Screenwriter debuts 'cinematic' novel at 62

Terry Hayes' 'I am Pilgrim' publishes in North America on June 9

“Movies are a team sport now,” says Terry Hayes, “and I want to play singles.” That’s why an extremely successful screenwriter has opted for a new medium for his latest project, a debut novel at age 62. Maybe he should have started sooner.

The Australian’s I am Pilgrim, which publishes in North America on June 9, was an enormous success in Britain last year and preliminary reviews here have also tended to the five-star variety. There’s a superhero (more-or-less)—American agent Pilgrim was even adopted by kindly billionaires—who literally wrote the book on forensic murder investigation, a book someone uses to check off what he needs to do after he murders a woman in a rundown New York apartment. (The corpse is left toothless, as well as faceless and fingerprint-less in a bathtub full of acid.) And there’s a supervillain—the jihadi doctor known as the Saracen is a “clean skin” (no record) genius. The two face off in a superbly paced race against time in locales around the world. If Pilgrim loses, an incurable smallpox epidemic will ravage his country. It sounds wonky, to put it mildly, but reads like a dream. And it offers a nuanced treatment of torture in the name of good. “I used to be a journalist. I read a lot about waterboarding. I wouldn’t have done it to the bad guy—too easy for people to accept. But our hero? Something for people to think about.”

Less surprisingly, I am Pilgrim is as cinematic as a 600-page novel can be. Hayes is still dreaming of a film version, of course, but he’s well aware of the changes in the film world. When he was writing the screenplay for Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior  in 1981 or even Dead Calm (1989), Hayes says, “you could hope your voice would come through. Not lately though—the Disney Pocahontas movie had 28 credited screenwriters.”

Now Hayes thinks he has to prove he has a built-in audience for his story, declaring J.K. Rowling’s Hollywood blockbusters would have gone nowhere if she’d written Harry Potter as a screenplay. “There would have been a meeting, people on the business side would have come up with a list of wizard movies that had failed at the box office—I can’t imagine where they would have found the list, but they would have found it—someone would ask the killer question: what would it cost? The answer, $150 million or so, would have sunk it.” Hayes won’t be selling his story to anyone who isn’t an A-list director or a serious star: “They’re the only ones who can make everyone else listen to them, and make sure a single voice prevails.”