He wrote The Silent Patient, and now he tells us what he’s afraid of…
Almost every year, there is a crime novel or thriller that reaches so far and wide – frequently propelled by enthusiastic word of mouth – that it becomes a kind of phenomenon. And so, to the ranks of Before I Go To Sleep, Gone Girl, and The Girl On The Train, we can now add Alex Michaelides’s superb psychological thriller The Silent Patient. It debuted at No.1 on the New York Times bestseller list, and has stayed in the top ten for over half a year. He has a background in psychotherapy and has worked at a secure unit for young adults, and is now an internationally bestselling thriller writer. The Silent Patient has captured the imagination of audiences worldwide. So what scares Alex himself? Over to him.
- Were you scared of the dark as a child? If not, was there anything else you were frightened of?
I wasn’t scared of the dark – probably because I had more tangible fears. I grew up in Cyprus after the Turkish invasion in 1974. Rumours of a second invasion were always in the air, making it hard to ever fully relax. I used to worry about what would happen to our dogs if there were another invasion, not to mention our house and our belongings. I sometimes wonder if growing up in that environment attracted me to writing thrillers. I was certainly always afraid.
- What’s the most frightening thing that’s ever happened to you?
I think fear is mostly about a loss of control – and the moments I have personally been most afraid have been when a situation is out of control and I have been powerless to affect it. Once I got lost hiking in the Sequoia forest, and stayed lost for six hours. It was starting to get dark and I had completely lost my bearings. It’s the only time in my life when I started to seriously consider that I might not get out of this alive. I was only found because I gave into desperation, or fear, if you like, and climbed onto a rock and started screaming for help. Miraculously I was heard and eventually rescued. That was pretty scary.
- Do you use writing to help deal with your fears and concerns about yourself or the world?
I think I do, yes. When I was writing The Silent Patient it became apparent to me that writing about being invaded and attacked in your own home – and also by your own psyche – was in fact a way of working through my own fears and preoccupations. I think that’s always a marker that you’re tapping into something meaningful – when your own unconscious fears and anxieties end up on the page without you having intended it.
- Why do you think readers enjoy being frightened?
It’s something I’ve thought about a lot. Alfred Hitchcock said movies and books allow us the experience of being frightened – the thrill, and adrenaline rush – without actual danger. He gave rollercoasters in fairgrounds as an example, and I think he’s right. It provides a kind of relief – a little like the pity and fear we experience in catharsis in Greek Tragedy.
- Do you personally enjoy frightening fiction? If so, what’s your favourite scary book or film, and why?
Not a lot of fiction really scares me – and what does has very little to do with monsters or horror; unless it’s psychological horror, a kind of insidious possibility of danger that plays out in your mind. A book that really scared me was And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie. I read it at twelve years old and it scarred me for life. I remember staying awake all night because I was too scared to fall asleep. And then I read The Turn of the Screw by Henry James on a three-hour bus journey when I was a teenager – and the ghosts getting nearer and nearer to the heroine just terrified me. Since then, I have tried a couple of times to write something as unsettling, inspired by both these books – and hopefully one day I will succeed!
I confess: Alex’s answer to the first question here pulled me up a little and made me rethink things.
Were you scared of the dark as a child? When I was working out what I wanted to ask people, I decided very early on to start all the interviews with this particular question. There were two reasons for that.
The first is that I personally was very scared of the dark as a child. I grew up in an old Victorian house that had been converted into four flats, each of which was basically just a long corridor with a front room at one end, and then doors leading off all the way along. My bedroom was close to the far end, and at night I would lie awake for ages in the darkness and silence, feeling a long way away from my family in the front room, the door there closed and the sound muffled. The far end of the flat – the one I was closest to – always felt quiet and full and ominous. I didn’t even dare call out, because I knew that whatever was lurking there would get to me before my parents could.
The second reason is simply that it seems like such a universal childhood fear.
But reading Alex’s answer, and thinking about it more carefully now, I wonder about that. Remembering my own childhood, which was a safe and happy one, the question begins to seem a little naïve and frivolous to me: perhaps a careless or even dangerous one to ask someone you don’t know.
Because here’s the thing. As scared as I might have been as a child, the reality was that I never had anything to be afraid of. And in that sense, being carefree enough to be scared of the dark might actually be considered a blessing. There was never anything really at the far end of the flat, and so my terror at the time was actually a luxury: something that, looking back, is probably even something to cherish. How lucky I was to be scared of the dark. To bring this whole thing at least vaguely back to the beginning, while I didn’t realise it at the time, I was only ever on a rollercoaster.
A huge thank you to Alex for answering my questions – and also, once again, to the other writers who have taken part, to everybody who’s read along, and to Strand Magazine for allowing me to guest edit their site for a week. It’s been fun. Don’t be scared, sleep well, and I hope to see you all again at some point.