For his debut novel, The Silent Patient, Alex Michaelides tapped into his heritage, his childhood, and his work in film. But most of all, he tapped into his desire to write not only “something I wanted to read” but a book that deserved to sit on the same shelf as the Agatha Christie mysteries that he devoured as a teenager.
Also, Michaelides says, writing the novel was a kind of act of desperation after writing screenplays for a long time. “I was never satisfied,” he notes—despite his success (his 2018 film The Brits Are Coming starred Uma Thurman). “I felt that, before I give up the idea of writing fiction, I should write the book I always wanted to write.” Bluntly put, he says The Silent Patient was the first thing he wrote that “didn’t make me want to throw up.”
In the novel, a famous painter, Alicia Berenson, fatally shoots her successful fashion photographer husband in the face one evening and stops speaking. The story was inspired by Alcestis, one of Euripides’s plays, in which the woman of the title agrees to die to save her husband. Rescued from Hades by Hercules, she’s brought back to life but remains silent.
Michaelides grew up with a Greek Cypriot father and an English mother on Cyprus, where, he tells me, the Greek tragedies were always being performed. “Myth was everywhere—it was in the very air,” he says.
I met Michaelides in New York in October at the rooftop launch party for Celadon, Macmillan’s brand new imprint—right before, coincidentally, I was leaving for a writers residency on the Greek island of Rhodes. I can tell you now: myth was in the air there as well.
Michaelides says he read the tragedy of Alcestis when he was 13, and the play haunted him. “The idea of her death and resurrection fascinated me,” he adds. That, combined with graduate work in psychiatry and volunteering at Northgate, a psychiatric facility in England (“I thought it would be a great location for a murder mystery,” he says), led him to his story, in which Alicia’s silence and the motivation for her crime become the obsession of criminal psychotherapist Theo Faber.
The manuscript arrived in agent Sam Copeland’s email in October 2017. Copeland, director at Rogers Coleridge & White in London (and also a published children’s book author), says it was right after Frankfurt, when, “at Friday lunch, I took a peek at my inbox, just poked my nose in, saw Alex’s email, and started reading.”
Copeland says his excitement soon turned to dread when he thought of other agents reading it and realized that he might not be able to get it. “It’s not often that something hits you like a sledgehammer. I finished reading it at two a.m. on Saturday, called Alex that same day, met him the following Monday [Michaelides lives in London], and signed him up. This is the fastest I have ever read, met with, and signed an author. And it was completely a slush pile submission!”
Copeland sent the manuscript out to U.K. editors and a handful of U.S. editors, including Ryan Doherty at Celadon, who saw it at lunchtime on a Wednesday and four hours later wanted to preempt it.
Previously v-p of literary development at Sony, acquiring books for film, Doherty says he missed the creative process—the interaction of writer, agent, and editor—and left to be part of Celadon Books, which formed in September 2017, with Jamie Raab and Deb Futter as copublishers. Doherty had heard about The Silent Patient manuscript from scouts. When he learned that Michaelides had signed with Copeland, Doherty reached out to the agent to let him know he was interested, and Copeland sent him the manuscript.
Celadon was so new that, Doherty tells me, “we didn’t have any books yet, so we had time to read it immediately. Deb, Jamie, and I were all in the office reading it at the same time. We knew it was special, and at various points there would be gasps from our respective offices, and yelling, because we were all at different points. ‘Don’t ruin it for me’ was the refrain. It was November 2017, we were heading out for the National Book Awards, and before anyone left the office, we decided to preempt.”
A scramble followed. Doherty didn’t have Copeland’s cell phone number; he sent an email and left a voice message at Copeland’s office.
Copeland, meanwhile, was “slowly getting more merry in a pub, fielding several preempts.” However, he says, “I found Ryan to be so passionate and driven that by 11 p.m. my time, we had a deal for North American rights.”
The U.S. preempt happened while the U.K. auction was going on. Copeland won’t give me a number nor an adjective for the Celadon deal (which, reports say, was in the high six figures); he only says that “the money was enough for me to turn down an auction on a book I was wildly excited about.” (Orion won the U.K. auction, also for a reported six figures.)
Doherty had a London trip coming up soon after the deal was made, and so was able to meet with Michaelides in person. “We bonded easily, and we did some editorial work, but not much,” Doherty tells me. “The bones were there. Alex’s screenwriting background made it easy. All the plot and twists were in place.”
The Celadon team decided to launch with The Silent Patient, and, Doherty says, “We were so lucky; we got such great blurbs”—from David Baldacci, Lee Child, A.J. Finn, and Douglas Preston.
Michaelides calls the trajectory of The Silent Patient a dream come true. “I feel grateful and nervous and fortunate. I sent Sam the manuscript in October and had the deal by Christmas. Last Christmas was such a good time.”
Foreign sales are confirmed in 40 territories so far, and Celadon amended the original offer to a two-book deal. “When the foreign sales started coming in, most were for two books, and we were happy to go back and negotiate for the second book, “ Doherty says. “What we’re looking for at Celadon is to find major franchises, and we are more than happy to invest in Alex.”
The U.S. pub date is Feb. 5, 2019; the U.K. pub is two days later. Film rights went to Brad Pitt’s production company, Plan B Entertainment. There were multiple offers for the movie deal, and the irony of the Hollywood interest is not lost on Michaelides, who’s writing the screenplay. “As a screenwriter, I couldn’t get them to talk to me,” he says. “Now, they are phoning me at midnight!”
Michaelides also met Futter and Raab after the contract was signed, and he connected with both of them. “They are like family,” he says of the three copublishers. “I hope it works out for all of us. I want to keep going on forever.”