Agatha Christie, Sleight of Hand, and Psychological Complexity: An Interview with The Silent Patient Author Alex Michaelides

There’s no shortage of excellent thrillers to read in the modern world, but every now and then a book comes along that rises above the rest and becomes that book that gets passed from person to person like a virus, accompanied by breathless endorsements and the sort of giddy joy only book lovers recognize. Well, we have our first bona-fide phenomenon thriller of 2019, the twisty, buzzy The Silent Patient, by Alex Michaelides.

The Silent Patient has the bones of an old-school mystery, fused with a modern energy similar to The Girl on the Train or Gillian Flynn’s novels. It’s the sort of book you immediately want to recommend to your book club or best friend or, you know, strangers on your morning commute, just so you’ll have people to discuss it with. And then we thought, wait a sec, we’re Barnes and Noble, we can excitedly discuss the book with the author. So we reached out and sat down with Alex Michaelides himself to fanblog all over him, chatting about Agatha Christie, working as a scriptwriter in Hollywood, and, of course, the genesis of his remarkable debut novel.

You obviously have a deep love for old-school mystery-thrillers like the works of Agatha Christie or Patricia Highsmith. How did those old-school cool novels influence The Silent Patient?

Well, I grew up on the tiny island of Cyprus, in the Mediterranean. It was before the internet, and there was nothing to do in the summers except read. I was thirteen when I discovered Agatha Christie, and devoured all of her novels over one summer at the beach. It was probably the happiest reading experience I ever had, and it made me into a reader—and, I suspect, a writer. So later on, when I began thinking about writing a novel, I knew I wanted something to replicate that experience I’d had on the beach. And the plan was to take a Christie-style plot and marry it with a deeper psychological complexity. I tried to imagine what Christie might be writing now, if she were alive and had my life experience. Of course it’s not just Christie—I’m a huge fan of Patricia Highsmith, P.D. James, Ruth Rendell, Dorothy L. Sayers, all women actually! There is something so satisfying about encountering a story that works on one level and yet when you reach the end you realize you have been looking at everything the wrong way up. I think that sleight of hand, like a magician’s trick, is what appeals to me the most.

Like all magic tricks, at its core writing is all about process. They say write what you know, and you drew on your experience working at a therapeutic community to write The Silent Patient. How much ‘real life’ is in the story?

I was pretty messed up as a teenager, neurotic, anxious, depressed—and I had a lot of personal therapy for many years. I also studied it a couple of places at a postgraduate level—but never finished my studies, as I felt strongly that I was a writer not a therapist. As part of my studies, I worked at a secure psychiatric facility for teenagers. It was one of the most formative experiences of my life, and certainly the most humbling. It was incredible, helping kids heal and get well—and it went a long way to healing the messed-up teenage part of myself. I didn’t know I was going to write The Silent Patient then, but later on when I knew that I wanted to write a Christie-style book, I needed an enclosed location—the kind of thing she does so brilliantly—and I suddenly thought of the psychiatric unit. And instead of a detective, I could have a psychotherapist. Everything went from there. I didn’t use any of the people I encountered at the unit, but I did use the atmosphere and the emotions that I felt while I was working there. I kept notes at the time, and that helped me a lot when I came to write the book.

Many have noted the symbolism of a woman who doesn’t speak, combined with the themes of Alcestis in The Silent Patient, which ties into what’s going on today with #MeToo and other movements. Was this intentional?

You know, it wasn’t intentional, as I wrote The Silent Patient before the #MeToo movement began. But there was a synchronicity there, for sure. When they were bidding for the movie rights, I had many producers, male and female, comment on the fact that Alicia does not speak and asking me how I felt it related to #MeToo. It was quite clear to me that when a person is imprisoned, and not believed, not being heard, then her only recourse is not to speak. So silence in my thinking is a last resort; the last weapon available, when everything else has been taken away from you. That was what interested me about Alicia—as well as the silence in the Greek myth of Alcestis. Alcestis dies to save her husband, and yet when she’s brought back to life at the end of Euripides’s play, she refuses to speak when confronted with her husband. Why? Is she overjoyed, overcome with emotion? Or is she deeply furious, angry with him, betrayed and hurt that he let her die? The refusal to conclude, the refusal to supply a definite answer, is so powerful, and has been haunting me my whole life.

We hear you’re adapting your own novel for a film version—are there any special challenges to turning your own work into a different medium? Did you think about a film version as you were writing it?

I think writing for screen and for novels is very different. A friend of mine is a critic, and he always says something I find very helpful—that screenplays are about contraction, and novels are about expansion. Meaning that for a movie you try to keep everything going, keep the plot ticking along. Whereas in a book you can slow down and go into someone’s thoughts and spend a day with them as they walk round the park or think about their life. And discovering that transformed me as a writer. I feel very much that I’m more of a novelist than a dramatist. I never really imagined it as a film. And I think the silence will be extremely challenging. Having said that, making the film is an incredible opportunity. It will be very exciting to take the book apart and put it together again for another medium. I am very pliable these days. I think you have to be, if you’re going to succeed as a writer. It’s never good to get stuck on ideas or lines or bits of dialogue.

What’s harder—writing a novel or getting a movie made?

I would say each is hard. The motivation to keep writing every day, for months at time, is a big part of writing a book. But it’s much harder—as in emotionally more painful—to make a movie. I personally have found film-making to be a soul destroying process. A movie with a decent script and a great cast can be derailed by production problems that are nobody’s fault. It’s heartbreaking. So the decision to write The Silent Patient was a last ditch attempt to try and be in control of the creative process from start to finish, and get away from movies. So the irony I am now writing the screenplay is not lost on me. I have a feeling it’s going to be different this time, as I’m working with some amazing people.

Speaking of writing, The Silent Patient contains a DefCon-5 kind of plot twist that has people’s heads spinning, yet it works perfectly. Did you start with the twist, or did you start with the premise or the characters and find the twist as you outlined? What’s your position on ‘spoiler etiquette’?

It was rather a magical moment, the way it happened. As I have said, the various strands came together—Greek Mythology, Agatha Christie, psychotherapy—and the idea was born in one moment, as I was walking through the park near where I live. I was trying to imagine a psychological detective story about a woman who doesn’t speak and the therapist trying to help her. I was trying to come up with an ending—and I remember asking myself, ‘what would Agatha Christie do?’ And then suddenly, I saw it. I sat down on the nearest bench and pulled out my phone and wrote down the whole plot, which I still have on my phone. The details changed of course, but the general movement of the story and the twist have remained the same. It was a really good day, that day.

Regarding spoilers, I will always remember going to see The Mousetrap in London, when I was a kid. At the end of the performance, one of the actors steps forward and asks the audience not to reveal the ending to anyone else as it would spoil their enjoyment of the play. So I think it’s just good manners, don’t you?

We do! So we’re not going to spoil The Silent Patient, we’ll just encourage everyone reading this to buy a copy immediately so we can all discuss it freely. Thanks, Alex, for taking the time to talk about your book with us!

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