Sarah Pinborough on Fear

Sarah Pinborough on Fear

When I first started writing The Whisper Man, all I really knew was that it would be about fathers and sons and that I wanted it to be scary. The story emerged gradually as I wrote.

I found myself in a similar situation when asked to guest edit Strand’s blog. I wanted to write about fear, but at first I didn’t know how, or what I might have to say on the subject. The solution turned out to be obvious: ask other people. So I decided to send a series of questions to seven fantastic writers. Not only would it be interesting to read their opinions, I thought, but perhaps some kind of narrative might emerge as I went. We’ll see.

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My first choice was obvious. Sarah Pinborough is one of the most prolific and hard-working writers I know. She’s published well over twenty novels, starting out in the horror genre before writing works that, between them, cover pretty every genre out there. Highlights for me include the astonishingly moving The Language of Dying, 2015’s remarkable The Death House, and – of course – the internationally bestselling Behind Her Eyes. Her most recent novel is Cross Her Heart, and a new book, Dead To Her, is coming out next year. Sarah is a writer’s writer. Over to her.


  1. Were you scared of the dark as a child? If not, was there anything else you were frightened of?

SP: I was terrified of the dark. I never slept – in fact my mum always jokes that she sent me to boarding school so she could get a decent night’s sleep. When I shared a room with my sister when I was very little, I would tuck myself in entirely from head to foot and ask her to talk to me until I went to sleep so the monsters couldn’t get me.

  1. What scares you as an adult – if anything? Do you notice any lingering fears from childhood?

SP: Death mainly. Our fears become more focussed and mundane as time moves on I think. I’m afraid of a lot of things, like heights and flying and fast cars etc but that’s basically fear of death, isn’t it? My lingering fear from childhood is attics and cellars. I don’t go into them!

  1. What’s the most frightening thing that’s ever happened to you?

SP: Hard to say… you forget things! When I broke a bunch of ribs I remember lying on the floor and thinking, “This is it… I’ve done something very bad to myself here,” and that was scary… and I choked on something once and couldn’t breathe for about 20 seconds which seemed like a very very long time in that moment, and that was frightening. But I’m sure there have been more external things. Strangers following home stuff. Or as I call it, “living as a woman.” ?

  1. Do you use writing to help deal with your fears and concerns about yourself or the world?

SP: All our books contain some of our own fears I expect. I’m not sure I put my own fears in per se though.

  1. Why do you think readers enjoy being frightened?

SP: Because it’s ‘fake fear’ as it were. Like a rollercoaster isn’t really falling out of the sky, it’s just the feeling without the real terror. If you read a book or watch a movie where terrible things are happening to the characters you get make-believe fear. Maybe it gets you to think of all fear as make-believe in some ways. I also think that kind of false fear and comedy go together – they both create a shock reaction which gets the adrenaline going.

  1. Do you get scared by fiction? If so, what’s your favourite scary book or film and why?

SP: I rarely get scared by fiction now that I’m an adult, but Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter was quietly terrifying! I don’t have a favourite scary film or book – there are too many to list!


I don’t want to give away spoilers this early in proceedings, but Sarah is not the only one of the authors I spoke to who mentioned rollercoasters in their answer to question 5. And I suppose, as phrased, the question here is a little obvious. But Sarah’s answer is totally on the money. We read frightening fiction for that safe jolt of excitement it brings: the feeling of being there with the character, afraid for them, sharing the sensation of danger. At the end, everything is all right. Order is restored from chaos. We unclip the safety strap and exit the ride.

Not always, of course (some of the best scary stories leave us disorientated and lost) and – crucially – it certainly doesn’t happen in real life. I was struck by Sarah’s answer to question 3, about “living as a woman.” There are recurring debates around crime fiction that arrive as regularly and predictably as … well, rollercoasters. One of them is about violence against women. The genre frequently features violence against women, and yet the majority of readers of crime fiction are women. How to explain this?

One obvious way is to dismiss the question for its implicitly sexist premise: I mean, what is it you imagine women to be like that means they shouldn’t enjoy reading this kind of thing? But another answer is that a great deal of crime fiction really does address the kind of situations, fears and horrors that women experience. In other words, it’s often a rollercoaster through familiar scenery. The best of it raises questions, explores ideas, provokes understanding and anger, and often concludes with justice that’s all too often absent in the real world. So perhaps a different question isn’t “why would you want to read that?” but “why wouldn’t you?”

Thank you so much to Sarah for taking the time to answer my questions. Next post, I talk to Steve Cavanagh.

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