Interview: January 20, 2006
Bookreporter.com's Suspense/Thriller Author Spotlight Team (Carol Fitzgerald, Joe Hartlaub and Wiley Saichek) interviewed veteran screenwriter Raymond Khoury about his novel, THE LAST TEMPLAR. Khoury discusses how he first became interested in the mysterious order of knights on which the book is based, and reveals the long and arduous process of writing and publishing this debut work of fiction. He also comments on the recent popularity of religion-themed thrillers, compares and contrasts screenplays with novels, and even recommends a few titles for further study on the period's history.
Bookreporter.com: The Knights Templar and their alleged successors have been at the foundation of many conspiracy theories, ranging from the assassination of John Kennedy to the Vatican bank scandals. What fascinates people about this small group that existed over 600 years ago?
Raymond Khoury: The fall of the Templars in the late 1200s and early 1300s was a huge story that really captured the imagination of people across Europe, and interest in the Templars hasn't waned since --- far from it. We're talking about a political conspiracy to bring down a small group of mysterious people who had great wealth and power, who controlled vast tracts of land across continents, who were savage warriors as well as philosophers and mystics, who traveled to the East and discovered profound secrets, who were said to possess magical, diabolical powers. In the thirteenth century, that was a pretty compelling story that got everyone talking. Over the centuries, writers from Dante to Voltaire have explored and expanded on the Templar myth, regarding them as kindred spirits, noble victims of persecution, champions of an alternative point of view to the prevailing tyrannical worldview of the Church. In our sanitized, rationalized world, that myth is still as compelling as it was back then.
BRC: What sparked your fascination with the Templar Knights? Did you study religion or history in college, or have these subjects always fascinated you independently, outside the classroom?
RK: I'd just finished writing a small, semi-autobiographical screenplay and felt like writing something very different: something bigger, more epic, mythic. I was on holiday in France when I came across a history book about the Templars in a friend's library. He and I talked about them, and he knew the subject well. I read up on them, and the story quickly took shape from there.
BRC: A good deal of THE LAST TEMPLAR deals with the Crusades. Have the Crusades been a long-standing interest of yours? What texts did you rely upon while you were weaving fact and fiction into your narrative?
RK: I guess that in the last twenty years or so, I've become more fascinated by the Crusades and their contemporary resonance --- this concept of armies of God and the absurdities that entails; the fact that this same conflict is still playing itself out in one way or another, to this day. The ongoing radicalization and collision of Islam and Christianity, East and West, in which religion was used as a surrogate for that most basic human failing --- greed --- is all very much a part of our lives now. I've been keenly aware of it ever since Khomeini kicked the Shah out of Iran back in 1979 and pretty much changed the world we live in. It's a conflict that's nowhere near its conclusion.
As far as books are concerned, I can recommend many great titles about the Crusades and the Templars. Steven Runciman's A HISTORY OF THE CRUSADES is a hugely readable and detailed account of the Crusades. Helen Nicholson's THE KNIGHTS TEMPLAR is great as a general history of the Templars, as is Piers Paul Read's THE TEMPLARS. Peter Partner's THE MURDERED MAGICIANS, which may be a bit harder to find, is more unique; it's a fantastic piece of research into how the myth of the Templars spread and survived. I'd also recommend Sir Walter Scott's THE TALISMAN, not for its historical validity --- it's a work of fiction, and not the easiest book to read either --- but for its inspiration and great detail.
BRC: How did you research THE LAST TEMPLAR? Did you visit each of the locales that are featured in the book, or were you already familiar with them before you started writing? What was the most fascinating historical tidbit that you were unaware of prior to your research on the book?
RK: I was lucky --- I've lived in Europe for over twenty years, and I lived in New York prior to that, so a lot of the locations that made their way into the story are places I've been to and know reasonably well. As far as historical tidbits are concerned, Jefferson's Bible, which I was unaware of before writing the book, is something that really took me by surprise and fascinated me. And finding out that Prince Henry The Navigator, the godfather of the astrolabe, also happened to be the head of a Portuguese military order that traced its origins back to the Templars, was one of those magical little moments that are hugely satisfying.
BRC: Chapter one of THE LAST TEMPLAR was captivating. We were especially impressed with the pacing. How long did you plot out this scene before you sat down to write it?
RK: Having worked as a screenwriter for the last ten years, I think in visual and film terms, and I could see that chapter unspool so clearly, as if I was sitting in a theatre watching it. I'd already seen it in my mind before sitting down to write it. So I'm going to be really annoying here and say it just wrote itself, which is true. Sorry!
BRC: Tess Chaykin is an archaeologist. Is archaeology an avid interest of yours as well? Have you participated in archaeological digs?
RK: I wouldn't say it was an avid interest of mine before I started working on the story. But when I was growing up, we had a very close family friend who was full of life and constantly leaving her home in Manhattan to go on long digs to Turkey, Jordan and Egypt, always coming back with all these great stories and a huge buzz. She was completely devoted to her work and I'm sure it's something that stuck with me.
BRC: We were fascinated about the multigeared rotor encoder. Was this particular machine fictional or is such a decoder rumored to be floating around the Vatican's treasures?
RK: The rotor encoder does exist --- the army used it in WWII, but the earliest versions of that technology that we know of aren't nearly as old as the Templars. I don't know any rumors of any such device being tucked away in some Vatican crypt, but that doesn't mean it isn't there...
BRC: THE DA VINCI CODE and other thrillers involving religion have drawn criticism in addition to strong sales. Do you have any concerns about how your Christian readers, particularly Catholics, will react to the novel? Why do you feel so many readers are interested in this mix of history, crime and religion?
RK: I really don't have any worries on that front. Some of the novels that have been criticized have proposed a definitive, alternative history as the basis of their storyline --- descendants of Jesus walking among us, for instance --- but people seem to forget that we're talking about novels, not academic texts. I don't think religious readers of my book will find it hugely controversial. Sure, it may surprise them; they may discover things in it that they perhaps weren't aware of, that might make them uncomfortable, but they're things that are historically true and widely accepted as historical fact. But ultimately, I believe the book is uplifting and spiritually affirming --- and I'd urge anyone reading the book to read the last chapter carefully.
As far as the mix of history, crime and religion --- I'm sure the times we live in, the rise of fundamentalism and the polarization of the big religions, the conflicts raging around us, science challenging faith on a daily basis, our becoming better informed and more questioning, it's all part of it. It's a genre that's been around for years, just like straight crime fiction or legal thrillers, but it's a genre that's now coming into its own, energized by THE DA VINCI CODE's success, which is great.
BRC: What is the biggest challenge of writing a historical novel? What is the most rewarding aspect of writing in this genre?
RK: I guess the biggest challenge is making sure the historical parts of it stand up to scrutiny and feel right. Even though I'm writing fiction, I do believe I have a responsibility to my readers to write accurately when I'm writing chapters set in the past. As far as the Crusades are concerned, it's not easy to find reliable information about the small details that make all the difference. Even something as straightforward as the Templars' flag is still open to academic debate. But that challenge is also the most rewarding aspect of writing in this genre: it's a journey of discovery for me. I wasn't and still am far from being an expert in Crusader life or in thirteenth-century Tuscan mining towns, but creating a world that could have existed, and populating it with compelling characters who could have lived through what I've dreamt up for them, is a really gratifying way to spend one's day.
BRC: You are a veteran screenwriter, and much of THE LAST TEMPLAR is cinematic in presentation. Did you first envision THE LAST TEMPLAR as a film, or did you instead find that your experience as a screenwriter bled over into your writing of the novel?
RK: I first wrote THE LAST TEMPLAR as a screenplay ten years ago. I was just starting out and it was only the third screenplay I'd written. A friend read it and thought it would make a great book, which I agreed with wholeheartedly, as you can't really delve deeply into the issues at the core of the story in a movie --- even less so in a mainstream movie --- as this was intended to be. So my friend gave it to a book agent he knew, one thing led to another, and pretty soon I was flown to New York and offered a huge advance for a book that would be based on my screenplay. I was in seventh heaven: their plans for the book were very flattering, and they wanted to buy the film rights. It was all a writer's dream come true until, half an hour into the meeting, the publisher casually mentioned a small caveat: "Oh, and you know, all that stuff about religion? Let's lose that. Let's turn it into a hunt for treasure --- you know, gold, jewels, that kind of thing."
I was stunned. The whole core of the book, its heart and soul, would be gone. I had put so much into writing it, it was a huge part of my life, and I couldn't see the interest in the story they were proposing. Though I was under a lot of pressure to accept the deal --- I hadn't yet sold a single dollar's worth of writing --- I couldn't do it, and I said no. No other publishers were approached, and everyone was annoyed with me for passing up the opportunity, so I flew back home to London, thinking of giving up on writing and going back to architecture. But then, one of the UK's top film producers had managed to get hold of my screenplay, and although he didn't end up buying it, as he thought the movie would be too expensive and controversial for his company, he told me to let him know if I wanted to write anything else. I ended up selling them several original screenplays. With my screenwriting career up and running, THE LAST TEMPLAR sat there on my shelf all that time, waiting for its day. Every few months, someone would call up out of the blue and ask about it.
Finally, in 1999, I moved to the William Morris Agency. The book agent there, Eugenie Furniss, read the screenplay and told me, "You know, you really have to write that book, it'll make a wonderful novel. Just sit down and do it, I know you can do it." To her endless credit, she kept calling me every few months, asking if I'd started. In September 2002, after finishing a long screenwriting project and feeling I was now ready for it, I started writing THE LAST TEMPLAR, my first novel. It was very different, and far more satisfying, than anything I'd ever done.
As a novelist, my screenwriting experience has definitely bled over into the writing of the book. It's how I think, it's how I tell stories: I see them, I can imagine them on a screen as I'm writing them. Screenwriting is a great discipline because of how ruthless it is as an editor. We live in fear of seeing our precious words and scenes ending up on the cutting room floor, so anything that's written has to be there for a reason, and it'd better be a good one.
BRC: What are the advantages (and disadvantages) of writing a novel over writing a screenplay? What has been the most surprising part of the screenwriting-to-novel writing transition?
RK: Writing screenplays and novels are hugely different, surprisingly so, actually. In a novel, you have the luxury of being inside your characters' heads, and of being able to describe their thoughts and feelings to your audience --- your readers. You can't do that in a screenplay; it's all about what you can show on the screen. You even avoid describing it in the screenplay itself. Also, as I said earlier, although I tried to be as ruthless a self-editor in the book as I do in my screenplays, the breadth and scope of a novel does allow you to expand on ideas and conversations in a way you could never do in a screenplay. It's a real luxury. The huge luxury, though, is that I wrote the novel for myself, without any expectations. I knew that if it got published, what I wrote would end up in the hands of readers, word for word. It's not a collaborative exercise, which is a polite way of describing screenwriting --- what you write is changed and compromised, for better or for worse, by a small army of producers, directors, actors and studio executives who sometimes have wildly contradictory points of view. There was no compromise here, no committee, and for a screenwriter, that's heaven. The most surprising part for me was, I guess, how much I enjoyed it, how much I loved taking my time to write it and having it completely take over my life.
BRC: Have you always enjoyed the suspense/thriller genre? What authors do you enjoy reading in it? What writers --- both television and prose of any genre --- have inspired you?
RK: I'm an escapist --- I need stories, I get bored easily. If I'm watching or reading something, I need to be transported out of the mundane and into something that I could never experience in my life. Having said that, I'm a huge Harlan Coben fan, so that might just be wishful thinking. Inspirations: Alfred Bester is a huge one. He only wrote two novels, but both are consistently in any top-ten science fiction novel list. They're such unique and original stories. Hemingway, Jack Finney, Lawrence Block, Michael Connelly, Nelson DeMille, Philip Dick... A book I have to mention, though, is Carlos Ruiz Zafon's THE SHADOW OF THE WIND, which I read recently --- a really inspired piece of writing, just staggeringly compelling.
BRC: What are you working on now, what can you tell us about it and when can readers expect to see it?
RK: I'm finishing up a few more scripts for the next season of "Spooks" (it's called "MI-5" in the US. We started shooting the new series yesterday), as well as a couple of pilots for new shows, and the mini-series adaptation of THE LAST TEMPLAR for NBC, before settling down to write my next book that Dutton will also publish. It's an adventure thriller set in both the past and the present, with something at its core that's always fascinated me and that I can't wait to explore in more detail...