’Argylle’ author Terry Hayes discusses ‘Year of the Locust’

Fans waited for Terry Hayes to write another book for a very long time. His debut, “I Am Pilgrim,” a doorstop about a retired CIA agent with a Batman-esque backstory racing to foil a bioterrorist plot, became an award-winning international bestseller when it was first published in 2013.

He was chipping away at the follow-up, which was “years overdue,” when he got a call from director Matthew Vaughn: Would Hayes be interested in writing the novel tie-in for his new movie, “Argylle,” under the name of its novelist heroine, Elly Conway?

None of the creators could have anticipated the book becoming an object of Swiftie speculation, as fans convinced themselves that the pop star had written “Argylle.” “Oh lord, I didn’t think it would ever hold, once Taylor Swift got involved,” Hayes said of the team’s efforts to keep the mystery alive. By that point, though, the spy thriller Hayes had written under his real name, “The Year of the Locust,” had finally come out in the United Kingdom: “I’ve had my own book to worry about” — and to promote.

Book World caught up with Hayes while he was on tour for “Locust,” released in the United States this week. He had flown in just as the Telegraph ran an interview with Hayes and his co-writer, British novelist Tammy Cohen, confirming their involvement for the first time.

(Cohen’s role was first reported in The Post, after she left a breadcrumb in the novel pointing to a scientist she had consulted. “I had to speak very harshly to Tammy,” Hayes joked. “I said to her, ‘Now, if you were more experienced in spy novels, you would not have made that mistake. You would have sent Sophia down this complete wild goose chase by giving the name of somebody who’s never spoken to you.’”)

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: You landed in the States just about when the news came out. What’s been your experience so far on the road?

A: I was at a function last night. It was at a bookstore, and I had to stand up onstage and talk for an hour and take questions, promoting “I Am Pilgrim” and “The Year of the Locust.” The bookseller comes up to me and says, “Well, we’ve just sold all of our copies of ‘Argylle.’” And I said, “Well, I’m pleased. That’s great. Can we now go and sell out all copies of my book?” The lesson from it, Sophia, is really simple: I’m contracted to write “I Am Pilgrim 2,” and if Taylor Swift is not the biggest star in the world, I will find out who is and start the rumor that she wrote my book.

I’m not on any social media. I’ve got four kids; I don’t need members of the public to tell me how stupid I am. But Tammy is on social media, and she says she’s been absolutely inundated. We’ve been invited to various crime festivals in various places around the world, as a Tom and Jerry act, to talk about how to write a novel collaboratively.

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Q: I wanted to ask you about that. You worked in journalism and Hollywood, and when you wrote “I Am Pilgrim,” you got to do that all on your own. But then you went back and worked on “Argylle” — which seems like a situation where there are many cooks in the kitchen.

A: Well, it was interesting. I know Matthew Vaughn very well. He called me and said, “I have this very meta idea.” And I said, “Oh great!” I raced off and looked up what “meta” meant and then said, “Very meta, Matthew.” He said, “Someone’s got to write this novel, and I’m thinking to myself, who’s the best spy novelist in the world? That’s Terry.” So I knew at that stage that he wouldn’t pay me any money, or it was going to be on the cheap.

I said I couldn’t do it because I had to finish “Locust.” Then we came up with the idea that I would do a lot of the plotting, and then our publisher Bill Scott-Kerr and another author, who turned out to be Tammy, would do most of the writing. We had Zoom meetings twice a week — Bill, myself and Tammy. I’d come up with ridiculous ideast, and Tammy would say, “But Terry, how are we ever going to get that to work?” And I’d say, “I don’t know, let’s just keep going!” She had the unpleasant task of dealing with the characters and writing dialogue and the descriptions.

It was difficult with the writer of the screenplay because he felt a proprietorial attitude towards the characters. And I understood that. But we were not writing a novelization of the movie, we were writing our own novel — and I knew sooner or later it was going to come out who wrote it. And I’ve got, you know, professional pride!

So there were a lot of people involved, but I had one great advantage: When it got a bit hot and heavy — not with Tammy and Bill, and not Matthew, because he was busy trying to make a movie, but with other people — I’d say, “Hold on everyone. There’s only one person on this call who has written a best-selling spy novel. That’s me. So let’s calm down.”

Would I do it again? Sure! I’d spent so long on “Pilgrim” and “Locust” sitting in a room by myself — it was fun to have two other people to kick things around with.

Q: I’m sure everyone’s asking you different versions of the rude question: Why did it take so long for you to write “Year of the Locust”? People have been excitedly anticipating it for years.

A: “Pilgrim” was a very difficult thing to write. I’ve never really spoken about it.

When I was 5, I moved to Australia with my mum and dad and my brother. We were a self-contained unit: There were no grandparents, no aunts and uncles, no cousins, no friends, nothing. My mother was not a psychologically well person, and my childhood was difficult. I escaped into reading and storytelling. It didn’t take long for me to decide I was going to be a writer. My aim was to write a well-acknowledged, highly popular [laughs] novel that I was proud of. Something that I felt was really, really good, or as good as I could make it. There were three other people who knew that, from my very earliest childhood: mum, dad and my brother.

My life took many different turns, and I ended up working on “I Am Pilgrim.” Two-hundred pages into “Pilgrim” — too far in to abandon it, not far enough to see the end — my brother arrived at my house and told me he had cancer. Then five months later — I wouldn’t wish this on anybody — I was standing in the hospital corridor, and the doctors were telling me my father, who was quite elderly, had multiple organ failure. I had to ask them to turn the machines off. Six months later, my mother died.

But I couldn’t stop. I had a wife. We had four children within the space of six years. I had responsibilities. I never mourned; I didn’t have time. I just got up every morning, and I dug a ditch. And I finished it. I fulfilled some sort of dream, some kind of ambition: It was highly acknowledged around the world, and it became an international bestseller. But there was nobody there to share it with — nobody from the early days. It was just me.

So I took some time to work through a lot of things. That’s life — I’m not complaining about that. It caused me, more than anything else, to think about my own kids. And I made a very conscious decision that I could always write another book; I could never bring them up properly again. So, I did it. I never missed a cricket training session. I never missed a soccer game, a horse-riding lesson, and I saw 10,000 productions of “Aladdin” starring my kids — and that was the highest price any parent can ever pay. Mention the word Aladdin to me, and I start to break down in a sweat. And so I started to write “Locust,” but it took quite some time.

Q: You took some big risks in the final parts of the book. Those sections reminded me of a Marvel movie — the big set pieces that show off all the special effects, and the bigness of the multiverse. What made you want to try this out? What did you have to do to make it work?

A: I wish I knew. No, look, narrative storytelling is changing very dramatically, and the last people to realize that are in the book publishing industry. Somebody’s bringing out soap operas that you watch for one minute. Believe me, this is not “The Pickwick Papers” we’re talking about. This is something very different.

Narrative storytelling isn’t set in amber — it’s changing. And what I think has happened is that the form of narrative storytelling that so many people are being schooled in takes really big creative leaps. It switches up all the time. So you need to push yourself, and you need to try different things. And they might fail. But so what?

So, I thought: I’ve got a character who’s qualified in nuclear submarines. He’s a scientist. That’s what he believes in. The interesting thing is to take him to a place where all that may not be quite true. He’s entering a canyon in Iran, and he hears gunfire from the future. He sees a vision of a city in ruins. He has a choice: Do you just believe in a world of number and weight? Or do you believe in something you may not understand? And as long as I could give enough clues along the way, people would say, “Well, he’s obviously lost his mind, but I’ve got just enough confidence to keep going with him.”

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