It must be an odd sensation to have been writing – not unsuccessfully by any means, but plodding along nicely, gaining devoted readers and winning awards within the confines of YA and fantasy genres – before hitting the best-selling big time. Sarah Pinborough seems a little astonished at the new spotlight; it’s clearly disconcerting for her when, say, a recent interviewer got a bit too beady on past affairs with married men. Pinborough is rueful: “She was really nice but she totally stitched me up.” That’s inevitable surely, given Hollywood attention and US book tours and all the other trappings that go with the ringing of bookshop tills? It’s always a mistake to expect an interview to be benign. She smiles: “To be fair, my agent was like, nobody cares.”
We’re in The Delaunay, her choice and a favourite amongst publishing and theatre elites. When booking, I asked for a table that would be suitable for an interview and am promptly, as with every Corbin and King outfit, shown to the worst table at the very back of the restaurant, right in front of a large service station. It’s unspeakably noisy. As a result, we take to shrieking at each other across the table. Wine! We need wine! Her social media persona is quite vocal about her love for a glass or two. “Americans are not big on drinking. Never at lunchtime – they do that ‘oh I’ll just have water thing’ that drives me crazy. Or you turn up after hours-long flights to an event and yes, more water. At least here at Waterstones they give you wine.” We fall on a bottle of Gruner Veltliner.
Behind Her Eyes falls loosely and, ultimately not quite accurately, under that heading of ‘domestic noir’, alongside those books with ‘girl’ in the title peopled by flawed characters with deadly secrets. It tells the story of Louise, a dumpy single mother with a prosaic surgery job who doesn’t realise that the charismatic man she kisses one night is the new doctor. So far, so soap; but throw in a beautiful, seemingly fragile wife, a messy history of possibly arson and drugs, hints of gaslighting and domestic violence (something Pinborough has written about having suffered) and the whole stew becomes addictive and eye-popping, the definition of page-turner. Events finally take a turn for the bizarre – what her publishers have cleverly dubbed #wtfthatending, firing up book-loving social media as effectively as a petrol bomb. It’s a twist that has been described as audacious or preposterous; ‘a total wrong-footer’ or ‘you’ll want to punch her’. There’s no denying it’s a copper-bottomed mindfuck. Did she know the book was going to capture the imagination to the extent it has? “I knew it was good. But you never know what’s going to happen. And when it does, it never feels like you think it’s going to feel.”
What was it like to watch it rampaging up the sales charts and up and then getting that ringing endorsement from Stephen King, her childhood hero, who not only tweets about your latest book but hotly recommends it? (He tweeted: ‘Even if it's not a thumping good read, it's bloody brilliant.’ Which was, in all honesty, a little incoherent by King’s standards. He was clearly giddy.) "That was my second! He’d already said he loved The Death House. So with this one I was like whatever.” She’s laughing – it’s obvious she was absolutely thrilled. I mean it’s not just Goodreads – she cuts across me: “there’s nothing wrong with Goodreads.” She’s quick to acknowledge which side her bread is buttered on. “I always wanted to be a storyteller and not a literary writer.", she says before continuing, "My finest mental health moments have been when I’ve been lost in a book. Like Narnia, when you’re a kid, and you’re totally involved in those stories. Now I just want a good story.”
“When I heard it was number two in the Sunday Times chart I was out walking the dog and I just burst into tears. I was in the States when I heard it was no 1 and it was quite different – I was away from everyone and it felt odd and distant and not real. The most exciting things is when friends have said they’ve seen people reading it. Or when someone wrote about a recent book, calling it ‘the new Gone Girl or Behind Her Eyes’.” So in addition to genre bending, she’s moved into genre defining.
My finest mental health moments have been when I’ve been lost in a book.
As the food arrives, I’ve time to study her. She’s rather beautiful, in a spiky, rock chick, mirrored aviator shades-wearing way, belied by her high-pitched, almost little-girl delivery. Appropriately, we’ve basically ordered nursery food, sharing chicken schnitzel and kedgeree and mash like greedy children. She is single at 45 having had one brief marriage (she got married in Vegas. With an Elvis impersonator? “No ours was like James Brown. ‘You are going to cleeeeeeeave together. Cleeeeeave together.’ My parents were distraught.” Childless by choice, she has the air of someone a little rootless, someone who enjoys adventure. Her father was a diplomat and she has lived everywhere from Damascus, The Sudan and Moscow to her current home in, the 1960’s London overspill city Milton Keynes.
She describes being thrown out of boarding school in Bedford for being ‘the naughty girl’; traces of that naughty girl are very much still in evidence. But that naughtiness isn’t wild or unharnessed. She’s the most pragmatic writer I’ve ever met. There’s her work ethic, bedazzling to the non-speedy writer, the aim to do around 2000 words a day. And there’s the fact that, having sold her YA novel 13 Minutes (referring to the time that the young protagonist is pronounced dead after being found in freezing water, apparently drowned) she’s happy to hand over the prize scriptwriting gig, even though she has written for the screen herself, with the slightly anomalous likes of Old Tricks. “It [13 Minutes] went to a bidding war, and Netflix put a package together including Josh Schwartz [The OC; Gossip Girl] as part of the package. They said to me ‘don’t you want to write it’ but I said ‘me or Josh Schwartz?’ Hah! Not a difficult call.”
Presumably she has a final word on scripts? “No I don’t – I think I have some token role. But they know what they’re doing and I get the big paycheck.” She’s extraordinarily un-precious for a writer. “I know a lot of people who’ve blown deals because they’ve wanted too much control. And I’ve not really any interest in writing a script of my own books.” Why’s that? Would it be too weird? Like performing plastic surgery on her baby? “I think I’m weird that way too. I don’t see my books as babies – once they’re written, they’re kind of written. I’m already having to talk about [Behind Her Eyes] every single day of life and the idea of having to go back into that world of rewriting and rewriting – I’m happy to hand it over.
I've written about happiness being moments, not a state.
When I read the book, I was disconcerted by the massive genre switch: “I do that quite a lot. Why be constrained? A lot of people who’ll read thrillers won’t read fantasy and the other way around. But I hate it when people tack on a twist that’s come from nowhere. I won’t do that. We did make a conscious decision not to mention any of the odd stuff." She says odd and weird a lot, especially when talking about the fantasy side of her work but I get the impression she doesn’t think it odd or weird at all. Does she think being a best-selling author with movie adaptations in the pipeline is going to make her rich? “No (laughs). But I’d be much happier if I could pay off my mortgage. But after six years as a teacher, I look at my US advance and think, get a grip. I find authors complaining just ridiculous. A huge best-selling author was complaining on Twitter because some commenter on something like The Guardian had been rude about her and I was like for god’s sake, you have hundreds of thousands of people reading your book and you’re complaining about that?"
Isn’t that like all writers though? You can have the best reviews and plaudits from people you admire and then one random on the internet gets arsey and you’re plunged into doom? “Yeah – I’ve done that. But these days I think it’s about the book, not me.” One of these days I’ll be as zen and centred as she is… She laughs: “I’m not zen, I’m shallow!” She does this all the time, massive self-deprecation, and a riot of ditziness and wine and pratfalls on social media. It’s quite the contrast between this and the thoughtful darkness of her books. “I know! I had someone on social media worrying about me and drink. But I told them you don’t write 23 books if you’ve got a drink problem.”
Sarah is unguarded and open, deliciously off-message about certain other apparently critic-proof writers and columnists. Sex too - she’s pretty uncensored as far as that goes too. But her shutters come down about her writing. “That’s mine.” She’s a bunch of interesting contradictions. Is she the calm, jobbing writer and pragmatist, who’s just happened to hit the big time, or the calculated operator with one eye forever on the main prize? The open, chatty new-best-friend or intensely private cypher? The consummate, work-ethic obsessed professional or the dreamy, bookish but ‘naughty’ boarding school girl forever searching for Narnia? Does she think that fear is a driver of success? “Massively. The people who don’t have the fear are never gonna make it. I've written about happiness being moments, not a state. I do envy people who are happy.” What about that almost-happiness word, content? “Hate that word – content is an asexual marriage. It’s ultimately what all relationships become. They say if you put a penny in the jar for all the times you have sex in the first years of your relationship, and then take a penny out for all the subsequent years, you will never empty the jar.” You’re very fond of the unreliable narrator as a device, I say to her. Are you an unreliable narrator? "I think everyone’s an unreliable narrator. I think we all are."