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.
What authors or works have influenced you as a writer?
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.
Thank you once again, Simon, for taking time out to share your thoughts.