Sylvain Neuvel’s career as a best-selling science-fiction author has its genesis in a toy robot he made for his son. When his boy was two-and-a-half years old, Neuvel, who dabbles in model making and robotics, decided to build something for the youngster to play with. “He just kept asking a bunch of questions, like, ‘Where is it from ?’ and, ‘What does it do?’” Neuvel says. “And so all of a sudden I needed a backstory for a toy.”
Once the stories he told his son were allowed to percolate in his head, Neuvel realized he had the makings of an interesting work of speculative fiction. “I started taking notes and everything, and at night I got the idea. I started asking myself what would it be like if we found some alien artifact in real life.” The result of this exploration became his 2016 debut novel, Sleeping Giants, a book with a history almost as unlikely as that of its author.
Neuvel spent his adolescence and young adulthood following a circuitous path that isn’t indicative of any kind of usual trajectory toward a career as a writer. A native of Quebec, Neuvel left school at the age of 15 and spent years travelling, making ends meet by, among other things, selling ice cream. When he decided it was in his best interest to continue his education, he returned to school and eventually earned a PhD in linguistics, a subject he taught for a short time while living in India.
“I’ve had a fun life, right?” he says.
During an existence that can be charitably described as peripatetic, Neuvel was always writing. As a young man, he wrote poetry (which may be one of the few clichéd aspects of the author’s biography), and co-wrote a screenplay for a French television show. “We got a very good option,” Neuvel says. “It was never produced, but we got some money for it.”
Neuvel finally settled in Montreal, with a job as a software engineer and a new son. With the manuscript for his first novel completed, Neuvel decided on the self-publishing route. To give himself a bit of a boost, he contacted Kirkus, the U.S. book review outlet, which offers indie authors a place to have their work assessed by a professional reviewer. “I was just hoping to be able to pull a few words out of context,” Neuvel says, illustrating the degree to which he thinks like a traditional publisher.
What he received back was a love letter. “This stellar debut novel,” the review reads, “ […] masterfully blends together elements of sci-fi, political thriller, and apocalyptic fiction.” The review goes on to call Sleeping Giants “a page-turner of the highest order.” Neuvel suggests the response was so enthusiastic that if he’d written it himself, he would have been tempted to tone it down.
Then the review went up online, and within a day, Neuvel was fielding calls from Hollywood producers.
“The movie world found me first. So one producer the first day, another the next day, another one, another one – five or six altogether. So I sent the book to some of them, and one of them called me back a couple of days later and said, ‘I want to help you.’ I was just smiling and laughing because it’s funny.”
The producer helped Neuvel secure a film agent, who ended up selling the option rights to Sony. It was only then that the agent asked if Neuvel was determined to self-publish the book. After “a couple of phone calls,” Neuvel had a literary agent, who sold the work at auction to Del Rey in the U.S., as well as placing it in 20 other territories.
As a publishing story, it’s crazy enough to make most writers turn green with unbridled envy. And Neuvel is set to capitalize on the success of Sleeping Giants – a USA Today bestseller – with the sequel, Waking Gods, which Del Rey is bringing out in April. The new novel picks up where the first book left off, with a team of scientists and researchers trying to unravel the secrets of the contraption unearthed years ago. A third book in the series is already underway.
In the meantime, it’s clear that Neuvel hasn’t let his remarkable success go to his head, and he maintains his day job to supplement the income he makes from writing. Though the money he has made off the two books is not insubstantial, Neuvel points out that his earlier life as a self-employed wanderer “didn’t come with a 401(K). I have no retirement money or whatever.” If he were single, Neuvel says he might consider writing full time. “But with my son, I’m taking it easy.”