Book review: I Am Pilgrim

Book: I Am Pilgrim

Author: Terry Hayes

Published: August 2013, Bantam Press

Paperback, 704 pages.

 (I was asked to review this book by Random House Australia. I received no payment or commission for doing so.)

 

When I first opened I Am Pilgrim I saw the 700 pages I must admit I was a little daunted, however, fifty or so pages in and I was hooked. I couldn’t put it down.

I Am Pilgrim, is the first novel from Terry Hayes, best known for his screenwriting (think Dead Calm and Mad Max 2 among others). It is hard not to see the potential in I Am Pilgrim for being a Hollywood block buster.

The book is quite complex with an intricate plot and intriguing characters which makes it quite hard to review without giving too much or too little away. Basically the plot follows a character that technically does not exist, a counter intelligence agent, only known to us as Pilgrim.

Pilgrim was head of a top secret espionage unit of the US intelligence department and after his retirement wrote an anonymous book on forensic criminal investigation. We first meet Pilgrim in a New York hotel room following a murder which has taken place, with frightening correlations to aspects of his book. In a plot woven with espionage, conflict, terrorism and murder  we are taken on a journey of twists and turns and frighteningly realistic possibilities past, present and future.

Although the book is an intense, intelligent thriller, Hayes manages to also let us into the character’s head space dissecting them and allowing us to discover their internal afflictions. You are not just following the story line, Hayes cleverly gets you are emotionally involved in it.

I don’t think I have ever read a book as engaging and life-like as I Am Pilgrim and even though spy thrillers are not my usually my go-to genre I was captivated right through to the end.

After finishing the book I was lucky enough to have a little Q&A session with the author, which of course I am very excited to share with you, right now.

Terry, firstly congratulations on such an intriguing and captivating first novel. How long had the idea for I Am Pilgrim been simmering in your head?

TH: The idea had been rattling around in my head for four or five years before I actually sat down and started to plot some sort of structure out. I had been busy working on screenplays so it wasn’t that I devoted myself to it full-time or anything like that – it was more in the way of a casual conversation with myself: “what if such and such happened?”, “why would he do this or that?” Then I started to think in terms of some great set-piece action sequences Pilgrim might be involved in – things which I thought the reader would find arresting – and then I started to worry I might forget aspects of them, or certain features, so I started to make notes. After a while I realised I had the bones of something. Or at least a few bones. So I started to try to turn it into a skeleton. I thought, actually, I was making a friend but it turned out it was a monster. It took over my life and I spent about two years – out of a total of three because I was working on some other things – before I finally finished it.

 

The subject matter is frighteningly real and unfortunately topical. How did you draw together your research to write such a realistic and yet compelling narrative?

TH: Having been a journalist and investigative reporter I have an abiding interest in reading newspapers, journals, magazines – and a host of what might usually be thought of as useless items. I can honestly say there is not much that I don’t find interesting! So, I was fairly well aware of the explosion of knowledge, and the incredible breakthroughs, that were occurring in microbiology and genetic engineering. I had also read articles from a number of experts who were warning that the new breed of terrorist would be far more sophisticated, better-educated and increasingly technologically capable. It had also seemed possible to bring the smallpox virus back from the dustbin of history, so – having got myself suitably frightened by the possibilities – I combined all of those things into a narrative. As Ray Bradbury, the author of Fahrenheit 451, once said: “I don’t try to describe the future. I try to prevent it.” Unfortunately this isn’t the future, it is pretty much the present.

 

The book is quite long in standard novel terms at 700 pages, was this your plan or did you perhaps plan to write a first book and follow up with a sequel?

TH: I’ve always liked epic books, ones that you really get lost in, that take you into a world and don’t let you escape until the final page, so it was always my intention to do a huge, sweeping story. I didn’t ever consciously give myself a target of a certain number of pages – I just figured it would be finished when the story was done. I had produced/written The Dismissal, Bodyline, Vietnam, Bangkok Hilton and a number of other mini-series so I knew a bit about long-form story-telling and I wasn’t particularly intimidated by it. Intimidated by plenty of other things, but not that! Part way through I knew that Pilgrim was a very special character and to tell his story completely, that I Am Pilgrim would have to be part of a much larger work so I sat down and outlined his entire journey. As a result, I have the plots and structure for two more books in what – I hope – is going to be an epic trilogy. That will provide him with safe harbour at the end and, on the last page of the last book, we discover his real name and identity. So, I Am Pilgrim was always going to be whatever length it took but the sequels were already taking shape in my head. Only when it was finished, did I learn that 700 page books present their own set of problems for publishers but, thankfully, in the 20 territories it has sold to – especially the US, UK and Australia – the story itself and the pace of the narrative overcame those difficulties.

 

Of course the question on everyone’s lips with your screenwriting background is are there any plans to develop I Am Pilgrim into a movie?

TH: There have already been a number of inquiries in both the US and UK. Having some experience of that world and the difficulties in turning epic books into screenplays, I am not rushing into it. It is more important to get the right people involved than to just do a deal. My movie agent has advised – and I agree with him completely – that interest will continue to build and build and we may have the opportunity to bring together a studio, producer, director and star who will do justice to the material. If that doesn’t happen, then I would prefer that it wasn’t made as a movie. I am incredibly proud of it as a novel – and a piece of storytelling – and I will be satisfied if it only ever exists in that form.

***

I Am Pilgrim is an intellectual thriller that will have you glued to each page as it both captivates and unnerves you. There is also talk of accolades and awards for Hayes’ first novel and after reading I certainly agree. So grab yourself a cuppa and a few spare nights to devour this book, even if you don’t think it’s your style – I promise you will be glad you did. (click here to buy)

 

Have you read I Am Pilgrim?