I am Pilgrim is shaping up as one of the summer’s breakout hits.
Its a globe-spanning thriller about the duel between an Islamic terrorist named the Saracen plotting to launch a biological attack on the west and the CIA agent—codename Pilgrim—who comes out of retirement to stop it.
It’s the first novel from the pen of Terry Hayes, who’s found success as a journalist and as a screenwriter (Mad Max 2, Payback). The book arrives in stores on May 27 but its already been a hit in England and Hayes’ native Australia, where it garnered great reviews in addition to making multiple bestseller lists.
We’ll add our voice to the approving chorus. I am Pilgrim is a great, gripping thrill ride of a novel (that still feels grounded in reality) If you’re looking for an action thriller/spy story for the beach, Pilgrim is a winner.
Hayes recently talked with The Hollywood Reporter about the book, the scene that made him cry to write and the scene that made him angry to write and the superstar producer he’s hoping picks up the movie rights to the book.
THR: Give us the elevator pitch for the book.
Hayes: It’s an espionage thriller that goes all around the world. On a very core level, it’s a huge race against time to prevent a biological attack by a terrorist. it pits a classic hero–a wounded, damaged individual–against one of the most intelligent, probably the most intelligent man he’s ever encountered in his long, storied career. So yeah: it’s big, it’s epic. It deals with very leading-edge science, it’s very much in the here and now, it’s about the massive hemorrhaging of information on the Internet, which endangers all in ways that few people understand. It deals with the politics and background of terrorism. But at the end of the day it’s a thrill ride.
Talk about how you came up with the idea for the book.
Real-world, I’ve always been very interested in technology and where it’s going. A couple of years ago, some guys from upstate New York at a university there synthesized the polio virus. They bought off-the-shelf chemicals, which you could buy off the internet … they could buy them anonymously. And they recreated polio virus, from nothing. I think just from memory, the polio virus has around 1000 genetic letters. And I start to think, ‘If you could do that with polio, you could do it with any number of things.’ And of course, smallpox is the holy grail, or biological weapon. So I started to research that, and I became extremely interested and very scared, because a lot of people who are, you know, far more knowledgeable in the field than me say it’s not a matter of ‘if,’ it’s really a matter of ‘when.’ I’m afraid — I hate to say this and I don’t mean to disparage anything that happened on 9/11 — but I fear that the future we’re on the brink of is going to make things like 9/11 look extraordinarily primitive.
What were your favorite scenes to write?
There were three. One was … so much of the background of the book is 9/11. That informs so much of the book, and there are events in the book that go back to that. And in researching that, I … I was in Florida that morning (compares it to JFK assassination and remembering where you were) and I came across the story about a guy in a wheelchair who had gone to work that morning within the first tower to be hit by a plane. I read about him, and some very brave things that other people did, and it had a huge effect on me. And I imagined writing that type of scene, how I could get it into the book, and I knew it was going to work because every time I started to think about writing it I was going to cry. Not just because of the terrible situation in which this particular gentleman found himself, but the incredible courage of just ordinary people. I think we all go through a process of wondering whether in the same situations, we would ever be able to find that courage. So what these people did, that was very very moving to me. Second, The book goes to Saudi Arabia and there is a public beheading. And I read an account of some Westerners who, for whatever reason — which I find hard to imagine — decided to go down and watch this. And I found it so confronting and so terrible, especially when you judge it against the background of the Saudi Arabian judicial system. And it made me angry. It made me really angry. So that’s a good section of the book … (laughs) I’m crying at one and I’m angry at the other. Third,long before I ever finished the book, I actually wrote the great confrontation at the end of the book between our hero and the man that he’s been hunting, where the hero is being tortured but then manages to turn the tables. And everything in the book comes together in this one, long, event in a place called the Theater of Death. And I wrote that … I didn’t have the context to get there, but I wrote it. You know, I changed it somewhat through various drafts, but I wrote that because I knew that that would be one of the best things in any format that I’ve ever written.
What was the biggest difference between writing a book and a screenplay?
It’s all storytelling. I think the biggest thing was that suddenly, you had this massive canvas, this huge canvas. It was both tempting and frightening. When you do a screenplay, you look at it and you think, ‘Well, it might be a bit tough now, but I’m going to get to 120, 125 pages, and it will be done. I can do this.’ When you’re sitting there with a novel and you talk to the publishers and whatever and you say to them, ‘Look, I think it’s going to be somewhat longer than 500 pages,’ they say, ‘Yeah fine. Yeah whatever.’ And you think, ‘Oh my god, there’s no end to this.’ The great enemy of all writing is self-doubt and the consequent loss of not enthusiasm, but a loss of momentum.
Do you ever find yourself writing out of order just to keep your momentum going?
A good scene not only has pace to it and intellectual interest; it’s also about character. It’s not going to be a good scene if characters are not working probably. I often think to myself, even if I’m not going to use it exactly, what it’s given me is total clarity about the character or the characters involved. This is how they would act. In this situation, I know, it’s exactly how they’re going to act. And, if you know that about your characters, to be perfectly honest, you can write anything about them.”
Are you thinking sequel?
It has been incredibly well received (abroad), which is either a testament to what a great book it is or how poor other books
are, I’m not quite sure. I’ve been very humbled by it. It’s obviously a wonderful thing to happen. When I had first conceived of doing it — not knowing how difficult it was really (a) to write a book and (b) to get it published and break through that wall of indifference where people are even interested in it — I thought, ‘Well, what I’ll do is I’ll do the great, epic spy saga, and I’ll do it in a three set of print books. I’ll tell the story of the guy who is probably the world’s leading intelligence agent. In my madness, in order to make the first one really work for this much larger conviction, I had to outline the next two books. At least I had to have a clear idea of what was going on, because I had to set up a lot of stuff in the first book. It had to work for the first book entirely by itself, but information also had to be smuggled in, in the first book, that I could pay off in the second and third one. So that was what I did. But halfway through, beset by self-doubt, I thought ‘I’ll get this finished, and I’m not going write the second Pilgrim straight away because I didn’t want to be involved.’ I just didn’t think emotionally I could go through writing three books and nobody read any of them. So I thought, ‘Well I’ll do the first Pilgrim, then I’ll do a different book, a different thriller, while I wait to see what happens with Pilgrim.’ That’s the situation we’re in.
How about a movie?
Let’s just wait and see. Patience. Should it fulfill the publishers’ ambitions for it, then I think we’re in a good position in regard to — every review I read, people say, ‘Well you can tell he’s a screenwriter.’ I’m not sure that that’s always sort of said as praise. I can’t quite work out sometimes what they mean by it.
Would you write the screenplay yourself?
It’s that little saying — ‘the lawyer that represents himself is a fool for a client.’ [Laughs] The book is obviously very long. Funnily enough, I know how to get it into a screenplay format, how to tell that story. So, you know, I think that gives me an advantage. On the other hand, any project, any novel can really benefit from having a different perspective on it. The last screenplay I wrote was with Jerry Bruckheimer and his company. The film hasn’t been made yet, but I had the most fantastic experience with that group of people. I really did. Everybody else’s mileage may vary, everybody has different experiences. Creatively, I just had about the best time I’ve ever time working on a movie. I’d kill to write the screenplay of my own book with them.