Interview with Sarah Pinborough

November 20, 2008 at 8:54 am Leave a comment

taken_us_150x240Sarah Pinborough is a horror and thriller writer with a string of successful novels.

Her titles include The Taken (‘Her writing is full of dread and passion’, Christopher Golden) and Breeding Ground (‘… beautifully wrought by an author with an unflinching eye and a steady hand. This is scary stuff’, Creature Feature). Seek Sarah out at her website… 

BILL HUSSEY:     So, Sarah, it seems to me that horror writers, perhaps more than any other genre practitioners, are heavily influenced by their early exposure to the form. What are your earliest memories of horror fiction?

SARAH PINBOROUGH:      When I was at boarding school there were lots of tatty 70s Pan style horror anthologies on the shelves of the boarding house and I read a lot of those. My first real horror memory though, and I do think this really did unlock that part of my imagination, was of going to see Dracula as a school play when I was five…

SP (cont.):      I was at an American School in Damascus and it was probably a pretty average High School play, but all I remember is seeing French windows blowing open, a red light glowing, and a shadowy man on the other side spreading his cloak wide. I don’t remember a single thing else from the play apart from that image, but I didn’t sleep with a window open from then until I was about 22. Honest. I was completely terrified. Admittedly, it still doesn’t take much to scare me..I watched the Doctor Who episode ‘Blink’ last year and had to sleep with the hall light on.

BH:      Which new writers push your horror button?

SP:       I have to give it up for the girls here, I think. Alexandra Sokoloff and Sarah Langan both rock. Also, although he’s not really a “new” writer per se, Mark Samuels’ collection really blew me away as did Paul Meloy’s ‘Islington Crocodiles.’ If I’m honest, as a reader I prefer horror in short story form rather than novels. Which is odd, because I find writing short stories really, really hard.

BH:      How did you start writing, and did you begin with dark fiction?

SP:       I started writing- like most people that grow up to be writers -at some ridiculously young age and spent my teens churning out 40 pages or so of various ‘other book’ rip-offs. I took creative writing as a module of my English degree but my late-teens and early-twenties were far too exciting to really do any writing (I think I wrote maybe for or five bad short stories in that time) and then when I hit about 28 I started having a go at short stories more seriously. I always veered towards dark fiction (whether horror, sci-fi or fantasy) because I’d grown up on a diet of King and Herbert who I devoured – much the same as any other horror fan of my age, and I was always scared of what might be behind the shower curtain or what might come in through the open window…and in my imagination they were rarely ordinary burglars or murderers!

BH:      Give us an outline of your typical writing day.

SP:       My writing day has changed since I’ve started my year out of teaching. I used to get up at half-five and do an hour before school, then try and do a thousand words in the evening. This wasn’t always successful!! Now, I get up about 8, grab a cup of tea, check my emails and potter till about 8.45. Then I’ll do 2 hours writing before going to the gym, walking the dog and then back for lunch and 2 more hours. I might do more in the evening or plan out where I’m going next with the story etc. I’m still finding my full-time feet really. But ideally, I am at 2,000 words a day. Sometimes its more, and sometimes life gets in the way and its less. But if I do less I try and make it up the next day.

BH:      How important do you think discipline is for a successful writer?

SP:       If you mean successful as in making a career out of writing then discipline, along with a thick skin, is about the most important thing. I’d put it above talent in many ways. If you sit around waiting for a muse to tap on your shoulder, then you can sit around for an awfully long time, especially as writing is hard work and there are always more interesting things to do, like drink tea, make toast, watch rubbish TV. There are days when the words just flow, and there are others when it’s like drawing teeth and I seem to be constantly checking my word count to see if I’m nearly at 2,000 words. There are a lot of people that ‘talk’ about being writers. Writers write. End of. And that takes discipline. But its like most jobs, once you sit down and get started it’s never so bad.

BH:      Joseph and I have recently blogged about ‘The Idea’. I know from my own experience how irritating it is to be asked this question, but I’m going to pose it anyway: where do you get your ideas? 

SP:       God knows. Can anybody answer this one? The only thing I would say about it, is that the more you write, the more you train your mind to keep an eye and ear open for ‘interesting’ things, either on the news, or something you overhear etc. I constantly jot things down that I may never use, but they always come in handy for pushing the ‘what if..’ button in my head when someone emails and asks for a short story or something.

BH:      Do you plan your novels out before you start writing or do you begin with the germ of an idea and see where it takes you?

SP:       Unfortunately, I’m at the stage in my career where you have to plan them out to some degree, because the publisher wants to know what they’re paying you for. I’ve always been a bit of a planner in that I know where I’m starting and where I’m ending and the rest is normally a lot of squiggled notes with question marks next to them that get added to or crossed off as I go. Now that I have to submit outlines, I try and stay close to them. Feeding Ground is so far on plan, although when I wrote Tower Hill, my editor emailed me to say they were doing the cover art, and were there any changes he should know about. I said, no, very casually, then went back to the outline that I hadn’t looked at in months to discover that a) the book was no longer set in the UK but in America b) half the characters had changed completely and c) there were no aliens…..

My editor was slightly apoplectic but luckily was very happy with the final book…phew…I now keep the outline close by when I’m writing! 

BH:      I would say that one of your strengths as a writer is your ability to write a well-rounded, multi-layered character. It certainly adds to the horror when something nasty happens to a character that we have come to care about. How do you go about building up a character?

SP:       Honestly? I don’t really think about it. I have a vague idea of what they’re like when I start out, probably more so now that I write to a one or two page plan so I can see where they’re ending up, but I just see where it goes..One of the characters in Feeding Ground just became gay. I mean, he didn’t just leap out of the closet or anything, but I suddenly realised that it made perfect sense for him and the way he felt about another character. I just let them be themselves and see where that goes. I know some people spend ages sketching out their characters and creating character files etc or collages, but frankly I’m too lazy for that. I just ‘see’ them in my head, chuck them into a situation and see what happens.

BH:      Ghost stories are often a metaphor for the sins of the past coming back to haunt the present. This is certainly the case in your excellent novel ‘The Taken’. I’ve also noticed the themes of collective guilt and folklore running through your work. Is this correct, and what other themes do you notice cropping up in your writing?

SP:       I think there are also a lot of ‘loss of innocence’ or the power of your childhood themes in some of my books. I hadn’t even realised it until a reader mentioned it in a forum. The Reckoning is about how the events of our childhood shape our future – even if our understanding of them is skewed. The Hidden has a damaged child grown into a damaged adult, The Taken has a ghostly child, and even in Breeding Ground a little girl dies quite nastily.  I think though, that using children in horror is pretty commonplace – we’re most afraid of the supernatural when we’re children so it makes it easy to tap into that if you can take the reader back through the eyes of a young character. Guilt and folklore too, yes. I think that in the main (and I exclude Breeding Ground and Feeding Ground from this because I intended both those to be just a good fun, slightly squeamish creature feature romp) I like to have some mystery at the heart of the story. I don’t think horror is enough in itself.

BH:      Your books have a variety of settings. You seem equally comfortable in the rural England of ‘The Taken’ as in the New England small town of ‘Tower Hill’? How do you go about researching books set in foreign locales?

SP:       My editor did freak when he realised I’d set Tower Hill in America and it took a lot of convincing to let me run with it. I had to promise him that I’d let Chris Golden scan it for any dodgy non-americanisms. And I can understand his concern, but I think that in the UK we’re so over-dosed with American TV and movies, on top of the books that I read that are predominantly set in America that it makes it easy for us to slip into their  writing style. Probably much easier than for an American writer trying to set a story in the UK with British characters. Also, there is the beauty of the internet for researching store names and food brands etc. I think I did okay..But my next few books are all planned to be set in the UK. Unless I feel inspired during my 6 weeks in North Carolina in the New Year.

BH:      What demands are made on English writers writing for a US market? Keeping your American reader in mind, have you ever needed to adapt/change something so that it is more US-friendly?

SP:       When I first started writing I didn’t think about it at all, but now, if I’m writing for Leisure I might think about the odd phrase and whether Americans are going to get it. They change ‘gots’ to ‘gottens’ which I’m never sure about because I think it then jars slightly if the rest of the book is very English. I used the phrase ‘This is a turn up for the books’ once..that totally flummoxed them. I don’t think about it too much, though. Feeding Ground takes places mainly in a Newham estate in London with a lot of very East End gansta types. There’s only so much you can change their speech patterns without making it sound stupid. Although I am rather concerned that while writing the book I’ve watched all five series of The Wire, so they may sound a little more Baltimore than Newham in places! You feel me?

BH:      We’ve spoken before about the misconception many people have about published novelists. They think that when you get a publishing deal you can chuck in your job and devote yourself to writing. The reality is most published writers need to work and write. I know that you’ve recently gone ‘full time’. Was that a difficult decision to make? What sacrifices and what freedoms does such a step entail?

SP:       I don’t even think of it as full-time… more a sabbatical. I saved up, marked a lot of exams papers, signed up for some writing for hire, and more importantly made sure I had ‘a plan.’ A lot of writers don’t have career plans, but I figure if you don’t have a good idea of where you want to get to, it’s too easy to get distracted. Luckily, it seems my plan is working out..for now. It’s great that I now have time to see my friends and have more of a social life etc, but it is very strange with writing now my actual job. I miss the salary coming in, but since going full time (Aug) I’ve written a Torchwood novel and I’m over half-way through Feeding Ground. I’d never have got so much done with teaching as well. It’s great having nothing else to think about but story etc, but it’s also strange stepping outside of the normal world. I’m enjoying it, but I’m sure that I’ll have to go back to doing occassional supply at some point!

BH:      You’re a female writer working in a genre that many ‘outsiders’ would imagine to be pretty male dominated. My own opinion is that this is something of a misrepresentation of horror – we’ve got brilliant female horror writers like Shirley Jackson and, more recently, Sarah Langan. What have been your experiences when you tell people you write horror?

SP:       It’s quite strange, I very rarely tell people I write at all. If people ask me what I do, I tell them I’m a teacher. I don’t know why, but talking about writing with people outside the community brings me out in hives. I suppose its because it’s a bit like talking about your feelings to people that matter to you, and I just don’t do that either! I blame something in my childhood..;-). However, if it does come up in conversation with relative strangers then they normally look shocked and ask why I’m not writing chick lit. I smile sweetly and then lace their drink with crushed glass..they don’t ask again..

Seriously, I think it says more about how horror is perceived than women. Horror’s booming in the cinema, but less so in books.

BH:      Horror has had a bit of a rough ride over the past few years. Many are now saying that we are on the cusp of a renaissance in the form, especially with new UK imprints coming out all the time. What are your thoughts?

SP:       I think things are looking positive, but it’s still early days. I’m sure horror will have it’s day again, and I think with the global recession horror is more likely to fill up a little more space on the book shelves, but I think we’re a long way from the glory days of the eighties and nineties. But we’ll see! Things are looking up a bit, and lets hope they keep going in that direction.

BH:      Writers these days have to do so much more than simply get a publishing deal. I know you are heavily involved in promoting your books at fantasy conventions etc. Do you enjoy the actual business side of writing?

SP:       Actually, I’m completely rubbish at promoting my books. I tend to go to conventions and not talk about writing at all, but focus instead on meeting people who may then, when everyone’s home and settled, lead into some possible work. I hate the business side of writing, but then I think that’s a British thing. We pour scorn on people that say ‘I’ve worked really hard on this and I think it’s brill. You should too!’ I think all Brits should go to an American convention to see how celebratory they are of their work and how they’re not ashamed to self-promote. It’s a tough business, publishing, and if you don’t push yourself then no one else will. But I prefer the softly, softly approach of just making contacts and friends and then seeing where they will lead rather than sticking an A-board on and saying ‘Read my Book!’. However, that’s not to say the second way is wrong. It’s just not in my make-up.

BH:      Tell us something about your future projects.

SP:       I’ve got a novella coming out from PS Publishing in July called ‘The Language of Dying’ which isn’t a horror story – more magical realism, and is the closest to ‘literature’ that I’ve ever written. ‘Feeding Ground’ is out in October, and my agent is just finalising a three book supernatural thriller trilogy deal with on of the UK’s leading publishing houses – which is a massive step up for me and I’m very excited about it. I’ve also just given my agent a children’s fantasy novel, so I’m hoping that she sells that too. I’d like to write one adult novel and one children’s novel a year, ideally. But that could still be a long way off…

BH:      There are a lot of writers out there trying to get a publishing deal. What single piece of advice would you give them?

SP:       Learn to take criticism and develop a thick skin. This business is all about constantly being told you’re not good enough. Number one: you have to believe you are, or will be, good enough. Number two: a rejection (or in fact a bad review)is professional – nothing worse than a writer who takes it personally. Number three: if enough rejections make the same criticisms of your work then take them on board. Don’t be too proud to change your manuscript. It might make it better.

Oh – and if you’re writing for the money, then get out now. You have to be writing because the idea of not writing doesn’t compute.

BH:      Okay, stock Horror Reanimated question time: it is within your power to award the Sword of Ultimate Darkness to one piece of outstanding horror fiction, be it film, TV, a book or short story.

SP:       The Mist by Stephen King. Not the film with crass ending but the original novella.

BH:      Now you must consign the worst example of horror you have ever come across to the accursed Plague Pits where it will fester for all eternity!  

SP:       Now this is where I get shot down in flames… The Wicker Man. Yes, the original… I’ve watched it four times now because people keep telling me its a classic. It just makes me giggle…

Sorry.

You can see why I’m moving into dark thrillers…

BH:      Sacrilege! I can’t believe I’m about to put the official HR stamp on this application, but Sarah’s the boss. Into the Plague Pits goes… The Wicker Man! (not even the Neil LaBute remake, but the original! G’ah!). I’d like to thank the lovely (and very twisted) Miss Pinborough for taking the time to visit us at HR HQ and we wish her well with her exciting future projects. Don’t forget to keep checking back – other interviews are in the works…

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Entry filed under: The Function of Fear. Tags: , , .

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