'The Silent Patient' Wins Best Mystery of 2019

Posted by Cybil on December 9, 2019
Looking to cozy up with a thrilling novel this winter? Consider The Silent Patient, the debut from Alex Michaelides. But don’t take our word for it—trust the tens of thousands of readers who voted it the year’s best Mystery & Thriller in the Goodreads Choice Awards.

The book begins with the details of a grisly crime committed six years earlier: Acclaimed painter Alicia Berenson fatally shot her husband, Gabriel. Then she never spoke another word. But why did she do it? And why won’t she talk? These are the mysteries her psychotherapist, Theo Faber, obsessively seeks to solve, crossing boundaries along the way.

It’s Michaelides’ first novel but not his first success with writing; two of his screenplays have been made into movies. The Silent Patient may also hit the big screen soon. The novel has been optioned by Brad Pitt’s production company. Goodreads contributor Kerry Shaw caught up with Michaelides to discuss his win, how he almost quit the project entirely, and more. Their conversation has been edited.

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Goodreads: Congratulations!

Alex Michaelides: Thank you very, very much. It's really exciting.

GR: What are you doing to celebrate?

AM: Having a cup of tea and trying to write. I'm working on my next book now and trying hard to finish it. I'm going to save the champagne until I'm done and will have a huge bender at the end of it, I think.

GR: How long does it take you to write a book?

AM: With The Silent Patient, it's hard to tell, because I was writing other things at the same time: a screenplay and working on a movie. So it took me about two years, working every day.

GR: What is your writing process like? Do you try to hit a certain number of pages every day, for example?

AM: I don’t think in terms of pages or words. I try and do a chapter every day, which takes all day, really. I procrastinate, then I meditate, then I go to the gym, and then I begin. Usually I work about six hours nonstop—it takes me that long to write a chapter.

A lot of people have an idea that a book is done in one or two drafts. To me, it isn't. And I think that’s where I went wrong previously as a writer—I let things go before they were ready. When I knew that I was going to write this, I thought, “OK, this book is gonna have one shot because no one's going to read it twice. It's got to be absolutely as good as I can make it.”

GR: How did you go about that process, of making it the best you could?

AM: It was a very laborious process. I spent about a year when the book was kind of done, printing it out, reading it, making notes, typing up the notes, and then doing the same thing all over again. It was terrifying because the notes weren't getting fewer; they were just getting different. And I was sort of going crazy. After about a year, they subsided quite quickly until I printed it out and I had no corrections. And then I knew it was time to get an agent.

GR: So you were basically editing yourself for a year?

AM: Yes. I feel like it's got to be as good as I can make it before someone can read it. I probably did between 40 and 60 drafts. It was a ridiculous amount.

GR: You have a great tweet about how you almost gave up so many times. How did you stop yourself from giving up?

AM: Well, I did give up. I mean, that's why it’s hard to say how long it took me to write The Silent Patient. There would be weeks and months when I would be totally discouraged. And I’d put the manuscript in a drawer and leave it. I wouldn't be able to pick it up again until I had somehow psychologically talked myself back into it. So it's a real battle every day. I think a lot of writers suffer from that and use various techniques to try and overcome it. I find meditation the most helpful.

GR: Can you share more about your meditation practice?

AM: I meditate an awful lot. An American Zen teacher named Joko Beck initially got me into it. I was doing that for a long time. More recently, I've gotten into Vipassana. As you meditate, you repeat your thoughts back to yourself, and you catch them, and then you get in the habit of doing that during the day. The point is that once you repeat the thought, you realize it's not real and you can move away from it. Otherwise, you tend to believe these semiconscious thoughts that are running through your head, because you don't ever stop and question them.

Now, if I'm sitting down in front of the computer and unable to write something, I focus on my thinking and realize that I'm thinking, "I'm rubbish, I'm useless, I can't do this. This is terrible. I should give up." So I repeat the thought back and go, "Thinking I'm rubbish, thinking I'm useless, thinking I should give up." It's like magic. You can toss it aside and then go back to your work again. It's very helpful. It's why I don't have writer's block—because I'm able to diffuse all that stuff.

GR: With The Silent Patient, did you set out to write exactly what you did? Did you want to write a thriller, or did you want to explore therapy?

AM: I wrote the book to give myself pleasure. I think I was writing it for people out there like me. I grew up in Cyprus, a very tiny island, and there was nothing to do over the summer. I discovered Agatha Christie when I was about 13 and tore through all of her books one summer on the beach. It made me into a reader and it made me into a writer. I always knew I wanted to write a book, and when I was going to do it, it always had to be that kind of book—a thriller that I could read on the beach.

The book was kind of a meeting point of my major preoccupations: Having grown up in Cyprus, the Greek myths have always fascinated me. And I studied psychotherapy at a postgraduate level but didn't graduate because I was too selfish to be a therapist. And then there's psychological thrillers. So when I had this idea that I could write about all three in one thing, it all came together for me.

GR: I relate to falling in love with Agatha Christie books at 13!

AM: They're addictive, aren’t they? A lot of them aren't good, but some of them are still haunting me, 30 years later, and I return to them all the time. No one can teach you more about setup and payoff. She's so, so, so clever. What I'm trying to learn from her is that she makes the reader think that the reader is more intelligent than she is. It's a game she plays with you all the time. And so you always think, "Oh, I've worked it out! She's made a mistake here, because I've guessed it.” And all of that is done deliberately to manipulate you, which is so sophisticated and clever.

GR: Did you have a favorite?

AM: Five Little Pigs is probably the greatest detective story ever written. It's about an electrical power outage and solving a crime that was committed 16 years before. Hercule Poirot has to interview people and try and imagine it in his head. If it's sounding familiar, it should, because that really helped me launch The Silent Patient. There was something about examining a murder that happened in the past that I thought was interesting.

GR: While I was reading The Silent Patient, I could also see a movie in my head. I wondered if the fact that you’re also a screenwriter influenced your work?

AM: It influenced me stylistically, because I love Hitchcock, and I tried to imagine him looking over my shoulder. But not because I wanted it to be a movie! I did that because I wanted it to be classic and elegant. And so I kept thinking, "How would Hitchcock do this? How would he stage this?"

It was never a way of writing a screenplay in disguise. I wrote it as a novel, which was an attempt to get away from the movies. I found being a screenwriter quite soul-destroying, and I wanted to try and write something where I had creative control from start to finish.

GR: Are there any books on screenwriting that you revisit when you want to be reminded of the craft?

AM: It's funny you bring that up, actually. My editor in London went to a screenwriting seminar recently, and he was asking me about all these writing books. I haven't thought about any of them in 15 years. I went to AFI in Los Angeles and learned a lot. But the greatest teaching I learned there was from making short films. That's how I think you learn.

I personally believe that all the writing and screenwriting books I read harmed me quite considerably. By putting them aside and forgetting about them, I was able to develop as a writer, because I don't believe there is a formula. But maybe I'm being disingenuous now because, as my teacher at AFI always said, I had to learn those rules and then forget them.

GR: I wondered if you keep a copy of Story by your bed.

AM: Ugggh. I shudder! [Laughs.] But you know, that's what I was obsessed with when I was 20. I wish that I had not spent 300 hours reading Story. And I wish that someone had told me to go and read great novels instead. What taught me the most was sitting down, watching all of Billy Wilder's movies with the scripts in front of me, and thinking about how and why he stages scenes like that. That's how you really learn, I think: from studying great authors, not from studying people who are trying to sell you a writing course. Sorry if that sounds a little bitchy.

GR: Sounds fair enough. So did you read any books for inspiration while you were writing The Silent Patient?

AM: I dipped in and out of Gothic crime fiction. It might not appear that way, but The Silent Patient was very much an homage to those kinds of books. My first thought was that I wanted to write a detective story, and then I thought, “Well, I know nothing about detectives or police, but I do know about psychotherapists.” Once I had the idea of making the psychotherapist into a detective, then I had to structure the book in my head and that related directly to writers like Agatha Christie, Ruth Rendell, P.D. James, and Dorothy Sayers. Mainly women, actually.

GR: It’s always been surprising to me how, historically, women have been able to make a dent in crime fiction versus other fields where they weren't able to progress as much.

AM: It's fascinating. But even nowadays, someone like Gillian Flynn is still streets ahead of anybody else.

GR: Is there anything that's been really surprising—either in a good way or a bad way—about having your book out in the world?

AM: There's no bad to it. What's been the most surprising has been the friends I've made. If I were to think of myself sitting quite uneasily in my kitchen, writing this book three years ago, to now, where I've met all these amazing people, people who have read the book and reached out to me...it's been insane. From knowing nobody to knowing so many people—all through a book that I thought nobody would ever read. It's a bit of a headfuck, if you'll pardon my language.

People send me messages or ask me questions every day on Instagram. Or they say it touched them, or it moved them, or it's been helping while they've been in the hospital—they've been reading it and it’s given them some pleasure.

GR: I can imagine that's very meaningful.

AM: It really is. Just like this Goodreads award. That's the reason it means so much to me—because it's actual people bothering to log in and press a button and vote for me and my book. It’s an incredible, incredible feeling that all of these readers have cared enough to do that. It's really humbling and moving.

Alex Michaelides' The Silent Patient won for Best Mystery & Thriller in the 2019 Goodreads Choice Awards. Don't forget to add it to your Want to Read shelf. Be sure to also read more of our exclusive author interviews and get more great book recommendations.

Comments Showing 1-50 of 57 (57 new)

message 1: by Saida (new)

Saida L'île it

message 2: by Jonathan (new)

Jonathan K (Max Outlier) A great debut novel in all respects, especially the twist ending!

message 3: by Sketchbook (new)

Sketchbook He did a terrific job!

message 4: by Andrea (new)

Andrea Really glad he has won.fantastic read highly recommend.

message 5: by June (new)

June Loved Silent Patient from beginning to end!

Living A Life Through Books I loved this book. The ending was not what I expected. Following two stories and how they converge was brilliant. Well deserved award!

message 7: by Tonya (new)

Tonya Mathis Great book. Can't wait to see it as a movie.

message 8: by Wanda (new)

Wanda I'm so happy he won! Excellent writing, one of my all time favorites.

message 9: by Lorindar (new)

Lorindar Rangel Loved this book so much! Still haunts me to this day😮

message 10: by Suzanne (new)

Suzanne I really loved this book and rather than see the movie I think I need to reread the book. His interview talked about gothic crime fiction so reading it with that in mind may bring a whole different feel to the book.

message 11: by Zaza (new)

Zaza When I knew that I was going to write this, I thought, “OK, this book is gonna have one shot because no one's going to read it twice. It's got to be absolutely as good as I can make it.” This is funny, the first thing I did after finishing the book was to start it again from the beginning :)

message 12: by Jacqueline (new)

Jacqueline Wilson I loved the book. Oh my goodness this book the last two chapters were mind blowing. Thanks for sharing the interview, because we get to learn about him.

message 13: by Cheryl (new)

Cheryl James I found this book by accident. Sometimes it does help to judge a book by its cover. This book was amazing and I have recommended it to several people. I am looking forward to reading more books by this author.

message 14: by Debra (new)

Debra Jennings One of my favorite books! Loved it

message 15: by Diane (new)

Diane Pease I absolutely loved this book! I could not put it down! Can't wait for his next one!

message 16: by Robyn (new)

Robyn Carlin Awesome book can't wait for the next one

message 17: by Lexi (new)

Lexi My favorite book of the year!

message 18: by Lynne (new)

Lynne Thompson Great interview. As a meditator myself, I was fascinated how he uses the techniques to prevent writers block.

message 19: by Marjory (new)

Marjory Moretta I must be the only person in the US who did not enjoy this book. I didn't care about the characters and found the writing lame. Readers I discussed it with found it a "page turner." Not me. I found it a waste of time.

message 20: by Markette (new)

Markette  Murphy It was a terrific book -- very well written. There was no unnecessary filler. Everything in the book moved the story forward. I really liked the storyline. It felt very fresh to me. I was hooked from the start and I was totally surprised by the ending. All I can say is "Hurry up Alex. I can't wait for your next book."

message 21: by Nataliia (new)

Nataliia Viatkina I voted for this book!

message 22: by Dani (new)

Dani A inspiration!!!

message 23: by Jane (new)

Jane Congratulations! I really love this book!

message 24: by Amy (new)

Amy Ingalls Marjory wrote: "I must be the only person in the US who did not enjoy this book. I didn't care about the characters and found the writing lame. Readers I discussed it with found it a "page turner." Not me. I found..."

I didn't love it either. I thought it was just okay.

message 25: by Cadey (new)

Cadey A well-deserved win! What an excellent and entertaining first book. I can’t wait to see what comes next!

message 26: by Tyler (new)

Tyler Foster I like his meditation habits. I should try that as well for when I have trouble with writers block.

message 27: by Kayla (new)

Kayla Very much deserved!

message 28: by Stacy (new)

Stacy Brackin I really liked this book. I would definitely read more of his books.

message 29: by Dorris (new)

Dorris Chipfupa Can read the book a million times a year, that's how good it is

message 30: by Michele (new)

Michele Great book. I loved it from beginning to the end. So glad this book won. I voted for it. I read it when it first came out. I read 74 books this year and this book is the one book that stayed on my mind all year long.

message 31: by Bibhash (new)

Bibhash totally deserving 👏👏

message 32: by Chad (new)

Chad If this was influenced by Five Little Pigs aka Murder in Retrospect, I will definitely give it a chance.

message 33: by Dinky (new)

Dinky Dickerson What an interesting man....well deserved win! I loved this book and so excited to know there is a new book in the works.

message 34: by Karen (new)

Karen One of the best books I read this year!

message 35: by Khushi (new)

Khushi Anand The book was worth it. The ending was a bang. It's one of the best books I have read in my life.

message 36: by CALEB (new)

CALEB Absolutely wonderful.The honour is well deserved.

message 37: by Saleena (new)

Saleena Berry The best plot twist I’ve ever read. Hands down best thriller of the year for me.

message 38: by Hlias (new)

Hlias Well deserved. This book was amazing. Great job from Mr. Michaelides. I'm looking forward to his next book!

message 39: by Fatima Farzeen (new)

Fatima Farzeen So glad he won. He deserved it. Can't wait to read the book he's working on!

message 40: by Flora (new)

Flora I enjoyed the book so much. I am happy that this book won.

message 41: by Jo Carol (new)

Jo Carol Marjory wrote: "I must be the only person in the US who did not enjoy this book. I didn't care about the characters and found the writing lame. Readers I discussed it with found it a "page turner." Not me. I found..."

I agree, was very disappointed that it won!

message 42: by Christopher (new)

Christopher Lawson A well deserved award! Great interview, very insightful and inspiring!

message 43: by Teresa (new)

Teresa The Silent Patient is hands down my favorite book of 2019!! Love this interview with Alex but must disagree with one comment he has made here! I will for sure read this book a second time!! Also I’m going to look up Brad Pitt and his production company’s contact information. This definitely needs to be made into a movie!! Until then I will impatiently wait for Alex’s next literary offering!!

christina m effinger I loved this book. It is a great thriller that keeps you guessing till the end. Very well developed characters. I would certainly recommend this book to my friends.

message 45: by Wanda (new)

Wanda Maynard A thriller, that, I think, people should invite their friends to read. I really loved this book!! The characters were amazing. I recommended it to my friends and family.

message 46: by Alicia (new)

Alicia congrats! I voted in every stage. This was the best book I read all year and I have so far read 72. :)

message 47: by Nettie (new)

Nettie Vaughan I really enjoyed this book! What an amazing twist in the end. I look forward to more of his work!

message 48: by maggieandteddy (new)

maggieandteddy Well deserved win. I voted for The Silent Patient. I think that this would be an excellent re-read. The audio is excellent

message 49: by Elizabeth (new)

Elizabeth Marshall I enjoyed this book. Read it in 36 hours, unusual for me to be gripped so firmly by a story.

message 50: by Rishi (new)

Rishi Kinger It was definitely a thrilling read. And although the author mentions Christie’s five little pigs as an inspiration, I would think this is hugely inspired from Christie’s “Murder of Roger Ackroyd”

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