Sarah Lotz on writing, plot twists, and a BBC TV series

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The Three
Sarah Lotz
Hodder & Stoughton
ISBN: 1444770365

Sarah Lotz, the somewhat itinerant, decidedly prolific writer of freaky, twisted stories, has just had one of her books optioned for a BBC series. Though she grew up in the UK and has travelled widely, she called South Africa home for many years, until her daughter – one of her many co-writers – went to the University of East Anglia to study screenwriting a few years ago. She spoke to Karin Schimke about the latest plot twist in the story of her writing life.

You seem to have stepped into the writer's dream scenario: your book, The three, has been optioned for an eight-part BBC series. Could you talk us through this?

The fact that the project has reached this point is down to the sheer grit and determination of Kate Sinclair, the show’s producer. She’s backed it every step of the way, and her vision for it has never wavered. When the book was first shopped around, almost every other producer I spoke to wanted to lose the ambiguity or dumb it down (one even wanted to cut the South African section out of it), so going with Kate was a no-brainer. The brilliant Peter Straughan (The men who stare at goats, Tinker tailor soldier spy, Wolf Hall) is adapting it. His writing is sublime – he gets to the heart of a character in a beat – and he’s elevated and refined the source material. We now have two other incredible writers on board, but we don’t have a director attached as yet – all that is to come.

You have always struck me as one of the most modest writers of a clutch of South Africans (May we claim you as South African? I suppose not.) from a certain period. In a time when the received wisdom among writers is, “If you don’t promote yourself, you’ll get nowhere,” self-promotion really does not seem like your thing. What is your attitude towards social media and marketing, and where do you expend the energy that others use for online social networking? 

I do consider myself at least partly South African – it’s where I spent the largest chunk of my life and where most of my closest friends and family are based.

Ah, social media … I’m always being asked this question! My honorary daughter, Pagy Wicks, runs my Facebook page for me, not because I’m up myself or too busy to bother, but because social media winds me up. That said, I was on Twitter for a while a few years ago, and really enjoyed it. I connected with readers (which is really the point) and had a good laugh. Then it seemed to get darker. I started noticing more incidences of bullying, and not just from the usual suspects (ie misogynistic and racist fuckwits), but from users who should know better. I’ve seen too many good people targeted by online lynch mobs for doing nothing more than making a bad decision; there are few things I find more tiresome than self-righteous, Schadenfreude-fuelled pile-ons. You’re correct that the received wisdom is for writers to self-promote, and I think it’s entirely possible that my career will suffer as a result of not doing so. It’s the way the world is going, and I am a dinosaur (and look what happened to the dinosaurs).

From the outside, it seems that most of your time and energy gets poured into your writing. I remember once reading a funny piece you wrote about what a slob you are and how nothing is terribly organised or clean in your writing space. How does the writing work for you? When do you write, when do you take breaks (either daily or bigger breaks in the year), what do you do in between books, and what do you do with the ideas you have for new projects while you're in the middle of another book? 

That’s true – I am a slob. I work in a small brick shed in the garden, and I’m looking at my desk now: it’s currently awash with coffee mugs, fag ash, old lighters, a stale packet of Doritos and a dog brush. There’s also a mouldy leather couch, piles of old paperbacks, empty cardboard boxes, cobwebs and a giant house spider called Tyra, who lives behind a copy of The monster of Florence. I write every day, all day. I stop at five pm for a couple of hours to walk the dogs. I don’t write down ideas for new projects. The good ones tend to stick; the others go to the great idea landfill in the sky.

You have a very chubby oeuvre of books written in your name and books written with other people, and, at last count, you seem to have been translated into six other languages. Does it surprise you that you have written so much in so little time? Are you fulfilling long-held ambitions to be a prolific and highly successful novelist, or did you "land up" being this in a "happy surprise" kinda way? 

My main goal was simply to make a living out of writing, and it’s been a long, zombie-infested road to get here. As everyone knows, part of this is down to luck – writing the right book at the right time – but you also have to put in the hours, and I regularly put in eighteen-hour days (classic workaholic). My first three books bombed spectacularly, so I had the luxury of failure, which I wouldn’t get these days. Sadly, it’s becoming more difficult for new writers to get another chance if their debut isn’t successful (at least in the traditional publishing world).

Tell me about your co-writers. You have a motley and interesting collection of collaborators. How did those relationships come about, and how did you maintain them through what I imagine are the rough rapids of finishing a book together. Do you all still love one another?

I get a real kick out of co-writing (plus, it’s half the work), and all of my collaborators have strengths I lack. Louis Greenberg counteracts my pulp sensibility with his literary genius, Paige Nick has an unbelievable work ethic and cracking wit, Helen Moffett is not only a terrific editor but writes like Jane Austen, and my daughter Savannah has a clear-eyed vision and can spot a plot hole a mile away. In almost all cases, the decision to collaborate was fuelled by booze, but, despite this, they’ve all worked out. We don’t really bicker. You can’t co-write if you have a Trump-sized ego or aren’t prepared to compromise. I know I drive them mad because I can be obsessive. And yes – I still love them all (I have no clue if they’d say the same!).

One of your books, The apartment, written under the name SL Grey with Louis Greenberg, seems to have been optioned for a movie. Is that still happening? Can you give us an update? 

It was optioned by Amblin, and the last we heard a director was attached. This was a while ago, though, so I’m not sure if it’s going ahead or not.

While you're constantly beavering away at the writing, your career is ballooning. Do you have an agent helping you?

It’s not ballooning – more puttering along. I have a terrific agent, Oli Munson, who deals with that side of things.

You're a graduate of the creative writing MA at UCT. Who was your tutor? Do you recommend creative writing MAs? What are they useful for? 

I worked with the extraordinary Kelwyn Sole and Stephen Watson. Whenever I finish a manuscript, I think: will it pass the Sole/Watson test? The answer is always no (out of all the novels I’ve published since my MA days, I reckon there’s one that they might have considered half decent). Still, it’s something to aim for. I’m not sure you can teach anyone to write – you either do it or you don’t, and the only way to improve is to keep doing it – but courses can be useful as they provide a goal and a deadline, which means you’re not writing into a void.

You've done some interesting things in your life ... you've been homeless in Paris, earned money as a fire-eater and started learning Tagalog as part of your research for The three. I don't suppose there's that much time for adventuring these days. Do you live out a wild and rebellious aspect of your you-ness in your books? Or, are you up to mad and funny things behind the scenes? If you are, are any of those things "shareable"? 

I tend to go overboard with research because I have a strong masochistic streak, and usually end up writing characters/situations that are well out of my comfort zone. I’m hyper-aware that, by doing this, I open myself up to criticism – and rightly so. Wherever possible, I visit the locations where the novels are set, talk to as many local people/experts as I can, and, if I’m writing a character who is from a different cultural background, ensure that this aspect is handled as thoroughly and sensitively as possible – ie by rounding up a team of sensitivity readers who can kick my arse if I’ve screwed up. I’ve been burned before by not playing it safe, but no one wants to read endless novels about a middle-aged writer with bad hair who lives in a cottage in Wales (that said, I did write a novella about a middle-aged woman who lives in a cottage in Wales – it didn’t end well for her).

Research is also an excuse to get out of the house and stop being a boring old fart for a while. For The white road, I went caving in South Wales (shat myself) and travelled through Tibet and up to Everest base camp. For The three, my mum and I explored the Aokigahara suicide forest in Japan in winter (and got lost), and for Day four, I went on the world’s nastiest cruise (like I said – masochist).

What's happened with your daughter? Are the two of you still writing together? Is she going to be a writer, too? If so, how do you feel about that? 

Savannah and I are currently working on a novelisation of Reborn, a comic by Mark Millar and artist Greg Capullo. We’re having a blast with it – it’s full of larger-than-life characters and crazy over-the-top action sequences, and includes a giant neutered cat who is out for revenge. Sav spends half her time teaching swimming and scuba diving in Qatar, and half where I’m currently based in Wales. I’m happy for her to be whatever she wants to be, but, like most parents, I’d prefer it if she didn’t stray into serial murder, or worse, banking.

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