Q&A: Writer’s Roundtable interview with screenwriter and novelist Terry Hayes

By Jared Kuritz and Antoinette Kuritz

Road Warrior/Mad Max 2, Mad Max: Beyond the Thunderdome, Payback with Mel Gibson; From Hell starring Johnny Depp; Vertical Limit with Chris O’Donnell; and Dead Calm with Nicole Kidman are just a few of the movies which list Terry Hayes as screenwriter. And now, after years spent writing for newspapers and the big screen, Terry Hayes has turned his hand to writing an international thriller considered to be one of the hottest books of 2014. Get a sense of what this multi-talented author has to say about his craft, and learn more when he is further interviewed by New York Times bestselling author Christopher Reich on Saturday, June 8, at 7 p.m. at Warwick’s in La Jolla.

As a screenwriter, you have written some cult classics, including two of the Mad Max movies, Dead Calm, and Payback. Which were your favorite movies to write, and why?

That’s an unfair question! LOL. They all mean an enormous amount to me and it’s hard to single out any one movie, but Mad Max 2/Road Warrior was the first movie I ever wrote and I think for that reason it will always occupy a special place. It gave me a career as both a producer and writer, it was an incredible learning experience and I got to work with some incredibly talented people. At least three of them went on to win Oscars, which was a pretty good strike rate for a small Australian movie. Apart from that, it had a pretty overwhelming response both critically and publicly — well, it was sure overwhelming to me! I can’t help but look back on it with the greatest affection.

Forensics, particularly DNA, play a huge role in today’s TV and big screen offerings. How accurate or inaccurate is the use of this technology in storytelling?

I think everybody who uses it as part of their storytelling believes it to be highly accurate and works very hard to make it so. But, like every form of science, forensics is an evolving field of study — just a few days ago it was argued that the DNA of hair samples may be far more problematic than previously thought. Similarly, sophisticated skin grafts on finger tips can either mask or alter them significantly. DNA and forensics are a tool but the more we learn, the more we realize they are not foolproof. And, of course, with so much knowledge about forensic science being shown on TV and in movies, there are plenty of perpetrators thinking about how best to avoid leaving those crucial traces behind.

Readers tend to call writers on inaccuracy. As a writer, did you find it important to thoroughly research the technology referred to in I Am Pilgrim. And do you do your research yourself, or do you have a staff to do it?

I wish I had a staff. No, I do it all myself — I am a naturally curious person so I enjoy learning about different things and you never know when a seemingly unimportant detail — which you read ages ago — turns out to be enormously useful. You are right about readers calling you out on inaccuracy, so I do my utmost to make it as correct as possible, and the only way to do that is to research, do more research, and then be prepared to follow it wherever it leads. Do you get everything right? Probably not because any novel — especially something that is epic like Pilgrim — contains so many details, so many tiny things (the rise and fall of tides in the Mediterranean, the currency they use in Syria, the make-up of a bullet proof vest, the area code of a town in Turkey) that it is almost inevitable that you will slip up somewhere along the line. Then again, any novel is meant to be a story — not an instruction manual.i-am-pilgrim-9781439177723_hr

What do you enjoy writing more, screenplays or novels? And why?

They are both storytelling, though in very different forms — so from that point of view both formats are both grueling and enjoyable. Screenplays are a harsh taskmaster — you only have 120 pages to tell the story, take the characters on an incredible journey, entertain and inspire the audience. You have a lot more freedom — and pages — in a novel. You can also use a character’s internal thoughts in a book, something that is almost impossible to do in a movie. Then again, in the latter, you can always have an explosion or a car crash to get you out of a storytelling hole! I enjoy both forms, and having worked so long in movies, I tend to think in visual scenes so I think that makes it a bit easier. In an ideal world, I would write the screenplay from my own novels and be able to use all the skills I have learned.

How difficult or easy was the transition to writing novels? And what do you see as the primary difference between writing screenplays and novels?

As I mentioned, it is all storytelling so you are dealing with the same basic things. At base line, you are trying to take the viewer — or reader — on an intense emotional journey. You have to keep them interested, entertained, and involved in every moment, every paragraph. How you do that is different because you have different tools. For a start, in movies you have huge budgets and actors that can bring an enormous amount to the character. In a book all you have is the type on the page. One of the biggest differences is that movies today tend to be written by a large number of people – you only have to look at the credits to see that – whereas novels are almost always a single author. One has turned out to be a team sport, the other is still singles. I think, probably as you get older, it’s easier to just have to worry about your own game.

How has your training as a journalist informed your fiction – both screenplays and novels?

An enormous amount. Like most journalists I have always had a huge interest in current affairs and, especially with the novel which deals with cutting-edge scientific developments. Popular culture and current developments in the world are closely linked, so that has informed, I think, everything I have written. Journalism also teaches you the importance of accuracy and you learn a lot about how to interview and research, and these are invaluable tools when it comes to other forms of writing.

From where did the idea for I Am Pilgrim develop?

I went to a little- known Nazi concentration camp on the French-German border some years ago and I saw a photograph there which I found particularly heart-breaking. It never left me and I think, in a way, that was the first tentative step on the road to developing the story. It features in the book and is a significant influence on the childhood of the man code-named Pilgrim. Of course, I have always been a fan — and avid reader — of high-quality espionage thrillers, so that was a huge part of the genesis of the story.

Character vs. plot? What came first in I Am Pilgrim? And what do you believe is more important to a good novel?

It’s almost impossible to say. The two things have to work in tandem — you can’t have a meaningful plot without a compelling character and vice versa. I knew I wanted to do a story about a loner, a covert agent, who goes on an extraordinary journey, but all the details of him and his quest had to develop together. You pull one sock up, and then the other! I guess you could say it’s like a really good marriage. As a result, both are equally important in a novel —each informs and propels the other. Without a character you’ve just got a synopsis; without a plot, you’ve just got a person. Most of all, you’d have a world of problems.

What do you hope the reader takes away from reading I Am Pilgrim?

A real concern for the dangers that confront us. There has been a huge hemorrhaging of previously secret information on the internet and that, combined with breathtaking scientific advances, has opened up a whole new world of threats. I just hope the people in Washington and London are listening —or reading.

What are you looking forward to most on your U.S. tour?

Trying to get some sleep, probably! It’s a huge number of cities and events in a relatively short period of time, so I think it’s going to be pretty exhausting. Exciting, too, I must say. A great opportunity to discuss the book with journalists, other writers and readers — writing novels is a very solitary exercise so this is like being let out of jail. My wife and kids are all U.S. citizens and I have lived there on many different occasions and for long periods, so it’s going to be great to be back. Oh, and some really good Mexican food will be good too!

Antoinette Kuritz and Jared Kuritz are the team behind both STRATEGIES Public Relations and the La Jolla Writer’s Conference (