In 'The Fury' Alex Michaelides wants to turn the murder mystery genre on its head
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Seven people trapped on a remote Greek island. One of them will not survive the night. Well, that is the story that unfolds in the new novel "The Fury." The fury, by the way, is a wild, unpredictable Greek wind - the kind of wind that drives you mad, as the author, Alex Michaelides, hints darkly on the very first page. Alex Michaelides is in our New York bureau. Welcome.
ALEX MICHAELIDES: Hello. Thank you for having me. I'm a huge fan of the show, so I'm very happy to be here.
KELLY: Well, we are very happy to have you with us. All right. So just to be clear, we are dealing here with a murder at a house party on a remote island with a storm blowing in. And the killer is one of the house guests. So I have to ask, were you intentionally channeling Agatha Christie? I mean, she's clearly lurking in the background here.
MICHAELIDES: Yeah. You know, you can't write a novel like this without, on some level, referencing or being aware of Christie because, of course, she did it first with "And Then There Were None." And in my opinion, she did it best. And so many hundreds of writers have tried to do it since then. And so, you know, it felt very important to me in writing this novel that I didn't just rehash Christie's novel. So what I tried to do was just to turn the whole genre on its head. You know, the thing is that reading this kind of novel - because we all have read that kind of setup where people are trapped on an island - you bring all kinds of expectations to it. And so for me, the fun thing will be playing with the readers' expectations.
KELLY: One thing you do very differently is Hercule Poirot never waltzes in; Miss Marple does not show up. Your characters are left to sort this out amongst themselves. Why did that appeal?
MICHAELIDES: Why did that appeal? I think because that wasn't the kind of story I was trying to write. I felt that I wanted to try and bring this as close as I possibly could to real people with real emotions and very kind of complex psychologies. And so something about resisting an easy, tidy conclusion with a superhuman detective felt right for me. I wanted it to feel messy and as realistic as I could possibly make it.
KELLY: What else did you do to turn the Agatha Christie convention on its head?
MICHAELIDES: I think it was a lot about trying to bring a psychology to it. So, you know, I think what really interests me is childhood and childhood trauma. And, you know, I grew up on the very small island of Cyprus. And I was kind of a lonely, nervous, anxious child. I think I still am. And I was obsessed with films and film stars. And I thought if I could just get to Hollywood, that I would be very happy and all my dreams would come true. And so I did, and got there and worked as a screenwriter and realized I was just as miserable and anxious as I had been before. And so I started to look inward at my childhood, and I went on this huge journey of therapy, you know? And I feel that all of these characters that I'm writing about are wounded children. And that was the - that's the heart of the novel for me, really, is that kind of aspect of it.
KELLY: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, that's a theme that runs through it. And you just said you were a lonely, anxious child, and you kind of still are. Your narrator, who we're going to talk more about - but is a man named Elliot. And he feels this so strongly, he sometimes talks out loud to the wounded child inside him. What were you trying to bring out there?
MICHAELIDES: That was my turning point in therapy, I suppose, was this realization that we all carry this traumatized child around with us. And very often we confuse the present and the past, or rather, the child in our head does. And it's only by sort of learning to communicate with that child, I think, that we can lead a more authentic and integrated life. And I thought that was a very interesting journey for a hero to go on in a book.
KELLY: You just called him a hero, Elliot, your narrator. He is one of the houseguests. He's not very likable in my view. Why put the story in his hands?
MICHAELIDES: Oh, gosh. Well, he may not be likable per se, but I think he's quite interesting. And I - what I tried to do - it was - honestly, "The Fury" was the most creative experience I've had because I changed the way that I write. My first two novels - "The Silent Patient" and "The Maidens" - I plotted them for about a year before writing a word. And then with "The Fury," I really wanted to have some fun. And I thought, I'm not going to plot this. I'm just going to write it. And as I wrote it, Elliot told me the story himself. And it was an amazing experience because I wrote it, you know, with him speaking directly to the reader all the way through. And by doing that, I felt that he was sort of telling me the story, I suppose. And all of these things that I didn't know, like about his childhood and his relationship with an older writer named Barbara West, just appeared, you know, on the page as I was writing, without me having even the names. Everything just sort of magically happened. So it felt like a really creative, joyous experience for me.
KELLY: So this is so interesting. Without giving away any plot twists or who the killer is, you're saying you didn't know who the killer was going to be when you started?
MICHAELIDES: No. No, I didn't. That's why - it was so much fun writing like that. And it was hair raising, and it, you know, led me to all kinds of difficulties. But in terms of a creative experience, it was fantastic.
KELLY: When you finally figured it out, did you have to go back and unpick all these dead ends and red herrings that you'd laid out 'cause you didn't know either as you're writing?
MICHAELIDES: Yeah, Mary Louise. It's really funny you say that because, yes, there was a moment when the first draft had a different ending and a different twist, and it didn't work. And I showed it to my editors, and they both said, OK, you have a choice now. Either you can bin this book, or you can go back to the beginning and try and work something else out.
MICHAELIDES: And I think it's a really good lesson in not panicking, because what happened was I put my laptop down for a whole month, and I just walked around the park, and I went through the story beat by beat by beat and let the characters take me in a different direction. And the one they took me on was much more surprising, much more interesting and felt much more authentic as well. So...
KELLY: One more character to ask you about, and I use the term loosely because it's the fury. It's the weather - this wild Greek wind. And I'm interested to hear that you grew up on Cyprus. Is this a wind and a kind of setting that you know firsthand?
MICHAELIDES: Oh, yes. I mean, Cyprus is an island in the Mediterranean. And one of the lovely things about Cyprus is its proximity to Greece and the Greek islands. And so I spent a lot of time traveling there when I was younger. The Greek islands are notorious for the wind. And when I was about 20 years old, I was on the island of Mykonos, and I was stranded there for three days because the wind was so strong that no boats could leave and no boats could get across the water. And I remember thinking then, oh, that would be a really fun way to trap people for a story. And then, you know, decades later, "The Fury" emerged. So, yes, it's also like - it's a metaphor for the heightened emotions that kind of run through the book, too. It just felt like a very appropriate and happy choice of device, I suppose.
KELLY: Well, and it also - it's a wind that - it's powerful enough to blow everything clean, you know? Clues.
MICHAELIDES: Yes. Yes.
KELLY: All of it.
MICHAELIDES: Do you know, I didn't think of that. But you're quite right. It solved a lot of problems, actually.
KELLY: There you go. Alex Michaelides. He's talking about his new novel, "The Fury." Thank you so much. This has been great.
MICHAELIDES: That's a real pleasure. Thank you.
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