Sylvain Neuvel’s debut novel, Sleeping Giants has gotten quite a bit of attention since it hit bookstores, and Neuvel tells us how watching robot shows with his son helped get the novel started.
The novel begins with a girl falling through the ground and onto a giant hand in a hidden chamber. Nearly two decades later, the government undertakes a major program to discover what the hand attaches to, and what its implications are for humanity.
We chatted with Neuvel about where the novel came from, its unique path to publication and what’s coming up next in the series.
Tell us a little about your background: when did you first discover science fiction, and why have you stuck with it?
I think the first movie I saw in the theatre was Close Encounters of the Third Kind. My father had seen it a couple times already, but it had struck a chord with him and somehow he thought bringing me — I must have been four or five — would be a good idea. It was. I loved that movie. Then there’s Star Wars. I’m not sure when and how I saw it for the first time but it sparked my imagination in ways nothing else had before. Perhaps more importantly, it came with toys, and toys need stories to come alive. I had no siblings, so I spent my days creating new adventures for R2-D2, C-3PO and that weird looking dog from Battlestar Galactica. Why did I stick with it? One of the things I like about sci-fi is that it’s usually about humanity (or the like) reaching new heights, about us surpassing ourselves to overcome some obstacle, or simply to survive.Regardless of the story, there’s something eminently positive and inspiring about sci-fi, even when it ends badly. There’s that, and the fact that I never really grew up. I’m more or less an overeducated ten-year-old.
Sleeping Giants is the story of the discovery of a massive robot. What’s the origin of this novel?
I suppose you can blame my son for it. I like to build things with my hands from time to time, so I offered to make him a toy robot. I was expecting a one-word answer, but he wanted to know everything about it before I built it. But dad, where is it from? What does it do? Can it fly? He wanted a backstory, and I didn’t have one, so I told him I’d think about it. A few days later, we were watching Grendizer, a Japanese anime about a giant robot from outer space — like any bad parent, I made my son watch shows I liked as a kid — and I asked myself what it would be like if it happened in real life, if we found a giant artifact from an alien civilisation. I started writing. Sleeping Giants is many things, but at its core, it’s really about a father building a toy for his son.
Your book had a rather unique route to publication. Can you tell me a little about how the book went from your word processor to hardcover novel?
It’s a crazy story. About halfway through the book, I knew I had something good enough to share. When I was done writing, I gave myself six months to find a literary agent. I sent query letters to a little over fifty of them. Most didn’t answer. All of those who did turned me down. After six months, I chose to self-publish. I started a little company, planned every stage very carefully. I needed a quote to put on the cover to make it look legit, so I sent the book to Kirkus for a review. I wasn’t expecting much, but I thought I might at least be able to use a couple words out of context.
I got a great review, a starred review, and the month that followed was the craziest of my life. The review went online, and that same day I got an email from a Hollywood producer, then another, and another. One of them called me back after I sent him the book, told me how much he loved it and said he wanted to help. He put me in touch with a movie agent at Creative Artists Agency, who then put me in touch with a literary agent in New York. Suddenly I had more agents than books. Two weeks later, the movie rights — to my still self-published novel at the time — sold to Sony, then the book and its sequel sold to Del Rey. All of that happened in one month. Then Sony hired David Koepp (Jurassic Park, Mission Impossible, Spider-Man) to write the script and Sleeping Giants is now being published in 14 languages. Like I said, crazy.
When I first opened the novel, I was a little surprised to see how you formatted it: rather than straightforward narrative, you’ve told the story through a series of interviews, excerpts and reports. Why tell your story in this way?
I have a thing for epistolary novels to begin with. I read Les Liaisons Dangereuses when I was a teenager and it just blew my mind. It’s a collection of letters between people who basically lie all the time. In many ways, the real story isn’t even in the book. I got to put it together myself based on what I learned about the characters through their interactions. I liked that the author put that kind of trust in me and I wanted to do the same for my readers. I think it also fits the story well. My first thought when I imagined the discovery of alien artifacts was that we probably wouldn’t know anything about it. Information would be restricted to a handful of people involved in that top-secret project, but it would have to leave a paper trail of sorts. I wanted the book to be just that, a record of these world-changing events.
Your next novel in the series is Waking Gods, due out next year. What did you learn from writing Sleeping Giants that you have applied to this book?
If you ask my editor, he’ll tell you I learned to use fewer semi-colons. Seriously, the biggest challenge with Sleeping Giants was always to choose a point of view for every scene, decide what to show, what to skip over, which character to use. When I started Waking Gods, I knew the characters a lot better. I also had more experience with the format. I had a better sense of what worked well and what was harder to do.
What can we expect from this novel?
I love Waking Gods. It’s clearly a sequel to Sleeping Giants, but it’s also a very different experience. There are some answers in there I know people are looking for. There are also interesting new questions being asked. If you liked the epilogue in Sleeping Giants, you’ll really like what comes next. I don’t want to spoil anything, but the stakes are much higher in this one, for the characters, and for all of us.