How do you choose your numerous pen names (each one for a different genre in which you write?)
The S. L. Grey pen name was actually chosen by my co-writer Louis Greenberg. It’s “Sarah” then “Louis” and he wanted “Grey” because it’s the color of dead skin. Grim, but we are horror writers after all. And Lily Herne is the name I write with when I write with my daughter. It’s my Nan’s name. Helena S. Paige, the trashy erotica novels I write, is named after the three of us: Helena is Helen Moffett [another co-writer], S. is me, and Paige is Paige Nick [yet another co-writer]. So nothing too outrageous.
I’m impressed that you’re able to write in so many different genres, but I’m also impressed that your agent and publishers encourage it. I have many writer friends who wanted to branch out into different styles but were told not to, as it would break up their readership.
Yeah, I mean, I agree with you. There’s such a big drive to pigeonhole writers, due to marketing. But writing under different names definitely helps. And because the genres are completely different. The readership tends to be different. There aren’t a lot of people who are reading my erotica novels and also my Y.A. It’s not as if I’m writing crime and then thrillers…though I do that, as well. That would be a similar readership. There may be an overlap with my own stuff [written under her real name] and the S. L. Grey. Those are similar horror genres. But it helps that I’m diverse.
Does one genre come more easily to you than others?
I love the diversity but I’d definitely say I’m a horror writer. That’s what I always wanted to do and that’s how I classify myself. As far as the erotica is concerned, I never in a million years thought I’d do anything like that, I just sort of had an idea for a concept, but that’s why I collaborated with two others writers—because it’s so completely out of my comfort zone. I knew I couldn’t do it. They did the majority of the writing on that, I’m really the silent partner in that team. But a horror writer, definitely.
What prompted you to start writing under your own name?
My first novel was Pompidou Posse, which I wrote in 2007. It’s an autobiographical novel, like most first novels tend to be. I lived for a year on the streets of Paris, as a beggar and a fire-eater. I really needed to write the story before I lost it, so that was my first novel under my name. Then I started dabbling in crime, and then the collaborations. I also think the public don’t really like to have two names on a novel, it puts people off. I mean, Stephen King and Peter Straub…obviously that’s fine. But anyone else…
What are some formative horror novels for you?
Oh gosh, Noah, absolutely! Stephen King is a massive influence. I’d probably say Carrie, for me. I remember reading that at a very young age. Totally identified with the main character. I’d probably also say The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks. It made a huge impression on me. My dad gave it to me when I was very young, it had just been published…he probably shouldn’t have given it to me! I’ve never forgotten that. The ending, the narration, the originality. Oh gosh, if I have to pick one more, I’d say Coco by Peter Straub. His narrative…he’s such a literary writer. His language is so beautiful. That showed me that you could do that in horror, as well. King is a lot about the story, the character, the feel of the book, while Straub is about the language.
When you lived on the streets of Paris, what was the day-to-day experience like?
I did it because I ran away from England after getting in a bit of trouble. I went with a friend of mine and we ran out of money in three days. We had no way of eating or sleeping. We ended up hooking on with a group of clochards, which is French for “tramps.” We were sort of runaways from the cops in Britain. Day to day it was never the same. Being filthy all the time, filthy, filthy, filthy. So much that you lose your sense of smell. It becomes a way of life. What pushed me over the edge and stopped me was that I was getting into drugs and I had to get out of it. It was becoming dangerous. When you’re actually sitting on a corner, begging, even though I’d only do that three hours a day, you really see humanity, how you get treated. There’s nothing quite like that to strip away who you are. It makes you feel so vulnerable. Then moving to South Africa, there’s so much poverty around, where people don’t have a choice. You see, I did have a choice. I could have decided to go home. But lots of people don’t have a choice. It’s helped me see exactly what a terror life could be. Sorry, I babbled on a bit!
Describe your morning routine.
I don’t have a morning routine because I’m nocturnal. I’m normally up round about 1pm. I would get up at 1, make coffee, and literally go straight upstairs to my attic room, play three games of Spider Solitaire, go onto Twitter a bit, and then just write. I’ll break for supper and watch some TV for an hour and a half, then I’ll write straight through to 3 or 4am. And I do that every day.
What do you hope to produce each day?
I don’t have a word count. Sometimes it can be 1000 words, sometimes 200. I don’t worry about that at all. Sometimes I’m researching, sometimes just thinking about it. It’s not that laid out for me. I don’t want to say organic, as that sounds artsy, but…
Describe your routine when conceiving of a book and its plot, before the writing begins. Do you like to map out your books ahead of time, or just let it flow?
It varies from book to book. The next S. L. Grey book is a murder mystery, so it’s got to be carefully plotted out. You’ve got the dénouement at the end, and it’s got to lead up to that. The Three, that plot was built on a series of what-ifs that grew and grew until I had to stop myself, because it was getting crazy.
What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
Persistence is key. You’ll have ups and downs, it won’t happen overnight. If you love it, you won’t stop anyway. If you want practical advice, you can’t do better than Stephen King’s On Writing or Chuck Wendig’s website (www.terribleminds.com). His advice is brilliant, profane, funny, and always on the nose.
What is guaranteed to make you laugh?
I laugh all the time! At inappropriate things, as well. I laugh as a stress relief. And anything that Simon Pegg is in. I’m a big fan.
What is guaranteed to make you cry?
I cry at weird stuff as well. But at the moment, in front of my house, I’ve got an empty paddock where my horse used to live. He died recently. And it makes me quite tearful, even now.
Oh, we’ll skip ahead quickly then. I’ve asked this question of several other writers besides yourself who have written about zombies (Colson Whitehead, Ben Percy, Peter Straub), and it always sounds funny in this context, but here it goes. If you could bring back to life one deceased person, who would it be and why?
That would be Angela Carter. I just adore her writing and I miss her books. There’s nothing new for me to read by her. Very selfish, but I’d like to bring her back, please, thank you.
What is your favorite snack?
Old school. Caffeine and nicotine all the way, until supper.
What kind of coffee and what kind of cigarettes?
This is a terrible thing to admit, but I got a Nespresso machine, which I’ve named George, after George Clooney.
That’s not so terrible.
It is! It’s environmentally seriously unsound. And I have a wonderful electric cigarette.
Tell us something about yourself that is largely unknown and perhaps surprising.
Oh god. I love tattoos but I can’t get one, because my entire body is covered in scars. For years and years I’ve wanted to, but I’ve been unable to, because I’d just look like a big mess!
What would you get and where?
Oh gosh, I think it would be an illustration from Aubrey Beardsley, my favorite illustrator. The beautiful “Sleeping Beauty” illustration, all over me, wrapped around my entire body.
Why did you move to Capetown and what do you like about it particularly?
I love the people, everyone is so open. I feel like I’m on holiday all the time. It’s quite relaxed. But at the same time we’ve got incredible social problems and terrible violence. A month and a half ago my family, in my house, was hit by a home invasion. Four guys burst in with knives and balaclavas. So it is a city of extremes. I’m contradicting myself, but it is a relaxing place to live, but I suppose I will never get bored.
Geez, what does one do if one’s home is invaded?
You just go along with it. It was absolutely terrifying. I wasn’t able to write for about a month. It’s crazy, I know. I’m fine now, you do get over it, but I would say that…well, you’ll never fall into complacency when living in South Africa!
Yikes, well I’ll end with a lighter question. You mentioned that in Paris you were a fire-eater. Don’t think I’ll let that slip by. So what’s your best tip for aspiring fire-eaters the world over?
Yeah, don’t inhale the white spirit!
That could be the title of your future memoir. Thanks so much, Sarah.
Thank you, Noah!