“In the afternoon I work out what I'm going to do the next day and then write some bits and pieces. Then exercise, shower and start the day. If you get caught up in other things like laundry you start to worry when the day starts going, so I like to get the writing done in the morning. I aim for 10,000 words a week, but the thinking and the planning time is important so I don't write too fast – I try not to lose clever moments. I'm a planner anyway, so my first draft is pretty there. I haven't had to do structural edits.”
The Language of Dying – rereleased this year on Jo Fletcher Books – follows an unnamed protagonist as she nurses her dying father through the last stages of his illness. As his death comes closer, her siblings straggle back one by one, each bringing with them their own wounds and differing relationships, both to her and her father. Punctuating this study of a troubled family dynamic is the presence of a Unicorn that has visited the protagonist when things have been at their most difficult to deal with throughout her life. Now that this ultimate hardship has arrived, she waits for the Unicorn to return.
“For me,” Sarah tells me, “[the Unicorn] was simply a representation of all her emotional turmoil. And I think I wanted to make it something atypical. It's not a typical ethereal unicorn; it's quite earthy and gritty. Women especially tend to keep all that stuff inside. We're so conditioned to be fluffy and put a smiley face on, that I wanted something a bit darker. I didn't want the fantasy element to take over the story, I wanted to enforce that she is an unreliable narrator. There are points in that book where she doesn't remember what she said before, and there's something very much damaged about her. So it kind of represents that stuff, that fracture between our real lives and our insides.”
“I think it's better to give one book your all...One after the other. It's a lot easier. If I was writing something for my own enjoyment, then I could maybe do that in the afternoon and write my current book in the morning... I actually wrote The Language of Dying really fast in about a month. It was sort of after my ex-father-in-law died so I had all that stuff in my head. I remember planning it when I was at a writer’s weekend in Wales with Adam Neville and Mark Morris, a long time ago... I think I was still teaching, so I was probably writing it around a leisure novel, so it was less intense. Sometimes I think it would be better if I stuck at one thing like crime writing. It's quite proper and prestigious, but I'm not a proper crime writer! It's good not to do just one thing too though, as it can go off the boil and you end up writing the same thing over and over again.”
As someone who has come to writing after a career in teaching, what nuggets of wisdom can Sarah pass on to unpublished writers?
“I'm wary of setting out rules for people. Everyone does things their own way. I would just say, always try and make the thing you're doing better than the last one. Be prepared to take knocks. However far up the ladder you get there will be a knock. Take criticism constructively. The importance of networking - when you meet people try to be charming and nice. Have a nice chat and a drink and then email them after a couple of days. Don't be too aggressive with it; enjoy it. The way I see it, writers will write. If I lost all my book deals tomorrow, I would still write. So you just have to think, even in the bad times I'd still be writing so if I get paid for it that's a bonus.”
Murder, the sequel to Mayhem, will be out this year on Jo Fletcher Books.
Follow Sarah @SarahPinborough
Sarah Pinborough on writing, symbolism and unicorns
After this new confidence was installed, it didn’t take Sarah long to progress to novels.
"I got these short stories published and then I got married and was living in Devon and really wanted to write a horror book... I wrote one and saw some books in the airport by Leisure Books, and when I got home from holiday I sent it to them and they bought it. They didn't edit very much so I didn't learn very much, I only started learning and being edited properly when I started at Gollancz. It was great being edited – just stupid things like sentence construction, learning clauses and things like that... I think horror writers tend to get a bit caught up in it, because you have to make people suspend their belief so much, so you overdo the description. But I learnt to pare it back and learn that less is more.”
There isn’t exactly a job description when it comes to being a writer, so I am always fascinated by the routines and habits that professional writers develop. Sarah has set herself a specific structure to work to:
“I like to get up early – about seven. Get a cup of tea; mess around on the Internet for an hour. I have a program that turns the Internet off, which is brilliant, as otherwise I'd be '200 words check Twitter', whereas if I turn it off, I can do 1,000 words in the morning on the book. Then I can relax a bit. I aim for 2,000, but usually it's 1,500. I work on other things and projects too, some short stories etc.
That ‘atypical’ Unicorn really does enhance the emotive qualities of the novel. Of course a book about something so harrowing as the drawn-out death of a parent is going to be difficult, but there is something about this representation of the protagonist’s turbulent centre beneath her somewhat calm and resigned exterior that gives the book something that perhaps a straight literary representation is missing. I asked Sarah whether she felt this was something other books on the topic were lacking.
“I suppose it depends how they handle it. I remember reading As I Lay Dying [by William Faulkner] years ago, about this family [transporting] their dead mother's body. I remember reading about one of them sitting next to the coffin and hearing the body popping in the heat, and I remember that although there was no supernatural aspect, the coffin kind of did what the unicorn did in mine. It's all down to symbolism. With me, there's always going to be something a little weird. It was natural for me to put something odd in. it gives people a respite from the god-awful aspect of knowing that we're all going to die.”
With The Language of Dying (republished), Poison, Charm and Beauty (the ‘1.5’ books of re-imagined fairytales) and Mayhem (a horror thriller that takes place in the time of Jack the Ripper) all published in 2013, I asked Sarah about how she gets into the different headspaces needed for such contrasting works.
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Sarah Pinborough is one of those dizzyingly prolific, genre-crossing writers that makes you wonder when they have time to eat and sleep. With twelve books published since 2010 (but apparently, “the fairy tales are quite short, they're really 1.5 books instead of three”) in horror, crime and fantasy, it’s enough to make mere mortals weep. Worse still, her books are really good. Diverse, complex and inspiring, her work covers such a broad spectrum of emotions it’s hard to know whether you should be laughing or crying. I read Mayhem and The Language of Dying very close together, which gave me an odd, slightly crazed outlook on the world. In Mayhem, we follow Dr. Bond as he chases a gruesome killer under the control of a terrible demonic creature through the rough streets of the Victorian East End. The book is seeped in blood and seen through an opium induced drug haze. Cut to The Language of Dying. Here we follow an unnamed protagonist as she cares for her father in the last days of his lingering sickness. Death features here to, but in a very different, tangible and real way. This kind of death is far more disturbing than the most spine-tingling gore conjured to thrill us in horror. Not that it is in any way superior to it – that kind of visceral terror has a different and important place in our psyches – but for me, the fear, pain and loneliness explored in The Language of Dying left a lingering impression on me that has yet to dissipate.
You’d think that such an inexhaustible writer started writing novels in her infancy, but despite the sheer volume of books Sarah has produced, she didn’t actually start writing professionally until she was 29.
“I had a couple of short stories published when I was 28. I had written some stories just for myself, and I'd gone to babysit for the woman next door and I'd left them there for her, and then a friend of hers went round...and she read them and was like, 'who wrote these stories!’ I had been told when I was 23 and submitted a story that I was terrible and an incompetent writer and I'd never be a writer! So someone liking my story gave me some confidence after that.”