After waiting 20 years for overnight success, one successful Cypriot author tells THEO PANAYIDES that the tidy narrative of his life now grew from a constant sense of unease as a child
There are two magical stories in the world of books, intended to inspire hopeful aspirants and burnish the mystique of the whole mad vocation. One is the story of the book (and indeed the writer) that went through rejection after rejection, unappreciated by agents and publishers who ‘just didn’t get it’, until – through sheer perseverance, often helped by some unlikely coincidence – it finally broke through and became a success. The other story is the opposite, the tale of the magical book which – like some talisman or open-sesame – was instantly embraced and adored by all who read it, knocking down the barriers that stand in the way of debut novelists like so many toothpicks.
Alex Michaelides – at least on the surface – is an example of the latter story. His first novel, The Silent Patient, was picked up by a top agent almost straight away (“I sent the whole book to him, and the next day he got in touch and said he read it all,” recalled Alex to Agnieszka Rakoczy in a Cyprus Mail interview two years ago), and has gone on to sell over a million copies. It was Amazon’s second-biggest fiction bestseller of 2019, and is currently at No. 11 on the Amazon chart after 59 weeks. It’s been published in 47 countries, and translated into dozens of languages. It’s being made into a film by Plan B, Brad Pitt’s production company, with big names presumably angling for the roles of psychotherapist Theo and his glamorous patient Alicia. “It was an overnight success,” agrees 42-year-old Alex, speaking on Zoom from his London flat with a fine view of Hampstead – then adds a caveat: “But it took 20 years to get there.”
Some will point out that he wasn’t exactly labouring in a butcher’s shop or accountant’s office for 20 years; he was actually a professional screenwriter, and three of his scripts ended up as movies. But writing for the screen wasn’t his natural strength, he says now, and his filmmaking career was “just a disaster”. A non-writing day job, in the proverbial butcher’s shop or accountant’s office, might even have suited him better; at least then he’d have been sustained by faith in his talent, and the confidence that he’d someday display it. Working as a writer, however – just a not-very-successful writer, in the wrong industry – took a toll psychologically; and being a writer is all about psychology.
His first film was never released, the second went straight to DVD; the third – a comedy, after two thrillers – earned a limited cinema release “and some of the meanest reviews I’ve ever read,” recalls Alex wryly. A writer’s greatest crutch is self-belief; years of failure (worse than failure, mediocrity) chipped away at it. “I just thought, ‘Shit, I’m just not talented’,” he shrugs. “In my head I’d always felt that I had some talent, and it was going to work out – and then, as I was getting towards my mid-30s, I just thought, ‘Wow, this really isn’t going to work out’. And that was a very difficult thing…
“The catalyst for writing this book – I’ve told this story before – was that I was at a party in Los Angeles, and I met someone who’d actually seen a couple of the films I’d done. And he said, ‘Oh, I wasn’t expecting you to be so interesting’. And that really hurt – because I had this realisation then that there was a disconnect between what was inside my head, and what I was getting on the page.” It was quite a shock – or perhaps an epiphany – when he turned to writing novels and found that exploring inner lives (the one thing you can’t do in movies), describing the psyche of Theo or Alicia in The Silent Patient, came “really easily”.
So why get into films – as opposed to books – in the first place?
“Because,” he begins, then chuckles grimly: “It’s interesting having this conversation during the pandemic – because a lot of it has to do with loneliness and isolation”. Alex wasn’t very happy as a child; he prefers not to go into detail in a Cyprus newspaper (he grew up in Strovolos, in the days when it was still semi-urban and the house looked out on olive groves and wheat fields) – but a snippet from a Daily Mail interview from last year may be relevant here: “When I was younger I lived in a state of constant unease”. There were two turning points in his young life. The first was discovering Agatha Christie one summer when he was about 13 (more on this later) – but the second, from around the same time, was joining the Drama Society at the English School in Nicosia, “and then I suddenly made friends and did a lot of acting”. The acting continued at Cambridge, where he studied English Literature: “I acted non-stop for three years, and did 14 plays”. It became an obsession (he admits to being rather obsessive in general), but he couldn’t slow down; there was something about the camaraderie of being in a group, spending all one’s time together, devoting every ounce of one’s energy to a common project. “It gave me a sense of family, and a sense of belonging, that I don’t think I’d ever really had before. So it was very hard to give that up.”
Films, like plays, are collaborative; writing books is notoriously solitary. Alex spent his 20s and 30s trying to be part of the former world – yet, with hindsight, he belongs far more obviously in the latter. He’s not unsociable but prefers the company of a few close friends, describing himself as “shy” and “quite a private person”. More importantly, he appears to have the kind of personality – I suppose we’d call him a perfectionist – that’s very attuned to the ‘off’ note, the bad match, the awkward detail. One can easily imagine him being unhappy with the filmmaking process, where mistakes are inevitable and creative energy often becomes a form of damage limitation.
Recall that snippet again: “A state of constant unease”. It doesn’t seem like Alex Michaelides was beset by any great calamities in life (touch wood); his parents were always “incredibly supportive” (his dad is Cypriot, and works as an auditor; his mum is British, and used to be an English teacher), his background is affluent middle-class, his career unfolded quite smoothly; even as a not-too-successful screenwriter, he was still more successful than most people who aspire to be screenwriters. Another person might’ve been fairly content with the state of things – yet he’s always been uneasy, never quite fit in, “never found a place where I feel fully comfortable”. He felt too English as a schoolboy in Cyprus, he says, and too Cypriot in Cambridge – yet he went to an international school, and Cambridge is hardly a redoubt of Little Englanders. Alex sighs: “It could just be me, I dunno”.
That uneasy, restless quality came in handy when writing The Silent Patient – and in fact the magical story only tells half the story. Yes, his manuscript was a bright shiny miracle that didn’t even need any editing – but that’s only because he’d spent about five years obsessively editing it himself, writing “many, many drafts of it, I can’t even tell you, 50 or 60 drafts”. He’d put it down, pick it up again, tinker a bit more – though not just changing the odd word: a new draft, for him, is “pretty much a page-one rewrite, most times”.
And he did that 50 or 60 times?
“Yeah, because honestly – people don’t believe me when I say this, but I didn’t expect anyone to read it! It was like a labour of love, it was like an exercise. Like an intellectual exercise for me, to see if I could write a detective story”. The last year or so of the writing process was a solid year of printing out the book, reading, making changes, typing them up, then printing it out again: “I did that hundreds of times over the course of a year. And I thought I was going crazy, because the corrections weren’t getting fewer, they were just getting different each time”. One imagines Alex reading and re-reading, his instinctive feel for things being not-quite-right (linked, no doubt, to that general sense of never feeling fully comfortable) making for constant reworking – till at last the book flowed perfectly, and he took it with him to Menorca on holiday and read it on the beach, as he’d once devoured Agatha Christie novels on Nissi beach as a 13-year-old. And he felt a surge of joy, he recalls, because “I’d semi-achieved what I wanted to achieve”.
Getting back his faith in himself as a writer was part of that – but using the tight, concise form of detective fiction was an even bigger part of it, reconnecting to the books of his childhood. He’s always found it “beautiful,” he says, that structure of “crime, investigation, solution” – an oddly emotional adjective, just as he insists he felt “happy” (not thrilled or excited, but happy) when reading Christie as a youngster, then again the geometric perfection of a well-worked detective story must’ve seemed therapeutic to an insecure teenager. “That’s why we write, isn’t it?” says Alex quietly when I broach the subject. “Because there’s a great joy in being able to control a whole universe. Life – real life – doesn’t work the way you want it to. And maybe that’s why I like the form of detective fiction – because, more than any other genre, you tie things up at the end, so there are no loose strands. There’s something that makes me really happy about that.”
Structure, I suspect, is his way of making sense of the world. He still loves movies, despite his blighted career – but the movies he loves are mostly pre-1960, Hollywood classics with that very tight structure (he singles out Billy Wilder, known for his meticulous scripts). Even the sense of family he got out of acting was shaped by a structure – the structure of putting on a show together, as opposed to ordinary families where (frustratingly) there’s no tidy narrative. Alex likes tidy narratives – and his life is also quite a tidy narrative, at least the way he tells it: not just the usual feelgood fable, years of struggle trumped by triumph and self-realisation, but also the writer whose life has come full-circle, from early, unhappy isolation to middle-aged, more productive isolation. “It’s more like work, less like fun, and I think I’m just better at it,” he concludes, on the subject of books vs. films. “But it’s lonely.”
The lockdown hasn’t really changed his lifestyle, apart from not seeing friends in the evening (which he does miss). He’ll often take a walk around Hampstead – the idea for The Silent Patient famously came to him, in a flash of inspiration, while sitting on a bench in Hampstead Heath – but ultimately “I spend most of my time in this room, writing,” he sighs, waving his phone around to show me the place. One wall is dominated by a big painting which turns out to be a Kouroussis, imported from Cyprus; somewhat surprisingly, despite its association with bad childhood memories, Alex is quite well-disposed to the country of his birth. “It’s not the same place anymore,” he explains. “Whenever I go back now I’m so charmed by it, and I feel it’s very different to how I grew up. It feels much more progressive now.” There’s even talk of writing a book set in Cyprus – though of course it would have to be a detective novel, that being his ‘brand’ now.
This, I suppose, is the bottom line: Alex Michaelides has become a brand, joining a select few authors whose name alone guarantees big sales. It’s easy to forget, given his self-deprecating air, that he’s quite a celebrity. Everything’s changed in the past two years; random people message him on Instagram, just to say how much they loved his book – and of course he’s already contracted to write a second and a third book, the follow-up to Patient (a.k.a. the ‘difficult second book’) being his bugbear at the moment. It’s almost finished, but should’ve been finished weeks ago. He worked on one idea for a year, then discarded it for being “career-endingly shit”. He’s on a deadline, unlike with his debut, and doesn’t have time to tinker obsessively. “I feel in a constant state of panic, and a constant state of anxiety, that the material I’m writing is crap. And I live with that, every single day!” he admits ruefully. Phenomenal success is all well and good, but it doesn’t take away the unease.
I suspect he’ll never be entirely happy; yet he is happy, or close enough. “I’m pretty happy,” agrees Alex thoughtfully, with the air of trying to pin down an elusive feeling. “Um… it’s odd. It’s just a shift as you get older, as well. I think turning 40 had a lot to do with it.” In the end, being a writer – especially a writer of lean, pared-down page-turners – will always be hard work, and indeed that’s how it should be. Alex quotes the excellent advice of a producer friend: “You have to transition from being an unhappy workaholic to a happy workaholic”. So much for magical stories.
ALEX MICHAELIDES’ FAVOURITE BOOKS
- Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh
- Wise Children – Angela Carter
- Five Little Pigs – Agatha Christie
- Love in a Cold Climate – Nancy Mitford
- Cat’s Eye – Margaret Atwood
- My Guru and his Disciple – Christopher Isherwood
- The Talented Mr. Ripley – Patricia Highsmith
- I, Claudius – Robert Graves
- The Secret History – Donna Tartt
- Nothing Special – Charlotte Joko Beck