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Classic SFF Review


Sarah Pinborough Interview

Sarah PinbroughLast month I reviewed The Language of Dying by Sarah Pinborough. Today we have the privilege of talking to the author herself about the book, its inspiration, and what other projects she will be putting out in the near future. So without further ado, onto the interview!

I guess all interviews have to start with that elevator pitch type question, don’t they? So, Sarah, could you tell us a little bit about what The Language of Dying is about?

The Language of Dying is about a family coming together during the last week of their father’s life, and is a reflection of his life and theirs as old and new conflicts come up and resolve in various ways. It’s a story about life and death and how we cope with losing people.

Over the years I’ve read almost everything you’ve written, from horror to crime to fantasy and a merging of the three, however this feels like something completely different than anything else you’ve written. Can you give us a bit of an insight as to why you have chosen to write this book now?

I wrote this book several years ago (it was first published by PS and that edition won the BFA for best Novella and was short-listed for the Shirley Jackson award) after a friend of mine came to live with me in the last couple of months of his life. It’s a piece of fiction but there is a lot of real events used as a base, and it was a cathartic experience for me to write it. I knew if I didn’t then I would forget what an emotional impact the situation had on me, and I felt it was too important to be lost and so I did what authors do and wrote about it to preserve and cope with it.

I should probably say that if it wasn’t for your name on the cover, it is not the kind of book I’d usually pick up (typically being a reader of epic fantasy). However, now having read it I have to say that it affected me more than anything I’ve read in a long, long time. Although, of course, this is a result the subject matter (death and loss, which I shall get to in a minute), I think it’s true success is how this is contrasted with your truly beautiful, fluent prose. In this novel there is a literary quality that matches the likes of authors such as Katherine Mansfield (famous for her Modernist Aesthetic) and of a level that I think surpasses what you’d typically expect from SFF. Did you recognise this and, therefore, place special emphasis on trying to write in such a way?

I The Language of Dying (cover)wanted to keep the prose relatively clean because I don’t think subject matter like this needs superfluous description and I wanted to keep it ‘honest.’ It is the most ‘literary’ of my books thus far, whatever that means, but I didn’t set out with any real style agenda. I wanted it to be first person present tense because the action is very much ‘in the moment’ as the narrator is talking to her dying father throughout, even when she’s recalling events from the past, but other than that there was no pre-planning in the writing. Although there is a small thread of fantasy in it, I don’t consider it to be an SFF book at all. Magical realism touches perhaps but that’s as close as it gets.

I found some parts of the book very, very hard to read. Without giving away spoilers, our first person protagonist recounts her suffering through one of the worst possible fates (bar death). I spoke to Douglas Hulick once and he told me that sometimes he got so attached to his first person character he began thinking in his voice and his own personality would merge a little. Was it hard for you to go behind this character’s eyes for so long, share her thoughts and then come back to your real life and – for lack of a better term – be you?

That’s difficult to answer, because although that scene – I know the one you mean – is far more extreme, I had lived in a similar situation myself many years ago, so I drew on that when writing so there are bits of me in that character already. I didn’t find writing her harder than writing any of the rest of it to be honest, because so much of it was drawn from my own emotional reactions to a situation anyway. The whole book was cathartic. I never felt I was her though. I never feel any more involved with a first person character than a third person character. They’re all just people I’ve made up, and I live with them for a while and then the next batch come along.

The Language of Dying is one of the shortest SFF books I’ve seen published in a physical format. My guess is that on the most part it is hard for an author to convince a publisher that readers will pay for a book shorter than is typical in the genre. I certainly have my own ideas and am most grateful that she did, but from your perspective: why do you think Jo Fletcher decided to give this one a shot?

It’s not being marketed as an SFF book – although of course the Jo Fletcher line is essentially that so I can understand people thinking it is one – and I consider it a mainstream book rather than ‘genre’. Jo loved the first incarnation of the book and the responses readers had to it, and she wanted to bring it to a wider audience. So did my other publisher, Gollancz, but Jo beat them to it, although they have been pimping it as well which I think is very generous of them. I’m overjoyed it’s getting such a beautiful new release, because I am very proud of it.

I think each reader will take something unique from The Language of Dying. However, I’d like to know what your ideal response from a reader would be. So, could you finish this sentence and then expand upon your reasoning? “I’ve just finished The Language of Dying and…”

I’m lucky in that I’ve already had a lot of responses to it, so I know how it makes many people feel. Ideally the sentence would end, “I’ve just finished The Language of Dying and it touched and moved me.” I’ve had lots of email from people who have been through similar situations saying they found the honesty in it helped them with their own feelings and made them feel not alone. I’ve honestly been humbled by people’s reactions and thank yous for the book. Normally I write stories very focussed on ‘entertaining’ so it has been wonderful to write something that seems to really resonate with people.

In addition to Neil Gaiman providing a cover blurb, you give him a very big thank you in your acknowledgements. I’m curious, what is the connection between you, Neil and The Language of Dying?

Neil and I did an email book swap a while back – he sent me an early version of The Ocean at the End of the Lane (which I absolutely loved) and I nervously sent him this. He was very kind to give me such a great quote, but then I have to say Neil has been very generous towards me with his advice, not only on writing, but on dealing with the writing life over the past few years, and I’m very lucky to have him as a friend. He’s a great ally to all working in the genre today. He’s also great fun. We have a comedy (well, we and Americans find it funny;-)) routine called ‘Being British with Neil and Sarah’ ONE DAY IT WILL MAKE US FAMOUS. Well, for him, MORE famous.

Now, people often remark upon Brandon Sanderson as one of the most active writers in the SFF world. However, when they do I’m quick to correct them and point them in your direction. I think last time we interviewed you you’d had seven novels published in less than 24 months… this time I don’t think we’re far off that either. Could you tell us a bit about how life is going as a professional writer and what you’ve got coming up in the near future?

Life is busy! Although I am determined to take at least a couple of weeks off next year but we’ll see how it goes! I’m currently working on The Death House for Gollancz, writing the first episode of my own TV series for World Productions and ITV global, (we’re yet to see if it will get made, but fingers crossed), I’ve got a horror film in development and working with another production company on an original idea and I’m collaborating with a director on an adaptation of something but that’s very early stages. Bookwise, after The Death House I’ve got another book to write for Jo Fletcher that I’m still mulling on, and then another book, Thirteen Minutes Dead, a YA thriller to write for Gollancz.

I’m tired just reading that back, but better to have too much work than too little. 😉 Again, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us!

In addition to the FANTASTIC The Language of Dying, Sarah has just released another Novella with F. Paul Wilson that is also very, very good, A Necessary End :


But now it’s death’s turn…. 

It spreads like a plague but it’s not a disease. Medical science is helpless against the deadly autoimmune reaction caused by the bite of the swarming African flies. Billions are dead, more are dying. Across the world, governments are falling, civilization is crumbling, and everywhere those still alive fear the death carried in the skies. 

A Necessary End is about apocalypse, about love, about the fragile bonds that hold marriages and civilizations together. But mostly it’s about truth – how we find it, how we embrace or reject it, and how we must face the truths within ourselves.


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