Interview: Terry Hayes, author of I Am Pilgrim

I absolutely loved I AM PILGRIM, so I’m thrilled to have its author, Terry Hayes on the blog today to chat about the book, what he’s working on next (more Pilgrim!!), and so much more! Please give Terry a warm welcome!

terryhayesCongratulations on the new book, I AM PILGRIM! Will you tell us a little about it and what inspired you to write it?
At its heart it is a race against time, an espionage thriller that takes it’s hero – a man code-named Pilgrim – through vastly different cultures and across continents in a desperate attempt to identify and locate a ghostly figure who is planning a cataclysmic attack on the US and the Western world in general. It deals with leading edge science, the haemorrhaging of hitherto closely-guarded secrets on the internet and the almost impossible task that intelligence agencies throughout the world have in trying to find what they call cleanskins – men and women with no criminal history, no radical affiliations and no entry in any data base. In reality, this is just the sort of man they fear most, the one that keeps them awake at 3am in the morning. Beyond that, it is also a classic hero story – an ordinary man, born in unusual circumstances, goes on an extraordinary adventure, finds skills and courage he didn’t even know he had and achieves something of great importance to the world. That is an ages-old story – it is the tale of Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins, Jesus, Moses, countless others and, I. A small way I suppose, Mad Max. And now it is also the basic story of the man we know as Pilgrim.

I don’t really know what inspired me to write it – apart from the fact that I thought it was a rattling good story, one of the best I had ever started thinking about. And once that starts to really burrow into your mind, you can’t stop asking yourself ‘what if Pilgrim did such and such?’; what about this or that; would such and such make a great action sequence? Before long it starts to take over your life and if you really fall in love with it, if the excitements sustains, if the characters are really alive for you, then you don’t have much choice except to sit down and start writing it. And then, of course, cursing all of those thoughts that led you into it in the first place!

You’ve done extensive work in film, on a few of my favorite movies, in fact, but have you always wanted to write a novel? Will you tell us a little bit about that progression? Do you feel like your experience in film helped with the writing of I Am Pilgrim?
Yes, I had ever since I was very young planned to be a novelist but then things happened and I sort of got diverted! First by journalism and the. By the opportunity to write and produce movies. It is such a hard thing, to find a way to make a living out of writing that I think you have to be open to all possibilities. Having been fortunate enough to have had some success in movies and TV, it became very easy to continue down that path. It was only the lifelong desire to write novels, and the fact that it had never left me, that finally goaded me into sitting down and getting the first few paragraphs down on paper. That and the fact that as I had turned the story over and over in my mind for a long time beforehand, I had come to the conclusion that it was a rattling good story. It had all the elements I look for in a story – good characters, great emotion, relentless suspense, lots of conflict. So the progression was relatively simple – it was another story, one that I had to write to get out of my system, but it just happened to be in a different format to that which I had been working in for many years previously.

iampilgrimYes, the experience in film certainly helped. Dealing with actors teaches you a enormous amount about character – what is needed to make a person live on screen or off the page; how to make their actions both logical and captivating; what you have to do to make the dialogue concise and memorable etc. it also teaches you an enormous amount about pace and every moment, every scene – or paragraph – progressing the story and main ting the viewer or reader’s interest. At its heart, the rules of storytelling don’t differ much across various media and movies are a very harsh taskmaster. You probably learn more about it in a 120 page script than just about any other format. My friend George Miller, the Oscar winning director, says that movie scripts are Darwinian – every moment, every idea has to ear. It’s place. It really is survival of the fittest and that’s a useful thing to have learned!

What kind of research did you do for I Am Pilgrim, and what was one of the most interesting things you learned?
I learned more than I ever thought I needed to know about the huge, sometimes frightening, advances in genetic engineering and the construction of home made weapons of mass destruction! I learned the medical procedure to remove a person’s eyes while they are still alive and I read a harrowing first person account of a public beheading in Saudi Arabia. Interesting, I suppose, but not very pleasant. Luckily, I also discovered incredible accounts of outstanding courage on 9/11, I visited Nazi concentration camps and saw that even in the darkest moments there is something indomitable in the human spirit, and I had the opportunity to stand on Santorini in theGreek Islands and see one of the most spectacular views in the world. I guess, it all balanced out in the end.

The research of course, was huge. Mainly it took the form of lots and lots of reading, quite a bit of talking to experts and an enormous amount of time spent on the internet trying to work out things as disparate as the nature of tides in the Mediterranean Sea to why intelligence agents always remove the batteries from their cell phones. I am fortunate that I have a natural curiosity so all of the research didn’t feel like a burden. I also have a pretty good memory so I was able to draw on facts and events that I had come across many years ago. Much to the delight of my two young sons, I also learned a great deal about weapons and ballistics. They think it’s really cool that their Dad knows the exact elements in a first- rate bullet prof vest!

Why do you think readers will root for Pilgrim, and what did you enjoy most about writing his character?
As I mentioned earlier, he really is a new version of the classic hero. That particular type of character – the journey such a person goes on – speaks very deeply, I think, to many of us. That is why so many of the classic hero stories have survived and been retold for centuries, if not longer. Beyond that, he is a deeply wounded man, a flawed man, which I think makes him seem all the more human. He is certainly not a super- hero! He makes mistakes, he struggles with the morality of what he has to do, he regrets many of the things which has done in the service of his country. But he does them, mainly because he thinks that a greater good will triumph. He just hopes that he is calling it right. I figure, for those reasons, readers will sympathise with him – they might not be prepared to do what he does, but they can see the reasoning. As a great philosopher once said – “to understand is to forgive”.

adelicatetruthI liked writing about him because he is complex. He is not convinced that he is always right, or that he has all the answers. He knows that in many ways he is an outsider, a loner, a man who will never quote share I the ordinary things that bring most people great happiness. That was never his fate and while he regrets it, he has a sense that he has an important purpose to fulfil. It made him interesting and that is half the battle when you are writing an epic story! He also. Ould be sort of funny at times, he tries not to take himself too seriously, and I think that is an endearing quality. It sure was to me, especially when events in the story started to become overwhelmingly grim.

What is your writing process like? How long did it take you from conception to completion to write I Am Pilgrim?
Well, it took about four years of writing, although it’s hard to judge, because I had to keep stopping and doing screenplays or finishing off other work. So that’s a best guess, really. The conception was much longer. I have always loved espionage thrillers, epic, globe-trotting stories, that you can lose yourself in, so I suppose I had been thinking about it for half my life. It want like I looked at sales figures and thought an espionage thriller had great potential – it has been one of my two or three favorite genres so I think I dead for it were always bubbling around somewhere in the sub-conscious.

What are a few of your favorite novels or authors? Have any inspired you more than others? What are you currently reading?
Well, John LeCarre, Robert Ludlum, Frederick Forsyth in this particular genre. I think The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings are among the finest 20th Century novels. Did I mention I like epics?! Hemingway, Salinger, F. Scott, Raymond Chandler, and one of the greatest novels ever – Grapes of Wrath are among the Pantheon for me. At the moment, strangely enough, I am rereading Slaughterhouse 5 – not only to be inspired and for enjoyment, but because it deals with something that I am wrestling with in my latest book.

When you’re not writing, how do you like to spend your free time?
With my kids. My wife and I live at the beach and I am trying to teach the four children the finer points of surfing – mostly from the shore, I might add! They are all voracious readers so I keep an eye on that – they are too young to have read Pilgrim or seen any of my movies – but I try to instil in them an appreciation for good storytelling and that no knowledge or is ever wasted. I’ll let you know in another decade or two whether I was successful.

What’s next for you?
I am writing another novel, tentatively titled The Year of the Locust, which is a sort of cross between Lost and The Planet of the Apes. Which means it is either a stunningly good idea, or one of the worst things, ever thought up. Of course, I think it’s the former but well have to wait and see. Following that there are two more volumes in the Pilgrim saga mapped out. Assuming this first one – the origin story – finds a readership – I will be going on to do those. It seems like a lot of work but, believe me, I know how fortunate I am to have the opportunity to have fulfilled my dream to be a writer.

Keep up with Terry: Simon & Schuster Author Page

PILGRIM is the code name for a world class and legendary secret agent. His adversary is a man known only to the reader as the Saracen. As a young boy, the Saracen barely sees his dissident father beheaded in a Saudi Arabian public square. But the event marks him for life and creates a burning desire to destroy the special relationship between the US and the Kingdom. Everything in the Saracen’s life from this moment forward will be in service to jihad.

At the novel’s opening, we find ourselves in a seedy hotel near Ground Zero. A woman lies face down in a pool of acid, features melted off her face, teeth missing, fingerprints gone. The room has been sprayed down with DNA-eradicating antiseptic spray. All the techniques are pulled directly from Pilgrim’s book, a cult classic of forensic science written under a pen name.

In offering the NYPD some casual assistance with the case, Pilgrim gets pulled back into the intelligence underground. What follows is a thriller that jockeys between astonishingly detailed character study and breakneck globetrotting. The author shifts effortlessly from Pilgrim’s hidden life of leisure in Paris to the Saracen’s squalid warrior life in Afghanistan, from the hallways of an exclusive Swiss bank to the laboratories of a nefarious biotech facility in Syria.

The inevitable encounter between Pilgrim and the Saracen will come in Turkey, around the murder of a wealthy American, in a thrilling, twisting, beautifully orchestrated finale.


  1. Thanks for this, Kristin, and congrats on an awesome book, Terry! 🙂

    That’s some great news in the interview, I’m so excited about the possibility of the upcoming Pilgrim novels. I hope that I Am Pilgrim gets the attention it deserves so it can all happen…

    Also, looking forward to The Year of the Locust. I’m very interested to see what Terry has up his sleeve and it can’t come soon enough.

  2. Odd Einert Halvorsen

    What an amazing thriller Terry Hayes has constructed. Finishing it was like saying good bye to an old friend, – whom I had known for only 2 weeks, but whom I felt I knew “to his bones”. Thank you for sharing the results of your hard work with us, even here far up north in Norway. Your thorough research felt like a documentary;a geographical and historical journey,- but most of all a breathtaking thriller about a scenario that very well be real one day. Or maybe is already?
    My English is far from perfect, but I do hope and pray that these words will reach you, Mr. Hayes, and if you should ever want to visit my country, and you need some advice about where and how to go and what to see,- please feel free to contact me, ok? All the best for you you and your family from Odd Einert Halvorsen, 72 years old retired lecturer and family therapist.

  3. It’s a little after 3:30 am. I’m tired. But I knew sleep would evade me until I had finished I am Pilgrim. Thank you Terry, and I look forward to meeting Pilgrim again

  4. I am a former member of the United States 11th Airborne Division and I am curious as to why you chose that name for the name of the division for whom Pilgrim worked. Your novel is almost impossible to put down and I thank you Terry for writing it.

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