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An Insidious Takeover of my Faculties: The Sanctuary by Andrew Hunter Murray

Writing.ie | Magazine | Interviews | Speculative Fiction

By Andrew Hunter Murray

Here’s a confession to start with: I don’t remember where I was when I came up with the idea for The Sanctuary. What a let-down, right? Not only a let-down, but a total failure in terms of having a friendly, relatable anecdote to slap onto the front of the book and win readers round. Douglas Adams always told the excellent story that he came up with the idea for the Hitchhiker’s Guide while lying drunk in a field in Innsbruck. With my first book, The Last Day, I can remember the exact street corner I was on when the idea of our world hanging motionless in space, locked with the sun, arrived in my brain. I felt like I’d been mugged. With the second one, not so much.

But if the first idea was a mugging, the second was a much slower and more insidious takeover of my faculties – a slow but careful identity theft, maybe. I read recently about a bug known as the giraffe assassin bug, which preys on spiders – but instead of pouncing on them immediately, it breaks the threads of the spider’s web, and holds the ends still in position, while the spider goes about its business unaware anything is wrong. When the idea for the next book arrives in your head, it’s a bit like that. You sense the idea, but then it might leave you alone for a bit. Then, without realising it you start thinking about it more and more, and by the time you do actually work out that the idea launched a takeover bid for your attention, all your spare mental energy is already being funnelled into the book.

In the case of The Sanctuary, there are extenuating circumstances for not knowing where I was when I came up with the idea: it was in the spring of 2020, when I think everyone was going a bit crackers with the strangeness of the situation we’d all been thrown into. My memories from that time are practically nil apart from queueing outside supermarkets, failing to buy eggs anywhere, the heat, and going on the same walk 1500 times. So I was probably in one of three specific places.

The book is set near-here and near-now, but not quite either. It begins with a young man living in a city abandoned by its elites and setting out to find the paradise they have retreated to, and I think a lot of the eventual world-view of the novel sprang from those uniquely weird times. You may remember the stories of billionaires concealing themselves in luxurious homes or flying to their estates in New Zealand, stories about people trapped in swelteringly hot flats across the cities of Europe, and – along with the great patience almost everyone exhibited – a sense of fear about where this was going to lead. All of this stuff funnelled directly into The Sanctuary – a world divided between rich and poor, a world where the old order is breaking down, a world where many measure their worth in their proximity to power. As well as all that there’s a dose of desire for adventure; in the boiling-hot days of that spring, I was living in a small flat, getting backache from my terrible furniture and worse posture, and I think I wanted to send my main character 500 miles across the country to a mysterious island because I was frequently failing to so much as go outside.

As far as the research went, I do it for a living – my day job is as one of the writers on BBC2’s QI, and I’ve been there nearly 14 years – so I do feel a compulsion to get all the small things right. With books that sometimes get described as ‘sci-fi’ or ‘high-concept’, I think you have license to break one or two big rules – you’re changing the way the world works, after all. The Power and The Children of Men both make huge, implausible changes to humanity, but they succeed precisely because they get the details right in terms of what follows from those changes. So I read a lot, about cults and risks to humanity and history’s wealthiest men and what they did with their wealth, and all of that research cropped up in the book, often in unexpected ways.

The thing about writing that makes it a lifelong task – craft? Pursuit? Some combination of the three – is the sheer number of ways in which you can not get it right. A really good novel will combine characters you’re interested in (not characters you have to like – after all, who cares about a lot of nice people having sensible conversations and resolving their difficulties in a reasonable way?), dialogue that crackles, human situations that compel you to read on, and the events which get bundled together and labelled ‘plot’. But most importantly, it throws light onto some slice of the world that the author thinks we should be paying attention to. Whatever their genre or their era, good novels provide some kind of message from the author about the way the world is, and whether or not that matches the world as it ought to be. From Jane Austen to James Ellroy, the author is finding a way of speaking about the world itself through their story. That feels like a big task, but I think in a well-constructed story, the author’s world-vision can’t help but come through.

After a first draft, I try to do a pass for as many different aspects of the book as I can think of. For idiolects, so you can make sure your characters are speaking in their own voice and don’t all sound like each other; for the book’s themes, making sure they are finding their expression all the way through. And if you’re getting tired of the purely creative stuff, there’s always the nuts-and-bolts work making sure that the story actually works chronologically, and that you haven’t accidentally got a character knowing a fact fifty pages early.

And then, eventually, after dozens of passes for this and that, whole reads to gain a sense of it, the agonising bit where you’re told it might be better if it was just 20,000 words shorter (the person who told me this was absolutely right, even worse), you’ll have a book.

Then, of course, you have to get cracking on the next one. 

(c) Andrew Hunter Murray

About The Sanctuary:


In a disintegrating and increasingly lawless land, a young man is travelling north.

Ben is a young painter from the crowded, turbulent city. For six months his fiancée Cara has been living on the remote island of Sanctuary Rock, the property of millionaire philanthropist Sir John Pemberley. Now she has decided to break off their engagement and stay there for good.

Ben resolves to travel to the island to win Cara back. But the journey there is a harsh and challenging one, and when he does arrive, a terrible shock awaits him.

As Ben begins to find his way around Pemberley’s perfect island, he knows he must also discover – what has made Cara so determined to throw her old life away? And is Sanctuary Rock truly a second Eden, as the mysterious Sir John claims – or a prospect of hell?

By the Sunday Times-bestselling author of The Last Day, this high-concept thriller will provoke and grip you from the very first page.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Andrew Hunter Murray is a scriptwriter and senior researcher for BBC2’s QI. He co-hosts the award-winning podcast No Such Thing As A Fish, which has had 300 million downloads and toured the UK, Europe and USA. He also writes jokes and journalism for Private Eye magazine and hosts the Eye’s podcast, Page 94.

His first novel, The Last Day, was a Sunday Times Top 10 Bestseller, and one of the top 10 fiction debuts of 2020.

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