Alex Michaelides, THE MAIDENS

Alex Michaelides, THE MAIDENS

Although both of Alex Michaelides’s two novels have been instant bestsellers, he still often doubts his writing ability as well as any potential success for his work. Alex shares how he relies on meditation to separate himself from negative thoughts before writing, and an intricate planning method known as mind mapping that he uses to physically lay out his novels. He also tells Zibby about how he made the switch from working as a screenwriter to a novelist and what he plans to work on next.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Alex. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Maidens.

Alex Michaelides: Thank you very much for having me. I’m very happy to be here.

Zibby: I’m sure you know this, but you are such a good writer. The quality of prose, it’s so immersive. You just can’t stop reading. It’s a mix not just of what’s going on and mystery of it, but also, the emotion behind it is so raw and relatable. I just loved it. That’s probably why you’re a number-one best-selling author.

Alex: That is so amazing to hear. Thank you very much. I’m apprehensive — of course, I am — because it’s my second novel. I put my heart and soul into the whole book. I really hope it works. I’m nervous. I won’t lie. It’s great to hear feedback like that. Thank you.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, no, it’s so good. Can you tell listeners what The Maidens is about?

Alex: The Maidens, it’s picking up on the same themes that preoccupied me with The Silent Patient and just preoccupy me generally, which is Greek mythology, psychology, and murder. It’s about a mysterious and charismatic Greek tragedy professor at Cambridge University who is suspected of murdering his students who are all members of a secret society known as The Maidens. Our heroine is a Greek group psychotherapist who became obsessed with proving the professor’s guilt even at the risk of endangering her own life.

Zibby: Wow, you have that nicely tied up. I love it. It’s perfect. There you go.

Alex: It’s a big part for me. I feel like until you can actually describe your own novel in a few sentences, it’s not clear enough in your own head. That’s a big belief of mine. I work very hard when I’m writing a novel to be able to refine it to a place where I feel like I can communicate it to somebody quickly.

Zibby: That’s true. As soon as I’m like, “Well, it’s about this, but then this, and then…,” then you’ve already lost the person.

Alex: You probably have to do that a lot as well, synthesize in just a few sentences, all the books that you read.

Zibby: I have to do it all the time, yeah. Whenever I recommend a book, it has to be — when it becomes like there’s another huge paragraph to get to the plot, I’m like, come on, what is it?

Alex: That’s when you know there’s a problem when you’re writing it. It’s true.

Zibby: That’s funny. Your book really talks about Sebastian and Mariana, this couple, it starts out that way, when Mariana has to figure out what’s happened with Zoe who’s on campus and finds out about this crime. Is it her friend? All of this intrigue. Before that, you go into what it’s like to have to go back to a place that you went so many times with someone you loved, which is something that happens to everybody and yet doesn’t get talked about all that often and here, was brought to life in such detail. There’s one paragraph I wanted to read quickly even just about death. You said, “Death was no stranger to Mariana. It had been her traveling companion since she was a child, keeping close behind her, hovering just over her shoulder. She sometimes felt she had been cursed as if by some malevolent goddess in a Greek myth to lose everyone she ever loved. It was cancer that killed her mother when she was just a baby and then years later, a horrific car crash.” I won’t give any more away. Just the fact that she feels so chased by grief and then what does she do on the train facing ghosts everywhere she goes? Tell me a little bit about that and where this is coming from.

Alex: I’m really glad you highlighted that passage because that passage is one of the few bits in the book that came to me just in one go as I was going for a walk. I just heard that in my head. I grabbed my phone and quickly wrote it down. It didn’t change. It was definitely something that was in my mind and in my subconscious. It’s a story about a woman who’s haunted by the ghosts of her past. The very first image to come to me of the book was, in these dream-like ways that things come into your head, was an image of a woman in a house going through her dead husband’s possessions and unable to throw anything away. Then that ended up being the first chapter of the novel. Then everything grew from there. I went into themes of lust, of love and loss with the Greek myth Persephone, but also the poetry of Tennyson. I tried to make it very romantic and thematic. The way I got into it personally was I went back to — I was a student at Cambridge. I left there about twenty years ago. In order to write this novel set there, I felt I had to revisit it in the way Mariana revisits it. While I was writing it, I would go and stay there for a period of four or five days at a time in a hotel. Then I’d walk my way through novel. I would be where she was meant to be at the time when she was meant to be there. She’s meant to be in the pub at nine PM on a Thursday. I would go at nine on a Thursday. I’d take a little notebook. I’d write down what I was seeing and smelling. I thought that it would be a kind of atmospheric notetaking, but the weirdest thing happened. In the way that she’s haunted by her ghosts, I started to be haunted by my own ghosts, lovers I’d lost or friends I’d lost or even myself at eighteen. The more days that I spent on my own going around this city where I’d been so happy twenty years earlier, the sadder and sadder I got.

Zibby: Oh, no.

Alex: But I was able to channel all of this into her character. It was a real exciting revelation for me in terms of writing the book. I think that’s the only way that I can write, is to try and become the person that I’m writing about. It worked out well in the end.

Zibby: Wow. Okay, so maybe the trick is just to go where your heart broke and mine that space and place and then throw it into somebody else’s.

Alex: I’ve always been really influenced or inspired by sadness and romantic sadness. I guess that explains why there’s so many heartbroken love songs in the world. We’ve all lost somebody that we love, and so we can all relate to that.

Zibby: Can you share somebody that you’ve lost?

Alex: Many people, and not just romantic love, relatives, my grandparents. Friends of mine have died over the years. They stay with you in your heart. One journalist asked me if it was a kind of exorcism, this book, which is an interesting choice of word. It wasn’t. It was more like a kind of therapeutic catharsis, I feel. At the end of it, I felt that I’d let go of a lot of stuff that I’ve been carrying around for a long time.

Zibby: Aside from your immersive research, what other tricks, if you will — tell me more about the process of how you put this together. Just tell me the whole process because it sounds really interesting.

Alex: The kind of books I write, I think it’s all about the architecture. It’s about the crime, investigation, and solution. I think that you can hold a lot within that structure. That structure gives you the basis that’s going to hold your house. I think of it as like a magic trick as well, a game that you’re playing with the reader. The reader willingly enters into this relationship with you when you write a mystery or a thriller. They’re like, okay, I’m going to go on this journey with you, and I expect you to be one step ahead of me. The reader often tries to get one step ahead of you, and so it’s like a little dance that you have. The way I think of it is that there are two stories. There’s the apparent story, which is the detective story. That’s the story we’re reading. Then there is the secret story that I’m telling at the same time, which is the story of the murder. Then they come together at the end of the book. There’s all these kinds of different things to bear in mind when you’re plotting a mystery like this.

The way that I do it is a technique called mind mapping, which I’ve used for years. It really works for me. I tape together many, many sheets of paper on the floor. Then I just start in the middle with one point, like Mariana going through Sebastian’s things. Then it makes me think of something else. I draw an arrow. Then I write that. Then I draw another arrow to something else that pops into my head and several arrows all over the place. The reason it works is because when I try to write in a linear list of a plot, I get stuck. My mind can’t hold this in my head because I’ve got arrows going down the side of the page and writing that’s upside and stuff like that. Somehow, it frees up my imagination. Then you end up with this vast cobweb in front of you which tells you the whole story. Then the tricky thing is to sit down with a laptop and try and put it into some kind of order. That’s a bit difficult. It’s a really fun creative process.

Zibby: Do you have pictures of your spiderweb?

Alex: I do. It’s on Instagram, actually.

Zibby: Oh, it is? Oh, my gosh, I’m so sorry. I was actually thinking to myself, I should’ve — anyway, I’m sorry for not seeing it ahead of time. I’ll dig and find it.

Alex: It’s a way back, I think, because I did that fairly on in the beginning of the process.

Zibby: This love of writing and building mysteries, essentially, where did this all come from? When did you start liking to write? How did you know you wanted to do this? When did you know you wanted to do this? What was it like when you were a kid? All that.

Alex: It’s funny because before we started filming, the first thing I said to you was, “Wow, look at your bookcase.” Like Mariana’s mom in the novel, my mom’s English. She is a real bookworm. She brought all of these books to our house. I grew up in a house that was just full of books in every room. The living room had shelves covering all the walls that were full of books, and not just any books, but she had really good taste. They were great books. Pretty much all of the writers that influenced me and made me want to be a writer like Margaret Atwood or Charles Dickens or Henry James or whoever were taken off the shelf by my mom and presented to me when I was a teenager or whatever. That’s one side of it. The other side was that the books that actually made me want to become a writer, really, were the Agatha Christie classic thrillers that my sister had in her room. I think my mom was too much of a snob to read those books. I snuck into my sister’s room when I was thirteen. I just liked the covers of these crazy-looking books. I took one down.

Then I spent one summer on the beach in Cyprus just devouring her books one after the other, after the other, after the other. I knew then and there, I must have been twelve or thirteen, I remember saying to myself, one day, I want to write a detective story like this that I can read on the beach. That has always been my motivation. That’s the reason I wrote The Silent Patient. When I got The Silent Patient in a decent-enough shape, I printed it out and I took it to the beach. I sat with my rosé bottle of wine in Spain, and I read it. I was really happy, really properly. It’s the first time I’d read something that made me really happy that I’d written. When I got a little bit lost with The Maidens initially and felt a lot of pressure after the unexpected success of the first book, I thought, okay, I have to bring it right back down to that kid on the beach again and just try and write something for myself to read. That really works for me as a brief. It’s funny. You’re kind of removing all the other voices in your head.

Zibby: That’s really all it comes down to. You have to write something you want to write and you want to read. Otherwise, why are we doing this? If you try to play to the market or make sure you’re pleasing this person or that person —

Alex: — I think that was why I found screenwriting so heartbreaking and difficult. That’s a really good point you’re making. Every idea I had — I was working with a director, for example — would be second-guessed by him. He’d be like, “People won’t get that joke.” It’s interesting. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Fleabag by Phoebe Waller-Bridge. When I first saw that on television, I just sat up. I was like, wow, she’s not worrying about if people aren’t smart enough to get her jokes. She’s just making her jokes. I thought, how brilliant and brave of her. There’s an element of that where with screenplays or films, you’re trying to pander to an audience the whole time. Whereas with novels, you can afford just to write to please yourself and hope enough people will like it.

Zibby: The problem, though, with screenplays, too, is nobody really knows. People like to believe they know because there’s so much on the line. There’s so much money invested in every project. Really, there’s something that you can’t predict about of all of the success. People just double-down. Oh, no, we know this. That’s what they say about all these books too. This type of book won’t sell. Really? That’s not true. Most might not, but that means that the person who’s willing to try and experiment and do something new and cool and original might be dissuaded.

Alex: The thing with screenplays is that they’re not considered a finished product in themselves. They’re just a means to an end. It’s kind of sad to write something or work so hard on something that no one’s ever going to read. It gets changed at the last minute by somebody else. I really do enjoy writing sentences. Writing a novel, at least you know that no one’s going to tear off a page and just throw it out without your permission. Editors try to sometimes.

Zibby: Writers, on the whole — not to say that this applies to you, necessarily, but I feel like people are pretty sensitive about their words. It’s your pride and joy. You write it. There’s a reason why, sometimes, you do it. To have somebody be so flippant about rejecting it, that just can’t feel good no matter how accomplished you are.

Alex: No, it doesn’t. I’m really glad that I kind of moved away from — I also think I’m better at writing books. I definitely get more out of it.

Zibby: When you’re actually doing the writing after you do your spiderweb and you figure out how you’re doing it, does it all just come pouring out now that you’ve figured out how to do it? Do you labor over each sentence?

Alex: Sentences come later. I trained at the American Film Institute as a screenwriter. I was really lucky to have an amazing teacher there who was a Disney writer. He would always say to us, “Don’t waste time on drafts. Drafts take a long, long time. If you’re going to write countless drafts of a novel, it’s going to take you forever.” He would say, “Spend a year working on the outline.” That’s what I’ve always done. I’ll take my spiderweb and I’ll type it out. Then I’ll keep revising that document through six months to a year, sometimes longer, just over it and over it and over it, and adding a little bit more and adding a little bit more, and trying to find a better way to make a point or a beat. Then that document expands and expands. Then it ends up becoming a very short first draft. Then I will sit down. I will then break it down into chapters and start working on the sentences and the prose. It’s about the story for me, is the most important thing as opposed to the pretty language. I think that if you have pretty language without a story, then it doesn’t really go very far. It’s a long, drawn-out process. The spiderweb is probably the most fun part of it. After that, it then becomes this process of trying to realize this moment of inspiration. No matter how hard you try, you can never quite get it as good as you want it to be. It’s this element of frustration that starts creeping in.

Zibby: Did you really not expect the book to be a success?

Alex: The first one?

Zibby: Yeah, the first one.

Alex: No. I didn’t even have an agent at that point. I’d been dropped by my last film agent. I was just thinking, okay, before I really do quit this — I had this whispering voice at the back of my head for twenty years saying, write a detective story, write a detective story. I don’t know anything about detectives, but I had trained to be a therapist. Although, I didn’t qualify. I also worked in a psychiatric unit. I do know a bit about therapists. I thought I could make a therapist my detective instead. Then I can actually write something that I know about. Then once I had that idea, it clicked. Then I wrote the novel just to see if I could write it. I worked on it after it was ready for another six months or so because I was so scared about letting it go. It had been such a pleasurable experience, writing this book. All I’d ever had, pretty much, as a screenwriter was rejections. You get so used to it. I thought, I just don’t want to go through this again because then I’ll really have to give up my dream of being a writer. It was a friend who finally was the first person to read it, just said, “Okay, you have to try and get an agent because it’s ready now.” I did. Even that, I remember it took a couple of drinks before I wrote to this agent that I found online who ended up becoming my agent. I was so afraid of someone reading it. Then from there, it’s been a dream since then.

Zibby: Wow. What was it like when you first got an inkling that it was going to do amazingly well?

Alex: I didn’t have an inkling until it happened. It came out in London the week before it came out in America. When it came out in London, my local bookshop, which is five meters away, didn’t even stock a copy of it. I’d been expecting something. Not to even be in a bookstore, I was just like, oh, wow, this is really depressing. Then a week later, I was dog sitting. I went out for a walk at eleven PM with the dogs. I left my phone at home. That gives you a marker of how depressed I was feeling. There’s no point. Then I got back, and it was like my phone had exploded, all these messages from Celadon in New York saying, “Call us. Call us. Call us,” and messages from my agent saying, “Call me.” I spoke to Ryan, my editor. He said, “It’s gone in at number one on The New York Times list.” I swore at him because I thought he was trying to wind me up. I didn’t believe it. I was kind of walking on air for the next week, but it took a long time for it to — I was in a state of shock, if that makes sense. People kept telling me, “You must be really happy. You must be really happy.” I was like, “I can’t feel anything.” It took about a year before I started smiling and feeling like, oh, wow, this is great. Since then, I’ve relished it. It’s been so much fun. It was a real adjustment going from zero and having no agent, nothing, and feeling like a failure to suddenly, this overnight success. I’d been working towards that success from the age of twenty to forty. I’m glad it didn’t happen at twenty. I don’t think I could’ve handled it then.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, your story gave me goosebumps. That’s amazing. I’m so excited to hear that. That’s everyone’s dream. Don’t give up.

Alex: You don’t think it’s going to happen. When it does happen, then you really don’t believe it. It just feels like a dream, but it’s great.

Zibby: That’s amazing.

Alex: Now I get to write more books, which is the really good part.

Zibby: Tell me what you’re working on now. What are you working on now?

Alex: After I wrote The Maidens — it was a difficult book to write, not just because it’s — I wanted to try and write something different. I didn’t want to write another small thing with six characters in a psychiatric unit. I could’ve done that. I thought, if I want to grow as a writer, I want to write on a bigger canvas, more characters, more complicated plot, a bigger story, a darker story. I really tried to push myself. There were times when I was writing it when I was just thinking, wow, am I trying to do too much here? This is a bit overwhelming. Plus, the pressure that I did feel for the second book, I figured that I would be hugely burnt out at the end of The Maidens and not want to write anything. For whatever reason, it just really freed me up. I feel kind of buoyant and happy and light. The moment I finished writing it, I started writing something else pretty much the next day. It’s something that I’m writing differently. I’m trying not to plan it the way I normally do in that crazy, obsessive way. I’m trying to rediscover a joy for writing by just going to the laptop each day and seeing where the story’s going to take me. I have no idea if it’s going to work or not. I think it’s a marker that I’m feeling very relaxed and happy, that I’m able to relinquish my control. All that comes from fear, doesn’t it, when you’re trying to control every aspect of the story and plan it obsessively? It means underneath, on some level, you’re kind of terrified. Having succeeded and written a second novel, I feel quite proud of the accomplishment. Now I feel quite relaxed in thinking, okay, now I’m ready to call myself a writer, not just a fluke. Now I can keep going on with more stuff. I’m feeling very inspired at the moment. It’s a really nice feeling.

Zibby: That’s amazing. So no spiderweb for this one?

Alex: No, no spiderweb.

Zibby: Forget the whole process. Forget everything you said.

Alex: I have got an idea for a very complicated thriller for the next book. I don’t know what’s going to be my next book. I know I’m going to need to spiderweb that one and plan it all out. I think this one is just to kind of — Stephen King always says once you finish a novel, then try and write something really fast just for the hell of it. Some of his best stuff, he said, has come out of that space. That’s why I did it. I thought, okay, that’s an interesting idea.

Zibby: It’s like your rebound relationship.

Alex: Yes, it is. Hopefully, it won’t end in a bad way. It might end in the police being called.

Zibby: What advice would you have if somebody was just starting out and maybe even just to tackle all the fear that you talked about? I don’t know if you’ve seen, there’s this new Disney — I don’t know if you have kids. There’s this new Disney movie that just came out called Luca. I can’t believe I’m talking about this. One of the characters has all this fear. They come up with this expression that they have to say all the time, which is something like — now, of course, I can’t remember that either. It’s something like, silencio, Bruno. Every time they go and do something tough, this kid Luca has to say, silencio, Bruno, silencio, Bruno. It’s like, how do you do that for the writing? How do you stop the fear and let yourself get in that flow state that you’re almost talking about with this next novel?

Alex: That could be me, that character. The first thing I would say is just to keep going and just to persevere, really. I suffer from anxiety. I always have. I’ve got a lot better with it now. I have a lot of negative critical thoughts that will never go away. I’m aware of that. The whole time that I was writing The Silent Patient, every day, I would hear a voice saying, this is rubbish. It’s trash. Just forget it. Give up. Sometimes I would just forget the whole thing for two or three months because I was like, this is hopeless. Something kept me going. That’s my biggest point. I would encourage budding writers just to keep going. Keep going. It worked out for me. If I’d given up, none of this would’ve happened. You have to keep going. That’s the most important rule. The way that I deal with the negative voices is I meditate a lot. I meditated before I wrote any single word every day for The Silent Patient. I did the same thing for The Maidens. When you meditate, somehow, it creates a little gap, a little bit of a distance between you and your negative thoughts. They still appear when I sit down to write, but instead of being overwhelmed by them, I’m able to acknowledge them. Okay, here I am thinking this is rubbish again, and then push them to one side and at least write for half an hour before the next lot of negative thoughts bombard me. I think without meditation, I wouldn’t be able to do that. It’s crazy to hear myself talking like this. It makes me realize that we are our own worst enemies. I’m so encouraging and supporting of everybody around me. I’m so hard on myself. It’s so dumb. If we could be a bit nicer to ourselves and a bit more supportive, I think life would be easier, and not just writing.

Zibby: Yes, I’m sure you’re right. I completely relate to that. I do the whole visualization with the negative thoughts coming as the weather.

Alex: That’s great. That’s really good.

Zibby: The clouds are coming in. Now they’re going out. Okay, here comes the rainstorm. I’m just going to watch the fact that it’s raining. I can’t really do anything about it, but I’m just going to wait until the rain is over.

Alex: You know that on the other side of those clouds there is a clear, blue sky. It’s important to remember that.

Zibby: You just have to wait until they go by.

Alex: Until they pass, yeah. They will pass because nothing lasts forever. It helped me a lot as well.

Zibby: I can’t meditate. I can’t even do it. I’ve failed. I fail meditation. I know that means I need it more than anybody, but I can’t even get the benefits. I’m too high-strung or something. Awesome. Alex, it was so nice to chat with you. I’m really excited about your book. I can’t wait to read everything that you write going forward. I’m so glad I got to hear from you, your amazing journey. It’s really inspiring and amazing. Thanks for being so open about your emotions and your life. It’s really great. Thank you.

Alex: It’s a pleasure. Thank you. I hope I get to talk to you again. Maybe for the next one.

Zibby: Next one, come on back. Anytime.

Alex: I will be.

Zibby: You’ve got the mic. Take care. Have a great day. Buh-bye.

Alex: You too. Take care. Buh-bye.

Alex Michaelides, THE MAIDENS

THE MAIDENS by Alex Michaelides

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