Alex Michaelides on the most unsettling elements of The Maidens
Alex Michaelides broke sales records with his 2019 debut novel, the psychological-thriller-meets-Greek-tragedy The Silent Patient, and now he's revisiting that formula for success in The Maidens. Set at Cambridge University, where a student has just been murdered, the story follows group therapist Mariana Andros, an alum who returns to campus to help her niece (a friend of the victim) and quickly fingers classics professor Edward Fosca as a suspect; he has the requisite darkness, and his adoring students have formed a troubling secret society.
Here, Michaelides talks to EW about his newest novel (on shelves now).
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was the experience of taking a career pivot from screenwriting to novel writing, and then having what seems like instant success, like for you?
ALEX MICHAELIDES: It's funny, I would say I had a somewhat checkered career as a screenwriter. I made three films, and each was worse than the last one. [Laughs] In the back of my mind I always had this idea to write a psychological thriller, and I'd been putting it off and I just thought, okay, now is the time. But to be honest about the success, it was entirely unexpected and kind of tough. There were all these voices in my head and expectations, and I suddenly had an audience, so the one way I could think of to bring myself back from all that was just to write another book for myself to read on the beach.
How and when did the idea for The Maidens come to you?
I grew up on the beach in Cyprus, and I would just devour thrillers - I knew I wanted to write something similar. The very first thing that came to me was the location. I wanted to try and write about Cambridge University ever since I was a student there; it's such a closed-off world, and not many people know it well. The rest of it was very dreamlike. I had this image of this woman, Mariana, who had lost her husband and was going through his belongings. That became the first chapter, and everything else grew from there.
I had been traveling an awful lot promoting The Silent Patient, and when the pandemic struck I had just returned from Norway with a whole bunch of other trips planned and suddenly everything was canceled. I was locked in my apartment on my own for the better part of a year, and in a way it was the only way I was able to finish the novel. I was forced to concentrate.
Do you think that time in isolation changed the final product of the novel?
I think it deepened and enriched it. It's a novel about a woman who was haunted by her past and felt completely alone and sad, and that's pretty much how I was feeling for the past year and a half. I was able to channel all of that into the character. It became more and more about a longing for the past and longing for people who weren't there anymore.
Mariana is a group therapist, Edward Fosca's students form a secret society - can you talk about their importance in the novel?
I thought a lot about the secretive nature of groups as I was writing - especially within Cambridge. There are groups within groups. I studied group therapy myself, that's what I specialize in. It all goes back to the classic mysteries that I love, from authors like Agatha Christie: Everything is always set in an enclosed location, like an isolated house, a train, a private island. Cambridge is similar.
Do you solve the murder mysteries as you write them, or do you always know how your books will end before you start?
With the kind of novels I write, you have to know where you're going to some degree, so that you can point the reader in all sorts of tricky directions. The endings of my novels are very important to me; it goes back to my early years reading, when you get to the twist and you experience the twist almost as a physical sensation. That takes a lot of planning and setting up to pull off.
But with The Maidens, I knew what I wanted the ending to be but didn't quite know how to get there. Before the pandemic I had the chance to go back and visit Cambridge, and I realized I had to try to be Mariana. I had to walk through the novel and try and solve it. I took my little notebook and went from place to place on campus just like she does. As I was doing it I realized I was becoming more and more lonely and unsettled by my past, and my time at Cambridge, just like Mariana is.
Did writing the novel help bring closure, or do you still feel unsettled by that time in your life?
Writing is a bit like therapy; I had stuff to work out. I put so much of myself into the novel, with the group therapy and Cambridge, and I thought I would be burnt out when I finished it and that it would take a long time before I wrote something else. But I felt completely freed up after finishing The Maidens. I felt like I could really let it all go.
Does your material, especially the murder-mystery elements, ever scare you?
Well, in this book I have portions where I'm living, mentally, with the murderer, and I felt frightened by that. But I try not to turn it off, I think it's good to stay in it. When I'm writing, I don't drink - normally having a drink is a way of switching off in the evening, but I find that without that I go to bed thinking about the book, I think about it in my sleep, and then I wake up with ideas. It takes over, it very much becomes your whole life. It's very solitary. And then at the end I do need to take a break; I find that's when a little tequila is a really great help. [Laughs]
As you release The Maidens, do you feel like you've learned how to predict what makes a book successful, or what elements of a book will hook readers?
One thing I feel I learned from The Silent Patient is that it did manage to grab readers across genres. I got a lot of feedback from people who said they never read thrillers but they liked the book. I personally like books that are rich and deep, and I set out to do that within the structure of a thriller. That's as close as I can get to answering why people liked it; it was just so unexpected [to have that success]. It was the most joyous experience of my life, and at the same time it took me a long time to recover from the shock of it all. I think what I've done with The Maidens is to write a twist that is much more emotional than with The Silent Patient. You can't please everybody, so I'm excited to see what people think.