By Brett King
Six years ago, I was browsing the aisles of a Denver bookstore when I discovered a novel with a provocative quotation from Pope Leo X printed on the back cover. Stealing a few moments in a comfortable chair with a cup of coffee, I read a prologue that transported me back to the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem in the thirteenth century then springboarded me to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in a breathtaking opening chapter.
It was my introduction to Raymond Khoury and I was hooked.
Turns out, I was far from alone. THE LAST TEMPLAR, Khoury’s sweeping debut novel, found a home on the hardcover NEW YORK TIMES bestseller list for eleven weeks, sold over four million copies, and became the basis for a television mini-series. His next three novels, THE SANCTUARY, THE SIGN, and THE TEMPLAR SALVATION also scored as consecutive NEW YORK TIMES bestsellers.
He’s poised to do it again with his latest novel, THE DEVIL’S ELIXIR. Reuniting popular protagonists from his first and fourth books, Khoury draws his readers into another dynamic thriller that threatens the lives of FBI agent Sean Reilly and his girlfriend, archaeologist-turned-novelist Tess Chaykin.
Set in California and Mexico, Reilly and Tess are up against a brutal kingpin known as El Brujo (meaning “the sorcerer”), a character who ranks as one of Khoury’s most inspired antagonists. As relentless as he is brutal, El Brujo plans to change the world with a long-lost psychoactive drug from the jungles of Central America. Shrouded in mystery, the devil’s elixir is a tribal hallucinogen that holds the chilling promise to rewire the human brain in devastating and addictive ways. In short, it has the potential to “make meth look like aspirin.”
At the same time, Reilly faces a “life-changing jolt from the past” that will forever change his relationship with Tess, one that puts him at the center of a race to stop El Brujo. The LIBRARY JOURNAL describes THE DEVIL’S ELIXIR as “Big-time fun” and KIRKUS REVIEWS adds that the “Vivid, energetic scenes ensure that Khoury’s tale never falters or bores. It’s the sort of novel that could make a colorful movie.” BOOKLIST raves, “Khoury’s thrillers engage the reader’s mind, even as they move at a breakneck pace.”
Born in Beirut in 1960, Khoury’s family immigrated to the United States to escape the volatile political climate in Lebanon at the time. He spent his teenaged years in Rye, New York before returning to his native country for architectural studies at the American University of Beirut. As testimony to his diverse background, he also earned an MBA from the European Institute of Business Administration in France. He jumped from careers in architecture and investment banking to acclaimed work as a screenwriter, producer, and novelist. Today, he lives in London with his wife and their two daughters.
Probing and intelligent, Raymond Khoury has enthralled readers in thirty-eight languages. He is a fascinating person, generous with his time despite a hectic schedule, and disarming with a keen sense of wit.
A critical part of THE DEVIL’S ELIXIR centers on an “error of judgment” that FBI agent Sean Reilly made five years ago. It returns to haunt him along with another event from a time when he was part of a multi–agency task force conducting a rescue–and–retrieve operation. What new insights did you gain into Reilly and Tess Chaykin while writing this book?
This book was a big revelation for me, in that Reilly, as a character, was much more central to the book than in his two previous outings (in the Templar novels). This story is intensely his. It’s very personal and very fraught for him, it takes us to a side of him we haven’t really seen before, which is why, after starting writing it in the third person (as I have done previously), I decided it had to be in the first person, from his point of view. I feel that, after writing this book, I know him (and Tess) far better; I think it’s a much more rewarding read because of that, and the next two books will build on this and bring us even closer to him, again in first person.
In addition to powerhouse action and breakneck plotting, your novels explore rich psychological themes and the complexities of relationships. What advice would you offer for bringing to life the psychological and emotional aspects of characters?
My main advice would be, take the time to really set up your characters well, define them in your mind, build their pasts and their personalities as much as you can—then let the story unfold on its own. I don’t plot the books ahead of time beyond very broad notions of how they’re going to play out. I think of the big emotional beats, the big reveals and how they should be paced, but then I just let the characters live the story and motor ahead on their own. That’s where the discoveries happen, about who they are, what they’re like; I only find out by thinking about how they’re going to react to whatever situation I throw them in, and I never know that in advance. A key example of this is in THE SANCTUARY, for instance, when [spoiler alert!] Corben is in the car with the badly wounded Farouk. It happens around halfway into the book, it wasn’t planned, and I didn’t know what Corben would do. But when I thought about it, there was only one thing he could do, and that was to kill Farouk. To murder him. Which totally changed the dynamic of the book, but opened up a fabulous opportunity. I went with it, then went back and tweaked what I’d written, a line here and a line there, to hint at it—and I think Corben is a far more interesting character because of it.
Staying on the topic of psychology, THE DEVIL’S ELIXIR is sprinkled with references to Pavlov, Freud, magical thinking, cryptoamnesia, and the Cartesian view of the brain. Any chance you took psychology classes while studying architecture?
Hah, no! I was too busy spending overnights at the studios slaving away on drafting our projects…!
It’s always seemed to me that there’s a good deal of psychology in architecture.
Hmm… Interesting. And of course, you’re right. Architecture—real architecture, inspired design—is art. Great buildings, whether it’s someone’s home or a public structure like an office building or a museum, are a reflection of their designers’ personalities and a reflection of the times they were conceived in. And they’re designed for an audience, as much for everyone who will drive by or walk through those buildings as for the people who commission and finance them. There’s a lot of psychology involved, it’s a very personal and impassioned craft.
The relationship between Sean Reilly and Tess Chaykin has evolved over the course of three books. What does Tess understand about Sean that he doesn’t know about himself?
I wonder if Tess knows, better than Reilly, that he will never back off anything he thinks he needs to deal with, regardless of the consequences, regardless of how dangerous it is—which is probably something he knows about her too!
A mysterious psychoactive drug poses a critical threat in THE DEVIL’S ELIXIR. Did your research into ethnopharmacology reveal a real drug that provided inspiration for the tribal hallucinogen described in your book?
Absolutely. I drew a lot on research I did about ayahuasca and iboga (that’s research without any air quotes!), and the experiences researchers and travelers describe after using the drugs in their proper ritualized context. What I discovered was really surprising.
Reilly’s narrative in THE LAST TEMPLAR and THE TEMPLAR SALVATION is told from a third-person point-of-view. You mentioned earlier about switching to a first-person narrative voice to tell his story in this book. Tell us more about your decision to change his mode of narration.
When I wrote my first book, THE LAST TEMPLAR, it was an adaptation/evolution of a screenplay I’d written in 1996, for a movie that never happened. At the time, I was much more interested in the story itself, more so than the characters. There was this big, epic story, the parallel story that took place during the Crusades, the themes I wanted to explore, the arguments I wanted the characters to have, the insights I wanted to present to the readers. The characters were really there to serve that story. Yes, I knew them, I liked them, but really, the story came first. I’d say it’s been the same with the three that followed, including its sequel, THE TEMPLAR SALVATION. The trigger was always, for me, “the story”, the big theme I wanted to explore, the high concept. Then I’d look for characters who would best serve that story, who would be interesting for us to live it with. It took me months to figure out who would be the leads of THE SIGN, for instance. Gracie Logan was easier to create, but Matt could have been anything I wanted. I ended up thinking him up as a reformed car thief, the black sheep of two brothers who then goes out to find out who murdered his brilliant sibling. But he could have been anything I wanted. And I love Matt and how he turned out. But the story came first. Matt and Gracie came second. Then with THE TEMPLAR SALVATION, it was the first time I brought back characters I’d already created, my first ‘sequel’ or series book. And I really enjoyed it. I knew them, a few years had passed, I had a lot of fun with them. They were, I think, better fleshed out than in the first book. I put in more moments between them, they became much more ‘human’. Then with THE DEVIL’S ELIXIR, something funny happened. Although it also has ‘the big theme’ that I wanted to explore [can’t say what it is, not to spoil the read], it very quickly became, ‘what would Reilly do if this happened to him.’ Reilly was now front and centre, it was about him, his life, his past, a blast from the past that comes out of nowhere and drags him into this adventure. And I wrote 70, 80 pages maybe, in third person, then it occurred to me, this is so much his story, it’s crazy not to live it through his eyes, in first person. It’s too emotionally involved, too intense. So I went back and rewrote them, and the book just sprang to life in a completely new way for me. And I’m thrilled with the result, so much so that the next two, if not more, will build on this.
At one point, you have Reilly speak directly to the reader and say, “I’m not gonna lie to you, and don’t hate me for saying it, but right there and then, it felt great. Awkward, yes—but great.” It was an interesting moment because you address any potential judgment the reader might have about Reilly. How much thought goes into managing the impressions that readers might have about your protagonists?
Well, it’s all part of knowing Reilly, building him up more and more, getting to know him better and better, and being true to that persona. Reilly’s a good guy. A great guy. But he’s human. And when he does stuff that he’s uncomfortable with, I feel he needs to share that with us.
Reilly describes himself as a “true skeptic.” True for you as well?
Totally. It may take away some of life’s magic, but it’s how I am…
Reilly has strong views about the “war on drugs”—an expression for which he has no small contempt—and believes that it has caused more harm than drug abuse by fueling an international black market and subsidizing organized criminals among other problems. Are you in agreement?
Yes. It’s a very, very hard issue to figure out, but one thing’s for sure, the misguided “war on drugs” and the last forty years of drug policy in the US and abroad is a total failure. Most of the research on the issue is in agreement on this—look no further than this year’s report from the UN’s Global Commission on Drug Policy. It’s our Prohibition and it’s devastated countless lives and all but ravaged many countries. But no politician has the guts to do anything about it, which is hardly a surprise, I guess.
Do you envision a time in the near future when we’ll find a reasonable and unbiased alternative to the war on drugs?
That would assume that we have political leadership that has intelligence as well as balls, and I don’t see that happening.
Your work reveals a fresh appreciation for history. Is there a favorite era or historical setting that best captures your interest? If you could, would you want to live in that era?
I haven’t written about it at all, and I certainly wouldn’t call it historical (yet), but I have a hankering for life in the 60s and 70s, or at least how I imagine it. Maybe I’ve watched too many Austin Powers movies. But in terms of ‘real history’… many periods fascinate me, but I wouldn’t want to live in any of them. Too brutal…
You make a passing reference to the “Angry Birds” video game. Any research go into that one?
Hah … I assigned that one to my daughters!
Speaking of your children, I wanted to bring up that you illustrated several children’s books for Oxford University Press’ Middle East office. Now with two daughters and a successful writing career, it makes all kinds of sense that you might dabble in children’s literature. Any plans to write a children’s book?
Absolutely! In fact, I’ve just hired a cartoonist to create illustrations for a children’s novel that I’m writing, an adaptation of a film idea I never did anything with.
My daughter and I will be anxious to see it. Talking about film adaptation, how does your writing process differ in writing screenplays compared with novels?
Screenplays are much easier. Much faster to write, for sure. The main difference, I guess, is in the planning. I used to map out the stories of my screenplays beat by beat, have step outlines ready with each scene in place before fleshing them out into screenplays. The novels are much more of a discovery that takes place as I write them. And they’re much longer, obviously… my books tend to be around 140-150,000 words whereas I think a typical screenplay come in at one tenth of that…
THE DEVIL’S ELIXIR concludes with the compelling promise of another book in the Sean Reilly-Tess Chaykin series. Is that the plan or will your next book be a stand-alone?
The next two will follow on from THE DEVIL’S ELIXIR, in first person, centering on Reilly. Beyond that … who knows!
I’m grateful to Raymond for taking time to visit with me. His latest action-adventure thriller is both addictive and absorbing. Pick it up because THE DEVIL’S ELIXIR is a perfect read for the holidays! And be sure to visit his website, as well as his official Facebook page. He has a warm rapport with his readers and you’ll come away with a fond appreciation for the man and his work.
Brett King is an award-winning professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Colorado Boulder. His debut novel, THE RADIX, appeared in 2010 and was released in trade paperback in October 2011. NEW YORK TIMES bestselling author Jeffery Deaver calls it, “A topnotch thriller! Part DA VINCI CODE, part 24, THE RADIX is roller-coaster storytelling at its best.” The second book in his series, THE FALSE DOOR, will be released in June 2012. King is currently writing his third novel.