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Q&A  •  28 November 2023


21 Questions with Terry Hayes

The author of I Am Pilgrim shares his thoughts on finding inspiration, the books that shaped his youth, and what to expect from The Year of the Locust, his long-awaited second novel.

Terry Hayes took the world by storm in 2013 when he released I Am Pilgrim. The journalist and screenwriter’s spy thriller won widespread acclaim thanks to its compelling, twisty plot that follows a former US intelligence agent – the eponymous “Pilgrim” – in a globe-spanning race against time to uncover a deadly terrorist plot.

Now, he’s back with his long-awaited second book. The Year of the Locust is not a sequel to I Am Pilgrim (he has, however, hinted at a future “Pilgrim 2”), but it has many of the elements that made his first novel an international bestselling sensation.

“It’s big, it’s epic, it challenges you, it’s cinematic in its descriptions,” says Hayes from across the table during a flying visit to the Penguin office. But he was also keen to push the bounds of what you would expect from a typical spy novel, creating a new kind of main character and incorporating genre-bending aspects like time distortion and cutting-edge military science.

“It’s a bit of a cross between John le Carré and H.G. Wells – not that I have the talent of either of them,” he says. Self-deprecating caveat aside, it’s safe to say that there are plenty of readers who have waited years to get their hands on The Year of the Locust, which was initially slated to come out in 2017. It begs the question (posed tactfully as possible): what took him so long?

“I thought I had the story when I started. I wasn't even close,” says Hayes, adding that he wrote a million words for what ended up being a 250,000-word novel. “I thought, ‘This is a good start, and now I know where it's going to roll.' I was wrong. I really was... But it is a magical moment when you throw everything out.”

He could have just published the novel's first iteration and moved onto the next, but Hayes would rather be painstaking than prolific. “I always wanted to be J.R.R. Tolkien of the spy genre. I'm not that much interested in how long it takes or how anguishing it all is; I just want it to be good.”

Tolkien is one of many literary influences to crop up repeatedly in our conversation, which was inflected with humour, a warmth and ease of self-awareness, and anecdotes about everything from being a golf caddy to his most embarrassing celebrity encounter.  

Which writer do you most admire and why?

It'd have to be J.R.R. Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings is an incredible epic story, fabulously well told, with depth of imagination, and hit the cultural sweet spot. Probably not highly regarded amongst the literati, but for absolute entertainment, and engagement and grabbing you and carrying you through, The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit? Fantastic.

What was the first book you remember loving as a child?

That's a very, very difficult question. I really can't remember. I suspect that it was by Hammond Dennis. Hammond Dennis is not read much anymore, but he wrote great adventure thriller stories for this young boy.

I read a lot, an enormous amount, as a child. When I was about 10 or 11, my father had to go up to our local library and sign some sort of release form where I was allowed to borrow books from the adult section. I'd always tended more towards older-skewing books – I guess I was very keen to grow up – so it's very hard to answer, but that is an author I remember. And then, of course, C.S. Forester, the Hornblower series, was something that captured any young boy's imagination.

What was your favourite book when you were a teenager?

I guess it was The Catcher in the Rye. Any teenager would relate to that sense of alienation and confusion. It’s a brilliantly written book, with mastery of prose and character.

And The Great Gatsby. I just love the end – "So we beat on, boats against the current" – it's just fantastic. They were really my favourite teenage books. And then, of course, I started to read Hermann Hesse and become very, very serious and anguished. [Those books] were nowhere near as much fun.

Tell us about a book that changed your life’s path

Anna KareninaTolstoy. We have very long Christmas holidays in Australia because it's summer, so you get like seven weeks off school. I would always set myself a task: I'd read every book written by a certain author. I'd done Hemingway, I'd done D.H. Lawrence, I'd done Hermann Hesse as I got older and into even more and more serious literature.

Then I read Anna Karenina, and I realised something very important to me: that you could write really great literature and give it all of the pace and the engagement of thrillers. Here was a book that is a giant of literature and has all of those other (what we might think of as) "commercial" elements. He managed to find a place where commerce meets art, where popularity meets profundity.

That was when I thought there really is a way to pursue a career as a writer and try to bridge a number of worlds. Now, I'm not saying for a minute that I've done that, but that occurred to me as a good idea.

What’s the strangest job you’ve had outside being an author?

Golf caddy, without a doubt. I come from not poverty-stricken, but certainly not affluent circumstances. When we went to Australia, my brother and I became totally obsessed about surfing. I wanted my own surfboard, but my parents couldn't afford it. You could go and earn 10 shillings by walking four or five miles around a golf course with somebody's golf bags. I used to do two rounds every Saturday to earn £1, which went towards the surfboard fund.

A lot of these were really pretty affluent people, but there were three guys who all of us young caddies called the Three Stooges. They didn't have trolleys; you actually had to carry their clubs. And when you're, say, 10, walking that distance, those clubs are really heavy. That's the worst job I have ever had, ever. Whenever the Three Stooges turned up looking for a caddy, we would run. Writing books has become a very easy enterprise, compared to caddying.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?

That's a difficult question. There was a book published quite a number of years ago called One [Wild] Bird at a Time. The story is that this kid, who went on to become a writer, had an assignment for school that he had to identify and write about the 200 most common birds in America. So, being a sensible child, he didn't do anything about it until the night before it was due in. Panic hit, so he finally went to his father, who said, "Well, we've got a problem, now we're going to have to solve it. We're going to do one bird at a time."

The author of the book said that was a very important thing about writing. You've got to sit down and do one bird at a time, put one sentence down after the next. It always looks – especially if you write long books, like I do – totally overwhelming and intimidating, and you think, "I can never climb this wall." But one bird at a time? Maybe you can.

The worst piece of advice I've ever received is “write what you know.” What an absolute piece of nonsense! If I wrote when I knew, it would be a million words of unmitigated boredom. No, write what you can fully imagine.

Tell us about a book you’ve reread many times (and why)

When I start to write, I start to pick up two sorts of books: one is great books, books I really love. Lonesome Dove, I could reread that because I think Larry McMurtry really captured the changes in the Old West. He was from Texas and he really knew that stuff, and he brought to it a great depth of knowledge, wonderful characters. It was epic, it was long. James Clavell’s Shogun is a really great book. He was a screenwriter and producer – he’s probably far more talented than I am, but there is a similarity there.

I’ve read those books many times, and Lord of the Rings, of course. And then I read what I think of as really bad books – really terrible – to give myself confidence, to say, “Look, I might be terrible, but I’m not the worst, there are people who are worse than me, so keep going. Don’t give up.”

What’s the one book you feel guiltiest for not reading?

50 Shades of Grey. Commercially, it did fantastic business, and I should have read it. But I knew what it would be like. I knew it would be like sex in the movies. It doesn't matter how erotic they make it in the movie, you know they're going to cut away. You know they're not going to really get down to business because they're not going to get an X-rating. No studio in the world is going to spend that sort of money to have it shown in grindhouses.

So, 50 Shades of Grey, to me – though I haven't read it – was a book of middle-class fantasies. A lot of middle-class fantasies, mine included, are pretty mundane and not that interesting. But I should have read it because commercially, it was huge.

If I didn’t become an author, I would be ______

An Architect. It's very similar: you're pulling out of your imagination with grand design, you [just] happen to write it down in words.

There are movies that you watch, and there are movies that you're in; you're inside of them. And old drama doesn't happen on the screen, or on the page. It happens in the reader's – or the viewer's – head. That's where it's really taking place: in their head. Architecture is not that dissimilar. Good architecture, where you're firing off all of these thoughts and emotions, is stimulating people without them necessarily being completely aware of it.

When I walk into a really cool building, I take my hat off. I think, “Oh yeah, you know what you're doing. You could have been a writer, you could have been a painter, you could have been many things because you understand how it comes together.” But I couldn't draw, and I didn't have any computer programs when I was a kid. So that was that.

What makes you happiest?

Nothing. When I first met my wife and went out on a date, she was saying something about being happy. I said, “The purpose of life is not to be happy.” She looked at me askance, like, “Well, some lunatic's just arrived.”

Anyway, she ended up marrying me, so I guess it wasn't a dealbreaker, but I don't look at the world like that. Are there things that I feel great satisfaction in? Yeah, the kids, of course. We have four children and I think we've done a really, really good job with them. Of course, they don't think so. We're the worst parents in the world, but then I thought that about my parents; everybody does. I get a great deal of joy out of that. It makes me happy to do things with them.

What’s your most surprising passion or hobby?

There isn’t one, quite genuinely – apart from watching cricket or doing stuff with the family, which is very normal. I’m not a gardener, I don’t raise budgerigars or go fishing. I sit in front of the computer and I either put words down or I read – not fiction, but newspapers, magazines, the media.

What is your ideal writing scenario?

Oh, I've written everywhere. [Australian filmmaker] George Miller and I were once flying out to Broken Hill to start working on Mad Max 2 - Road Warrior and we were sitting in the departure lounge at Sydney Airport trying to think up scenes.

Of course, having been a journalist, I've written in hotel rooms, I've written on the side of roads, I've written in cafés, done all of that. You just need a quiet space without many distractions. No window with a view, just a desk and some decent computers. That's it.

What was your strangest or most embarrassing author encounter?

I was living in Los Angeles with an Australian woman called Marion. Her sister Jocelyn came to visit us, and of course coming to Los Angeles [she wanted] to see celebrities and all those things that people typically do.

I know a lot of people in the business, but I don't go around putting them on a show or anything like that. Anyway, it just so happened we were on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. I see this guy and a woman who's probably five to eight years younger than him – very, very attractive. And I thought, God, I know him, I know this person and they're coming straight towards me.

So I, being polite, nod to him and he nods. We stop, and we start having a conversation. We're making small talk, we chitchat. Then finally we say, “Catch you later” and walk on. I said to Jocelyn, “I'm so sorry, I would have introduced you, but I could not place who it was.”

Jocelyn just looks at me and says, “Terry, it was Ringo Starr. Have you ever met Ringo Starr?” I said, “No, never in my life. But I knew I recognised him. I knew that he was somebody famous.” And of course, the woman with him was Barbara Bach, who had been in a number of movies, so I got that bit right. 

That was the most embarrassing encounter, but also the most famous person I've ever met. I'm sure to this day he's walking around saying to Barbara Bach, “I wonder who that guy was?” 

If you could have any writer, living or dead, over for dinner, who would it be, and what would you serve them?

Harper Lee. I’d have one question for her: Were you scared? Did the success just ruin it for you? I'd like to know the answer to that, I've often thought about it.

What would I cook for her? Nothing; I’m the world's worst cook, but we'd order out. We're there for the company, and pizza's fine.

What’s your biggest fear?

Going blind. I lost a lot of the vision in my left eye when I woke up one morning and a blood clot had hit the optic nerve, which was pretty shocking. If I lose the sight in the other, I'm going to have to start dictating, and I don't know how I'd go about that.

What can I do about it? Nothing, so best not to be too frightened. It could have been worse, I mean, I could be dead, or it could have hit my brain. Some people would say that it did!

If you could have a superpower, what would it be?

Have my kids listen to me. Every parent in the world wants that superpower. My eldest son when he was 10, 12, always said, “Don't ever ask Dad what the weather is like because he'll start with the Big Bang Theory and then we move forward from there.” I say I’m just trying to explain things, I think it’s interesting! So, that would be the superpower to end all superpowers.

What’s the best book you’ve read in the past 12 months?

I can't say that I read anything in the last 12 months where I think, “Oh wow, I wish I'd written that.” But I have to say I haven't had much time to read anything at all, because I've been finishing Locust. I’ve been sent books to comment on, to give endorsements to, but mostly they’re not my type of book. I have specific tastes, which happens as you get older.

Reading in the bath: yes or no?

Well, I can’t believe that people have baths. Who’d want to lie around in tepid dirty water? In Australia, I don’t know anyone who has baths. We have showers, so that to me is totally alien.

If I were to do it, no I would not read in the bath. I’d be trying to keep the bath water temperature correct.

Which do you prefer: coffee or tea?

Neither. Well, I like coffee, but I’m pretty wired as it is. And I like tea – my parents are English and every morning there’d be a discussion about the correct temperature of the water, and whether you put the spoon in and whether to take the kettle off the boil, all of this stuff... Psychologically, it damaged me, I’m sure of it.

What is the best book you’ve ever read?

Anna Karenina.

What inspired you to write your new book?

I was walking down the road, stopped at the traffic light, waiting for the ‘walk’ signal, and I just thought, “Wouldn’t it be a neat idea if you’re a 35-year-old, and you ended up in a trench fighting beside your son or your daughter, who are in their late 20s?”

I thought, “Wow, that’s potentially extremely traumatic, because he’s starting to realise that it’s his son and daughter, but at some point they’re going to be overwhelmed or killed. He’s got to try to save them, but they don't know that it's their father because that's a physical impossibility” – unless, of course, it's in a novel or a movie.

So I started to think about that because I like thinking about narrative problems. How would you solve this? How would you do that? How did such-and-such an author? What corner were they in and tried to get out of?

There is a distortion of time [in the novel] which goes back to the original seed [of this idea]. It's very hard to say what engages you – it can be the most minor thing. The trick is to take the reader on that journey with you, to be very bold, to be adventurous, to try to do things narratively which are not common to the genre, and carry them along with you.


Article by Rachel Deeley, originally posted on penguin.co.uk; links updated and amended for New Zealand readers. 

Featured Titles

The Year of the Locust
THE INSTANT TOP 3 BESTSELLER. 'Compare this with the thrillers written by Mr or Mrs Clinton, and you come away feeling that Hayes is the one who has more inside knowledge' Telegraph
Read more
I Am Pilgrim
The Day of the Jackal meets Homeland with a dash of Bourne - the ground-breaking, internationally bestselling thriller that captivated millions of readers worldwide.
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