The novelist living his own page-turner: Thriller writer TERRY HAYES

The novelist living his own page-turner: Thriller writer TERRY HAYES tells Michael Odell about Tinseltown high jinks, trailing criminals and his promise to Nicole Kidman

There’s an unofficial law in publishing: if you have a bestseller, don’t keep readers waiting for a follow-up. So, when JK Rowling broke through with Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, she only left a year, maximum two, before delivering new instalments. 

Terry Hayes, author of the 2014 blockbuster thriller I Am Pilgrim, knows about this law.

‘I’ve utterly broken it, haven’t I?’ he says.

‘It flies in the face of all reason but, after the success of I Am Pilgrim, the obvious business case was to quickly do a sequel. After all, I had two more books planned out. But that would have been typing rather than writing – I wanted to challenge myself, not just take a cheque.’

I Am Pilgrim tells the story of an intelligence officer code-named Pilgrim on the trail of Saudi terrorist mastermind the Saracen. It sold 1.1 million copies in the UK alone and was translated into more than 30 languages.

Nine years later, Hayes, 72, is finally back with a follow-up: The Year of the Locust. Except it’s not one of his planned sequels. Despite being set in the world of intelligence with another spy pursuing another terrorist, Locust has completely new characters.

Terry Hayes, author of the 2014 blockbuster thriller I Am Pilgrim, knows about this law. ‘I’ve utterly broken it, haven’t I?’ he says

The British-born former screenwriter is a perfectionist. Publishing insiders say Hayes delivered three pages of Locust at a time, and would often later withdraw them for rewrites. Six years ago executives flew to Sydney in Australia, where Hayes was living, in the hope of coaxing him along. ‘I had a map,’ he insists.

‘I just wanted to walk it my way.’

Eventually he sent 300,000 words to his editor between January and July this year. Of that, 75,000 words were cut – for context, that’s only slightly shorter than Sally Rooney’s novel Conversations With Friends – but the finished book is still around 700 pages long.

‘I wrote a million words altogether,’ sighs Hayes (Tolstoy’s War and Peace is

only 587,287). ‘I went into a dark place at times,’ he says.

‘To write a million words and then throw most of them away is agony. But, as the director Robert Altman said: “You don’t go to war and then complain about getting shot.”’

Hayes was born in Sussex to an army family who left postwar UK for Australia in the mid-1950s as ‘ten-pound poms’ – immigrants who were offered a sea passage in return for £10. He was a gifted but lonely pupil who found comfort in reading and was hired as a journalist by The Sydney Morning Herald when he was 19.

‘Aged 21, they said: “Do you want to be based in New York?”,’ he recalls. ‘The day I landed, Alexander Butterfield [deputy assistant to President Nixon] testified to the existence of the Watergate tapes, so I spent two years reporting on that. The paper even gave me a credit card. I thought, “You’re giving a 21-year-old in New York a credit card – are you insane?”’

Hayes became a skilled investigative reporter. On one occasion he was tipped off about two criminals, Alexander and Thomas Barton, who’d fled Australia for Paraguay. Hayes got on a plane to the Paraguayan capital Asunción, walked into a bank claiming to be a friend of the Bartons and was promptly given their home address.

‘They were the Australian equivalent of Lord Lucan or Ronnie Biggs, so it was scary. These guys answered the door and said “You’re a long way from home, kid – and we’re very well connected.” I couldn’t wait to get out of there.’ Still, he got the interview and even went to a casino with them for the story.

Hayes was 28 when Australian film director George Miller noticed his journalism and asked him to ‘novelise’ the movie Mad Max to coincide with its release in 1979. Having made a success of that, Hayes ended up co-writing the next two Mad Max films (in 1981 and 1985) and established himself as a screenwriter.

In the mid-1980s, while developing the Australian TV series Vietnam, he met 18-year-old Nicole Kidman in Sydney. ‘I could immediately see that Nicky was going to be a star and I told her so. She said, “Terry you’re full of bulls***, like everyone else in the movies,” but I knew it was true. She is a great actress and a wonderful loyal friend, which is unusual in the film business. Much later, when I Am Pilgrim was published, I needed a bit of a social media push so I rang her and asked: “Would you read it and then, good or bad, post an online review?” And she did. In return I said I’d buy every album by Keith Urban [Kidman’s husband]. I didn’t say I’d play them, I said I’d buy them… which I did, too.’

British-born former screenwriter Hayes (pictured) is a perfectionist. Publishing insiders say Hayes delivered three pages of Locust at a time, and would often later withdraw them for rewrites

After Hayes wrote and produced Kidman’s breakthrough film – the 1989 thriller Dead Calm – he moved to Los Angeles and lived the Hollywood high life. ‘Tom Cruise took me out driving – he really is crazy behind the wheel. I’d chat to Brad [Pitt] and went to parties where [Hollywood madam] Heidi Fleiss introduced me to girls from the “Porn Hall of Fame”. But there is a cost to Hollywood decadence – your creativity suffers.’

It was after seeing actor Jim Carrey ride a camel through a Beverly Hills party dressed as Laurence of Arabia that Hayes decided he’d had enough. ‘When you start to worry that your camel isn’t as big as Jim’s, it’s not healthy. I don’t drink. I never did drugs. But there was a lot of cocaine around.’

So, in the early 90s, Hayes left Hollywood. He continued writing screenplays and moved from place to place: first to New York, then London, Paris, Switzerland and finally Lisbon, from where he is talking today. ‘It’s the immigrant kid in me,’ he says. ‘I like trying new places, preferably where the people don’t talk too much bulls***.’

In the 2000s, he started a family with his American wife Kristen and they now have two daughters (Alexandra, 22, and Stephanie-Marie, 20) and two sons (Connor, 18, and Dylan, 16). But Hayes still harboured a childhood dream. ‘I loved being a journalist and I got very well paid writing movies – but I always meant to be a novelist.’

He submitted 150 pages of I Am Pilgrim to his agent in 2011 and it sold to publishers in the UK, US, Germany and Holland on the strength of this sample alone. Three years later it became a sensation; Hayes achieved his dream, but he wasn’t happy.

‘When critics called it the best thriller since Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal, I wanted to believe it,’ says Hayes. ‘But to me, Forsyth is a hero and I didn’t think I was as good.’ More troubling was that Hayes couldn’t bring himself to write a sequel.

‘I wanted a new challenge so I spent nine years down the rabbit hole. That’s where I found Locust.’

This latest book bears all of his hallmarks. It’s epic and immersive, new and unexpected, and his research into spycraft is deep and compelling. As for the Pilgrim sequel, work on that begins soon. ‘I’ve warned the family I’ll be in a bad mood for another two years,’ he chuckles, ‘but it must be done.’

And the Pilgrim film? MGM paid millions for the rights in 2014, and planned to turn it into ‘a major franchise’ to rival Bond and Bourne, but the option is about to expire. Hayes says the studio is keen to renew it, but meanwhile Matthew Vaughn (the

British producer of the Kingsman films) wants the rights too.

‘Yesterday I had a two-hour call with an extremely significant Hollywood actor in his mid-30s who had a big hit this summer,’ says Hayes. ‘It’s coming. I feel like I’ve been saying that to various people every day for the past nine years. But it is. It’s on the way.’

The Year of the Locust by Terry Hayes will be published by Bantam on 9 November, £22* 

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