"It Was the Happiest Writing Experience I’ve Ever Had" - Talking to the Author of "The Silent Patient"

Chris Schluep on February 21, 2019

SP.jpgOne of our Best Books of February is currently sitting at #3 on the Charts list for most sold fiction. It is The Silent Patient, a debut thriller by Alex Michaelides.

We wanted to learn a little more about the author and his process, so we requested this interview, which is adapted from an interview by Macmillan Audio.

You’ve been a screenwriter. How was writing a novel different than writing for film?

When I set out to write the book, I wanted it to be a novel, not a film in waiting. A friend of mine is a critic and he once gave me some helpful advice. He said, books are about expansion, whereas films are about contraction. That really helped me. When I was writing the book I was able to slow things down and go down a rabbit hole if I wanted to, or spend longer with a character and tease things out. Writing for film, you feel the need to get on with it and keep the story moving as fast as possible. It was a pleasure to just focus on the minutiae of someone’s life and their thoughts.

This book is filled with  twists and turns, and with red herrings. What was your process like? Did you know the ending when you began?

I did. The story comes from the myth of the Alcestis (by Euripides). I grew up in Cyprus, so there’s a lot of influence of Greek myths. I had been obsessed with this story of a woman who comes back from death and then never speaks. It’s not staged that often, mainly for the reason that people don’t really understand her silence at the end of the play. It had haunted me my whole life. I experimented in various forms. First, I wrote it as a play and then I tried updating it as a short film. Then I just let it sit in my unconscious for many years, and it kind of came out fully formed. I just plotted it before I started writing. There was no deadline, so it was a very pleasurable experience. I have to say, it was the happiest writing experience I’ve ever had.

You also had a part-time job in a psychiatric unit. How did that influence the book?

I studied psychotherapy at a post-graduate level at a couple of places. While I was there, I got a part-time job in a secure unit for teenagers, where I spent a lot of time. It became one of the most informative, powerful experiences of my life. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it provided the inspiration for the book. One of the things I love about Agatha Christie is the confined, brilliant locations that she comes up with. When I was thinking, if I were to write a detective story, what would be a good location, I thought, “Well, I know about the secure psychiatric unit.”

Two of the characters in the book, including the title character, are artists. How did you learn about their world?

I used to paint a lot when I was a teenager, and I had private art lessons every Saturday with an amazing artist in Cyprus. I don’t necessarily think an artist is that dissimilar to a writer in terms of temperament or the kind of world you inhabit, so I used my imagination to put myself into Alicia’s head and think about the paintings. I was also influenced by Cat’s Eye, which is one of my favorite books by Margaret Atwood, where the heroine is a painter. I’ve loved that book since I was about twelve, so it definitely affected the way I thought about art and the representation of art in a novel. The paintings themselves are a key into the artist’s subconscious.

Psychological thrillers are having quite a moment as of late. Did any of them inspire your writing?

To be honest, I don’t really read a lot of psychological thrillers. I think I’m scared of being influenced. I like Golden Age detective fiction. “Psychological thriller” is a label put on the book by other people. To me, it feels like a slow, suspenseful story. When I wrote it, what really interested me was writing a whodunit murder mystery and then adding to it all the themes that I think are fascinating, like obsession, betrayal, and lost love. That’s the stuff I enjoyed writing the most.

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