Mikel Santiago in Brussels – A life of writing with risk

“I started writing when I moved to Ireland. I felt it was important to record everything I was leaving behind, my forsaken career in music, my family, and also everything that lay ahead for me. A new country, a new life,” said Mikel Santiago at Librebook on Saturday November 11th. His Belgian tour included a talk in Mons, where a crowd of thriller-novel-fans rushed to meet the best-selling author of The Last Night at Tremore Beach.

Born in Portugalete, a town west of Bilbao and that lies at the mouth of the Nervion River, Santiago is a person who’s had many lives. He’s written novels and collections of stories, as well as screenplays, and has worked in software development for a number of years. But before all that, there was music.

“When I was teenager, all I wanted to do was to play the guitar, to make it big with a band,” said Santiago. “I had some successes here and there. We even recorded some songs. But it just didn’t fly the way I had expected. Now I wish I had tried a bit harder. Maybe move to Madrid. But it’s all in the past. So when my dream of being a guitar player didn’t pan out, I had to reinvent myself.”

In Ireland he started a blog with a handful of friends and learned about the delicate art of revealing one’s thoughts and emotions through words, of the risk of being judged. For a couple of years, he wrote stories that were well received on the internet. He then tried to get his work out into the world via a publishing house and failed. Tried and failed again.

“I got disillusioned and tired,” he said. “It was not easy to accept it. And so the last thing I did before switching my attention to something completely, was to self-publish them. They were available for free on Amazon, iTunes, all of them. Then I moved on with my life.”

After a few years in Ireland, he returned to Bilbao for one year, then decided to search for adventure again. He moved to Amsterdam and continued working in the software development field, and his life seemed to have acquired a peaceful, steady course. Until the day he got a call.

“One morning a friend in Spain called me on my cellphone. He said to me, ‘Mikel, one of your books is the number one download in the whole of Spain. Are you aware of what this means?’ I was speechless. I had nearly forgotten about my dream of becoming a writer.”

Several calls followed and he got an agent. An agent who was supportive and encouraging, but who also raised the stakes.

“He was very clear with me. From the very beginning,” Santiago said. “He told me, ‘Your short stories are great, they really are. But you have to write a novel. Are you up to the task?’ I left it all for my novel. I couldn’t afford to regret the risks I didn’t take with music.”

Several years later, a best-seller in his pocket, it is clear that Santiago has succeeded. “I didn’t believe it at first,” he said. “One day I got a call saying that my book had been sold to the same publisher as Stephen King’s, then next day I got another one saying that the film option had also been sold. It was so intense. Hallucinating, is the word.”

Santiago’s latest novel is, in large part, about a recurring theme in his work: music. Tom Harvey is an American jazz musician who lives in Italy. One night he gets a call from his ex-wife’s father, Bob, but he’s too busy to pick up. The next day he learns that Bob died falling off a balcony, a few minutes after he called Tom.

“I want to draw the reader into my world,” said Santiago. “Music and traveling, yes. But also about the risks I’ve taken. Nothing in my life has been wasted. It’s all here, in my books.”