Alex Michaelides: “Novels are about expansion” - Hindustan Times

Alex Michaelides: “Novels are about expansion”

Jun 15, 2024 09:02 AM IST

The bestselling British-Cypriot author and screenwriter is best known for The Silent Patient, which sold a million copies worldwide. His new novel, The Fury, is set on a remote island in Greece much like the one where he grew up

What drew you to writing crime fiction and psychological thrillers?

Author Alex Michaelides (Wolf Marloh (USE))
Author Alex Michaelides (Wolf Marloh (USE))

I think I was always a nervous, fearful child – and so I can relate to the feeling of fear and suspense in these books. I think I find the structure very appealing. There is a sense of safety in knowing that a story, no matter how wild, will end in a satisfactory explanation. I know that during Covid, I found I could only read mysteries. I found them comforting and reassuring in such an uncertain world.

368pp, ₹799; Penguin India
368pp, ₹799; Penguin India

How do you channel your inner Agatha Christine while working on a novel?

Honestly, I have read so many of her books, so many times, that I think on some level I had internalised her. I have studied her books and her plots, and now, whenever I get lost or confused while writing a book, I ask myself ‘What would Agatha Christie do?’ And thinking about that usually sets me back on the right course.

Your latest book, The Fury, is set on a remote Greek Island. You grew up in Cyprus. How did the familiarity of the region influence your story?

I often begin writing a story by thinking about the location it is set in. I got this idea largely from Agatha Christie, as her novels are always set in an isolated, enclosed location. You want to limit the suspects and also make sure they can’t get up and walk out of the story. When I was working in a psychiatric unit, I had the idea that would make the perfect setting for a mystery, and The Silent Patient was born from that idea. Then I had the idea for setting a book in a Cambridge college, where I studied, which led to The Maidens. And then with The Fury, I thought it would be fun to set a murder on a private Greek island. Having grown up in that part of the world, I found it very easy to visualise it, and it required little research. I was able to simply close my eyes and conjure up the smells and sounds that would be there. It was a fun place to set a book.

Tell us about being a therapeutic patient and then studying the subject. How did that experience impact your literary career?

I think I always had a talent for coming up with plots. But when I was young, I was immature and quite messed-up as a person. I would come up with crazy plots and then try to insert characters in them. Only by studying therapy and also being in my own therapy, did I finally gain some insight into human beings, and why we do the things we do. Finally, I felt able to write realistic characters. And that is my main interest in what I write – characters who are real people behaving in realistic ways. Not just puppets in a plot.

How is screen writing different from writing full-length novels? Which do you find most rewarding?

Screen writing is about compression. You have to keep the story moving – it’s like a train that cannot stop or deviate from its course. Novels, on the other hand, are about expansion. You can go back and forth in time, and slow down and disappear down rabbit holes. I find that kind of writing much more rewarding. I found it hard to access as much depth when writing films. However, I would say that all writers are influenced by film these days. And working in a visual medium had a real effect on me – I always look for the visual image in what I write. And so, I think I am combination of a screenwriter and a novelist.

How has crime fiction changed over the years and what are some of the trends you see in crime fiction today?

Crime fiction has many shifting trends. A few years ago, “cosy crime” was deeply unfashionable, but now it’s incredibly popular. I think the kind of crime novel I’m interested in, a more psychological crime, has been popular for a long time, and will continue to be so. People are more interested in therapy these days, and I believe the success of The Silent Patient is a testament to that. What I wanted to do in The Fury was to continue in that vein, and to look at the concept of “the inner child”’ and how we all carry a wounded child in our heads. My hero, Elliot, goes on a journey of inner exploration that I hope many readers will be able to identify with. My interest is in marrying the crime genre with a deeper psychological sensibility and I feel very grateful that so many readers have gone along this path with me.

Arunima Mazumdar is an independent writer. She is @sermoninstone on Twitter and @sermonsinstone on Instagram.

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