‘I asked myself what Agatha Christie would do, and what she hadn’t already done’

A Q&A with Alex Michaelides, author of The Maidens and The Silent Patient

Alex Michaelides: “I went back to my main influences – Greek myths and Agatha Christie.” Photograph: Manuel Vazquez

Alex Michaelides: “I went back to my main influences – Greek myths and Agatha Christie.” Photograph: Manuel Vazquez

 

What drew you to the thriller and mystery genres?

I was born in Cyprus in 1977, three years after the Turkish invasion. My father is Greek-Cypriot and my mother is English. Although in many ways it was an idyllic childhood, it was marred by the Cyprus problem. Growing up in a divided city, with an awareness of the presence of foreign soldiers and the potential threat of another invasion, was a big part of my life, and everyone else’s. It would play out in my unconscious, looming large in terms of fears, and anxieties – I remember as a very small child worrying about my toys and our dogs, and what would happen to them if there was another invasion.

I think everyone living in Cyprus then was suffering from some level of PTSD. I sometimes wonder if this constant threat is what made me drawn to thrillers. I remember always feeling slightly afraid. And I can relate when other people are anxious or scared.

Which books and authors have most influenced you as a writer and a reader?

I grew up in a house full of books; and I can honestly say that every single one of the writers who proved to be a major influence on me was already on the shelves amongst my mother’s books – Dickens, Evelyn Waugh, Christopher Isherwood, Margaret Atwood, Henry James – and it was simply a case of my mother taking down these books off the shelves and giving me them me to read.

What drew you to psychotherapy and why do you now use it in your work?

I came to psychotherapy as a patient. I had individual therapy from about the age of 20 a couple of times a week; on and off for about 10 years. When my screenwriting career didn’t really take off as I would have liked, therapy was the one constant in my life. I thought about training as a psychotherapist, and I began studying therapy.

I have an ambivalent relationship to therapy. I have seen some truly amazing work done and seen some great therapists in action; but equally often I have encountered bad therapists. Even though therapy informs everything about me, I am quite critical of it if you read between the lines of my books.

I will say, however, that working at Northgate therapeutic community in London, did change my life. I saw teenagers’ lives saved and changed over the time I was there – and working with these young, damaged people helped me to heal a damaged, young teenage part of myself; and there was something about that process of working with others which touched a spot that therapy, in itself, couldn’t reach.

Mariana in The Maidens is a group therapist. What is your experience of that form of therapy?

I think groups, when they work well, can be incredibly healing. I had two different bouts of group therapy: one for a couple of years and another one for about a year. The second group was a reason why I quit my psychotherapy training. The group analyst was rather narcissistic and a sadist who was prone to bullying the most vulnerable members of the group. Some of his patients seemed unable to leave the group: some had been with him for 20 years. The group was stagnant and toxic. And I now see that groups are a perfect way to intimidate people and unconsciously dominate them.

That was something I wanted to explore in The Maidens: how toxic patriarchy can dominate and destroy these young women’s lives. For me the whole point of the novel is really, simply this: it’s about what happens when we mistake abuse for love at a very young age, and how this mistake colours the rest of our life, and affects the way we see ourselves and other people. And that fascinates me.

You were a screenwriter in Hollywood before turning to writing novels. Why did you make the change?

I love movies, and I am obsessed with directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder and Tarantino. I love film. And I love the group process of making a film. It can be like group therapy at its best. You form a family on set. I think that’s why I always wanted to work in the movies. There is nothing lonelier than being novelist.

But although I had three screenplays produced, I ended up feeling very disillusioned as a screenwriter. A screenwriter is the least important person in the room. And as most things that can go wrong with a film do usually go wrong, I kept seeing films that I had spent years writing being destroyed or rewritten because the director had a better idea or a location fell through, or whatever. And so before I quit writing, as a last throw of the dice, I decided to try a creative project in which I was in control from start to finish. And so I finally sat down to write that detective story.

I find writing a novel infinitely satisfying, in a way that I never did with a screenplay. I no longer mind the loneliness, in fact I embrace it. I have no desire to return to writing screenplays. The irony that it took abandoning Hollywood to have producers finally be interested in my writing is not lost on me.

What was the earliest inspiration for The Maidens?

I went back to my main influences – Greek myths and Agatha Christie. I asked myself what Christie would do. That’s really the only question I ever ask myself. And I thought, well, she would start with another iconic enclosed location. I set The Silent Patient inside a psychiatric institute because I knew that Christie had never set a story inside one, but that it was a perfect location for a murder mystery. So with that in mind, it occurred to me that she had never done anything at a university, probably because she didn’t study at one.

Why do you use the Greek myths in your work?

The Greek myths are everywhere in Cyprus. The mythology is very much in the air; the tragedies are re-performed and re-interpreted every summer. I am very grateful to my place of birth and my education, as it meant I was given a whole mythological language in which to dwell as a writer. The myths are violent and magical and powerful; stories about passion and heartbreak and love and loss.

How did you approach writing a follow-up after a record-breaking debut?

There is a lot of pressure, most of it self-inflicted. There was no audience for my first novel. I had no pressure at all – I wrote it just for myself. So imagining my editors, agent and publishers reading it does change things slightly. All I can do is write the best kind of detective story that I know how, and hope people like it.

The Maidens is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson

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