Pilgrim's progress: Terry Hayes

Pilgrim's progress: Terry Hayes

Something dawned on Terry Hayes when he was around 150 pages into writing his début novel I Am Pilgrim,  a creeping realisation he had never felt in his 25 years as a Hollywood screenwriter: “I said to myself: ‘Shit, there’s going to be nowhere to hide.’ That thought paralysed me for days.”

The England-born, Australia-raised Hayes—whose Tinseltown career includes writing the final two “Mad Max” movies, the Mel Gibson thriller “Payback” and “From Hell”, the Johnny Depp vehicle based on Alan Moore’s Jack the Ripper graphic novel—explains that the nature of filmmaking is that there is always someone else to whom blame can be apportioned if a movie fails. “There’s the director, the actors, the studio people. If worst comes to worst you can even blame the guy who wrote the music: ‘It would’ve worked, except for that terrible score.’ With novels, there are no excuses.”

I am Pilgrim

Pilgrim is one of the titular hero’s many codenames. He’s a young, brainy CIA operative who heads up an elite espionage unit, but after a double-whammy of a deal gone awry and the 9/11 attacks, he resigns. In the succeeding decade he lives a retired, semi-clandestine life, and writes a book on forensic criminal investigation, which becomes a bible for homicide detectives.

Pilgrim is brought out of retirement by his friend Ben, an NYPD cop, who is working an almost unsolvable case in which the killer, it transpires, used Pilgrim’s tome as a textbook to plan the perfect murder. That case plunges Pilgrim back into the spy game, leading him to uncover a plot by the world’s deadliest terrorist—codenamed the Saracen—who is planning to commit mass murder in the West with biological weapons.

In I Am Pilgrim, The deadly cat-and-mouse game played between Pilgrim and the Saracen has plenty of action, but at its heart the drama is cerebral and rich in character, a battle of wills and intellect which is more George Smiley than Jason Bourne. This is intentional. “A lot of modern thriller writing unfortunately has been affected deeply by film,” Hayes says.

“I think I can speak with a degree of authority . . . today, the biggest driving force of movies is pace; God help you if you try to put in a scene that is about character and not plot. That has affected a lot of novelists; you end up with these relentlessly paced stories that are light on character. When I decided to write this novel, I wanted the lead character to be nuanced and fully rounded—when you do that with the lead, you have to do it with the other characters as well.”

Mad Max

Hayes had wanted to be a novelist since childhood, but “got diverted a bit” by movies. His family emigrated to Australia when he was young and he became obsessed by books, reading to escape his loneliness. He began his writing career as a journalist, and at the tender age of 21 landed a job with the Sydney Morning Herald as the US correspondent, where he covered Watergate and Richard Nixon’s resignation.

As a high-profile journalist – “it doesn’t take much to get a high profile in Australia” – he came into contact with the great and the good, including filmmaker George Miller, who had just directed the first Mad Max movie, and asked Hayes to join as a screenwriter.

While it hadn’t been Hayes’ intention to get into movies, he hit it off with Miller and subsequently worked with his production company for much of his Hollywood career. Hayes somewhat sheepishly admits why he stayed in the film industry so long: “The problem with movies is you are over-rewarded for the work you do. It’s hard to give up and I got used to a certain lifestyle. But then I reached an age when I said: ‘Well, if I’m going write a novel I’d better hurry up.’”

Hayes knew he had made it as a screenwriter during the release of the third Mad Max movie. He was in Paris and turned a corner on to the Champs-Élysées when he saw a massive two-storey, block-wide Mad Max poster across the street. But just getting a book deal for I am Pilgrim, he says, is the high point of his career to date. “Its really humbling, a humbling thing. I’ve always wanted to be a novelist and now I am part of that world in a very small way.”

I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes is published by Bantam Press.