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Simon Toyne
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An introduction to me...

I’ve been hooked on thrillers ever since I picked up my dad’s dog-eared copy of Alistair MacLean’s ‘The Satan Bug’ and discovered there was more to life than Paddington Bear and Roald Dahl.  But the journey towards actually becoming a writer of such stories was a gradual one.

At first I wanted to be an actor, until a degree in English and Drama at Goldsmith’s College in London made me realise I really didn’t.  Actors told other people’s stories.  I wanted to tell my own.  So now I had a new dream.  I wanted to write screenplays and direct films.

To try and achieve this slightly ambitious goal I wrote and directed a few shorts and produced a couple of full-length screenplays that were designed to be my ticket to the big time.  To fund this work I also freelanced in television, starting as a runner in an editing facility in Soho making tea and toast for people, then gradually working my way up the production ladder.  My show-reel of self-produced, self-written, directed and edited films got me noticed and I suddenly found myself a director, aged 25.  The master plan was working.  Surely the step from TV director to feature film-helmer was just around the corner.

Fifteen years later and I’m staring down the barrel of forty.  I’m a fairly successful TV producer with a good track record, particularly as a scriptwriter, and a good job in a leading UK independent production company.  I’m married with two kids.  I’m not going to direct feature films.  But I still have the ambition to tell a big story.  But when am I going to find the time?

My eldest is about to start school and I know that once she does I’ll be locked in a cycle of school terms and holidays.  If I ever want to write something big – now is the time.  But not a screenplay.  A screenplay is just the beginning of something.  I need to write something that once written is a finished thing.  I also need to write something commercial.  I can’t afford to take time off from a well-paid career and turn my back on my responsibilities as a husband and father on some kind of self-indulgent creative whim.  We had enough savings for me to take a sabbatical.  After that the dream was over.

So, a couple of ideas in my head and the fear of failure lighting a huge fire beneath me, I quit my job and moved with my family to France for seven months with the intention of writing a commercial thriller.  We nearly didn’t make it at all.

Setting sail on the midnight ferry to Dieppe on Dec 1st 2007 a force eight gale battered the ship, destroying not only the entire contents of the duty free shop but also any hope we had of sleeping in our tin-box cabin.  Consequently we arrived in France, exhausted but relieved to be alive, with all plans of driving for eight hours to our new home flapping tattered in the wind.  We limped inland, to Rouen, where in the pre-dawn light, I saw the twisted spires of the cathedral rising up into the lightening sky, and a new idea started to form.

As it turned out I only managed to write a third of my novel during our time in France.  We returned, as planned, when the money ran out.

My little girl started school and I went back to work freelancing at the same TV production where I’d once held a nice, safe, staff job.  It took another year and a half of writing in the evenings and in between bouts of more paid TV work to finish the book, which ended up being called SANCTUS. To date it has been translated into 27 languages, published in over 50 countries, and was the biggest selling debut thriller of 2011 in the UK and an international bestseller - as were The Key and The Tower, the next two books in the Sanctus trilogy. In the summer of 2013 I signed a new five book deal for Solomon Creed, a new action-thriller series following a man with no past and no memories on an epic journey of redemption. He may even make his way to Rouen, or possibly Ruin. I haven’t decided yet. His past is unknown - his future, unwritten…


'High concept, debut conspiracy thrillers don't come with higher expectations than this. Hard to think of it as a debut, better to think of it as the beginning of a massive new adventure, and a so-long to Dan Brown.'


View: Sanctus

'Intriguing and engaging ... Relentless pace. An exciting and interesting read. I look forward to returning to Ruin, where there are plenty of stories waiting to be told.'


View: Sanctus

'A cool, confident debut ... with pace, grace and a keen eye for cinematic effect.'


View: Sanctus

'If a thriller has to be one thing it's thrilling, and Simon Toyne's Sanctus is thrilling with bells on....A roller coaster ride through a dark world of conspiracy and betrayal.'

PAUL CHRISTOPHER, author of The Templar Conspiracy

View: Sanctus

'A fast moving, thoroughly enjoyable, adventure - plenty of action, plenty of intrigue and a wonderfully imaginative reinterpretation of a slice of religious history. The sort of novel to devour in one sitting'.

KATE MOSSE, author of Labyrinth

View: Sanctus


Chin Wag at the Slaughterhouse: An Interview with Simon Toyne

Writing Religious Thrillers And Storytelling Lessons

Simon Toyne: An Accidental Trilogist

An interview with Simon Toyne, author of The Sancti Trilogy

Ten Terrifying Questions from Australia's Booktopia Blog

1. Where were you born? Raised? Schooled?

I was born in an out-of-the-way, seaside town called Cleethorpes in the north east of England. I lived there until I was 9 then began a gradual migration south, ending up at Goldsmiths College in London where I studied English and Drama.

2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?

At twelve, I wanted to be an actor because it seemed glamorous and exciting; at eighteen I wanted to be a film director for the same reasons; at thirty I wanted to be married to a beautiful woman and have a couple of fantastic kids. (Only one of these dreams came true).

3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?

That England would win the world cup in my lifetime.

4. What were three works of art – book or painting or piece of music, etc – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer?

Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back – the definitive popular cultural works of my generation. (I’m counting these as one choice as you can easily watch them back-to-back with enough caffeine and sugar and a wee break in the middle).

The Silence of the Lambs, by Thomas Harris. The textbook for the modern thriller. Beautifully written, so well put together. I read it when it first came out and re-read it when I was writing my first novel to see how he dealt with the mechanics of things like suspense and action. I’m about a third of the way through book two of the Sanctus trilogy and just read it again to keep myself honest. I think this may become a small ritual.

Hamlet, William Shakespeare. I studied it at school and still find myself referencing it. It’s also the one play I’ve seen performed more than any other and it still manages to deliver a great night out.

5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?

I had carved a pretty successful career as a TV executive, but was feeling creatively underwhelmed. I also had a family to support, so I couldn’t just go off on some kind of artistic ramble to make myself feel better. Writing a commercial thriller seemed like a good option. I’ve always loved them and I’d spent nearly twenty years in a very commercial background so understood what was required to hook an audience and put the pieces of a story in the right order. So I took a sabbatical and wrote the first third ofSanctus. It took another year and a half to finish it, writing at weekends and in between freelance TV work.

6. Please tell us about your latest novel…

Sanctus is a contemporary, extremely fast paced thriller that will appeal to readers who love writers like Robert Harris, Lee Child, and Dan Brown.

At its heart is a woman’s search to find out what happened to her brother, set against one of the most fundamental and best-known stories of humankind. It takes the point of view that, as the victors write the history books, the church has given us its own version of Genesis and it’s not necessarily the truth.

7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?

I hope they take away their litter.

8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?

I admire anyone who can arrange words on a page in such a way that I feel compelled to turn it and see what’s on the next one.

9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?

I have a slight issue with the word ‘artist’? To me it suggests a kind of creativity born of some sort of intense, divine inspiration. Writing is a craft. You have to work at it. You have to put the hours in. My goal is simply to make sure whatever I’m working on ends up in the best shape possible.

10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?

Write. Read. Re-write. Repeat.

2012 Q&A with Worthing Book Network

I’ve recently read your début novel Sanctus, which was published in over 50 countries, translated into 28 languages and was the biggest selling début thriller of 2011.Were you aware immediately after publication how successful the book was going to become?

Not at all. I knew publishers liked it because a lot of countries had bought the rights to publish it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the public would like it. With any book there’s a certain lining up of the planets that needs to happen for it to become successful. Some of this you can control – like the writing, the look of the book cover, the way it is marketed etc. – but the crucial bit, the making people buy it and read it and like it, is entirely in the lap of the gods. When the hardback of Sanctus came out in the UK I was half expecting it to sink without trace, despite all of the amazing efforts of everyone at HarperCollins and my brilliant agent, and I imagined I would have to do the literary equivalent of washing dishes for years to pay them all back. Fortunately it went into the Sunday Times bestseller charts, the paperback did better and The Key did even better than that – so, so far so good. But I still feel responsible (and hugely grateful) to all those people who took a risk on an unknown author. You can never underestimate the luck factor in all of this.

Your second novel, The Key, is next on my ‘To Read’ list and already I can’t wait for the 3rd act. Did you always have the idea of a trilogy or did it develop that way?

I started with the idea for Sanctus and it just grew in the writing. At its heart, Sanctus takes a parallel view of the first book of Genesis and as I was writing I kept thinking of all the other stories in Genesis – the Tower of Babel, the flood, Cain and Abel – and they started to bleed into the narrative. But as a first time author with no publisher and no agent I realized that the story was getting too big so I just focused on the initial idea and put all the other thoughts in a file. It was only when Sanctus sold that the discussion of what I was going to write next turned back to these notes and how the big story I had been drifting towards could become a trilogy with book one (Sanctus) focusing on the main female character (Liv), book two (The Key) on the male character (Gabriel) and book three on how both of their fates intertwine with fairly epic consequences.

Once you have released the third (as yet untitled) book, do you think you are likely to stay in this genre? Or could you see yourself writing the next 50 Shades for example?

When I set out to write Sanctus I didn’t think in terms of genre, I just wanted to write the best book I could and tell the most interesting story. As it happened, the best idea I had at that time was a conspiracy thriller with a religious mystery at its heart. So when the first draft of the third book is finished I’m going to open my book of notes and ideas and read through it and whatever strikes me as the best idea is the one I’m going to write. I have no idea what genre it will fall into, that will depend on the story and its needs, but it will definitely be a thriller of some sort because I think thrillers are actually the only genre, by definition, and everything else is just derivative. 1984 is a thriller, Bleak House is a thriller, Wuthering Heights is a thriller. If a book doesn’t thrill you on some emotional level then it’s just a bad book, no matter what name you give it.

It seems that anyone who writes an original thriller with religious undertones is going to be compared to Dan Brown (as you were by many of your reviewers). Was this on your mind while you were writing? How do you feel about the comparison now that you’re in print?

I understand the comparison because I understand the need to market a book and get it in the hands of a reader who is likely to enjoy it. As a debut author no one knows anything about you and so the easiest and quickest way to let people know what sort of things you write is to compare you to the most famous author writing in that area. If I’d written a legal thriller I would undoubtedly have been compared to John Grisham. And when I was writing Sanctus my only thought was to make it as good as possible in the hope that it might get published. Abstract thoughts about how it might be received and who I might be compared to if it got published didn’t even enter my mind.

Whose idea was the enhanced ebook and how much input did you have on that creative process?

The enhanced ebook was the idea of my UK publisher, HarperCollins and I was very hands on with the production of it. Before becoming a full time writer I worked for nearly twenty years as a producer and director in commercial television, so I’m used to commissioning music and other bits of added content. Because Sanctus is a very cinematic story they came up with the idea of giving it a musical score so we approached a company called CORD – who had been involved in the music for ‘The King’s Speech’ – and talked through some themes and they came up with different pieces of music that were embedded into the ebook. The book is divided into sections and at the start of each new section a piece of music plays, introducing a thematic mood in much the same way as film music works. It only plays at the start of the section, so it doesn’t become annoying. We also added interactive puzzles that mirror the clues that pop up in the story so you can try and solve them yourself, but first you have to unlock them using Apple’s three-touch technology. Here’s a video of it starring my hands.

Your writing is very visual. I wonder if we are likely to see the story on the screen and is this something that you would like to see happen?

I would love to see that happen. When I was younger I wrote screenplays (none of which got produced) and in some ways writing novels is my way of making a movie – you cast it, direct it, set design it, cut it, etc. Seeing a movie or, better still, a big HBO style series made of the Sanctus trilogy would be a dream come true.

How would you describe your writing process/style?

My process is simple. I just sit down every day for a set amount of hours and try and think about nothing but the story in front of me and try and end the day with more words on the page than when I started.My writing style comes out of trying to write as little as possible – that is I try and say as much as I can in as few words as I can get away with. This opens the door for the reader to do the work, which engages them with the story far more than if I did everything for them. This promotes a more visual style of storytelling because if I can conjure a picture in the reader’s head then I don’t have to describe every single detail and the pace stays brisk. Emotion is also key. If I can get the reader to feel something like fear for example then I don’t have to go to great lengths to describe what it feels like because they already know.

What do you enjoy most in the writing process?

I love the re-writing and editing process because this is where a book really comes together. Outlining the story and doing the first draft is tough, though there are bits of it I enjoy, but it’s very slow and laborious. Editing is a much faster and more exciting process.

If you could give away one book for others to enjoy (apart from one of yours), what would it be and why?

When I set out to write Sanctus I re-read lots of books I had admired and studied their technique so I could use some of it in my own writing. One of these books was ‘The Silence of The Lambs’ by Thomas Harris. Everyone remembers the film but the book is even better. It’s the perfect thriller. I re-read it again when I started writing ‘The Key’ and have just finished it again. It’s become something of a ritual at the start of each book, just to remind me where the bar is set and make me try harder. As a coda to this story, when Sanctus was published my agent said she had a publication present for me but was having trouble getting it. Over a year passed (and The Key was published too) then she finally handed over a book shaped gift. Inside was a first edition of ‘The Silence of The Lambs’. This in itself was a lovely gift, but when I opened it I saw that it had been signed by the near reclusive Thomas Harris – to me. I very nearly cried.

Paperback or e-book?

Both. It doesn’t matter how you read a story, so long as you’re reading.


1: Are there any rituals you have to do or items you must have with you while writing that draft?

I try and stick to the 1,000 words a day thing when I’m writing. My first drafts tend to end up at between 120-140,000 words long, so I know it should take me 140 days to produce a first draft - roughly 5-6 months including weekends and time off for good behaviour.

The only items I need are my laptop and food.

2: How important is research?

Research is as important to my process as a chair is, in that it helps immensely but the reader shouldn’t even be aware of it.

Normally I need to research something specific to help me shape the story up front, but then I research things as I go along as the story throws up new things I need to know. The first book of the Solomon Creed series is set in Arizona, for example, so I went there for a week, driving around, taking photos, talking to people, just getting a sense of the place and experiencing what it smelled and sounded like. You can look up pictures of the desert on the internet and even drive down the interstates with Street view but you have to go there yourself to know what the desert smells like in the rain.

One tip I would pass on to other writers, something that has helped stop me from being distracted by the potential rabbit-hole of research, is to make stuff up. If I’m in the flow of something I will switch to CAPS and make up what I hope the truth about something might be then I go back and check it later. Often my educated guess is pretty close to the truth. Sometimes it’s way off and the truth is much better. Occasionally the truth is really dull and so I stick to the thing I made up, possibly embellished by a few baubles of truth. I have a Post-It (one of many) on the wall of my office with a Tom Stoppard quote on it that reads - ‘Just because it’s true, doesn’t make it interesting.’

3: How long does it take you to write a first draft and how long does it take? And what shape is it in?

It takes around five to nine months and it always needs a lot of work.

4: What does your workspace look like?

I have an office with a big desk and shelves filled with books but I tend to work better if I convince myself that I’m actually bunking off so I don’t seem to spend that much time there. Lately I have got into a routine of dropping my two eldest kids off at school then spending the day in a lovely cafe in Brighton called Marmalade, which is conveniently owned by my friend Tania. I sit in the corner and they let me plug in and turn a blind eye to the fact that I make a flat white last for hours. I have lunch there too. It’s like an office with great coffee and good food. Nick Cave lives round the corner and he pops in sometimes too. I’ve noticed he favours the same table as me. Steve Coogan and David Dimbleby have also turned up from time to time - though never together.

5: You used to work as a television producer. What made you decide to shift from the screen to the page?

I’d wanted to write a book for as long as I can remember. Having said that I’d wanted to do lots of things, like direct a movie and play James Bond, so it would be misleading to categorise it as a sole, burning ambition. However, the older I got the more the lack of novel on my CV rankled more than all the other – less likely - ambitions. Increasingly I felt it was the one thing I would deeply regret if I never got round to it.

In terms of a specific event, when my son was born I was producing a series for Sky TV in my previous career as a director and producer. It was a big show and I was in charge so I wasn’t allowed any time off. I knew that a few months on I wouldn’t remember the show or what I was doing on it on those days but I would remember not being around for the first few weeks of my son’s life for the rest of my life. The desire to write a book and the birth of my son sort of collided and so I quit my job and gave myself six months to try and write something, figuring if I could somehow make it work then I could work from home and never miss a single important moment of my kids’ young lives ever again.

6: How has your career working in TV influenced you as an author?

Working in television taught me the discipline of being creative to a deadline, how to construct an engaging narrative, about pacing and intercutting. It also taught me about editing, which I think is the most under-developed part of most writers’ repertoire. Learning how to look at something and see what's working and what isn't then completely pulling it apart and putting it back together in a much better form is something that happens on a daily basis in television. All programmes are made in the edit and I think it's the same with books. First drafts are only really raw material but first time writers spend a lot of time, I think, assuming the first draft has got to be almost perfect and that the edit is only about tightening and correcting grammar. In truth, ninety percent of writing is re-writing. So TV taught me how to edit and not be precious about the material and for that I shall be forever in its debt.

7: Are the names of the characters in your novels important?

Very. Names are really important in general, it’s the hook upon which everything else hangs. Sometimes, if I give a character the wrong name then I can’t write them properly because they just don’t feel right. Equally, when my son was born, we called him Zachary, got a birth certificate and everything. Then, when he was about three months old, my wife and I both realized that he wasn’t a Zac at all, so we changed his name to Stanley. Apparently you’re allowed to change a child’s name once in their first year without having to bother with the whole deed poll thing. I guess it happens a lot

8: What's been your favourite moment in your writing career?

It has to be getting the call from my agent telling me she’d sold my first book for enough money so I could quit my job and write full-time.

9: What's the best thing about being a writer?

I love the re-writing and editing process because this is where a book really comes together. Outlining the story and doing the first draft is tough, though there are bits of it I enjoy, but it’s very slow and laborious. Editing is a much faster and more exciting process.

I genuinely love fiddling about with language and learning new things as I research different subjects for different books, and writing is definitely an amazingly profound form of therapy that enables me to explore things that would otherwise stay repressed or bubble up in more destructive ways, but the absolute best thing about being a writer is that I work from home. This means I can take my kids to school every day and I never miss a sports day or an assembly or a music concert and I can watch them grow up day by day. For me that is the absolute best thing by miles.

10: What has surprised you most about being a published author?

I’m still taken aback when I meet someone who’s actually read my book. It’s a bit like finding out a stranger has been rifling through your secret diary. I know it’s totally irrational but it still kind of freaks me out a little. You spend so long with the story and the characters just in your head that when it becomes public property takes a bit of getting used to. I’m getting better. I try not to back away now when someone says ‘Hey, loved your book.’

11: What have you found most difficult to deal with?

The solitude. Before becoming a full-time writer I was a TV producer, which is a very noisy, collaborative world to be in. I would have meetings with a whole load of other people and decisions would be made on what needed to be done then they would all go off and do it. Now I have a silent meeting with myself, decide what needs to be done, and I have to go and do all of it. Thank god for Twitter and Facebook, if it wasn’t for that it would be like being in solitary.

12: Did you ever anticipate international success of Sanctus, your first book?

I knew it was a good idea for a story but I had no idea if I could even write it well enough to do it justice, or whether it would even get published. I was hoping it might attract the attention of a good agent who would then help me make it better and that my second book might then be good enough to be published. Secretly I hoped Sanctus might get published but I was prepared for it not to be. I saw it as a learning process as much as anything. The critical and international success of it took me utterly but wonderfully by surprise.

13: What were your favourite books as a child and why?

I was a big Paddington fan. They’re the first books I can remember buying as they were published rather than dipping into existing series like Enid Blyton’s The Secret Seven. I remember buying Roald Dahl’s ‘Danny Champion of the World’ too. Every kid of my generation has to have a Roald Dahl in there somewhere, though. It’s the law.

14: Who are your literary influences?

I think any writer is influenced by all the books they read - good and bad. Bad books are useful when you're unpublished because they encourage you to think you could do better. Good books show you where the bar is.

For my first three books I re-read 'The Silence of the Lambs' by Thomas Harris before starting each one to inspire and educate. It's the perfect thriller I think, with 'Red Dragon' coming a close second. 'The Tower' is a bit of an homage to it in many ways with an FBI rookie agent swept up into a big investigation.

Stephen King is also a touchstone for my generation. When I was a kid we used to read his new books in the same way we listened to new albums, he was part of the culture. He's having a bit of a renaissance I think, I thought 'Mr. Mercedes' and 'Revival' were both getting back towards his best.

I read a lot of sic-fi when I was younger and still love John Wyndham and Richard Matheson. Dickens and Hardy for their rich landscapes and plots. Dylan Thomas for the language. Orwell for the steely clarity and precision.

Of more modern writers I'm a big fan of James Lee Burke, Dennis Lehane, John Irving, Michael Connelly, James Ellroy, Neil Gaiman, Phillip Pullman. I'm also a great admirer of Lee Child, who I think is a great prose stylist. There's a terse, musicality to his writing and I think it's one of the things that sets him apart from the crowd. He also shares my background in television so I can see a lot of the techniques in his writing that I use too. I steal a lot of stuff from Lee's books, and told him so once. His reply was - 'I steal all the time too so you're probably not stealing it from me anyway.’

15: When you decide to write something new, what is the first thing you do?

Take a deep, deep breath, like I’m about to start walking up a big mountain - because I am.

Normally before this deep breath I’ve been thinking about it for some while, going through old ideas files and reading and thinking a lot until the grit of something lodges in my head and starts accreting other thoughts and ideas so I start believing that it might - might - over a long period of time and patience end up as a pearl.

16: Do you have a set routine for writing a book?

I normally know the end of a book first, the destination point, and work backwards from there. I start to think about big things like where the story should take place and whom the story is about. Everything grows out of the needs of the story really. I come from a TV background so it has been ingrained in me to plan and work out the structure of things before attempting anything ‘creative’. Structure is crucial, it’s essential to good storytelling (imagine a joke with the punchline at the beginning) so I work on this as much as I can ahead of writing, working out the heartbeats of the story and trying to put them in the right order. I also start a character document and spend lots of time - probably too much because it’s fun - looking at photos to try and figure out what my characters look like. Again I think this comes from my TV background, this need to visualize things first, or maybe it goes back further than that, which is why I ended up working in TV in the first place.

I’ll create the first outline document and keep adding to it until it has a rough shape (by which I mean a beginning, middle and end). Then I duplicate it and start adding to the new version. I always reach a stage when I kind of know the beginning and know the end and am a bit hazy about the middle and this is generally when I start writing. I open a new document, call it Draft 1 and give it a date and start work. I aim to write about 1,000 words a day (which is 3 pages of double-spaced, Time New Roman 12 point). This is enough so that each day the story will move forward. I start each day by duplicating the previous day’s work and renaming it with that day’s date. This means if I cut something, or get stuck, or lose my way I can always go back to a date when I knew what I was doing. And everything is automatically backed up to iCloud just in case I spill tea on my laptop.


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