From zero to bestseller

SANCTUS was an instant hit when it came out in April. Waterstones shopfronts were full of it, it quickly climbed the bestseller list and the author is tipped as the next (but much more talented) Dan Brown. Yet before he wrote Sanctus – which is the first in a trilogy commissioned by Harper Collins – author Simon Toyne was a regular (ok, a regular but quite successful) bloke living in Brighton, working for a TV production company. Meanwhile, he’d set his heart on writing a damn good page-turner – no pretensions of post-modernist abstraction for him – and did it, figuring “now or never”.

Similar to the Da Vinci code in its combination of mythology, murder and religion, Sanctus nevertheless injects something fresh to the format of the murderous conspiracy thriller. Based in an imaginary Turkish city called Ruin (a name inspired by Rouen, France, which Toyne was visiting when he had the idea for the story), the action revolves around the Citadel, from which a secret threatens to emerge so powerful that the monks living there will kill to protect it.

Incredibly detailed in plot and historical embellishment, Toyne had his work cut out for him when he settled on the idea. But, if its reception and cultish following are anything to go by, the challenge paid off. We caught up with him.

How did you actually make the book happen?

It was a manifestation of will – you always have to exert willpower if you want to undertake something big. You have to absolutely decide to do it or you will fail – this is true not just of books but everything. In the end, I got fed up with my job, which I realised was just an illusion of freedom – the last straw was when they refused me more time off when my son was born. So I thought: it’s now or never and we packed up, my wife and kids and I, and went to France for a year.

Had you always dreamed of writing a novel?

In my dimmer distant past I wanted to write screenplays. I always loved writing and I wrote a couple of spec screenplays in my 20s – I also wrote and directed short films. But I’d do that kind of stuff in my spare time. It’s such a luxury to be writing all the time now.

How did you decide on a Da Vinci-code style thriller?

I wanted to write a big story, and I quite like the big blockbustery films – I like big effects, lots of chasing. I love the slick mechanism of a good thriller and have read widely in that area for years. Also, I find organised religion interesting, because it’s woven throughout history: it begs the question: “who are we, where did we come from?”

The story of your inspiration for Sanctus is quite amazing, isn’t it?

Yes. When my wife and I set out to France, ahead of the kids, we went on the midnight ferry. As soon as we set sail, we got hit by a gale that shook the ship, so bad it actually destroyed the duty free. We spent the night trying to hang on to our beds, and when we landed at Dieppe, we drove inland to look for a hotel and ended up in Rouen, an hour away. I saw a spire as we got close, and a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson popped into my head: “A man is a god in ruins”. The next day we drove the van eight hours to our rented house and I’d figured out the end of the book.

What’s the best thing about writing a book?

The fact that you can do it from home. I wanted to see the kids growing up and that’s become possible.

And the worst thing?

The fact that it’s really hard. It takes a long time. The 13th draft was hard – it’s hard staying with it, having faith that it still works. The idea of writing a book is great. Starting a book is great. But doing it, making it work and then putting it out into the world is a different story.

How has your lifestyle changed since you hit the bigtime?

I can work from home and drop the kids off at the school in the village and pick them up again. And I never miss a sports day or a carol concert. And if the sun is shining I can let myself knock off early – though I still have to catch up at some point. And it’s true, I did buy a Porsche when the book started selling internationally, but it’s an old one and only cost about the same as a large family estate. I’m not that flash.

Sanctus is published by Harper Collins, £12.99.