In Conversation with Terry Hayes

As most of you know from reading my earlier blogs Terry Hayes is an accomplished journalist, motion picture screen writer and TV/film producer, with so many credits to his name it is simply amazing the levels of excellence he has achieved.

Terry Hayes began his career as a journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald, when as foreign correspondent in the US he covered Watergate and President Nixon’s resignation, among many major international stories. He then went on to become a successful screenwriter, having written the screenplays for Mad Max 2, Dead Calm, Bangkok Hilton, Payback and From Hell among many others

Mad Max Beyond ThunderdomeFrom HellDead Calm (1989) Poster

I have been very fortunate to read and review an advanced reader’s copy of Terry’s exciting debut thriller I am Pilgrim and even more fortunate to have the unique experience of interviewing Terry Hayes for my blog. 🙂

I am Pilgrim, Terry Hayes

Reading, Writing and Riesling: Terry, welcome to my blog. Firstly I wish to congratulate you on the success of your debut book. It is a fantastic read! I am sure it will be an award winner and best seller it is so engaging and well written. 

Terry: Thanks so much! I saw your review on GoodReads and can’t thank you enough – to give such an interesting account of the plot, indeed the whole novel, without giving away any spoilers was a triumph! I had been following how you were going with the reading via your blog and I loved the fact that it kept you up to all hours of the night. Your dog must have thought you were crazy. It’s the prospect of that sort of reaction that keeps you going when you’re writing it – so, thank you again.

RWR: Can you tell me a bit about how the book came about, the inspiration for it?

Terry: We were living in Switzerland and two friends of mine – both Swiss – asked if I would like to accompany them on a trip to a little known concentration camp in the Vosges Mountains on the border between France and Germany. I am very interested in the dismal history of Europe through the 30s and 40s so we set off one beautiful summer’s day and, as I think it says in the book, “we walked into darkness”. It was there that I saw a black and white photograph of a solitary woman leading her three kids towards the gas chamber. That started a process of storytelling that led to a modern day story about a covert intelligence agent chasing a very smart terrorist! It’s easier to tell where things start than where they will end, that’s for sure. I’m pleased to say I managed to include the photo of the woman and I like to think that in some small way I have honoured her and her familys memory.

RWR: This scene in the book was very memorable and so moving.

RWR: Tell me more about your writing process, do you plan out all the important events, or just write and see where it takes you? Do you write a “Bible”, or something similar to what is commonly used in screenwriting for profiling and establishing the identity of your characters?

Terry: I don’t write a Bible but I definitely have a beginning and, more importantly, an end. I also work out clearly what the characters’ journeys will be and what wounds they are carrying or labouring under. I find you have to know where you are going but not be so rigid that you are not open to whole new ideas opening up as you get deeper into the terrain.

RWR: Can you tell me about how you researched the material for this book? Did you travel to all the countries featured? Your descriptions are so visual I could place myself in the scene, on the roads, in the cafes… Do you have contacts in the agencies /government departments mentioned in your book that provide you with specialist knowledge/advice?

Terry: My wife and I have been lucky enough to live [in] and visit a lot of different countries and before that, as a journalist and foreign correspondent, I travelled extensively for work. I have been to nearly all of the countries mentioned – not Saudi Arabia or Syria, primarily because I can’t say I like really autocratic regimes much. I have been to quite a number of other countries in the Arab world so I felt I had enough of a feel for the culture and the places to make it live on the page. I think having written and made movies gives me an appreciation for the visual aspects of various locations and perhaps I have been lucky enough to draw on that. As far as the research is concerned, I read voraciously and am a very good researcher – sort of dogged, I suppose (I was once an investigative reporter) – so I sort of keep digging. I didn’t have a deep throat in any intelligence agency but I certainly couldn’t have done it without the internet. If you can find the smallpox genome on it, you can certainly find a good indication of how covert agencies operate. I had also been a political correspondent so I have seen at firsthand how politicians think and work, how bureaucracies operate, so that gave me a good leg up. A good imagination and a belief in making things credible also helped!

RWR: Can you talk to me about the publishing process? Was it easier to get a publishers attention because of the success of your screen writing? How long did it take from inspiration to being published?

Terry: I don’t think it would have been possible to have it published – or it certainly would have been incredibly difficult – without the screenwriting. The success of those movies and having that career meant that I was represented in LA by one of the world’s two leading talent agencies.

When I told my motion picture agent that I had written the first 150 pages of a novel, it was just a phone call to the head of the agency’s department which represents books and authors. She asked to read it, called me up and said on the strength of it “you can have a career as an international author if you want it”. Of course, there was the small matter of writing another 550p pages making it all hang together and then honing and rewriting it until it was as good as I could make it! Even so, I was blessed and please don’t think for a moment I am not aware of it. With the agency behind it, it was able to be brought to the attention of publishers at a high level. Those 150 pages and an outline I wrote meant that it sold to the UK and Commonwealth, the USA, Holland and Germany immediately. That gave me enough encouragement to forge ahead and once it was finished it the rest of the foreign rights sold to virtually every other major territory. It is published in Italy as the major release for Christmas, in Holland early in the New Year, in springtime in Germany, in the USA for spring as Simon&Schuster’s major book, then in France, Japan, Czech Republic, Scandinavia, Turkey and on and on. From inspiration to publication took over five years but I did nothing but keep developing the story in my head for a long time and then I also had several really big movies I had to work on so it was hard to get a straight run at it. I think over a three year period it took me two years to write.

RWR: Is there anything else you would like to share with me about your writing habits, your process and finally what comes next?

Terry: My writing habits are pretty disciplined – though they may not always look like it. I lead a very quiet, family-oriented life. My wife and I have four quite young kids so we hardly ever go out which is fine – more time for reading, thinking and, finally, getting words on paper. I don’t set targets for pages or words – but I do set them for quality. Next is a book called “The Year of the Locust” – a REALLY intense thriller. Then I have the outlines for the next two Pilgrim books already done – I did them long before I finished this one so that I knew where I was going. That will complete his epic journey – a sort of Lord of the Rings of the espionage/ thriller genre! At least in its scope, if not in my abilities!

RWR: Terry thanks for giving me your time for this interview. It has been a  pleasure getting to  know a little about the man behind the book and your writing process. I really look forward to reading your next books…

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