Photograph © Toby Madden
|Name: SIMON TOYNE
On the web: www.simontoyne.net
On Twitter: @sjtoyne
Simon Toyne’s career began in television, where he was a successful screenwriter and producer for over fifteen years. In 2011 HarperCollins published his first novel, Sanctus, an edge-of-the-seat apocalyptic thriller which, despite the inevitable comparisons to Dan Brown, still featured high on my list of the top books of the year. The Key, the second book in the series, was released earlier this year (and gets its paperback release on 22nd November), broadening the scope, in every conceivable sense, of the original novel. If his Twitter feed is to be believed, Simon is hard at work on the final volume of the trilogy, a book that involves Afghan languages and obscure American city districts in some shape or form.
I’m delighted to welcome Simon Toyne along to Reader Dad for a chat. Thanks for the taking the time out, Simon.
Nice to finally (virtually) meet you beyond the curt environs of twitter
I’d like to go back to the very beginning, and that powerful image that opens Sanctus: a man in green robes standing atop a thousand-foot high mountain, arms outstretched, before plunging to his death on the street below. Was that your starting point, or was that an image that came later? Can you talk about the origins of the tale?
I tend to start with the end and work backwards, so for Sanctus I had the big secret, the Sacrament, held inside an impenetrable fortress since before recorded history and worked backwards to see how it could be discovered, who could discover it, where this fortress could be etc. In the initial outline I had someone discovering the body of a monk brutally murdered with ritualistic wounds and finding clues on his body that would kick-start the journey towards revealing the mystery. I had this notion of a city within a city, a bit like Rome with the Vatican, and thought it would be interesting if the body was found right on the border, or just over the line where the jurisdictions start and end so that the various authorities could argue over who should investigate the murder. ‘The Bridge’ had a similar plot device involving the Danish/Swedish border. In my story the idea of what this fortress could look like started to form and from that I decided it would be more visual to have the monk fall from the top of some vertiginous structure rather than just be discovered.
The image of the Tau is hugely important in the first novel: the monk, the statue of Christ the Redeemer, the very Taurus mountain range which forms the backdrop for the city of Ruin. How much work was involved in making the pieces line up so that the thread ran the whole way through the story and it all made sense?
I knew I needed a symbol that was very simple and timeless and could represent many different things and the Tau came out of research. I found out that the T-shaped cross would have been the actual shape of the cross Christ was crucified on for example and so it was loaded with different potential meanings that I could layer in throughout the course of the story. Francis of Assissi used to form the shape of the Tau with his cassock so I nicked that and I liked the idea that the famous statue in Rio might also tie in with this ancient mystery. As for the Taurus mountains, I had already decided to set Ruin there and it was only afterwards that I noticed the connection.
Sanctus reads well as a standalone novel, to the point that it wasn’t until after I had read and reviewed the book that I became aware that it was the start of a trilogy. The Key picks up almost immediately after the end of the first book, but interestingly it takes almost half of the second novel’s length before the shocking revelation at the end of Sanctus is, in effect, re-revealed to characters and readers. Was there any rationale behind this decision, or was it something that came naturally to the story?
In the first draft of ‘The Key’ I tried not to reveal what the big reveal at the end of ‘Sanctus’ was at all but I couldn’t do it. I figured if you’d read ‘Sanctus’ you’d know what it was and would be thinking ‘why doesn’t he just say it?’ and if you hadn’t read it then lots of the story wouldn’t make sense. Having Liv lose her memory and have to piece it together was a useful device both for putting her in a vulnerable situation and also for allowing her to remember slowly and thereby either remind the return reader or inform the new reader what happened.
One of my favourite new characters from The Key is the massive Dick (no sniggering at the back of the class). I was instantly reminded of Rex Miller’s equally massive Daniel "Chaingang" Bunkowski. Do you have any personal favourites that you enjoy writing, or are there characters you find more difficult to write than others?
Ah yes, the massive Dick. I should point out that Dick is short for ‘Dictionary’ because he likes to use words as big as he is. I do quite enjoy writing characters like him because they pose very specific technical challenges. You spend a lot of time with your main characters so you have the luxury of being able to really explore their backgrounds, motivations, fears etc. With the secondary characters you have to give them just as much impact with a lot less page time so you try and give them idiosyncrasies that make them stand out which makes them interesting to think about and write.
Since publishing my review of Sanctus in February of last year, one of the most frequently-recurring search terms that ultimately lead to Reader Dad is some combination of "Ruin" and "Turkey" (interestingly, it’s beaten only by people searching for information on the equally fictional Jodie, Texas). Ruin, and the mountainous Citadel that dominates the city’s centre, plays a central role in the two novels. When I first read Sanctus, it reminded me of Jack O’Connell’s Quinsigamond or China Miéville’s New Crobuzon; it’s a fully-formed city (quarters and all) that is nonetheless slightly off, and without which the books would lose much of their character. I recently had the chance to ask Daniel Polansky the same question about his Low Town, so I’m interested in how the answers compare: where did Ruin come from? What were your influences; is it modelled on any existing cities? And most importantly of all, is it mapped out anywhere other than in your head?
Ruin is definitely another character in the books and, like any character, the way others interact with it reveals things about both of them. The reason I made a place up rather than use a real one is because there is no place quite like Ruin and I didn’t want to take liberties with someone’s city. The story threw up very specific needs for the location: it had to be very old and remote, it had to have a monastery in the middle built into a natural pinnacle of rock, it had to have a modern city surrounding it that earned a great deal of its living trading off the history of the Citadel, just like places like Lourdes or Santiago de Compostela do. Physically it borrows from all sort of places, the journey up the streets of the old town for example is taken from a hilly medieval fortified Bastide town in France called Cordes-sur-Ciel (Cordes on the sky) where I lived for a while when I started writing ‘Sanctus’. And I did draw a map of it when I was writing Sanctus, boulevards, Lost Quarter and all. It helped me keep the geography straight in my head of where everything was in relation to each other.
You are hard at work on the final volume of the trilogy. Can you tell us anything about it, and do you have any idea what we can expect beyond the end of the trilogy?
It’s called ‘The Tower’. If ‘Sanctus’ was predominantly about Liv, ‘The Key’ was mainly about Gabriel then ‘The Tower’ is about how both of their destinies collide. The revelation of the big mystery at the end of ‘Sanctus’ was a bit like dropping a huge boulder into a lake that had been artificially calm for a very log time, ‘The Key’ and ‘The Tower’ both explore the huge ripples that follow.
After the trilogy I will trawl through my ideas file and see which one of the hundred or so ideas in there I would like to read most. Then I’ll write it. There are some other stories in there that could be set in Ruin, so I may revisit the place, you never know.
Like most writers of my generation Stephen King is a huge formative influence. ‘The Dead Zone’ is still one of my all-time favourite books.
And as a follow-on, is there one book (or more than one) that you wish you had written?
‘The Silence of the Lambs’ by Thomas Harris. If you want to know how to write a thriller, read that book and study it. It’s perfect.
What does a typical (writing) day in the life of Simon Toyne look like?
A typical day revolves around my kids (I have 3, ranging from 9 to 7 months). I try and work when the two older ones are at school, so between 10 and 3. I switch off the internet, play soundtrack music loudly and disappear into the story. If I’m chasing a deadline, though, this all goes out of the window and I end up surgically attached to the laptop. I try and write a thousand words a day.
And what advice would you have for people hoping to pursue fiction-writing as a career?
I would say read a lot and write a lot. It’s the only way you can get better.
What are you reading now, and is it for business or pleasure?
At the moment I’m reading nothing because I’ve got to deliver ‘The Tower’ in two weeks’ time and I’m at a book launch in Romania for three days of that. I’ve got a huge pile of books I want to read, though. They lie there in the corner of my office, taunting me like paper sirens.
Would you like to see your novels make the jump from page to screen? If so, do you have any dream casts/directors/whatever?
My ideal would be to see the trilogy become a ‘Game of Thrones’/’Pillars of the Earth’ style mini series. That way you wouldn’t lose lots of characters like you do when you cut a novel like mine down to two hours. Having said that I’d love to see the story on any screen. I think Paul Greengrass (the second and third Bourne movies) would be a great fit for the themes and the action. Cast wise I always saw Emily Blunt as Liv and a young John Cusack as Gabriel.
And finally, on a lighter note…
If you could meet any writer (dead or alive) over the beverage of your choice for a chat, who would it be, and what would you talk about (and which beverage might be best suited)?
It would by Dylan Thomas in the White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village for a pint of Guinness. I would try and talk him into seeing a doctor before flying home to Wales.
Simon Toyne (simontoyne.net)
Released: 12th April 2012
Regular visitors may remember that around this time last year, I reviewed Simon Toyne’s debut novel, the wonderful thriller, Sanctus. I liked it so much that it ended up on my best of the year list. So it was with that all-too-familiar mix of excitement and trepidation that I awaited Toyne’s second novel; excitement because it forms the second part of a planned trilogy, and trepidation that it might not live up to expectation. I’m happy to say that any worries I might have had were laid to rest almost immediately upon opening the book.
The Key follows on immediately after the end of Sanctus. Unfortunately, due to the close links between the two books, it is almost impossible to give a brief overview of this novel without including spoilers for its predecessor. I will try to keep these to a minimum, and will most definitely not be revealing the outcome of Sanctus.
Liv Adamsen and Kathryn Mann are in hospital along with the surviving members of the Sancti from the Citadel – who have all suffered massive haemorrhaging as a result of the removal of the Sacrament from the mountain – while Kathryn’s son Gabriel has ended up in police custody. From the opening chapter, Toyne widens the scope of this second novel, introducing us to The Ghost, a Bedouin warrior who deals in ancient relics found in the deserts of Iraq and Syria. In the Vatican, Cardinal Secretary Clementi has set plans in motion that will re-float the Church financially, and in the ancient Citadel that looms over the city of Ruin, the remaining monks attempt to adapt to life without the Sacrament and its green-robed guardians.
A verse in a notebook belonging to Kathryn Mann’s father – the so-called Mirror Prophecy – sets Liv and Gabriel on a journey into the Iraqi desert, the fate of the world in their hands and the power of the Catholic Church set against them.
Like Sanctus, The Key is a fast-paced and intelligent thriller. Interestingly, the reveal that defined the closing section of Sanctus is not mentioned here until around 200 pages in – when we first see Liv, she has no recollection of what has happened in the Citadel, and we are re-introduced to this key plot point piece by piece as Liv’s memories resurface. It’s a nice trick: on the one hand, it opens the book to a wider audience than just those people who read the first book (although I would highly recommend reading them in order); on the other hand, readers of Sanctus are forced to do some of the work in recalling what has gone before.
All of the characters that made Sanctus such a success are back, and it is interesting to see how they have evolved over the relatively short time period that the two novels cover – The Key picks up around a week after the end of Sanctus. The balance of power has shifted, most noticeably within the mountain stronghold, and none of the characters have survived the events unscathed, emotionally or physically. They are joined by a host of new characters who are equally well-drawn: Cardinal Secretary Clementi who may be in too deep as he engages in shady dealings in an attempt to hide the fact that the Church is broke; the mysterious and creepy Ghost, scouring the desert for ancient relics and selling them on the black market; the massive Dick, a man with a love for words who, for this reader at least, evokes the memory of another giant of literature: Daniel Bunkowski, better known as Chaingang, from the series of novels by Rex Miller that bear the giant’s name. Here too, much to my delight (and, if the search terms that lead you folks to my little corner of the web are correct, much to the delight of many other people), is the city of Ruin in all its glory, still taking centre stage despite the fact that much of the action takes place elsewhere.
It doesn’t take long to realise we’re on solid ground here with a writer who has proven that Sanctus was not just beginner’s luck. With the exception of a mystery that really isn’t – which will by no means ruin the enjoyment of the story, but did leave this reader feeling slightly flat – The Key is an edge-of-the-seat thriller that requires some deductive reasoning on the part of the reader. It’s a solid storyline that builds on the foundations laid in Sanctus, and while it lacks something of the previous book, The Key is still amongst the best thrillers you will read this year. It marks Simon Toyne as a man to watch, one of a new breed of young, vibrant writers who set new standards of excellence in their chosen genres.
|ALTAR OF BONES
Simon & Schuster (www.simonandschuster.co.uk)
Thrillers and I have had something of a rocky relationship this year, going from one extreme (The Obelisk) to the other (Sanctus). Philip Carter’s Altar of Bones, I’ll say right at the outset, comes somewhere close to the Sanctus end of the spectrum. Carter is, according to the publicity material that comes with the book, the pseudonym of an international bestselling author. My natural curiosity, and five minutes online, was enough to reveal said author’s identity, and enough to make me dubious from the outset. While I won’t name her (go on, do your own digging if you’re that interested), I will say that she is an international bestselling author of romance novels (not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s about as far from the fast-paced thriller genre as it’s possible to get).
Altar of Bones opens in a prison camp in Siberia in 1937. Lena Orlova, a nurse in the prison’s infirmary, affects a daring escape with her lover, one of the camp’s prisoners, and finds she has led them into the middle of a massive snowstorm which almost kills the man. She takes him to a cave and feeds him from the altar of bones, of which she is the Keeper, and quickly discovers his treachery.
The scene shifts to “Eighteen Months Ago”, and we find ourselves at the bedside of the dying Mike O’Malley. After revealing a dark secret, he urges his son Dom to find his brother, and together find the video tape that has kept him – and them – alive for the past forty years. Days later, Dom is also dead and his brother, Ry, is running for his life.
“Present day”, and we meet Zoe Dmitroff, a young lawyer who specialises in helping abused women. When an old woman is murdered in Golden Gate Park, the police turn up on Zoe’s doorstep. The old woman was Zoe’s grandmother, and she has died leaving the secret of the altar bones – along with the title of Keeper – to Zoe. Joining forces with Ry, she attempts to find out more about the secrets her grandmother died trying to protect, and ends up running for her life across Europe, towards the barren Siberian wastes.
Altar of Bones follows a set formula in thrillers of this type: on the one hand we have a group of people with a secret that must be protected at all costs. On the other, we have the group of people who know the secret exists, but not what it is or where to find it. Add in a few puzzles that a sharp-eyed reader may be able to solve before the characters (I’ll be honest, and say that this reader could not), and a handful of twists and turns and the formula is complete. Despite that, though, this isn’t exactly predictable.
As Zoe and Ry begin to dig into the mystery surrounding their respective families, we discover that they’re in danger from more than one set of hunters. Sure, the identity of “the big kill” is telegraphed long before the actual reveal, but that’s a minor quibble in such an intricate and involved plot. The characters and their respective histories are well fleshed out, quite possibly as a consequence of the scope (time-wise) of the novel. And Carter provides us with one of those bad guys who seems to take on a life of their own and stick in the readers memory, in the shapely form of Yasmine Poole – a truly evil piece of work, if ever I met one.
The novel suffers from some of the same issues that plague any “first novel”, and I’m guessing in this case they’re because of a writer who has decide to write well outside of her comfort zone (for which she should be applauded): the car chase through rush hour Paris traffic in which a car can keep up with a motorcycle; the comedy “car chase through a wedding cake” scene; and, perhaps most annoyingly, the author’s inability to call a car a car: you’ll find plenty of “Beamers” and “Mercs” in this novel, but there’s hardly a “car” in sight (which gets a bit old after not one but two Beamer-chases spanning multiple pages and, indeed, chapters). There is also plenty of evidence of the author’s previous life: long, meaningful glances and deep sighs, the sexual tension between the two protagonists laid on with a trowel. Any maybe “Carter” is conscious of her long-standing audience, so there’s nothing wrong with trying to lure some of them gently into this new creation.
In all, it’s a successful foray into the genre, and a worthwhile read for people who like their thrillers fast, smart and sexy. Without wishing to belittle it, or consign it to mediocrity, I’d call it the perfect airport novel, a great beach read. And perhaps the publisher thought so too, considering the timing of it’s release. But rest assured: it’s a chunky piece of fiction. No two-page chapters here. No movie written in novel form with a few extra words here and there to flesh out the action-and-dialogue skeleton. Philip Carter is the real deal and I think we can expect to hear more from him – or, indeed, her – in the near future.