It's a thriller that combines a bit of the spooky, religious supernatural with murder plots, conspiracy and intrigue - one of those books you pick up because the cover looks cool and then can't put down. Perfectly paced, expertly written and comparable to Dan Brown's hugely successful Da Vinci Code, I thought it was cracking.
What I found even more interesting was the blurb in the book explaining that Simon was in fact a TV producer and director - who had quit his job and taken his family off to France for six months, intent on writing a novel.
Simon's second book, the follow-up called The Key, was about to come out when I spoke to him and he was just in the process of reworking the final book in the trilogy, The Tower (out this month).
Last week I finally talked my husband into reading Sanctus and he too became addicted.
Here's the full, unedited interview I did with Simon - the shorter version appeared in the Kent & Sussex Courier. We talked for an hour (after all, you don't often get the chance to talk to the person behind a book you really liked) and it was a brilliant insight into the process of writing a book.
At the end I told him I'd quite like to write a book one day too and he said: "Go on, I dare you".
Simon Toyne, author of the best-selling thriller Sanctus, has been described as ‘the next Dan Brown’. Caroline Read talks to the acclaimed writer from his home in the Sussex village of Framfield.
The story goes that back in 2007, TV producer Simon Toyne quit his job, packed up his young family and rented out his house in Brighton to follow a dream. He intended to move to France for six months to write a book but had no idea what it would be about. After a sleepless night crossing on the ferry, the family abandoned a planned eight-hour drive to their temporary home and limped instead into the city of Rouen. The blurb at the back of his first novel, Sanctus, tells readers it was the sight of the sharp spire of Rouen Cathedral that gave him the idea for his story.
It’s a romantic tale and one the publishers were only too happy to mention in the book itself but 45-year-old Simon, who now lives in Framfield, says it’s no exaggeration.
“You know when you’re about 20, and you picture your future?” he asks. “Well I thought ‘when I’m forty, I’ll have written a book’. But suddenly I was approaching 40 and the book wasn’t there; it hadn’t just spontaneously appeared. So I thought I’d try to do it and get it out of my system one way or the other.
“We decided we’d just go off to France for six months, which I know sounds very glamorous but I just figured if I quit my job to give myself enough time to do it, and I just ended up sitting in my spare room, I’d really feel the pressure. Whereas if I went off to France, even if it didn’t work, we’d still have had a nice adventure!”
And indeed they did have an adventure. They got stuck on a ferry during a winter storm and couldn’t face the long drive ahead of them so they stopped over in Rouen, where Simon spied the cathedral and the tiniest story seed was planted in his mind. He was reminded of the Ralph Waldo Emerson quote – which now opens the book – “A man is a god in ruins”.
The following day, driving a van full of belongings and without even a radio to occupy him, Simon started to form the story that would become Sanctus.
You could simply skip through the next part of his story to Simon having written the book but he prefers to tell the whole truth about his writing experiences. “There was tons of research and that’s just what I didn’t want. Research, in a way, is invisible on the page. You can sense that it’s there but the writer has to do a lot of research for not a lot of column inches. I’d planned to write about something I knew but all that went out the window when I started. Rather than sitting down and writing it, I ended up having to do a lot of research.
“By the end of the six months, I actually had about 150 pages of book and about the same of notes. So we came back and I freelanced back at the TV production company I used to work for in Brighton and in my spare time I carried on writing.”
In fact, it took another year for Simon to finish the book. At that point he was happy enough with it to send it out to literary agents and it got picked up very quickly. But the first draft of Sanctus was 156,000 words and the advice came back to cut it down. “By the time I’d gone through several drafts, the published book was 118,000 words. I lost about 150 pages but in fact I didn’t lose anything. It’s all still in there, it’s just more efficient and better done. Much of writing, I have found, is actually rewriting.”
At the moment, Simon is going through the same thing with the third and final book in his trilogy. “The one that’s coming out this week is called The Key and the final one, that I’m rewriting at the moment, is The Tower, which will come out next April. But I had no deal when I set off to write the first one - I had no publisher and no contacts – so I hadn’t even considered writing a trilogy. If you can’t sell the first book, there’s no point writing a second one.
“However, when I was writing Sanctus I just kept having these other ideas. The story just kept going but I thought I had to make it self-contained so in my first draft the ending was very much wrapped up. It was nine months later and everything was fine. But the publishers didn’t like it – they thought it was too abrupt. In my first meeting with them they asked ‘what happens next?’ and I explained that actually there was more. So we planned two more books from there.”
Without wishing to give too much away, Simon’s books are based around a fictitious ancient religious order, still operating in the modern world, whose job it is to protect a secret so precious – and dangerous – that it’s housed inside a great citadel in Turkey.
Religion has always been a popular theme but at the time Simon started writing, Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code was a huge worldwide hit. He says religion wasn’t an interest of his before and he had to quickly read up on bible stories.
“Basically, without giving too much away,” he says carefully, “I had this phrase ‘a man is a god in ruins’ in my head and I thought ‘what if that was literal’?
“When I first had the idea I was convinced that it was such a big and obvious story that it must have been done before. Da Vinci Code had been a massive hit relatively recently but I hadn’t read it and I just thought ‘what if I’ve had the very same idea’? But I did read it and I was very relieved to find it wasn’t anything like that at all. I also read Labyrinth, the Kate Mosse book, in case that was the same as my idea too. I did loads of neurotic research.”
The story of Sanctus, essentially a religious conspiracy thriller, only moves towards the supernatural at the end of the book but, all the same, it is quite a leap. In other hands it could have gone quite seriously wrong. Did he ever question himself while he was writing it?
“Of course. About halfway to two thirds through writing a book, when you’re knee-deep in it, you do think ‘is this rubbish, is it a terrible idea?’ but the very nature of writing is a very critical process. You’re constantly analysing it, testing it, writing and rewriting and when you’ve been in that process, working in the same idea for several months, inevitably you hit a bit of a slump but you just have to carry on.”
Simon found it especially difficult to get past this self-doubt because writing it had taken so much longer than he’d hoped. “I thought ‘have I just wasted a huge amount of my time on some silly idea’? but you have to have the courage of your convictions.”
And having the courage paid off for him. Sanctus became one of the top five best-selling paperbacks of last year and was the biggest selling crime thriller debut. Not bad for someone who just thought he’d give it and try and ‘get it out of his system’.
But with his background in television, and with his writing displaying a keen eye for cinematic effect, is Simon about to sell his books to Hollywood?
“Well, there have been lots of discussions but these things work at a glacial pace. The thing is you have to be slightly careful because it’s a trilogy. If you sell the first book, you’re selling the character rights as well so effectively you’re giving them all three.
“There have been ‘sort-of’ offers from various film companies but not particularly exciting ones. I’m a big fan at the moment of the big HBO series, like Game Of Thrones. They translate big novels with lots of characters and lots of locations much better than films do. I would love to hold out and hope that would happen. Of course I’d love to see it come to the screen – I’m a big film fan and I came from television – so I’d love to see it realised in some kind of visual way.”
Simon and his wife Kathryn had just two children when Sanctus was written and, having moved back to Sussex after their French adventure, they bought their house in Framfield because their eldest daughter Roxy was about to go to school. “Where we lived in Brighton, the schools were over-subscribed and it was very difficult to get into a good school. We looked around and decided to move out of Brighton, where property is a bit cheaper, but near to a station so I could get into London quite easily – and there’s a train from Uckfield that trundles in to London Bridge.
“Framfield has a lovely little school, and both my older children go there now. Whenever a nice house came up in the area we were interested in, we checked the Ofsted reports of the nearby schools. It’s the most fundamental thing you can do; get your kids in a good school and bring them up in a nice environment.”
Since then the couple have had another daughter and Simon has been lucky enough with the success of his writing to be able to work from home. “It’s great,” he says. “I take Roxy and Stan to school, do some writing and then pick them up again at three o’clock. It’s a lovely lifestyle.”
Many authors seem to have been drawn to Sussex over the years and Simon explains this is simply because it’s a beautiful part of the country. “It’s really pretty, the weather’s nicer. The good thing about being a writer is you can do it anywhere and if you are writing in Britain, then Sussex is a good place to be.”