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The Sense & Sensibilities of Sarah Pinborough

By, Vince A. Liaguno

Picture the prettiest school teacher you can remember. Now imagine that she writes about hauntings and murders and creepy crawly creations in her spare time. Oh, and if you’re really good in class and turn in all of your homework assignments, she just might put you in her next novel. Think you might have paid attention more in class? You can bet the students in dark scribe Sarah Pinborough’s English classes are wide-eyed and rapt with attention.

You would never guess that beneath Sarah Pinborough’s golden locks and genteel English manners lies the mind of a horror writer – one capable of dreaming up creepy mutant spider children. But, then again, we all know that appearances in the horror genre can be deceiving.

What’s not deceiving is Pinborough’s talent. With a keen eye on character and atmosphere, Pinborough’s books worm their way into the subconscious, tapping into everyday fears with the acumen of writers like Richard Laymon and Bentley Little. Since her debut with 2004’s The Hidden, she has been a consistent name on the Leisure roster. Her fifth book with the horror-friendly imprint – Tower Hill – has just been released and promises to bring readers more of the same insinuating creepiness that has become somewhat of a trademark in novels like The Reckoning, The Taken, and Breeding Ground.

DSM recently chatted with the UK scribe about the terrors of Tower Hill, the realities of success, her writing ambitions, and the many childhood sources from which she draws her inspiration.

Dark Scribe Magazine: Tell us about Tower Hill.

Sarah Pinborough: Tower Hill is my first book set in America, and is really about how we should remember our values and the things that are important in making us who we are. We live in a society that makes life very easy, and that’s not always a good thing. On top of that, I was wondering about what if the Bible wasn’t all metaphor and some of the stories were actually true (I’m an agnostic…) and then thought about the Tree of Life and wondered if it was still standing somewhere producing apples….and then the story came.

Dark Scribe: Who was your favorite Tower Hill character to write and why?

Sarah Pinborough: The two villains, Jack and Grey were my favorites, and probably Grey I enjoyed the most out of the two. He’s a very sick individual but I liked how he still loves and depends on his best buddy. I always like the bad - or at least the messed up - characters best. I also liked Al Shtenko. He had a lot to overcome. I think you can have much more fun with the darker characters than those that have to be good.

Dark Scribe: What can fans of your earlier books expect from the new book? Comfortable pair of old slippers or a bold departure – perhaps a combination of the two?

Sarah Pinborough: I think there are some unusual twists in Tower Hill, but I wouldn’t say it’s a bold departure. To be fair, Leisure has a strong brand and so when I write something for them, I do bear in mind the kind of things that they, and their readers, like and try and stick to their formula. I have a novella The Language of Dying coming out from PS Publishing in January that I’m really proud of. That’s definitely a bold departure.

Dark Scribe: How important is it for you as a writer to establish a brand? How would you describe your unique brand?

Sarah Pinborough: I honestly don’t think I’ve established mine yet. I’m still starting out. I was very lucky to get my first novel published and it’s been a good four years during which I’ve enjoyed writing my five Leisure books, but I feel like I’ve been learning on the job so to speak. I’ve just finished a children’s fantasy book that I’m very excited about (currently editing it) and think I’d like to try a few different things as well as writing horror. If I had to define my brand, I’d like to think I just tell a good story in accessible prose. Sounds dull, but I think the readers judge your work… I just try to write the story in my head the best I can and try to make my writing better than in the previous book. Any opinions passed on it are out of my control!

Dark Scribe: As the daughter of a British diplomat, you spent a good part of your early childhood traveling the Middle East. How do these early travels inform your writing?

Sarah Pinborough: On a subconscious level, I probably draw on them. For example, having spent a lot of time in North Africa and the Middle East, writing some of the back story for Jack and Grey came quite easily. I tend to use short stories as a vehicle for exploring the places I’ve lived in during my life. In “The Bohemian of the Arbat” (from the Summer Chills anthology), I based it in communist Moscow, where I lived there from 1984-88, and I’ve just finished a story called “Our Man in the Sudan” for the next Humdrumming anthology, set in Khartoum, where I lived as a child from 1980-84. I have a great bank of sensory memories to draw on in my writing – you can imagine the shock going from the heat of the Sahara to a Moscow winter. Your memory doesn’t forget stuff like that!

Dark Scribe: There is also mention made in your official biography of having spent a ten-year stretch at boarding school – from the age of 8 to 18 - the memories of which you say still provide much of your material for horror writing. Unusually cruel headmistresses or demonic classmates - care to elaborate?

Sarah Pinborough: Oh god, so many stories….the first eight years weren’t good, let’s just put it that way. I think I probably made that comment about the boarding experience being horror material as a flippant remark, but there are kernels of truth in it. I can’t really comment on individual teachers or staff, but there were some very interesting ones – from the writer’s perspective at least. I do sometimes look back and wonder what their lives must have been like to make them the people they became. Everyone has their own story I guess. I did make some good and lifelong friends though. We may not speak often but we all understand each other. Probably more like sisters than anything. I changed school in my final two years and went to Edinburgh which is where my mother comes from. I loved my school there.

Dark Scribe: Five novels in, how has your understanding of professional writing evolved?

Sarah Pinborough: I think I’m now very aware of what hard work it is, and that for most writers in this market, you need a second income or you have to be very, very prolific. I’ve met very talented writers who’ve had huge advances for a book then couldn’t sell one for years. If you’re in this business for the money then get out - there are easier ways to earn a living. I think you just have to write the stories you want to write and hope for the best. But I’ll always watch other people’s careers and see what’s working and what’s not and keep pushing myself in order to reach a place where I can write full-time. If I was married, I think that would be easier, but as a single person, where you can only rely on your own income, you have to work very hard to be at that level. However, I can’t imagine not writing. My brain doesn’t get the concept, so I’ll just keep on producing and hopefully the hard work will pay off one day.

Dark Scribe: Are you ever surprised by readers’ reactions to your work? What has been the one reader comment that most surprised you?

Sarah Pinborough: Readers often see things that you don’t. I remember after Breeding Ground came out seeing a comment by someone referring to ‘another child in peril’ in my work. It really surprised me, because I really hadn’t seen that in each book there was an idea of a child in trouble. I had just finished The Taken in which there were several children in peril and after reading that comment I made a conscious decision not to have any children in Tower Hill!

Dark Scribe: Of the five novels you’ve written, do you have a personal favorite? Why?

Sarah Pinborough: I think my personal favorite is always the one I haven’t written yet! Maybe The Taken – which actually was first written as a serial killer novel. I don’t think I’ve told anyone this before, but it was originally called The Magic Man and had no supernatural in it at all. However, then Saw came out and the premise and some of the deaths were very similar, and so I re-wrote it using some ideas I’d jotted down when I first started it that I found in a notebook. So in a weird way, it ended up being written in the original idea I’d had for it. Actually, that book should have come out before Breeding Ground, but we swapped them over so I could do the re-write. I was very happy with that book. If I wrote it again I might pare back some of the description but I liked the way it morphed from horror to dark fantasy half way through.

Dark Scribe: Any big screen adaptations of any of your books in the works?

Sarah Pinborough: Well, I’ve been working on a script of The Hidden with a Hollywood producer but things have gone quiet there at the moment. The big screen is always a nice idea, but I never get overly excited about it. I’ve learnt a lot while doing the script though, and I think it’ll really help my dialogue in future.

Dark Scribe: What can you tell us about your contribution to the forthcoming MUSE anthology?

Sarah Pinborough: Well, the MUSE project is a bit like Fight Club; the first rule is not to talk about it. I can say that it’s very nearly done and we’re all very excited about it. I’ve really enjoyed working with three other strong women [Sarah Langan, Deborah LeBlanc, Alexandra Sokoloff] and I think it’s going to be very special when we release it. They’re also so talented that I’ve had to raise my game a bit to keep up!

Dark Scribe: Readers may be surprised to learn that the life of an established novelist isn’t all writing rooms and brainstorming strolls along the sea and that you’re a working high school teacher. What do your students make of your success?

Sarah Pinborough: My students are pretty cool with it. They like to have their names in the books, and in Tower Hill most of the characters names come from a class I had last year and they’re so excited about it. They find the sex scenes weird though… I don’t think they think teachers should know about things like that!

Dark Scribe: Heard you’re coming stateside for a few months. Writing sabbatical?

Sarah Pinborough: I’m planning to come over in January, cash willing, I really wanted to take some time out of teaching to really concentrate on writing. At the moment I get up at 5.30 am to get some writing in and probably don’t get back to it until about 8:00 pm. That’s not a good way to do your best work, and I have very little time to have any kind of life. I think that without getting out there and doing some living you’re in danger of running dry of ideas.

Dark Scribe: Any plans to branch out from horror?

Sarah Pinborough: Most definitely. As I said, I’m currently editing a children’s fantasy novel, and I’m in the planning stages of a subtly supernatural thriller. I’m also tempted to write a novel based on my past life running table-dancing clubs in London and living with a variety of perhaps less than honest men. It’ll be fiction, but I’ll draw on my experiences. I love horror, but I’m not entirely sure it’s where my future in writing lies. We’ll see…

Dark Scribe: Can you give your readers a tease at the next horror novel?

Sarah Pinborough: I want to mix the classic with the modern world. Maybe even a vampire novel of sorts…but hopefully with a twist!

To learn more about Sarah Pinborough, visit her official author website and MySpace page.

Purchase : Tower Hill / The Taken / Breeding Ground / The Hidden / The Reckoning

Posted on Monday, July 28, 2008 at 01:24PM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | CommentsPost a Comment

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