Sarah Pinborough interview: Poison, Mayhem, and writing TV

Between writing about 19th century murderers and reinventing fairy tales, Sarah Pinborough makes time for a chat with us

Sarah Pinborough is a prolific tweeter. If you’re after an original perspective on the news, a dirty joke, or a story about falling off a treadmill, her Twitter feed is the place to go. But if it seems like she writes a lot on the internet, that’s nothing compared to how much she actually writes. She’s published more than a dozen novels to date, with plenty more on the way. 

After starting out as a horror novelist, she’s written Torchwood novelisations, modern (and sexy) reinterpretations of classic fairy tales, and complex historical novels. We caught up with her in a posh London cocktail bar to talk about her career to date, from how she got her start in novel writing to making her TV debut to what she’s working on next…

You’ve launched two books this year already. How many more have you got coming out?


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Three more? This year? How are you so prolific?

Well, one of those, to be fair, is a re-release of an old book: The Language of Dying is being re-published by Quercus at the end of this year. But it’s been a busy year.

You write a lot of series, like the Dog-Faced Gods trilogy, and now the fairy tale trilogy, Poison, Charm, and Beauty. Do you have to do a lot of planning to keep everything straight?

When I did the Dog-Faced Gods and the Nowhere Chronicles, that was really hard, because I was doing one book of one and one of the next, so it was hard to switch gears. The fairy tales were not so hard; for one thing, because they’re shorter, so there was less to try to hold together, but also because they’re coming out so close together, and because I wrote them so close together, I could go back and amend book 1 while I was writing book 3; I was getting the page proofs, so I could be like “Oh, actually, something’s just happened…” and I could change it.

But I think in some ways, you end up with more interesting storytelling with series, because if you’ve written yourself into a corner with something in book 1, you have to be cleverer to get out of it. Now I’m working on Murder, which is a sequel to Mayhem, but I’m very much looking forward to writing a single book next.

Speaking of Mayhem: it’s about the Thames Torso murders, a real spate of unsolved murders. Why did you decide to write about that?

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I’d read The Terror by Dan Simmons, and in some ways I curse him now after doing all the research, but I really loved how he took real historical events and put his own supernatural spin on them. And because those boats went missing, no-one really knows what happened, so he could piece it all together. I mean, that’s a huge piece of work, and Murder and Mayhem aren’t anywhere close to that; it’s massive, and the research is impeccable. But I thought I’d like to look at an unsolved crime from that period and do a similar sort of thing.

So I punched it into Google – as you do! – you know, “19th century, unsolved crimes” and it was just there. There were these murders, and they were going on at the same time as the Jack the Ripper murders, and I started to look at the lives of the people around it, like Dr Bond, and I wanted to write something around all of that. I really stuck closely to all the information that they have: the timeline is accurate, the newspaper reports are real newspaper reports, the autopsy reports are as they were, and all the letters are real…

I wondered about that while I was reading it. It seems incredible, too, that these murders were going on at the same time as the Jack the Ripper murders, and we know a lot about that, but I’d never even heard about these murders…

I know! And it’s much more gruesome!

Did you have to do a lot of research into it?

I did a lot of research, mainly from books and the internet. I’d been on a Jack the Ripper walk just before I started writing it, and I was seeing someone who lived in East London, so I got the hang of the area – though obviously it’s changed dramatically since then. But there were a couple of really good books about it.

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And for Murder, now I’ve learned my way around my researching methods, I subscribed to the Times archive and trawled for interesting things in the years I needed. There were some amazingly fortunate things that came up, like there’s a priest in Mayhem who’s one of the fictional characters and there’s a real policeman called Inspector Moore, and I won’t say what happens, but there’s an article in the newspaper in the time period I needed that involved an investigation about a priest with Chief Inspector Moore, so I was like, “excellent!”

I’m not a natural researcher, and I don’t get bogged down in it, but I think if you get it right in the first half, people will forgive you, and then you can move on with the story. And the Ripper stuff helps with that.

It’s weird, isn’t it, our fascination with the Ripper? It’s as if he’s almost become this mythological hero, you know, you can buy keyrings with “Jack the Ripper” on it, and it’s like, hang on, this guy killed a load of women…

I know, this guy slashed up women! Have you seen the Mary Jane Kelly photographs? So gruesome. My main character did the post-mortem on her, and that was hard, because I thought, if Ripper fans pick up this book, the one thing they’re gonna know about is that crime scene. So I spent four days just looking up details like where the windows were and which window was broken and all that, just for four pages.

Luckily, there’s a lot of info on the Ripper. And luckily, also, there’s not so much on the Thames Torso murders. The police files are gone, so no-one can go “excuse me, this is wrong…” I mean I’m sure they’ll find something, but you know, I’m a fiction writer!

All of your books seem to have something macabre about them. Do you class yourself as a horror writer?

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It’s difficult; I mean, I was a horror writer, I started out as a horror writer, but I wouldn’t necessarily say I was now. There are elements of darkness; but when you look at the fairy tales, they’re dark, but they’re funny. They’ve got humour. Life is dark, isn’t it?

The one thing I’m realising as I progress, and I’ve noticed it much more in recent reviews, is that I’m a bit of a genre-bender. I don’t really fit into a genre any more. I’m going to Harrogate Crime Festival, but I don’t really write crime, though there’s crime in my books. I think there’s a lot of overlapping between crime and horror. I’d consider Silence of the Lambs horror, you know?

You were a teacher for six years before you became a full-time writer. Do you think that feeds into your writing at all?

Not really. Although it has been useful in some ways; the next book I’m writing is all about teenage characters, and I wrote three books for teenagers under a different name, so I think having been a teacher means I understand teenagers. I’ve seen a range of children’s personalities, so it’s easier to write about them without patronising them, I think.

Were you writing while you were teaching?

I wrote my first five horror novels while I was teaching. My kids used to be in my books, they’d be like “Miss, can you kill me in a book?” and I’d say, “maybe before the book!”

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How did you make the transition from teaching to writing?

I was writing in my spare time, and then I reached a point where I just decided to take six months or a year out. I was going to rent my house out and go to America because the dollar was really weak – looking back, what was I thinking? I quit my job and I had four grand in the bank, and then the pound collapsed and I couldn’t get as many dollars, so I couldn’t go.

After I handed in my notice, a friend of mine who wrote Doctor Who books said “do you fancy doing a Torchwood?” and I said, “yeah!” So I got the job, and ended up writing two.

It’s a weird thing, the way life works. Because I didn’t go to America, I went to Scotland. A friend of mine gave me her house to live in, but I loathed it. I suddenly realised that without a job you don’t meet anyone. I had this wonderful ideal that I was going to be in this little cottage and go to the pub and meet a gorgeous man; I walked into the local pub once and it was like walking into the Slaughtered Lamb, I thought “I’m not coming back here!”

So I did about three weeks and a friend said, “if you’re unhappy, just come back.” FantasyCon was on, and I hadn’t been planning to go, but one of my horror books was up for best novel, so I went. Jo Fletcher at Gollancz asked some people about me, and we went for lunch the next week. I had an outline for A Matter of Blood, and it was going to be one novel, and I thought, “if I’m going to pitch one book, why not make it three?” Over that weekend, I worked so hard getting this three-book outline done, and they bought it. And that was it.

Earlier this week you mentioned you’d written 2,000 words by 9am in the morning. Is that normal for you? How much do you write on an average day?

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That doesn’t happen every day! On a normal novel, I would like to get 2,000 to 2,500 words done in a day; I average 10,000 words a week, and then there’s a day for planning. With the historical ones, it’s a lot harder because you have to stop and double-check facts. I’ve written a collaboration with F. Paul Wilson, and when it was my turn to write my chapter, it was so nice to be writing in the modern world, where someone could walk into a café and I knew they could order a latte, and not have to look up “what did restaurants serve in 1897?”

So yeah, I can get 1,500 words done in the morning, go to the gym, write another 500 words, and then muck around with other projects, like film pitches, TV pitches, or then there might be other stuff like online interviews and paperwork and stuff that goes along with writing.

What first made you want to become a writer? Was there a book you read that made you think “I could do this”?

No, I don’t think so. I just always lived in stories in my head. I believed I was a Martian princess until I was 10. I believed I was never going to die, and I’d been adopted and put on Earth because there was a war… and still sometimes, as I get older, I hope for my immortal life on Mars.

I never had a moment of wanting to be a writer. I wanted to be an actress, but writing was just a thing I always did. And then I started to really enjoy it.

When I was about 26 or 27, I’d come back from London after my life went tits up, and I was staying at my mum’s, and I just wrote four or five short stories. I printed them out and put them in a little binder and gave them to the woman next door, because she was asking about my writing. And then a friend of hers babysat for her one night, and when she got home, her friend went “who wrote these stories? I just read all these stories!” It was the first moment when I thought, “well, maybe I’m not terrible.”

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Because when I was 24, I’d written a story and I sent it to a small press magazine and they sent me a rejection telling me I couldn’t write, I’d never be a writer, and I should stop trying. It did knock my confidence, but I wish I’d kept it, because I’d love to get in touch with them now!

As well as books, you’ve written for TV and film. How is that different from writing a book?

Oh, it’s completely different. TV especially. You write by committee; with a book, you write it, you hand it in, and you might get a couple of notes. With TV, your first draft just doesn’t matter. It’s a skeleton, and then there’s draft after draft after draft, and so many other factors influence it. It’s just a whole different kind of storytelling.

I’ve read some scripts by people who’ve adapted their own books, and you want to say “no, you have to forget your book.” You have to take the kernel of the story of your book, and turn it into a different medium.

I’ll alienate all my author friends here, but I don’t think there are many authors who can do both. I’m still learning to do both. I really like screenwriting, and there are some times when I think I would quite happily not write books, I’d just write films, and then I do screenwriting and think “I want to write a book!” There’s a control you have with words, but there’s a magic to screenwriting.

You wrote an episode of New Tricks that aired last year. What was it like watching it?

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It was so weird. I was so nervous. And obviously they edited it, and there was a bit I thought was vital that was gone in the edit, which was how the second murder was explained! But I knew that I’d written an over-long script and it’d filmed over-long, so some things had to go. The edit was a really interesting process to watch, seeing how someone else pieces your story together.

But yeah, watching it was awful. I was with my friend Phyllis Logan. She’s an actress, so she understood. We necked a bottle of wine, and I just kept cringing, thinking “I wish I’d written that differently!” Because it’s your own words, it feels fake. But it was such an amazing thing, to know that seven and a half million people had watched something that you wrote was such a buzz.

You’ve said in the past you’d like to write for Doctor Who

I wouldn’t mind! Only because it frustrates me a lot of the time. And they don’t have any women writers! But I think, if I’m honest, I am designed to write my own stories. I have this thing that other writers get annoyed with me about, which I call “word-whoring”. I don’t even mean it rudely, really, but when I did the Torchwood novels, I called that word-whoring.

I’ve got friends who write tie-in novels for a living and they were a bit offended but I meant that it’s a story that I would not have written had I not been asked to do it and paid to do it. I would not sit at home and write New Tricks fanfic, you know? And I still give it 100%, even when it’s word-whoring. I don’t mean I don’t give it everything I’ve got, but it’s not creating your own world and characters, which for me is the main thing.

Sarah Pinborough, thank you very much!

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You can buy Sarah Pinborough’s novels via her Amazon store, here. An exclusive Sarah Pinborough short story also appears in our Den of Eek! charity ebook, which you can buy here. And you can follow her on Twitter: @SarahPinborough.

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