'The Searcher,' a Conversation With Simon Toyne

Simon Toyne left a successful television career as a writer, director, and producer to take a gamble on novel-writing. The risk paid off, resulting in his penning the internationally bestsellingtrilogy.
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Photo: William Morrow

Simon Toyne left a successful television career as a writer, director, and producer to take a gamble on novel-writing. The risk paid off, resulting in his penning the internationally bestselling Sanctus trilogy. Sanctus, The Key, and The Tower have been translated into dozens of languages.

The Searcher is the first book in what will be his new series featuring Solomon Creed, a man with no memory of his past. In the novel, set in the small Arizona town of Redemption, Solomon must save a lost soul scheduled for burial that morning. While the townspeople of Redemption are gathered at the cemetery, they are interrupted by a thunderous plane crash in the distant desert. A pillar of black smoke blankets the air.

Elsewhere, three men scan the skies, awaiting a plane delivering a package. Seeing fire and smoke from the crash, they realize something has gone wrong. The man who has sent them is ruthless, and will exact a high price if the package is lost.

Solomon must learn the town's secrets, and the truth behind the death of the man he came to save. Very little is as it seems, as Solomon Creed continues his quest to uncover the mystery of his past.

When you began writing Sanctus, you didn't know it would be a trilogy; yet with Solomon Creed, you're planning to write a series. Will you tell us more?
Sanctus was done on speculation. I had no agent or publisher. I was being sensible, I suppose, by writing a standalone novel. I figured if that one didn't work, no one would be interested in reading a sequel. So, I tried making it self-contained. While working on it, I had all these other ideas I knew wouldn't fit into the book, so I put them in a separate file.

When the book was sold, my agent and editor said, 'We don't like the abrupt ending, and there are too many unanswered questions.' I described the other ideas I had filed away, and we realized there could be more books deriving from the first one. So the trilogy came about by an organic process.

Having finished the trilogy and looking for the next idea, I knew I enjoyed the twin disciplines of telling a self-contained story, but one with an ongoing trajectory. The reader can read the next book, also self-contained, and encounter the same characters. It's a longer form of storytelling.

I enjoy working with this longer form of storytelling because of the challenges it presents. Epic stories, especially 'quest narratives' like The Iliad and The Odyssey, are brilliant structures for storytelling. The quest lends itself to episodic storytelling.

I grew up watching Western series like Kung Fu, and that's the idea behind Solomon Creed's travelling in self-contained stories, but on a quest to discover secrets. I set out to write this novel within those parameters--that is, the first in a series of books in which the protagonist can go anywhere. This one is set in the Arizona desert; the second is set in France.

You anticipated my next question. Solomon Creed reminds me of Jack Shaefer's Shane, a lone horseman with no past, who rides into town and becomes a savior. Solomon seems to be in the best tradition of the American Western. Is that true?
I love Westerns. They're a unique creation of American mythology. If you look at the great Westerns, and at Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology, they all contain elements in common: a harsh landscape; demons or outlaws trying to stop or kill the protagonist; and there are mythical legends at their core, innate in all cultures. I wanted Solomon to literally walk out of the desert, as did Shane. I love the idea of someone coming out of a brutal landscape and you don't know where they come from. It all seems so unlikely: Solomon wears no shoes; he's wearing a tailored jacket in the heat of the Arizona desert.

I love all the mythical elements of the American Western. I also love the big theme of good versus evil pared down to individuals. Shane is a perfect example of that. You're not sure who or what he is. Is he an angel, a ghost, or perhaps a former gunslinger on the road to redemption?

I also love the American desert and have visited it a number of times.

The name Solomon Creed has some mystical elements. Was that your intention?
I wanted him to be universal and timeless. It's a name that makes you feel as though you've heard it before. In fact, when I came up with the name, I had to Google it to make sure it hadn't been used before (Laughter). Solomon of course, being the biblical King; and Creed being a strongly-held belief. Yes, I wanted it to have a mythical feel. Even in the first book, I hint at who or what he might be, but the reader can't be certain.

The Searcher has been described as a 'high concept' thriller. What does that term mean?
I'm not sure (Laughter). By definition, all thrillers are high concept. Something only exists if its opposite exists--like good and evil. I suppose it means it has a big theme as opposed to what seems to be in vogue these days: domestic noir and psychological thrillers. I think any thriller is high concept because the author takes a situation--any situation--to its extreme degree. You ramp up the tension and make it as thrilling as possible.

Why is Solomon Creed an albino with gray eyes?
I write visually. I have to imagine what people look like before I can write them. The notion of Simon walking out of the desert and knowing nothing about himself--although he seems to know about everything else--lends itself to his seeing himself as a blank. There's nothing there.

Extrapolating from that, I wanted to create a blank sheet of a man. He obviously did have a past, but it's been wiped clean. It just struck me as visually arresting for him to look like a blank sheet. Because he's so white, he can get easily sunburned; he constantly seeks out shade; and borrows hats to keep out of the sun. But, by the end of the book, his eyes change color. So, as he learns more about himself, he colors himself, so to speak.

What's the most important lesson you've learned about writing?
Honesty. It's a weird thing to say considering I make things up. But, the purpose of fiction is to explore things intellectually and emotionally you wouldn't necessarily want to encounter yourself. I think people are obsessed with crime books and thrillers because they take readers to the darker side of human nature--vicariously.

I'm always aware as I start writing a book that I'm making things up, but after a while, I feel I'm transcribing something that actually happened. There's a sense of responsibility to that. I have to assess the characters and their reactions. I write things with a touch of the supernatural, but try to arrive at some realistic context, so it's not outlandish.

We do believe in magic. To me, Spring is magic, when the ground and vegetation come back to life. Whatever story I'm telling must have truth, must contain honesty. There's a quote I like, 'Fiction is truth wrapped up in a beautiful lie.'

What do you love about the writing life?
I love that I can work from home and take my kids to school every day. When I worked in television, I wasn't in control of my calendar. One of the things that made me try writing novels was I could take time off to be with the kids. That's the practical side of what I love about the writing life. And of course, it's creatively very rewarding. I love researching all sorts of weird stuff. I always say, 'God help me if the FBI came across my Internet search history. It would look pretty damning.' That's probably the case for any thriller writer.

The one thing I hate about the writing life is the solitude. I'm a gregarious person and you can't write novels by committee. As a novelist, I have to lock myself in a room and sink down into myself to dredge up stories.

What, if anything, keeps you awake at night?
The book I'm writing. I've never suffered from insomnia. But, when I'm working on a first draft--which is always somewhat daunting in some respects--it keeps me awake at night. I can lie there, thinking about what to write next: the backstory of a character; the motivation of one or another character. When I'm writing a first draft, I wake up at 4:00 in the morning. Instead of lying there for two hours, I just get up and get to work. I find it easier to do when the rest of the house is asleep and the world hasn't woken up yet. It's easier for me to access that strange membrane between consciousness and sleep where the creative juices flow. I can write more in those two hours than during the rest of the day when life gets in the way.

What advice would you give to writers just starting out?
The short answer is, just enjoy it. When I was writing Sanctus, I was very nervous about whether it would be good; if I would get an agent; if I'd run out of ideas; all that sort of thing. I loaded so much freight onto the process of writing.

I think ultimately, there's no point in worrying about those things, because the only thing you can control is making the story a good one. I have this advice for the novice writer: write for yourself. You've spent your entire life reading; you know what you like and you know what's good. You should simply tell the story you would want to read. You shouldn't worry too much about what happens to it when it's finished. The writer should try to stay in the moment and enjoy the writing.

It seems ironic. You came from the television world to write novels, and I've heard Leonardo DiCaprio's production company, Appian Way as optioned The Searcher for a television series. Any thoughts about that? And, would you be writing any of the episodes?

Well, obviously I'm delighted Appian Way has optioned The Searcher because they have such a stellar record of literary adaptations such as Shutter Island and The Wolf of Wall Street. I also think we're going through a golden age of television right now, where much of the narrative talent that would formerly have worked in the movies is now making intelligent TV drama instead. Novels generally suit the long-form format that television allows. With a movie you have two hours to tell a story; so inevitably a five-hundred page novel gets cut to the bone. In a TV series you get ten one hour segments; and you have time to develop secondary characters and themes which makes for a richer, more novelistic experience. The Searcher has lots of fully-developed characters and lots of storylines. So, I think a TV series will do much better justice to that than a movie could.

As to whether I get to write some of the episodes I would love to, but I already have a full-time job writing the novels. If I could make it work with my schedule, and if Appian wanted me to work on it beyond my current creative producer capacity, I would certainly enjoy the whole 'coming full circle' nature of working in television again. We'll see.

Congratulations on writing The Searcher, a mesmerizing novel with literary, mystical and philosophical overtones, featuring a protagonist bound to become iconic in the annals of thrillerdom.

Mark Rubinstein's latest novel is The Lovers' Tango

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