Charming company though she is over the hour we spend in a Borough Market coffee shop, there is no doubt that Sarah Pinborough has been a bit of a nightmare for her publishers. Nothing to do with her personality—she is candid, very funny and talks a mile a minute—but because as an author she has been nigh-on impossible to categorise and therefore market. Her 20 published novels to date encompass horror, fantasy, the supernatural, YA, Victorian serial killers and feminist retellings of classic fairytales.
Nearly all of her reviews begin with a comment along the lines of the book being “a new departure” for the writer, as she has ricocheted from genre to genre with scant regard for her publisher’s marketing department. Pinborough uses the word “scattergun” to describe her career to date and, laughing, mimics a pleading editor: “Could you maybe write something the same as you did before? A little bit different but the same? Just for marketing?”
The other woman
Behind Her Eyes (HarperCollins, January) is her first adult thriller, a gripping read which should have the marketing department beaming (they have already come up with the Twitter hashtag #wtfthatending). Louise is a lonely single mother and secretary who feels an overwhelming attraction to her boss, psychiatrist Daniel. Just as things are hotting up between them, Louise meets Adele, Daniel’s glacially beautiful wife. The two strike up a friendship and, as Louise grows closer to both Daniel and Adele, she starts to realise that something is very wrong with the golden couple. Why is he so controlling? And what secrets is she keeping? When she starts a full-on affair with Daniel, Louise can have no idea how things will end. Neither will the reader; “twist” doesn’t even begin to cover it.
Pinborough knew from the start she wanted to write a claustrophobic, domestic noir thriller and was kicking around various ideas, but the book really came to life when she hit on the twist. “The minute I had my ending, I did have— it’s not very English, it’s much more American—that kind of, ‘Whoop, check me!’ I had that [and thought], ‘This could really work’. I know it’s dangerous to say you want to do something different with a genre because people always take that as an insult to the genre. I don’t mean to insult, but I did want to do something a little bit different.” Advance praise from authors as varied as Harlan Coben, Neil Gaiman and Joanne Harris (who said it has “a whammy of a finale that hits you like a cartoon piano falling on a rabbit’s head”), would indicate she has managed just that.
Behind Her Eyes is mostly told from the first-person perspectives of the “other woman” and the wife: Louise and Adele. Pinborough originally planned to give David, the husband, a voice, “but then I thought, ‘No it’s far more interesting just to see him from the perspective of these two women.’ I am a feminist, so part of me thinks, ‘My god, this entire book is about two women’s obsession with a man!’ But as much as we might idealise how we want to live, sex and money is what drives us.”
Behind Her Eyes is Pinborough’s 21st novel, and she is already halfway through the next. “I really want the next one written by the time this comes out,” she says, candidly. “Just for the peace of mind because if it does do well—fingers crossed—it would be lovely, but I don’t want to then be thinking, ‘Oh my god, how am I going to follow it?’ If it is already done, it’s done.”
Pinborough sold UK rights to HarperCollins in a six-figure deal through her agent Veronique Baxter at David Higham Associates. Foreign rights have sold in 17 territories to date, including a reported six-figure deal to Flatiron, Macmillan in the US. It’s a personal record for Pinborough, and she credits the huge success of Gone Girl and The Girl on a Train for “paving the way” with sales to foreign publishers.
Behind Her Eyes is being touted as Pinborough’s “breakthrough” book, so I ask what that would mean for her? “One that is on the supermarket shelves,” she says immediately. “Lots of people [would] read it, of course, and also there is the sense that you are not clinging on to the midlist any more. I’ve written a lot of books but they have very much been contained by that SFF/horror kind of readership. [Those readers] are very loyal and, given the spread of what I write, they have always been very loyal, buying all of my books, but it’s not stretched beyond that.”
Pinborough started her career writing what she calls “straight” horror. As a child she was, and remains, a massive Stephen King fan. Given his latest book for Christmas, she would finish it on Boxing Day and cites the day he followed her on Twitter as “probably the best day of my life”. But perceiving that there was no market for horror books in the UK, she sent her first novel, The Hidden (2004), to US mass-market horror specialist Leisure Books, which bought it—and a further five. The books were published while she was teaching English in a secondary school, and her pupils would vie to have characters named after them. She mimics a teenage boy’s request, “Miss, can I die in your next book?”, and her deadpan response: “Yes—maybe even before the next book.”
A restless spirit
By book number six, however, she was “bored” with horror—“I was ready to peel my own face off”—so it was fortunate that when her fourth novel, The Taken, was nominated for a British Fantasy Award, Pinborough met editor Jo Fletcher. She was then offered a deal with Gollancz and the Dog-Faced Gods trilogy followed (A Matter of Blood; The Shadow of the Soul; The Chosen Seed), a blend of police procedural, supernatural horror and fantasy, or, as she describes it, “Paradise Lost in a dystopian England”. At the same time, she was writing YA fantasy trilogy The Nowhere Chronicles (The Double-Edged Sword; The Traitor’s Gate; The London Stone). It was published under the name Sarah Silverwood, but the trio will be repackaged and released under her own name in 2017.
Pinborough has recently found more mainstream success with YA thriller 13 Minutes (2016), the film rights to which have been bought by Netflix. On the difference with writing YA, she says: “You can be as complex in your storytelling and you should be as complex. But young people don’t have the grey areas that we have. Adults lie to themselves all the time about what is acceptable, but kids know what is right and wrong.”
Thrillers would seem to be the way forward for Pinborough. “I would quite like to become a mainstream thriller writer, obviously, because I enjoy writing those stories and it is the best way to secure your career.” Musing on what makes a good thriller, she says: “I hate it when it is all about the twist, and when the ending comes out of nowhere. I think you should be surprised and shocked, but you should also think, ‘Damn, I should have seen it’, because there are clues all the way through.”
In Behind Her Eyes the clues are there, but I guarantee that it is a head-spinning twist..