By Tania Carver
Sarah Pinborough is, i think, one of the brightest stars in the British crime and horror writing firmaments. In the last few years she has come to prominence in the predominantly male arena of horror fiction. Not content with that, she moved over to crime fiction. She’s also written YA novels, fairy stories, historical fiction and for film and TV. If you’re on Twitter or Facebook you’ve probably come across her, likewise if you frequent the bars of West London. She is, for my money, one of the most exciting voices in fiction at the moment. Here’s Sarah!
Me: You came to crime fiction with The God Faced Dogs trilogy after a very successful career as a horror novelist. Did you notice much of a difference, either from inside (the community) or outside (how you were perceived)?
Sarah: It was a big change for me on many levels, not just the shift in genre. My first six books were straight horror novels, but they were mass-market paperbacks in the USA and never published in the UK, so when I signed the trilogy deal with Gollancz it was my first UK deal, and was a much bigger deal than I’d had before. And although I wouldn’t have got that deal without the first books (I was up for a best novel British Fantasy award for The Taken and that led to meetings and pitching to Jo Fletcher at Gollancz) I still consider signing that deal as the start of my career ‘proper’ as it were. Because of that it’s hard to judge a change in perception from people. To my American readership they probably thought I’d dropped off the side of a cliff rather than taken a step up! I’m very pleased that Ace (Penguin) in the USA have picked up the trilogy so I’ll be published there again.
Me: The God Faced Dogs trilogy overlapped the two genres. We’re always constantly told not to do that but you got away with it and quite spectacularly. How did you manage that?
Sarah: Although people say it straddles crime and horror, I consider it more of a crime/Sci-Fi cross really, although the first book of the three probably seems more dark urban fantasy (How many genres can I try and fill??;-)) so I can see how it gets the horror tag.
Before starting it, I had reached a stage where I was bored and restless writing straight horror, and I did – what was on reflection quite a stupid thing – and quit my job to concentrate on writing a story that challenged me. I realised that I read far more crime and thriller novels than horror and had been thinking of trying my hand at something more mainstream for a while. I’d read Michael Marshall’s The Intruders and while talking to him – probably in a bar – he mentioned John Connolly’s Charlie Parker books to me. I hunted them down and was blown away by Every Dead Thing. I loved the richness of the writing and storytelling and realised that if he and Michael Marshall were writing thrillers with a touch of weird in them, then there was a market for it, other than just in my own head. Thankfully, I sold the trilogy before I’d written it and therefore didn’t end up living in a gutter after packing in teaching.
Sarah with John Connolly. She has nothing but respect for him.
Sarah with Michael Marshall. She has nothing but respect for him too, obviously.
I can see why crossing genres isn’t encouraged from a professional point of view though – I’ve found the three books of the trilogy in three different sections of one Waterstones once. Quite frustrating. But, you know how it is, you have to write the stories that come to you, and the more I settle into my career, the more I’ve come to realise that the ideas I have tend to straddle genres. I seem incapable of shaking off the weird.
Me: I genuinely have trouble keeping up with you. You’re probably the most hard working and prolific author around. Yet you still have time for a full social media presence. How do you do it all?
Sarah: Ha! I hear this about me quite a lot, although I’m not sure how true it is. I’m sure there are a lot of writers out there more prolific than me. If I’m honest, I would like to have more time on each project – but I’m also very aware that the market is tough for writers at the moment, and the sentence that rings in my head is always, ‘Getting published isn’t the difficult bit – staying published is.’ If you’re a mid-lister and not riding the top tens frequently then you just can’t relax. Not that relaxing comes that easily to me anyway, and even when I sort some free time out for myself, I inevitably end up working. I’m terrified of running out of time. It’s the same for all writers. Too many stories itching in our heads.
Plus, I can spend money like water so I have to work hard! As for the social media presence, I live alone and work alone, so I have more time for Twitter and Facebook, and on days when I’m not out and about, especially before I moved to London, they were easy social interaction for the day. BUT, they can be a time suck. I have Freedom on my Macbook that cuts me off from the Internet for set periods of time when I need to get some words down without distractions.
Me: You recently wrote an episode of TV cop show New Tricks as well as acting in and directing a couple of short films. (You see what I mean about prolific?) Any more TV and/or film work coming up?
Sarah: I didn’t direct the short films, that was my friend Abigail Blackmore (@snaxhanso), and the ‘acting’ as you very kindly call it, was all improvisation on the spot and under the influence of wine so didn’t require any effort from me, but were fun to do.
As for TV and Film – I’ve got another draft of my horror film ‘Cracked’ to do this month with the director Peter Medak (The Changeling, The Krays, The Ruling Class, Breaking Bad and many more) which is slated to go into production at the end of this year, but we all know how these things can fall apart! I’ve got another film, ‘Red Summer’ under option, and I’ve got a 3-parter TV Crime pitch ‘Fallow Ground’ optioned by World Productions that’s doing the rounds, and a couple of other pitches to put together when I’ve got some time. But TV
Me: You see what I mean about prolific? How did you get into writing? Because it wasn’t what you’ve always done . . .
Sarah: I’ve done a lot of different things over the years, but I’d always written, right from a very young age – I wrote plays for school and 40 pages of a (terrible) novel when I was about fourteen, but I didn’t seriously think about writing professionally until I was about thirty. I wrote some short stories in my late-twenties that friends etc seemed to like and then one day, when I was about 29, I found three pages of an opening I’d written a year or so before, and suddenly I saw where it could go. It became my first novel, ‘The Hidden’ (which Cracked is based on). I’d been to America when writing it and bought some Leisure horror novels at the airport to read on the plane home and when I’d finished it, I sent it to them and they bought it. I was doing my teacher training at the time and my first 6 novels were published during my teaching career – one out every nine months. Although they had great distribution the money was terrible, and it was only when I was asked to write a Torchwood book (I ended up doing two) that I had a little pocket of cash and could quit my job and concentrate.
is your next book, and another departure for you. What can you tell us about that?
Sarah: I’m quite excited about Mayhem although it’s probably the book I’m most insecure about as it was such a challenge. Again it crosses genres, as it’s historical crime, but there is a touch of weird thrown in. I’d read Dan Simmons The Terror and loved the way he’d used real historical events and built a fictional story around them, and it inspired me to try it. I’ve used the Thames Torso murders which were occurring at the same time as (and beyond) the Jack the Ripper killings, and like the Ripper cases, were never solved. My central character is Dr Thomas Bond who worked on both cases, and a lot of my main characters are real people, and although I’ve had to take liberties with personal lives for the sake of the story, I’ve stuck to the factual events for my framework. It’s a really rich period of time for crime and all these people had such interesting or damaged lives (Bond killed himself in the end) that there is a lot to play with.
It was also real challenge because normally in a thriller or crime novel your main concerns are your plotting and making it as tight as possible – with this I had all the historical stuff to worry about as well. It’s also structured quite differently to my normal books – it goes backward and forward, and has both first person and third person narratives. I’m really pleased with it, and I hope people like it. Plus, they’ve given me an awesome cover!
I’m about to start work on the follow-up, Murder.
Me: Branching out yet again, what’s this I hear about you and fairy stories?
Sarah: The fairy tales have been a really interesting project and one that I’ve enjoyed far more than I expected to. Gollancz came to me and asked if I’d be interested in doing three short novels re-working traditional stories, and being me and never liking to say no, I said yes. I was a bit flummoxed how I was going to do it at first, and then I had that moment of revelation and the whole thing slotted into place in my head. Poison, Charm and Beauty are all out next year – I’m just finishing the last one now – and although fairy tales seem to be everywhere at the moment, I really don’t think – touch wood – anyone’s done them quite like I have. They’re quite twisted and dark in places, but they’re also sexy and fun – which was a departure for me!
I’ve also written them so that although they are all interlinked, you can start with any one of them and the rest of the story won’t be ruined. I guess it’s a circular story – you’ll just have a different perspective of the characters depending on which one you start with. They’re not female exclusive, but it is the first writing I’ve done with a female audience in mind and that’s been good for me.
Me: And YA books too?
Sarah: The YA are on hold at the moment, although The Death House, which I’ll be writing for Gollancz, starting after Murder (I’m confusing myself!) I’m hoping will cross over between a teen and adult market. It’s a book that needs to be handled sensitively though and I may go away and hole up somewhere to write it. You can see what it’s about here.
Me: It could be said, uncharitably, that for a horror writer you’re woefully uneducated in classic horror films. What can be done about that, do you think?
Sarah: Ha ha ha! I need more horror movie nights with friends! Although ever since I said I found The Wicker Man (the original) comical, I think I’ve been disowned by the whole horror community.
(In the interests of full disclosure, I should say we now get together for film nights with Sarah raiding my collection of old Hammer DVDs.)
Me: And finally . . . the future. In a year’s time where do you think you’ll be and what will you be working on?
Sarah: Gosh, well like all of us, I would like to still be working and climbing the ladder, but who knows? My book future is pretty much planned out for the next couple of years (I’ve got 5 books out this year and I owe four more full-length novels which I want to give some time to) and a lot depends on how the TV and film stuff goes. TV is very demanding time-wise and also very collaborative so you can’t just jet off anywhere because there are A LOT of meetings. I’m tempted to spend a few months in LA as I have friends there, but if I’m honest, by this time next year I’d like to have met a man to fall in love with and maybe even..*shuddersslightly* settle down. I have to give it a go some day. I put far too much focus on my work and not enough on my life. Oh, and I’d like to have a cat.
Thank you so much for taking the time to do that, Sarah. You can get back on to Twitter now.
And if you’ve never read her books – what are you waiting for? She’s brilliant. That’s OK, thank me later.