An Interview with Simon Toyne

Simon Toyne is the author of the highly acclaimed Sanctus trilogy. Simon graduated from Goldsmith’s College in London with a degree in English and Drama. He worked in British television for nearly 20 years as a producer. In 2007, he left television and moved with his family to France where they lived for six months. He returned to the UK and continued writing, while free-lancing in television to help pay the bills. That is, until Sanctus, the first novel of the trilogy was completed and became an international best-seller. It was followed by The Key and the recently released, The Tower. All three novels have been translated into dozens of languages and are read all over the world.

What made you leave a successful television career and begin writing a novel?
I was approaching 40. I looked back at the years since I’d left college and thought of the list of things I’d have liked to do. I’d always wanted to write a book; not a small undertaking. I never felt I had the time or creative energy to spare in order to write one as well as I wanted. I had two young children who would be going to school and I thought I would give myself the time and space to see if I could do it. I discussed it with my wife, explaining I was having a minor mid-life crisis. She said why not try to write that book. So that’s what I did. I gave myself six months. I knew from my television work that I could sit down and put words on paper, but didn’t know if I had the talent to tell a story in novel form. It was like heading off on a journey without a map. It was exhilarating and terrifying at the same time.

You also did some writing in television, is that correct?
As a television producer you do a lot of writing—drafting proposals for pilot shows and other things, so yes, a good deal of writing was involved. Some people who read my books say, ‘You can tell he was in television because his books are so visual.’ If you’re writing for television, you don’t have to describe anything. You just point a camera at it. So one of the challenges for me was could I use descriptive language in a novel? I had experience with certain elements of writing—dialogue and structure—but had very little experience with atmospheric prose. That was the biggest learning curve for me. Of course, as a reader, you tend to know what works, but sitting down and trying to create it is an entirely different thing. It was a journey of exploration. It was fun and it was scary. You know, fear and excitement are very closely related.

When you began writing Sanctus, did you know it would be a trilogy, or did that notion evolve as you went along with the story?
It was definitely an evolutionary thing. I was simply trying to write the best novel I could. I had no agent and no deal, and it had to be a self-contained novel. I started writing it, and as I did, other things occurred to me. It’s like you go on a journey and you see something new—let’s say a valley—and you go down there. It’s the same with the journey of writing a book. I first thought it might be some kind of massive War and Peace thing. I couldn’t imagine going to an agent and handing over a 3,000 page manuscript.

The engine—the driving question—of Sanctus is what is this relic that causes the monks to go into the Sanctus, become ordained and never come out? At the end of the novel, the reader learns what this sacrament is, and the book is complete. But you’ve spent 400 pages with these characters, going through these tremendous struggles; you can’t just leave the reader hanging. So I wrote a ten page epilogue. It tied up some loose ends but was very unsatisfying, even abrupt.

I got an agent who had me rewrite it seven times. Finally, I got a publisher. She raised two issues: “What do you want to write next?” And, “We love the book but hate the ending.” She said the last ten pages left too many unanswered questions. So we talked about some ideas I had and, those ten pages became two new books. That was the evolution of the trilogy.

Do you see more Simon Toyne novels in a similar genre, or will you take your thriller-writing skills in different directions?
I’m always writing down ideas. I have pages and pages of them, and there’s one I keep thinking about. I’ve started outlining it and have pitched it to my publisher. It may be a ten-part series about one man’s epic journey to find himself—his identity. Thematically, there will be similarities to the Sanctus trilogy. It will feel familiar enough to the previous three. It’s the stuff I love. It’s the idea that speaks to me as a reader. They say you should write the book you would like to read, and this is what I’m doing.

Belief, prophesy and apocalypse play important roles in the Sanctus trilogy. Does this reflect your own personal orientation?
Not really. This is one of the great things about being a fiction writer. You can explore parts of yourself, but I’m not writing a memoir. What intrigues me about religion and belief systems is how they relate to people as individuals.

Do you consider yourself a spiritual person?
I’m fascinated by theology and the study of spiritual ideas. Sanctus deals with creation myths in every culture. It fascinates me that all cultures, evolving independently, have similar models of mankind’s origins, of a Greater Being, of the flood, and so on. It’s amazing how they crop up time and time again.

Do you feel personally that we human beings are headed toward some apocalyptic day of reckoning?
It’s of course, entirely possible. We’re creating super-viruses in laboratories to understand how to kill them. If they get out, it could be disaster. There are nuclear warheads that may be on the loose. There’s instability in the world. There are people intent on killing each other. Some nations are going through industrial revolutions—China, India and Brazil—on a scale far above what happened earlier in the West. Climate and ecologic systems are changing. These are all daunting issues. It’s worthwhile to explore worst-case scenarios. My primary aim is to entertain readers. As a reader, I enjoy considering, ‘What if this did happen?’ But I think the trilogy ends on a hopeful note. My strongest faith is in human nature which I think is predominantly generous, creative and constructive. I believe most people want to go through the world and leave it a better place. I think this is the primary human virtue.

It’s good to hear some optimism.
There are so many apocalyptic novels now because people are worried. Things are moving so fast. We humans are incredibly adventurous but on the other hand, we fear change. And yet we seek it out. It’s a strange dichotomy. There is, I think, fear of what’s coming and what the consequences may be. There’s fear about the lack of political control; or fear of religious fundamentalism; or biological worries about genetically altered crops; and so forth. These are things people worry about. Not too long ago, our only fear was can we feed ourselves or keep the tiger from the door? It was quite simple. Our world now is so complex, it’s nearly impossible to understand things like technology and where it will take us. That causes a good deal of anxiety. I think that’s reflected in fiction.

Are there any writers who have been a great influence on you?
The most formative writer of my generation is Stephen King. I read The Shining or Salem’s Lot as they were published. Richard Matheson was a big influence on me, as well. I loved his work on the Twilight Zone series. I think everything you read ultimately feeds into your hard drive as a writer. I’ve read the classics: Shakespeare, Dickens and others. I love Dickens. His novels have a thriller structure. He wrote about the first literary detective, Inspector Bucket in Bleak House. I was a big sci-fi fan when I was younger. I read Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury. These writers have all influenced me.

Where do your characters come from?
There’s a bit of me in all of them. You want to make them real, so you use a bit our yourself and mix it in with people you’ve met. As a fiction writer, you’re really trying to weave a beautiful lie. Everyone knows it’s made up, but everyone goes along with it. The primary thing is that the reader cares about the characters. They’ve got to feel like real people, rather than a collection of words on the page.

If you could have dinner with three people: a writer, an historical figure, and a figure from either one of the world’s religions, or a philosopher, who would they be?
I think the philosopher would be Socrates. He’s the father of modern thought. We only really know about Socrates through his students, primarily Plato. His whole thing was living in the moment, which we all try to do. Socrates famously said, ‘I’m not wise. The only wisdom I have is that I know nothing.’ He never wrote anything down. He seems to have believed there was no point in writing his thoughts down because you had to go on the journey yourself.

The historical figure would be Grace Kelly. I had a huge crush on her when I was younger. I’d like to ask her about Hitchcock. He’d probably be quite a good dinner guest as well.

The writer would be Charles Dickens. I think he was the first modern writer. He serialized his books. He was a brilliant writer and self-publicist. He’d be everywhere in the media these days, were he alive. He was a showman. When I was in television I had the pleasure of meeting Steven Spielberg. I think he’s the modern master story-teller. He might be Charles Dickens reincarnated. He has an uncanny ability to tap into the public mind and entertain people. Maybe Spielberg has channeled Dickens.

What would the five of you be eating, drinking and discussing during dinner
As for the discussion, I would just sit back and listen. I’m not worthy. I’d have a silly grin on my face wondering if I’d taken some kind of hallucinogenic drug.

I think I’d cook. That would be my ticket to the table. I’d do my favorite thing…a slightly warm salad. You roast a whole chicken. It’s basically like a Caesar salad deconstructed. You have a bowl of dressing with anchovies and everything. There’d be lots of lemon and thyme, crisp lettuce, croutons cooked in the oven, nice and crisp. That’s my favorite meal.

I could make that and it would be my gift to them. We’d drink a very good French red wine, probably a fleurie, king of the Beaujolais, as far as I’m concerned. And that would be it. I’d sit back and enjoy it all.

Mark Rubinstein,
Author of Mad Dog House and Love Gone Mad
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Published on July 19, 2013 11:33
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