W.the thrush Sarah Pinborough, Behind Her Eyes, was published in 2017, she even described it as a “Marmite book”. Her publisher went down on equally alarming warnings, linking it to the hashtag #WTFthatending.
Now the novel is a huge hit on Netflix and Pinborough is still soft with its own twist. “I finished watching it and then I got a shower and went to bed and I was still thinking, ‘That’s the end, man! ‘- and I made it up! ”She says, speaking from her home near Milton Keynes. “But it’s different to see it.”
Behind Her Eyes is the story of Louise, played by Simona Brown, a single mother who has a one-night stand with a man in a bar, just to find out that her new boss, David, is played by Tom Bateman. Louise Adele’s new friend (Eve Hewson) also happens to be David’s wife. As Louise gets to know the couple, she sees the cracks in their marriage widen. So far, so has the domestic noir mill run. But Pinborough made its name in horror and science fiction before it turned into thrushes – so when the big release comes, Behind Her Eyes is really #WTFthatending.
“I had read a lot of books like Gone Girl, domestic noir and psychological thrushes, and I really enjoyed it. I thought I’d prefer to write something like that, ”she says. “But I couldn’t do anything original. By then, Pinborough had written a couple of novels – a mix of horror, science fiction and fantasy – and won a handful of awards, but none of them had become great writers. She remembers sitting in a bar at a Worldcon sci-fi conference, “watching people, and seeing writers who had just won big contracts. It’s dangerous to be jealous of other people’s success, but I started to worry that my shelf life might be running out, ”she says. “I had written, like, 20 books and I never broke.”
She went for a beer with an editor at HarperCollins, who told her she wasn’t publishing it properly, and asked him to submit a book. She said, ‘Don’t worry, it doesn’t have to be great.’ This obviously means it has to be great, ‘”Pinborough says. “I was like, oh my god. A friend had died that week, and I was looking after someone’s dog, which I had to put down. My brain was fried. ”
She tried to bring her story in with a “taste” – then, suddenly, she had the twist. “I wanted him to hit every beat of a regular thrush. The clues have to be there, ”she says. “At first I thought it would be very easy to write, but it was very difficult. Everything had to have a dual meaning, so that no one could say that this character was a liar. I hated that. ”
Behind Her Eyes has now sold nearly 1m copies worldwide, and the Netflix transition is to lead sales even further. Reviews on Amazon give us a glimpse of its Marmite quality, from five stars and a “wicked ending”, to “a good story marred by a progressive ending”.
Pinborough is dangerous about the reactions. “I don’t care about people who hate the book,” she laughs. “I wish they hated being incapable. What I don’t like is when people say, ‘She didn’t know how to finish this book, she tried this ending. ‘I’m like,’ Go back and read it again, do your homework! ‘ ”
Pinborough was headmaster of English in high school when she began writing horror novels. She contributed to a few publishers, “but no one published horror – it was 2003 and there was a series of novels called The Crabs or The Worms”. On her way back to the UK after marrying in Las Vegas, she picked up a newspaper horror novel at the airport and sent the book to her publisher, Leisure Books in the US. They made her debut The Hidden, in which an amnesia victim begins to see scenes in her mirror warning her that there is “imminent danger at the hands of a great evil”. She wrote five more books for Entertainment.
“Everyone who died in my books were children in my school. They would be like, ‘Can I die in one of your books?’ and I would say, ‘You can die on page one’, or ‘You can die today before I even start the book’, ”she says. “The pay was terrible – around £ 1,000 per book. But I was teaching and it was a learning curve – if I hadn’t written these books I probably wouldn’t have dealt with HarperCollins. ”
After six horrific novels, Pinborough says she was seven tired of the genre. She was given the opportunity to write novels for the Torchwood Doctor Who spinoff, and decided she could take a six-month teaching break, rent her home in London and live in a friend’s house in Scotland, where she would write the novel she wanted to write: “A kind of retelling of modern-day Paradise Lost, a crime, a dystopian story.” This became a trilogy of Dog-Faced Gods, built by UK publisher Gollancz, who awarded her a three-book contract for a young adult trilogy, written under the name Sarah Silverwood.
Writing two books a year and renting out rooms in her house meant she could give up teaching. She wrote dark couples on peace stories, like Poison, as a retelling of Snow White – “I thought, what kind of man falls in love with a woman in a glass box?” – Charm, called Cinderella; and Beauty, spin on Sleeping Beauty. Mayhem and Murder follow, two supernatural, historical murder mysteries that draw on Thames torso murders in real life. Then came the meeting that followed Behind Her Eyes; since then she has written two more trillions, of the same ilk: Cross Her Heart and Dead to Her. While she is still enjoying the sex, she seems to be starting to feel a little itch.
“This pandemic has made many people, myself included, think about what they are doing with their time and world,” she says. “Five years ago, I would have said that the point of having money in the bank is as a writer so you can write what you want. You may influence sales, but you can write what you want if you can without being taken care of. ”
She is completely honest about the money. “I’ll say this now – come back to me next year, it’s going to be a different story,” she said, laughing. “But part of me thinks, I have enough money in the bank because I didn’t go and I bought a big house, a flash car. When I was writing books with very little money, you can reveal your peace stories or historical horror. When someone pays you £ 10,000 for a book, they don’t have to invest much in marketing to get the money back. When they invest heavily in you, it’s like, ‘We really don’t, we need to move at least X copies, so could you make it a little more commercial? I totally get that. But it stops your thoughts a bit. ”
In addition to writing a new novel, Pinborough is also writing for film and television, including a film adaptation of her young adult novel 13 Minutes, which is set to begin shooting in 2022. She also in the writers ’room for a show on Amazon, and has signed a contract to draft a Hollywood studio film.
“It’s an exciting move from books, books, books – I’ve written 27 or 28 books now. I still love writing them, but I don’t want to be on that hamster wheel, writing thrushes a year for people who know exactly what they’re going to get, ” she added, then it must be added: “There are some people who are very skilled at writing very similar books but that’s not me. So, once I have completed this contract, I think I will evaluate, rather than panic. If a mahogany idea comes up, great. If it does not, I will write something else. ”
• Behind Her Eyes is on Netflix. The novel is published by HarperCollins (£ 8.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery costs may apply.