Sarah Lotz’s The Three could very well be the SF thriller of the year. When four planes crash at the same time, three survivors are found; each of them children. As the media circus swarms around them, different groups find different agendas. Are they the horsemen of the apocalypse, alien invaders, or are they simply three children who have been through a terrible ordeal?
We spoke to Lotz about her novel, why she’s drawn to horror and if we are seeing a boom in South African genre fiction.
What was the initial seed of the idea for The Three?
I always wanted to write about an air crash and plane crashes, a) because I’m flight-phobic and b) because I’m completely fascinated by it. My husband and I for years have been completely obsessed with air crash investigation, and also the way, immediately when there’s a crash, how it’s all over the news. Continually. And I wanted to look at why that was, why are we all so, particularly with air crashes and also to a certain extent I noticed the same thing with cruise ships as well, as soon as there’s that kind of disaster, it does dominate the news. Almost to a bigger extent than a natural disaster. So that was really the seed of the book.
There are several different narrators in the book and they’ve all got their own agendas, and it’s also a book within a book. Were you drawn to the idea of unreliable narrators?
Yeah, I love that concept because obviously if you’ve read World War Z you can see I was pretty heavily influenced by that book, it really made a massive impression on me, and I loved that idea. I loved the idea that you don’t quite know if these stories are actually true. And we all put our own spin on the truth and we all see things in different ways, so the fact is that these people in effect could all be lying. Especially how [the book’s author] Elspeth manipulates the interviews as well, and puts them together, that’s also for sensationalist purposes.
Also the other thing was, I think this was one of the hardest things to do, was the fact, for example, the Japanese sections, they all had to be written as if they were written in translation, so I had to be very aware of how they would be in the original Japanese and then, if it’s an American translator, how he would translate the idioms etc, so there was a double double layer which really did my head in actually for quite a while!
Was there a lot of that kind of research? It’s set in several different countries, there are the chatroom segments…
Oh gosh, absolutely, I really did delve quite deeply. The conspiracy theory stuff as well, I really did spend quite a lot of time in the murky depths of the internet, which was quite…it was fascinating.
I went to Japan because I’d been there years ago but every city has its own vibe and I really needed to kind of re-experience that. And then I also went to the suicide forest [Aokigahara], I actually took my mum there! We looked around there and picked up the atmosphere and it was absolutely incredible. We were the only people there, it was snowing and there were signs that people had been there and the feeling that maybe 50 metres deeper inside that forest there was somebody who had ended there life was incredibly powerful and disturbing.
And the Christianity aspect of it, I actually only came up with that idea after I’d thought of having more than one plane crash, and then I think it jumped to what is always fascinating about these terrible tragedies is the survivors of them. What if there were three or four survivors, and then the immediate jump was ‘Well what if they were the four horsemen of the apocalypse?’ Which sounded like completely crazy and then I started looking into prophecy theory and the rapture and it really all seemed to just fit. And I started looking deeper deeper into it and how Christian fundamentalism feeds into American politics, especially in 2012. So it all kind of led on, and I read Revelation again, I read all those [Rapture] novels, they’re some of the best selling books in the entire world, all about the rapture, a fictionalised series. So I read all of that and a lot of non-fiction about prophecy theory as well, which is incredibly complex but fascinating.
The different voices are all totally convincing; from the English luvvie to the American bible-basher. Was that difficult, to really get those voices down?
I’d spent quite a lot of time in Texas before so I had that kind of voice, and that was a real difficulty because there’s such a fine line between falling into caricature, but the American voices were by far the hardest for me to do. I mean, I was really, really lucky that Anne Perry, my editor, is American and she’s brilliant. So she had no problem pulling me back on that. For the African sections at well, I’ve got a lot of friends who live down the road from me, hundreds of people read the manuscript just to make sure that the idioms were correct, that I wasn’t stepping on any toes, same with the American section, so I did have a lot of backup for that as well! I was really scared that I was going to, and I’m sure I got things wrong as well, but I really didn’t want to offend people more than I knew I was already going to, especially with the religious element.
Again the editing was very very useful for that because Anne could see where we needed a little bit more of that and where we needed a little bit less, that kind of distancing, so that was really really helpful. I did know right at the beginning because I am primarily, I would say I’m a horror writer rather than a thriller, even though, I suppose, it’s an amalgamation of the two genres but I definitely…I love The Omen, I mean, I grew up with that movie, I just, things like that and The Shining all very strong influences on the novel, yeah.
Has horror always been the genre that you’ve been drawn to?
I’ve been reading it since I was a kid and I love the element of a safe fear. I really love it now, especially as I live in South Africa where there is a real fear a lot of the time, you know, because the violence statistics are just so massive that being able to feel that in a safe way, like “I know that the boogey-man isn’t going to come and get me, I know that there’s not necessarily some twitching creature under the bed, but I can feel that fear.” Just the kind of safe thrill. You know, like riding a rollercoaster or whatever. The imagination aspect as well; what’s going to happen next. That’s the element of all horror, really, the what if and what’s coming next. It’s quite addictive I think, that sort of the thrill!
You also write with Louis Greenberg as SL Grey and your daughter Savannah as Lily Herne. Do you enjoy the process of collaborative writing?
I do lean on my daughter a lot when I’m doing my own solo stuff because she’s brilliant at plotting, she’s a great sounding board. But basically, writing collaboratively, I know a lot of people think it’s double the work and a lot of hassle but for me, it’s nothing but a learning experience and, to be quite honest it’s half the graft, really. I don’t actually think I would have had the skill to write The Three at all and pull it off in any kind of way if I hadn’t been writing with Louis, because I learnt an awful lot with him for the SL Grey books. Savannah, I’m quite rubbish with teen dialogue and she’s really helped me along with that as well. So it is of course a different process but at the same time I’ve always got a back-up. My husband’s brilliant, he reads everything I write so I don’t actually feel that even writing the solo novels is a lonely thing. Lauren Beukes and I are really good friends, she reads all of my stuff and I read all of her stuff so if I get stuck she’s always there to help me out and I’m there to help her out. The writing community in Cape Town’s amazing. Everyone’s got each others’ backs.
Lauren Beukes had her huge success with The Shining Girls last year and we’re seeing really exciting new writers like Charlie Human (Apocalypse Now Now); does it feel like there is a boom in South African SF at the moment?
Yeah, a bit of a boom. Yeah, there’s a load of stuff coming out, Lauren’s off. We used to work together, she used to be my boss, we wrote this science fiction cartoon together for years which was brilliant, it was South Africa’s first sci-fi cartoon, it was really fun. And then she took off and basically went into the stratosphere and I think that in a weird kind of way gave people permission that this could be done and you could write about South Africa in new and exciting ways.
It’s still a social critique because I don’t think you can write a South African story necessarily without touching on some kind of political thing, because it’s all around us, wherever we are it’s around us. So I think that’s part of it. And publishers are becoming more open to it as well. When Louis and I wrote The Mall, we had to go overseas because there wouldn’t have been a South African publisher that would have touched a horror novel. Even though it was set in South Africa, so now they’re more open to it. And there’s really some super stuff coming out, it’s really exciting.
You’ve written about the “cultural cringe” of South African writers (see The World SF Blog); do you think that’s dissipating?
Yeah, I hope so. I think we’ve got some brilliant crime writers like Mike Nichol, Margie Orford, Deon Meyer, there’s a whole string of them, who are actually very big overseas, a lot of them are very big in European countries. Like, Mike is a god in France and Deon as well. So they’re also sort of genre trailblazers in a sense. So I think people are kind of, I hope so as well, thinking that South African fiction is not necessarily as heavy as it used to be. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, we’ve got a brilliant literary tradition, but at the same time we needed the other side of it as well, we needed a gateway literature. I think it’s lessening a bit but we’ll just to see.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m writing…it’s not really a sequel to The Three but it’s kind of connected tangentially to the first book, so I’m just finishing off the rewrites on that and just polishing up and then Louis and I are writing another book and that’s it for now at the moment. Still busy. I love doing it, I wouldn’t have it any other way, but I can’t remember the last time I had a day off…since 2006.
Finally, can you tell us which author has been the biggest inspiration for you?
Oh yeah, Stephen King. Stephen King. I really have been reading him my entire life, and I think for years it was quite interesting how he was really undervalued, partly because he said that thing about him being the Big Mac and fries of the literary world and of course he was completely wrong about that. In terms of storytelling and characterisation he’s number one as far as I’m concerned. I mean occasionally there’s the odd clunky sentence but fair enough, so what? And ideas and work ethic as well, work ethic has been a big one for me as well.
Do you ever get people saying to you when are you going to grow up and not be so Stephen King orientated? I get that a lot, my academic friends say “You read those when you were a kid.” You can do both, that’s the thing!
The Three is available now at Amazon.co.uk.