Simon Toyne worked as a TV producer before writing Sanctus. It was the biggest selling debut thriller of 2011 in the UK and has been translated into over 28 languages. He has a new book out later this year, Solomon Creed. Simon met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about the success of his fiction and working for television.
To what do you attribute the success of your first novel Sanctus?
Well there’s always an element of luck and timing in any success, which you can’t really control, but I would say the main reason Sanctus was successful is that it has a very strong, clear, big, intriguing idea at the core of it.
Sanctus was my debut so I had no readership to tap into, no one knew who I was, so the only thing that was ever going to get readers to pick it up over someone else’s book – an author they’d actually heard of – was the strength of the idea and the ability of the cover to convey it. I came from a background in commercial television so I applied the same process of trying to come up with a strong programme idea to a book.
‘Sanctus’ is basically a mystery. There is a huge, powerful secret at the heart of the story called the Sacrament with one faction trying to find out what it is and another trying to keep it hidden. So the hook of the book can be summed up in four words ‘What is the Sacrament?’. I knew what that message was before I wrote a word of the story. I have a notebook somewhere with ‘What is the Sacrament?’ scrawled at the top of page 2.
The trick as a writer, of course, is to make sure you ultimately answer that question in a way that doesn’t make the reader throw the book across the room. Your solution needs to be better than anything the reader has come up with themselves. You’ll have to read it to decide whether I managed to pull it off.
How has your career working for ITV influenced you as an author?
Before writing my first novel I worked for almost twenty years as a producer and director in British commercial television, which turned out to be the perfect apprenticeship for becoming a thriller writer. It’s also the same path Lee Child took and it worked out Ok for him too.
Working in television taught me the discipline of being creative to a deadline, how to construct an engaging narrative, about pacing and intercutting. It also taught me about editing, which I think is the most under-developed part of most writer’s repertoire. Learning how to look at something and see what’s working and what isn’t then completely pulling it apart and putting it back together in a much better form is something that happens on a daily basis in television. All programmes are made in the edit and I think it’s the same with books. First drafts are only really raw material but first time writers spend a lot of time, I think, assuming the first draft has got to be almost perfect and that the edit is only about tightening and correcting grammar. In truth, ninety percent of writing is re-writing. So TV taught me how to edit and not be precious about the material and for that I shall be forever in its debt.
Do you think it is possible to write a novel that is made for film?
I think most thrillers are made for film. They generally follow the same three act structure, have very clear, driven plots, twists all the way through and often a big one at the end. They also deal in strong archetypes – heroes, anti-heroes, villains – which suits a studio system always looking for vehicles for their biggest stars. It’s the more literary end of the novel spectrum that is less suited to film I think, often because not much happens in them and a lot more of the story is internal, which is hard to convey visually. You can do voice over of course but generally that’s quite distancing for an audience – being told stuff rather than shown it. There are notable exceptions – Goodfellas, Shawshank Redemption, the original cut of Blade Runner – but in the main I think thrillers and films work much better when the reader/viewer is discovering things for themselves.
Who are your literary influences?
I think any writer is influenced by all the book they read – good and bad. Bad books are useful when you’re unpublished because they encourage you to think you could do better. Good books show you where the bar is.
For my first three books I re-read ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ by Thomas Harris before starting each one to inspire and educate. It’s the perfect thriller I think, with ‘Red Dragon’ coming a close second. ‘The Tower’ is a bit of an homage to it in many ways with an FBI rookie agent swept up into a big investigation.
Stephen King is also a touchstone for my generation I think. When I was a kid we used to read his new books in the same way we listened to new albums, he was part of the culture. He’s having a bit of a renaissance I think, I thought ‘Mr. Mercedes’ and ‘Revival’ were both getting back towards his best.
I read a lot of sci-fi when I was younger and still love John Wyndham and Richard Matheson. Dickens and Hardy for their rich landscapes and plots. Dylan Thomas for the language. Orwell for the steely clarity and precision.
Of more modern writers I’m a big fan of James Lee Burke, Dennis Lehane, John Irving, Michael Connelly, James Ellroy, Neil Gaiman, Phillip Pullman. I’m also a great admirer of Lee Child, who I think is actually a great prose stylist. All his books sound like him and there’s a terse, musicality to his writing – like the blues. I think it’s one of the things that sets him apart from the crowd. He also shares my background in television so I can see a lot of the techniques I use in his writing too. I steal a lot of stuff from Lee’s books, and told him so once. His reply was – ‘I steal all the time too so you’re probably not stealing it from me.’
Do you think a lot of crime fiction sanitises crime?
Some of it does, but I don’t think it’s the job of crime fiction to necessarily show crime as it really is. Crime fiction is not documentary, it’s storytelling that is primarily about entertainment. Therefore a painstaking depiction of the results of crime, the pain and disruption it causes etc., is often secondary to the action, particularly in thrillers. It’s hard to move a story forward, chase leads, pursue the bad guys and so on, if you are spending pages describing the small, interior psychological damage of one person in the wake of something bad that has happened to them. This isn’t always the case, of course. Sometimes the story is as much about the effects of crime as the crimes themselves. ‘Breaking Bad’, for example, is a really good case where the whole spine of the story is a gradual study of the corrosive effects of crime on the main characters. I don’t think anyone watching ‘Breaking Bad’ would come out of it thinking that becoming a meth king pin might be a good career move.
What do you make of the e-book revolution?
I see it more as an ‘evolution’ than a ‘revolution’. It’s certainly changed the publishing landscape but I think in the US, who are probably a year or so further down the road on e-books than the UK, the initial take-up is now plateauing and the traditional book is clearly not finished, as was claimed. In truth, the majority of people still prefer a real book to reading something on an e-reader, myself included.
What has changed drastically is the importance of the backlist. It used to be of little value because bookshops could only really store lead titles but now you can order an author’s entire life’s work with the click of a button so it’s an important part of the publishing model and of any author’s currency.
The downside of e-books is that a book in e-format is so much easier to steal. E-readers have opened the doors to the pirates, which is bad for authors, many of whom struggle to make a living as it is. People need to realise that the value of an e-book is not in whether it had to be printed and warehoused and shipped somewhere, it’s in the fact that it took someone, probably with all the usual stuff like a mortgage and kids to support, a year of their life to produce. That book will entertain you for maybe 8 hours and take you away from the pressures of your own life, yet a lot of people baulk at paying, say, £3.99 for it, yet they’ll happily pay £3 for a coffee that will last them 5 minutes. I think the internet providers need to be challenged more on being responsible for the content they are hosting. If a store was selling stolen goods it would be closed down or massively fined and that’s exactly that’s happening with illegal downloading sites, but the big providers just shrug and say ‘it’s too difficult to police’. They say that yet they seem to know exactly what adverts to ping at me based on the contents of my emails. How hard would it be to block or at least vet all sites that use the words ‘Torrent’ in their description? Not hard I wouldn’t think, but no one’s prepared to do it and governments are too in thrall to big business to challenge wealthy multinationals.
Do you think publishing and media generally can be used as a form of social engineering and do bestsellers conform to certain moral dictates?
Clearly media can be used for social engineering through propaganda and advertising, and publishing is part of the media machine, particularly newspapers, which are very effective tools of opinion forming. Fiction is slightly different. At its best it reveals truths through elegantly contrived lies and makes the reader think and make their own mind up about things. I wouldn’t use fiction to try and socially engineer anything. It’s the wrong tool, like trying to hammer a nail in with a spanner: it would kind of work but there are other tools that work much better.
In terms of bestsellers, certainly in the crime and thriller genre I think there are definite morals undertows. PD James described the crime novel as being about the restoration of order from a situation of chaos, and that’s certainly tied up with a moral code – i.e. a crime is committed at the start and they are brought to justice by the end – the moral triumphs over the immoral. I think this is why crime and thrillers are so popular. They appeal to us because we fear chaos and anarchy and feel comforted by the restoration of order and justice.
The Sanctus trilogy certainly utilise moral dictates in their storytelling. They have religious themes woven into them and religion, organised religion in particular, is very proprietary about morality. One of the big themes of the trilogy is about personal morality and how it has nothing to do with spirituality and everything to do with being human.
Do you think killing and fucking are related?
Well the french call an orgasm ‘la petite mort’ – the little death, so clearly they do.
Both in fiction and in real life a twisted sexuality can certainly give rise to homicidal tendencies – Norman Bates being the obvious poster boy for that. He was based on Ed Gein, a real life serial killer with a whole locker full of sexual deviance. So, yes. I’m with the French.
What advice would you give to yourself as a younger man?
I would say ‘Don’t worry about things so much.’ I would also tell myself to kiss more people. My late teens and early twenties were filled with a procession of interesting and sexy people I desperately wanted to kiss but didn’t because I was far too timid and afraid of rejection. Looking back now there at least five girls I should have been more bold with. If any of you are reading this, and I’m sure you know who you are, I apologise – it wasn’t you it was me. You were beautiful and desirable and charming, and I’m sure you still are.
Graham Greene wrote, ‘There is a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer.’ What do you make of his observation?
It’s true, it’s true of any artist I think. Even in our darkest, most emotional moments there’s always a small part of ourselves noting it all down so we can drag it up and use it later to make our lies seem more real. The Polish poet Czesław Miłosz also wrote that ‘when a writer is born into a family, that family is finished’. I think these two quotes are related.
Thank you Simon for an informative interview.
The Sanctus Trilogy, quick links to Amazon:
See Simon Toyne’s Books page for other buy links