Matthew Turbeville: Hi, Sarah! I’m excited to talk about your books, the books you love, and your writing with you. Can you start by talking with me about how it felt to have you career really explode (or that is how it felt for so many of us) with the publication of Behind Her Eyes? I feel like everyone and their mother read that book!
Sarah Pinborough: It was both nerve-wracking and exciting! It's one of those weird things that never feels how you think it will feel and it still feels surreal when someone tells me they've read it. You spend so much time worrying about stuff in this business that you forget to enjoy the successes when they happen – you're already panicking about what's next! But yes, it's lovely to have so many people having read it all over the world, even if some of them weren't fans of the ending, I love that too! I'd rather have a passionate response – even if it's negative – than a shrug.
MT: Now you’ve written your latest novel, Cross Her Heart. How did it come to you, and how long did it take for you to form the idea of this novel, and for this book to really take shape and for you to move with it?
SP: I'm normally thinking about the next book while in the final third of the one before, so I'd been mulling it for a little while before sending the idea, and then once that was approved I started planning it out. It's a subject matter that has always fascinated me (we've had a couple of very high profile cases like that in the book in the UK) and I'd always wanted to explore it. With any book I like a couple of months thinking time before I do anything but that is normally started before finishing the previous one.
MT: There are so many women in this book, and the book seems to be really dominated by so many strong female voices, which is amazing. What do you think is so important about women dominating crime fiction now, and why do you think this change has come about (if it ever was not this way to begin with)?
SP: I can't really comment on a whole genre, and while I am definitely a feminist I'm not an overly political or angry person so I don't read any great 'movement' in it. From my viewpoint women authors have been doing well in crime writing for quite some time, but we are definitely going through a phase where people are interested in stories in which the narrative is driven by women and not just 'nice' girls or damsels in distress or a male police detective. We're curious about ordinary, or normal for want of a better word, lives and the secrets hidden in them. It shouldn't be a surprise really, to any of us, that female-centric novels are doing well because women make up most of the book-buyers and readers so of course they want characters they can identify with and where perhaps the villains are women too. And I hope most men are happy to read stories written by, and about, women too.
MT: Speaking specifically of your female contemporaries, but also men as well, who are your favorite female crime writers? Who are the writers you turn to again and again, and what are your favorite books to read over and over, both new and old?
SP: Gosh, hard to say. I love Sarah Lotz' work – The Three and Day Four were just brilliant. Gillian Flynn is wonderful I just wish she'd write more. Lisa Jewell is a great thriller writer as is Ruth Ware. So many! As soon as I've finished this I'll no dount think of a thousand more. Megan Abbott I always buy as soon as she has a new book out. I tend to go for thrillers rather than crime novels although of course there are crossovers. Contemporary men – John Connolly, Steve Mosby, Stephen King are among them. I don't read a lot of books over and over, but most of King's early stuff I would, Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca, and actually sometimes old children's books I remember fondly from my childhood, and some Dickens.
MT: When you begin writing a book, what is your process like? When you have a twist ending, like for example the twist at the end of Behind Her Eyes, which I’m sure most people are familiar with by now, do you have this figured out before you even begin writing or is it is something that comes to you?
SP: I always have the ending of a book in place before I start. So I'll get the vague idea and start brainstorming some plot points and characters but I can't start writing until I have the ending firmly locked down. The rest may change but the ending never does. With a book like Behind Her Eyes I can't imagine starting it without knowing how it ends. The whole story works towards that ending, right from page one!
MT: What is your favorite part of the writing process, and what is your least favorite part of the writing process? Is there a part about the writing process you find incredibly difficult, and have you ever almost given up on a book that later became a success?
SP: The only book I ever stopped writing half way was one when I was buying myself out of a contract so I could go to HarperCollins and write Behind Her Eyes, but who knows, I may go back to it one day. Plotting is the hardest part really I think, especially with a crime or thriller novel. You have to get the structure of it right and make sure you don't reveal too much too soon, and yet also leave enough clues so that a sharp reader won't feel cheated when the twists and turns come along. Sometimes writing high emotion can be hard. You have to be so careful with it. But I don't have a least favourite or most favourite part. It's that old Dorothy Parker (I think) quote that sums it up best 'I hate writing, I love having written.'
MT: A lot of people might be surprised to learn your career extends further back than Behind Her Eyes, or at least people in the U.S. might feel that way. Would you mind talking about your beginnings in writing, how you got introduced into the industry and how long it took before you published your first novel? How hard was it finding a publisher—or, better yet, an agent?
SP: Ha yes, most people in England too either only know me from Behind Her Eyes.. or perhaps 13 Minutes. But my first six novels were only sold in the US and were straight mass-market horror novels. I had seen some paperbacks in an airport in the States and bought them to read on the plane, and then when I wrote my first Horror novel I sent the first three chapters and and outline and they bought it. I got an agent after that – the usual sending out and getting rejections etc - although after that I changed agents several times before finding my 'one'. After those books I wanted to branch out and so I started mixing up my genres and trying different things and now I've been full-time for a decade.
MT: Not just as a woman, but as a person in general, have you ever been told that you couldn’t make it, or that you wouldn’t be successful? What’s the worst thing someone’s told you about your writing, and what is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received regarding the craft?
SP: Ha, I'm sure I have but I don't pay any attention to negative stuff like that. I'm very focussed and very driven and don't have any sense of competition with others, only myself. People will always bitch, and gossip etc but if you're put off in this industry by someone telling you you won't make it, then you're not cut out for publishing because every step is tough and the journey is up and down like hills rather than straight up or straight down. I'm not sure what the finest bit of advice I've had has been but the most useful was actually from a TV producer when I was working on New Tricks (a BBC crime show in the UK) and he said, in a murder plot, the investigation can be as complex as you like, but what happens on the night has to be really simple.
MT: How much pressure, given your success in the past, have you felt to keep pushing forward and really keep producing novels? Do you have agents and publishers really pushing for you to put out a new book every year? How do you keep coming up with new and innovative ideas for novels to keep writing and for readers to keep reading?
SP: I don't think there is a problem with a book a year or every 15 months or so. For a lot of my career I was writing two a year, but now one a year or just over suits me and gives me time to work on other projects such as TV or film. Plus there are more promotional things to do for each book now so that also takes time. As for ideas, you train your brain to look for them in news stories and strange articles on line and the world and the people around you. Once you get a germ or spark from something then it grows into something of its own.
MT: I love asking authors this question. There’s a quote that’s attributed to a lot of different authors, and who knows how far back it really goes, but the saying is essentially “Write the book you’ve always wanted to read but have never been able to find.” Do you feel you have written that book, and if not, what book would that be?
SP: Ooh, that's a tricky one. I wrote a Young Adult Fantasy trilogy called The Nowhere Chronicles which I'm very proud of and I would have wanted to read as a kid. I think it's my most original and magical work.
MT: Which character did you identify with the most in this novel, Cross Her Heart? Which character did you identify with least, and did you ever find yourself judging characters and find yourself needing to take a step back and examine the book through a different lens? Do you ever find any parts of yourself leaking into the novels you write?
SP: A lot writers put part of themselves in most of their characters, even if it's done subconsciously, and I'm sure I'm the same, but in Cross Her Heart Lisa was based on a real person from the 1960s in the UK so I don't really identify with her so much. I like all the female characters in the book but none of them are me. Some of their reactions to events may be my reactions to events though. There is probably more of me in Adele and Louise from Behind Her Eyes.
MT: I’m sure our readers are all dying to know: what’s next for the great Sarah Pinborough? Do you already have another work-in-progress? What is it about—can you give us any teasers, or is it all under wraps?
SP: Ooh! Well, it's been slow – sadly my father got sick and recently died - and I'm late delivering but I'm getting there now. It's probably more in the vein of Behind Her Eyes than Cross Her Heart. It's dark and sexy really. It's set in Savannah, Georgia which is a place I just love and I'm describing it as Big Little Lies meets Midnight in the garden of Good and Evil. It's very twisty and I hope quite original.
MT: When you look back on the books you’ve written, which of your books is your favorite, and is there ever a book that, given the chance, you would edit or even rewrite completely?
SP: I'd definitely edit all the first six horror novels – well, I wouldn't because I really couldn't be bothered – but they definitely need that! I'm not really sure what my favourites are! I'm very fond of my three trilogies – The Nowhere Chronicles, The Dog-faced Gods and Tales from the Kingdoms. This might be because obviously trilogies are much vaster worlds and stories than a stand alone novels and you are living in them for longer. I'm proud of The Language of Dying and The Death House too. But I have to love Behind Her Eyes and Cross Her Heart too because they changed my life quite dramatically!
MT: Sarah, thanks so much for stopping by Writers Tell All and giving us some of the answers that our staff and our readers have been dying to hear from you. We are so thankful you decided to participate in an interview with us, and feel free to leave us with any questions, thoughts, opinions, or anything else before leaving. Again, thank you so much, and we can’t wait to see what you put out in the world for us to read next.