A Conversation With John Marrs, Author Of The Passengers

A Conversation With John Marrs, Author Of The Passengers

The idea of The Passengers, the new thriller by John Marrs, is indeed intriguing: You’re riding in your self-driving car when suddenly the doors lock, the route changes and you have lost all control. Then, a mysterious voice tells you, “You are going to die.”

Just as self-driving cars become the trusted, safer norm, eight people find themselves in this terrifying situation, including a faded TV star, a pregnant young woman, an abused wife fleeing her husband, an illegal immigrant, a husband and wife, and a suicidal man.

From cameras hidden in their cars, their panic is broadcast to millions of people around the world. But the public will show their true colors when they are asked, “Which of these people should we save?…And who should we kill first?”

This believable thriller by Marrs raises intriguing questions about our science-tinged future and in what follows, he shares his inspirations for this original story.


Mystery Tribune: How would you describe The Passengers? 

Marrs: I’d describe it as five minutes in the future, speculative fiction. It follows five people from different walks of life who climb into their driverless cars one morning and are warned their vehicles have been hacked. In two hours time, they are set to collide head-on in front of a global audience of millions.

It’s up to social media and a selected panel of experts to decide which of them should survive. The book has been described as Speed meets Hunger Games with a Black Mirror twist. Praise doesn’t get much better than that!

What influenced this book? 

A conversation with my former editor about driverless vehicles led to it. We were discussing my previous book, The One, when she suddenly asked if there was anything that could be done with autonomous vehicles in a novel?

I loved the idea and two weeks later, I sent her a four-page outline of the story. She was immediately onboard.

What sort of research did you do while writing The Passengers? 

Setting a book in the near future means looking forward to the technology we might soon be using. Everything from how we access the Internet to how our mobile devices might look.

And of course, what driverless cars will look like and how they will operate. So with the help of my husband, we researched all we could about these vehicles, how they operated, how they made life or death decisions, the ethics behind them and even what they might look like inside and out.

We also traveled to Switzerland to the Geneva Motor Show to look at the vehicles of the near future, some of which were autonomous ones. It was fascinating.

Which one of the characters did you enjoy writing the most?

I enjoyed writing Sophia Bradbury the most. She’s a working actress in her seventies whose career is winding down, albeit reluctantly. When she finds herself trapped in a driverless car and broadcast to millions, she thinks she is in a reality TV show.

We also traveled to Switzerland to the Geneva Motor Show to look at the vehicles of the near future…

She’s camp and unwittingly funny but hides some very dark secrets. I based some of her mannerisms and sense of entitlement on a character played by a British actress in 1980s soap Dynasty 

Social media plays a significant role in The Passengers, how do you see it shaping where we are now? Are you on social media? 

Yes, I am on social media— probably too much! I have my own Facebook page, an author one, I use Twitter and I have two Instagram accounts, one primarily for posting images of books, my own and other novels that I’m reading.

Social media can be brilliant and do so much good, but can also be an awful place for some people. I know that if I were being picked on or trolled, I would not remain a part of it. Life is too short to be dragged down by negativity.

I don’t involve myself in online spats, I’d rather argue with people I know in the real world than people I’m never likely to meet! However I’ve been fortunate. Social media has been a fantastic way for me to interact with my readers.

I try and answer each of their messages or Tweets; they’ve been kind enough to purchase and read my books and given me a career, so it’s only right that I try and respond if they get in touch.

What challenges did you face while writing The Passengers? 

The biggest challenge was finding the balance between including the technology used for driverless cars but without overloading the reader with facts and figures and having it come at the expense of pace and plot.

Then on a personal level, my mum was diagnosed with bowel cancer during the writing of this book. During the four-week run up to her operation, we spent a lot of time in specialists’ waiting rooms.

I don’t involve myself in online spats, I’d rather argue with people I know in the real world than people I’m never likely to meet…

And when she was in different clinics facing a barrage of tests, I brought with me a rucksack full of printouts to proof read and edit until she returned. Discussing the plot and characters with her during these long waits also took both of our minds off what was to come.

Thankfully, mum’s a survivor and her cancer had not spread. After an operation, she has fully recovered. But even now, almost a year later, when I re-read selected parts of The Passengers, I can still recall exactly which hospital waiting room I was in and what tests she was having done when I wrote them.

Tell us about your literary influences.  Who are your favorite writers and what kind of books do you love to read? 

As a boy, I grew up obsessed with The Hardy Boys books, and wanted to write like their author, Franklin W. Dixon. It was only as an adult that I learned he didn’t exist; he was a conglomerate of writers.

Nowadays, I am a huge fan of Peter Swanson. No two books of his are alike. He is not afraid to take risks, explore the darker side of human nature yet makes his characters relatable.

And for me, Gillian Flynn is a fearless and innovative writer. Her stories both fascinate and scare the living daylights out of me. I’ve recently become obsessed with Irish writer John Boyne and am working my way through his back catalogue, devouring his every word.


For our complete collection of author conversations, please see here.

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