''The Beach'' author resurfaces after sudden success -- Alex Garland went into seclusion shortly after the theatrical release of ''The Beach,'' but is back with his third book, ''The Coma''

By EW Staff
July 16, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT

For a guy who says he’d rather get stoned and play videogames than do just about anything else, Alex Garland is remarkably ambitious. In the past 12 months alone, the 34-year-old London native has completed his third novel (”The Coma”), adapted it into a screenplay (it took him two weeks), pounded out another script for a sci-fi flick (he polished off the first draft in five days), and watched his longtime girlfriend give birth to their first child (a boy).

Aside from making Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates look like a pair of three-toed sloths, Garland’s work ethic is all the more remarkable considering that a couple of years ago London’s Fleet Street tabloids were painting him as a shut-in with writer’s block. ”I’ve never really understood where the roots of that came from,” he grumbles.

Garland says that while the always-inventive gossip columnists were circling like sharks on the scent of a chum line, he was hammering out a screenplay — his first — for the postapocalyptic zombie flick ”28 Days Later.” ”I thought, when this film comes out they’ll say, ‘Oh, he didn’t have writer’s block, he was writing a screenplay!’ But actually they didn’t. Because screenwriting apparently doesn’t count. In this country there’s an attitude in the book world about the film world that it’s lesser. You get this stupid arrogance…which makes me want to smash their heads in.”

Hearing Garland threaten bodily malice toward the British media and its tea-drinking, pinkie-raised cousin, the British literary establishment — which, it should be noted, has been very kind to him — is a bit surprising. Not because his point about their snobbery isn’t valid, just because up until this point he’s been as laid-back as Jeff Spicoli. (Well, Jeff Spicoli with a British accent and an art history degree from Manchester University.) In fact, the only hint of something more sinister lurking beneath Garland’s chilled-out exterior is the ring tone on his cell phone, which plays the ”Exorcist” theme.

Sitting in the Soho, London, offices of DNA Films, the production company run by bad-boy British producer Andrew Macdonald (”28 Days Later,” ”Trainspotting”), Garland looks like a cross between ”ER”’s Balkan heartthrob Goran Visnjic and slow-on-the-uptake Friend Matt LeBlanc. His face is covered in stubble, and he’s gnashing a piece of nicotine gum as if he were pissed at it. Ostensibly, we’re here to discuss ”The Coma,” but without much prompting, the conversation circles around to Garland’s first novel, ”The Beach” — the one that turned him into the kind of suddenly wealthy, boy-wonder celebrity that British tabloids just love to speculate about.

From age 17 to 27, Garland backpacked across Southeast Asia, then channeled his exploits into ”The Beach,” a drug-fueled thriller about an expat who discovers a traveler’s utopia on a remote island in Thailand that quickly spirals into a ”Lord of the Flies” nightmare. It sold 5 million copies, was made into a splashy, big-budget Hollywood movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, and against Garland’s will turned the author into ”the John Grisham of the chemical generation.”