Interview: Sarah Pinborough

Pinborough Sarah Pinborough is rapidly joining the club of authors whose work defies easy categorisation. Although she began as a horror novelist, she has written science fiction stories – including two well-received Torchwood novels – the historical crime novel Mayhem (out later this month from Jo Fletcher Books), a script for BBC cop show New Tricks, and now a trilogy of novellas from Gollancz which retell fairy tales in a novel – and sometimes disturbing – way, with the first of these, Poison, launched in London on 18 April. Paul Simpson caught up with her mid-March…


What was the genesis of the three novellas: Poison, Beauty and Charm?

Poison-PLC1-1024x736It was more of a social thing than a work thing, in that when Once Upon a Time was on telly, Gillian Redfearn, my editor at Gollancz, was watching it, and I was watching it. It sounds sexist but I don’t normally watch traditionally girlie TV shows which Once Upon a Time seemed to be. All the people I knew who loved it were women, and men didn’t seem to get into it in quite the same way. Gillian and I both really loved it, and texted each other with various bits and pieces.

We were having lunch and she said, ‘How would you feel about maybe retelling some fairy tales?’ I said I hadn’t really thought about it, but being a pro writer, I said, ‘But I can…’

They entered into some quite heated negotiations with my agent, who was playing quite hard ball with them, God bless her, for three. During the whole time the negotiations were going on, I was in a bit of a panic because I thought, ‘I don’t what I’m going to do, and whether I’m going to be able to do it’ – then the final twist came into my head of Poison, and suddenly I could see how I could take the three and interlink them.

They’re all three stand-alones, but at the same time they’re a circular story, so you get a whole story out of the three of them wherever you start. From there, it all fell into place.

Are they all happening at the same time then?

No – Poison is the middle story. Beauty leads into Poison, which leads into Charm, so although you have different leads in each story, all of the other characters are in each of the books. I wanted it so that whatever one you started with, you would have different sympathies with the characters – you’d be more sympathetic to one of the characters if you started with book two, but it wouldn’t affect your reading of any of them. It was quite tricky in that respect. I was quite pleased with all three as a whole.

Beauty-PLC1-1024x733So presumably you plotted the entire trilogy out before you began?

Obviously I had to give them outlines for the three to show them what I was planning, but the third one changed slightly, because things had to be tweaked in the first two as I was writing them. Luckily because all three are coming out so close together, I could tweak things in the first two while I was writing the third one. Normally in a trilogy you can’t – in the other trilogies I’ve written, I’ve gone, ‘oh God, I’ve written myself into a corner…’

Why did you go with Poison first?

It was the first one I had an idea for, and it was only when I was planning the second and the third one that I thought they could work this way. Although it’s the middle story, Poison is the natural beginning.

I wanted to go with fairy tales that everybody knew, and Snow White is such a famous one; I didn’t want to go with anything too obscure. There’s no fun in playing with it.

It works the same way as Into the Woods – because the audience knows the stories, they can see what Sondheim is doing with it.


You’ve written very modern characters, in what is traditionally a medieval setting. Did that dichotomy cause problems?

The first one, yes. It took me a little while to get the hang of it, and I was quite nervous when I handed it in. I thought, ‘God, this is quite a contrast of modern characters in a fairytale world,’ but I also thought it was the only way you could really do it for modern readers. The women in traditional fairy tales are quite bland: they have pretty dresses, they get stuck somewhere, the Prince saves them, or they get married, have a baby… They don’t get a lot of action in fairy tales!

Charm-PLC1-1024x734I hope men like them too, but I was writing primarily for a female audience in mind which is quite unusual for me: most of my stuff is quite dark, and I have a lot of male characters. It was quite interesting to try and put myself in these female perspectives. I kind of wanted it to be real, I wanted them to be real people, otherwise it would be too fairy tale.

I think for us to engage with them, they have to have real motivations. It was tricky trying to balance it, but I tried to think of it as writing a fantasy novel in the style of a fairy tale.

Strengthening the female characters, though, is almost going against the thrust of the story and, without giving away the twist in Poison, Snow takes control a lot more both with her stepmother, and then in the sexual relationship with the Prince…

My editor laughed out loud at one bit of that – she thought it was perfect, but it just made her laugh. Although these all have sex in them, I didn’t want the sex to be shoved in for the sake of sex; I wanted it to say something about the characters and what they’re like and that kind of thing.

You almost do the traditional fairy tale ‘shut the door’ on the sex scenes to begin with… and then really open the door later in the book…

On the second two books, I would write them, then go back and add the sex in. No writer likes writing a sex scene: it’s very hard to do convincingly. You’re so scared of doing it wrong. But because I had a few ‘close the door’ moments, or an allusion to a sexual act, I thought I had to have a pay-off to keep them real.

It’s also important in what happens after that sex scene…

To me, that was the most modern part of it: you meet a demure person, shut the bedroom door, and it’s not what you’re expecting at all!

And there’s a little bit of double standards there as well!

Where would we be without that!


You say you went back and added the sex scenes – but they were an essential part of the plot?

Yes, that was more from my writing perspective: I thought, I’d rather just come back to it. Gillian made me add some bits in – and then on the third one, she made me tone some bits down so obviously I got better at it. There is an orgy scene in Beauty: I had to change that around, and tone it down a little bit.

MayhemThese have taken up your time over the last few months; what else are you working on?

I also handed in Mayhem which comes out in May from Quercus, from Jo Fletcher Books, and now I’m working on Murder, the second one of those. I have another book to write for Gollancz, then another book for Jo Fletcher, then another one for Gollancz… I want both to do well, but I’m immensely proud of Mayhem – it was the hardest piece of work I’ve done, because it’s historical crime, alternate history, real people. It’s my take on unsolved murders, so it’s research-heavy. The fairy tales were a great relief from that to have something light.

Were you writing them simultaneously?

More doing the copy edit on one while researching the other. Obviously with the fairy tales, it’s a copy edit line because they’re coming out three months apart. There hasn’t been the break between them. Plus I’ve got a rewrite to do on a film, which is hanging over me! And I’ve also been doing a collaboration with F. Paul Wilson which he’s been very good about me putting aside when other things have come in. It’s kind of an apocalyptic thing that we planned to be 30,000 words but we’re up to about 60… It’s something we’ve done off our own bat, which we’ll decide what to do with when we finish.

Are you writing any more TV?

I’ve got an original three-parter optioned by World Productions, who did Line of Duty and The Bletchley Circle. They’re touting that around at the moment. New Tricks I might try again for next year: I think I’m better at my original stuff than writing other people’s worlds but I’ll probably put a pitch in for the next series.

With a TV script, although writing the first draft takes about two weeks, the actual process is a quite intensive five months, so given my book commitments, I have to weigh it up. The money’s great, and it’s a great experience, but had I done one this series, I would probably have had a mental breakdown!

Does stuff you learn from writing TV and film scripts feed back into your prose fiction, or are they so different in terms of the writing process?

My dialogue is much better in my books off the back of writing films, and I do think a bit differently when I’m putting a book together now. But they are very different – the way you put together a story is very different. I have to work much harder at screen writing because it’s much newer for me than novel writing – I know my own habits with that, the bits I’m fast at writing, the bits I find tricky.

Screenwriting is so much more collaborative: there are so many more people who have a say. With a novel, it’s yours. Your editor might have asked you to make a couple of changes but it’s still everything that you started with. Screenplays and scripts, you’ve got producers, directors, actors… everybody has changes to make, because there’s so much money at stake, I think. It’s probably made me better at taking criticism!

Dialogue is the biggest strength that I’ve learned from screenwriting: it’s so different from novel dialogue, but you can actually make a novel dialogue much more snappy.

The HiddenThere seems to be a belief by some writers that in fantasy and horror you can get away with dialogue that isn’t normal, but when it’s written more normally, I usually find it’s more effective…

When I wrote The Hidden for Leisure, they didn’t edit your books: I handed my book in, and they would change ‘got’ for ‘gotten’ and that was it. There was no copy edit, there was no line edit: I just got page proofs. There was no learning curve.

Working with Jo Fletcher and Gillian Redfearn I’ve learned a lot. My movie is based on The Hidden so I have to go back and look at it again. I look now at the dialogue and think, ‘Jesus Christ what was I doing?’

I think dialogue is the hardest thing for novelists to get right because it can be a bit stilted, particularly historical or fantasy. It can go a bit, ‘Where art thou?’ When I was a teacher, and you’re teach kids to write stories, they will very often avoid dialogue because it is quite hard to do it naturally.

How did you get caught up with Torchwood?

That was through Mark Morris, and it came at a perfect time for me. I had decided on a whim – and looking back, it was a ridiculous idea – to give up my teaching job and write full time. I thought I’d take a year out. A friend of mine was living in Dubai, and had a house in Scotland and said I could housesit for them for a couple of months. I thought, ‘Great, no rent to pay’; so I rented my house to some friends and I quit my job. I had only about £2,000 in the bank!

Torchwood 1Mark emailed me – he had been doing some Doctor Who books. Steve Tribe at BBC Books had emailed him to say they were going to do some Torchwood ones, did he want to do one, and did he know anyone else who might be interested… Steve emailed me and asked if I’d put together a couple of ideas, and if I watched the show. I said, ‘Yeah love it!’ – and immediately ran into my friend’s class and said, ‘Anyone got any Torchwood on DVD, or can I get it off the internet?’ I watched both series in about four days and came up with these pitches.

I got the first one, and then a second one. They tided me over because when I got the money for that, I went to FantasyCon and had a meeting with Jo Fletcher and ended up doing the Dog-Faced Gods and my YA trilogy, so financially everything flowed.

I quite enjoyed doing them, much more than I expected to.

Torchwood covered so many different sorts of stories…

I did the thing of creating my own new character, who then came back in the second book as well. I kind of made it not about the main cast so much but about the guest characters. It was a bit more sci-fi-y, and darker – you can go a bit darker with Torchwood, I think.

Would you say you’ve been a science fiction writer?

Dog FacedI would say The Dog-Faced Gods was by the end, a science fiction story. The Chosen Seed was definitely a science fiction novel – or at least it was in my head, I don’t know how other people see it, but to me it was. I never even saw it as horror: I saw it as crime and science fiction. I never found the flies thing particularly disturbing, but I think because I had written six straight horror novels before, people added the horror tag to it. If I had been a new author, I don’t think it would have been labelled a horror book: dark crime, with a hint of fantasy, or something like that. Until then, whatever little people knew of me was horror, so it was easy to tag it as horror.

I know I’ve offended some people. I don’t consider myself a horror writer any more. I don’t write straight horror novels. I think I write stories with dark elements. I do have a penchant for the darker side of life… you’d never guess! … but I don’t write about demons and ghosts. Mayhem does have some quite dark moments and there is a supernatural sub-current, but they’re marketing it as historical crime, and I’m doing panels at Harrogate Crime Festival with it.

Part of my career problem, although I like it, is that I do not write in one thing. I’ve got three fairy tales coming out and a historical crime novel! If I could just come up with some brilliant crime series idea…

But the flipside is you’re attracting new people each time who have a backlist to go into…

I have a number of great writer friends who have been successful in all different genres: loads of people to learn from. My Poison launch I’ve got people coming from the crime community, fantasy, horror, chick lit… it’s quite nice to have that kind of broad spectrum. I’m trying to open up my reading a bit more to broaden my horizons. I don’t think I could write just one kind of thing.

Look at people like John Connolly: you can’t categorise them…

He is one of my great inspirations: one of my favourite people, and one of my favourite writers. Mike Marshall had said to me, ‘You’ve got to read John Connolly’s stuff’ and I think I had just read the first Charlie Parker novel when I was starting Dog-Faced Gods, and I realised, you could do crime with something weird. The opening pages of his first one is all about this honeycomb – it did affect how I opened A Matter of Blood… but then they made me put a prologue in so it changed that.

Click here to order Poison from

Click here to read our review of Poison and here for our review of Mayhem

Thanks to Jon Weir for his help in setting up this interview

Watch Sarah Pinborough introducing Poison below:



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