught to outline and plan obsessively.  So that’s what I do.  And I had a plot which I felt happy with then, and then I worked on the outline, and then when it came to the drafts, I did so many.  I promised myself I wouldn’t send it out until it was ready – I knew it was my last chance.  So I rewrote it maybe 50-60 times. At least.

And after that? Can you say something about your writing schedule? Do you write every day?

Yes.  I meditate a few times and write, and walk, and drink a lot of coffee. It’s a constant process.

Are there times when you struggle with finding inspiration or generating ideas for your writing? What do you do when this happens?

I’ve never had that problem, thankfully. Always lots of ideas.

After a long day of writing, what do you do?

I usually cook, and watch a movie.  Cooking is a great way to unwind, I think.

When you create your characters, do you base them on real people? For example, is there an alter ego at your book?

No, all my characters are fictional.  I spend my life in my own head, so I’m always creating.

You’ve proven yourself as a writer in the crime genre. Would you be able to write a good romance as well? Is it a question of talent?

It’s a question of interest.  I believe that a boundary – in my case, how much I can squeeze into a crime novel, how much of romance, or thoughts about God, or life, or whatever – can be very effective.

What advice would you give to yet unknown authors for their future career?

I feel very strongly that you mustn’t give up.  It amazes me – and it happens constantly – when I meet people who have done one or two rewrites on their script or novel and they think it’s ready.  It’s not ready.  Richard Curtis said it took 26 drafts of Four Weddings and a Funeral before he sent it anyone to read.  That means the 25th draft wasn’t good enough.  And it’s very easy to become disillusioned when you are working on something that often.  You want to give up. But if you don’t give up, and keep working, something magical happens.  It starts to come alive.

What are you working on now? 

I’m writing my second book and also working on a tv series.  And planning my next book.  A lot to do, which is nice.