Sarah Pinborough Interviewed by David McWilliam

Posted by David McWilliam on November 01, 2010 in Blog, Interviews tagged with

Sarah Pinborough is the author of six horror novels and her first thriller, A Matter of Blood, was released by Gollancz in March 2010, and is the first of The Dog-Faced Gods trilogy. Her first YA novel, The Double-Edged Sword, was published by Gollancz in September 2010 under the name Sarah Silverwood and is the first in The Nowhere Chronicles.

Sarah was the 2009 winner of the British Fantasy Award for Best Short Story, and has three times been short-listed for Best Novel. She has also been short-listed for a World Fantasy Award. Her novella, The Language of Dying, the tale of one family trying to cope in the last week of their father’s life, was short-listed for the Shirley Jackson Award and recently won the British Fantasy Award for Best Novella 2010.

Readers can download a copy of Sarah’s story ‘When the Darkness Comes‘ from this post. For more information visit Sarah’s website.

When you decided that you wanted to write fiction professionally, what was it that drew you towards horror as a genre?

I started out writing horror because I’d always read a lot of horror. Ever since I was a child I liked stories that scared me, whether they were fantasy or horror. As I got older I was reading the Pan books of horror and others of their ilk, as well as James Herbert and then Stephen King amongst others. When I was very little I never slept (my mother says she had to send me to boarding school at eight so she could get a decent night’s sleep without me waking her up) because I was a firm believer in monsters in the shadows and serial killers in the attic. Some people’s imaginations must just be wired to look for the dark in things and I fall in that camp. Even though I don’t really consider myself a horror writer anymore (my last adult book was a crime novel and my YA is a fantasy), all my stories still very much lean towards the darker side of life and playing on people’s fears.

Which writers influenced your early work and how has your continuing reading affected the novels you choose to write today?

My early writing was influenced by the writers mentioned above and also other favourites like John Wyndham (Breeding Ground (2006) is my homage to The Day of the Triffids) and Daphne Du Maurier and the short stories of Roald Dahl. However, I tend not to read much full-length horror these days – especially what I would call out-and-out horror – anything with ghosts/monsters/vampires etc. I like novels with a supernatural tinge but I read more crime and thrillers now than horror, which I suppose is why I’ve started writing in that genre. That said, I recently devoured The Passage by Justin Cronin and am now feeling inspired to write something post-apocalyptic again!

Breeding Ground certainly feels indebted to the tradition of post-apocalyptic fiction inspired by The Day of the Triffids: positing a terrible catastrophe that produces a seemingly unstoppable monstrous threat whilst simultaneously offering a sense of hope at the possibility of something good arising from the ashes of civilization. Post-apocalyptic narratives have been tremendously popular with authors and directors throughout the last decade- what drew you to tell your own?

I think everyone that works within the horror and fantasy genres has at some point at least plotted out a post-apocalyptic novel. I read The Stand when I was young and absolutely loved it. The idea of creating your own catastrophe and then seeing how your characters might survive it is as close to being God as a writer can get, I suppose. You make your world, you break it and you make it again. As I said in my previous answer, Breeding Ground is my homage to The Day of the Triffids (I even name check Wyndham at some point in the text) because I loved that and The Kraken Wakes and all of John Wyndham’s novels. They were science fiction without all the boring science stuff as far as I was concerned. Plus, in the main, post-apocalyptic fiction is fun.

The premise of Breeding Ground is that nearly all women in the UK become hosts to parasitical offspring (malevolent giant spiders known as Widows), physically and emotionally transforming them so that they grow apart from their partners. It seems as though you are primarily exploring male anxiety, as the protagonist (Matthew Edge) comes to fear his wife’s reproductive system and the child that will replace him as the object of her affections, before worrying that even his own body might rebel against him, adopting some alien morphology. In this respect, the novel appears to sit within the tradition of films such as David Cronenberg’s Shivers and The Fly, as well as John Carpenter’s The Thing, and James Cameron’s Aliens. What drove you to explore male fear through body horror?

When I started the book I was really thinking about the differences in the way men and women communicate and women’s obsession with body image. Men keep their anxieties inside and will talk with their friends about everything BUT a problem – football, TV etc, whereas women talk about their feelings and fears and relationships (and each other!). If I’d set this the other way round with the men behaving strangely and changing it wouldn’t have been as creepy because women would have called each other and talked about it and compared notes. In this, despite all the men thinking there was something odd about their wives/partners – especially as they started gaining weight – they keep their fears to themselves, and therefore it’s only when it’s too late that they realize something very out of the ordinary is occurring. It makes me think that men’s fears must be far more claustrophobic. As for the body issues, I used to have an eating disorder, so it was natural for me to write something about people getting fatter – also, men are more visual in what they find attractive so given that most of my characters are male in the book, it adds to the disgust and fear they feel at the start. Ultimately, all of our fears are based around our body’s potential to rebel against us – it’s the body’s failure that causes death and that is our primary fear. I just wanted to make that sense of something alien inside us more literal!

You explore this notion of the body controlling the mind further in Feeding Ground (the 2009 sequel to Breeding Ground) as the Widows that emerge from the bodies of heroin addicts retain the cravings that enslaved their junkie hosts. The Squealers (as they are referred to in the novel) are avoided by their untainted brethren and are subjugated in return for a supply of the drug that brings them some form of peace. Why did you choose to elicit sympathy for these utterly alien creatures, which still remain deadly and implacable foes to humanity?

It was done for lots of reasons. In terms of the fright factor, I felt that the Widows were now a known quantity and that if I could make a sub-group that were outcasts from their own society and almost feral then they up the nastiness a bit. It was also playing slightly with the awfulness of ‘junkie babies’ that we get in society, which tied in to some sense of the host remaining. I suppose that comes back to the body horror thing – some part of the women remain even though the creatures are so horribly alien. With the Squealers, I also wanted to elicit some sympathy for the Widows, who by comparison are almost peaceful – or at least less filled with rage. I like the idea that they are just doing their thing and trying to survive – it’s our problem that they need us to feed on. The book I had originally planned as a sequel (which I wasn’t allowed to write because it was too sci-fi and not horror enough) explored the idea of two such alien races trying to survive together.

Returning to the Stephen King theme, Feeding Ground echoed The Mist by suggesting that the threat of monsters brings out the very worst in people, with Blane Gentle-King feeding his former neighbors to the Squealers in return for their assistance as he seeks to carve out an empire for himself in the ruins of London. Why do you think extreme fear leads people to viciousness and how does this inform your characterization?

Extreme fear creates an extreme survival mechanism and different people react in different ways to that, but I figured that if you were already a crime lord with a low respect for ordinary people’s lives, then extreme fear would make you more vicious in order to ensure your own survival. Although, of course, people tend to survive better by teaming up and organising – which he also does to a certain extent – but not as well as the heroes! I also am fascinated by those people who try and turn everything to their advantage and aren’t afraid to empire-build, like the gangsters of old, so I wanted to create someone like that.

The Taken (2007) explores the return of the repressed in the form of a malevolent girl who returns from the dead to wreak revenge on the town in which she died. This fits into a wider trend of supernatural children that has swept the globe over the past decade: from Hideo Nakata’s Ringu, through Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Orphanage, to John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let the Right One In. Why do you think that the figure of the child has been so prominent in horror throughout a decade in which fears about child safety have never been more dominant in the public imagination?

I think children have always featured in horror fiction – I don’t think it’s particular to this era. Stephen King used children in a lot of his early horror novels (Salem’s Lot springs to mind). I think malevolent children are effective because they are in such contrast with what we expect of children – e.g. innocence and goodness. I think the crime genre plays more on child safety fears – those horrors are set much more in the real world.

Alex, who is arguably the novel’s central character, is secretly battling a terminal illness whilst trying to fend off the attacks of the sinister Melanie Parr. This adds a melancholic tone to what would otherwise have been a horror thriller and, for me, made the novel a fascinating read. Why did you decide to explore the suffering of a cancer victim through the medium of this story?

The book is really all about death and laying things to rest, so it seemed natural to have someone who was going through that horror in a central role. Plus, practically, I needed someone who could get to the ‘in-between’ place that the children were stuck in. As someone with terminal cancer, Alex really was as in-between as they were. Also, I was playing with that fear we all have as young people when the reality of death really dawns on us and it becomes THE MOST TERRIBLE THING. Alex’s fate – although I don’t want to go into the plot details – remind us that that isn’t always so.

The Language of Dying (2009) marked a significant departure from your horror for Leisure. It is addressed in the second person to a dying father figure by the daughter who cares for him in his final months. From what I know of your own life there seem to be numerous parallels between yourself and the narrator. To what extent is the book an expression of your own experiences and why did you decide to bring them to the fore in order to tell this story?
This story is a real blend of fact and fiction for me. It was a very cathartic process. A friend of mine with terminal cancer came to stay with me during the last couple of months of his life and it was a tough experience (even though I’m very glad I did it). I knew that if I didn’t record it in some way, lots of it would be lost in my memory over time. I didn’t want that to happen so I wrote The Language of Dying and put a lot of it into that.

In the introduction, Graham Joyce describes The Language of Dying as an example of “Fractured Realism” because ‘it proceeds- unlike most Fantasy and Horror literature- on a naturalistic basis until the exhausted psyche admits a sudden intrusion of other more compelling forces’. How do you feel about this designation for the novella and how does this relate to your sparse use of the supernatural in comparison to your earlier work?
Graham talked to me about this after he’d done the introduction and I think it fits. The narrator only has the ‘supernatural’ experiences at moments of extreme stress which intentionally leaves it open for the reader to decide whether they believe in it or whether it’s simply a figment of her imagination. The novella was never supposed to be about the supernatural – it was supposed to be based in the very natural – and so I was only ever going to use it sparsely. I think it does more to create a sense of unreliability within the narrator than feed the story.

Though A Matter of Blood (2010) is a crime novel in terms of structure and core themes, it is also a near future science fictional exploration of our world after fifteen more years of decline and rampant corporate greed, as well as a supernatural horror given the nature of the Man of Flies. Is this a conscious move to free yourself from generic conventions or will this slipstream approach be limited to The Dog-Faced Gods trilogy?

I wanted to write a crime novel with a difference and I also wanted a bleak setting, so it seemed right to place the story slightly in the future. The next crime trilogy I’m planning is more obviously science fiction but I think one day I’d quite like to try a ‘straight’ thriller. My mind, however, always goes to the more off-kilter ideas so whether that will actually happen or not only time will tell.

There has been a real appetite for post-apocalyptic stories over the past ten years and I think their appeal may be that they posit a life after the end of civilization as we know it, with the chance of a new beginning as in Breeding Ground and Feeding Ground. I thought that A Matter of Blood offered an interesting alternative with its representation of the slow and steady decline of the world economy based on the continuation of the present recession. This sort of atrophy doesn’t provide the same comforting sense of renewal as everyone is trapped within a sinking ship. What made you choose this particularly bleak near future setting for the trilogy?

When I was first mulling over the ideas of for A Matter of Blood, the newspapers were full of dire warnings of the world’s economic decline and it was the first time in my 30-odd years that I’d really thought about what a house of cards we all lived in – borrowing more than we earn, huge mortgages, wanting cheap produce – and how at some point the balance was bound to tip. The sense of a world in atrophy also suited the over-riding arc of the trilogy which is about decay and change. Plus, I’ve always loved post-apocalyptic fiction and was curious to try something slightly different – dystopic rather than apocalyptic. It’s fun to play with our society and change just little bits here and there.

Whilst your move into crime feels like a natural progression from your horror novels, the recent publication of YA fantasy The Double-Edged Sword under the pseudonym of Sarah Silverwood seems more surprising. How did this novel, the first of a planned trilogy, come about? Also, what were the challenges and pleasures of radically shifting genres?

I always wanted to write a book for children/teens that could be magical – like the books that gripped me as a child. I find it hard to read these days without having my ‘author’ head on and analysing what the writer has done well or not so well. Writing for young adults is completely different and you can have more fun with it because you’re looking at what’s magical through their eyes. You can’t cheat kids, though – the stories have to be just as complex as adult novels. I don’t feel I totally shifted genres as there is plenty that is dark in The Double-Edged Sword, and it gets very dark in The Traitor’s Gate.

Finally, once The Dog-Faced Gods and The Nowhere Chronicles trilogies are completed, what are your future plans?

Gosh, I don’t know. Hopefully more books! I’ve got a film I wrote just going into development so I’m really looking forward to seeing if that ever makes it to the big screen.

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