Sarah Lotz is a screenwriter and novelist with a fondness for the macabre and fake names. Among other things, she writes urban horror novels under the name S.L. Grey with author Louis Greenberg; a YA pulp-fiction zombie series, Deadlands, with her daughter, Savannah, under the pseudonym Lily Herne; and quirky erotica novels with authors Helen Moffett and Paige Nick under the name Helena S. Paige. She lives in Cape Town with her family and other animals.
Adam Morgan is an author, lecturer, and screenwriter in Chicago. His writing has appeared in The Denver Post, Bookpage, and elsewhere, and his next book will be published on August 17, 2015.
Last year, Sarah Lotz’s globe-spanning thriller The Three–about four simultaneous plane crashes and their only survivors, three children who may or may not still be human–was met with unanimous praise for its subtle use of horror and fantasy in a realistic contemporary setting. Imagine the 9/11 Commission Report as told by Shirley Jackson.
This week, Day Four, Sarah’s sequel to The Three, was released in the United States. She was kind enough to speak with me at length about the book, writing under the duress of PTSD, as well as an as-yet-untitled third book that will introduce the “origins” of the supernatural entities in the series.
Adam Morgan: Do you see DAY FOUR as more of a companion piece to THE THREE than a direct sequel?
Sarah Lotz: Yes – I knew I wanted to write a novel set on a cruise ship that would be connected to The Three, but admittedly I hadn’t worked out all the details from the get-go. As the events in it run parallel to the action in The Three it is more of a companion piece, I hope. Added together the books provide all the answers to any questions readers might have about the plot or fate of the characters.
Sarah Lotz: I wanted to go at this one with a fresh approach. Day Four is far less global in scope as I really wanted to focus on the claustrophobic sense of being trapped in a confined environment with complete strangers, pretty much my idea of hell!
AM: I’ve read that you’re phobic of air travel, but what about boat travel?
Sarah Lotz: It makes me sound like a massive wuss, but I really am phobic. Growing up in the 70’s, I was very influenced by disaster movies like The Poseidon Adventure and Jaws. I think those kinds of movies and books help breed phobias, especially when you’re a kid and you’ve got so much imagination. For me, it’s all about claustrophobia. It’s all about being stuck in a situation with people.
AM: So it’s being stuck in close quarters with other people that terrifies you?
SL: Yes. And it’s not that I’m anti-people. I don’t think you can be, as a writer. You have to be fascinated by people, or else you won’t be able to write anything. It’s just the unpredictability of being trapped with a whole bunch of people and you have no clue how they’re going to react. It’s fear of the unknown and of what people will do. I’ve been in a lot of life-threatening situations before, and it hasn’t gone well.
AM: You’ve been in a lot of life-threatening situations?
SL: I’ve had a very strange life. While I was writing Day Four, I was in one of those violent home invasions in South Africa. We woke up and there were four guys standing around the bed with guns and knives in balaclavas. Coming out of that, I had a bit of PTSD. Writing this book, which is all about fear, was an absolutely intense experience. I haven’t really mentioned this before in other interviews, but I think it’s important because that’s what was happening as I was writing Day Four, and to some extent it’s connected. Even though it was an absolute nightmare, as a writer, as I was going through it I was thinking, “How am I going to use this?” In every life-or-death experience I’ve ever had, I’ve always thought about how I’m going to use it in my writing. It’s kind of a coping mechanism.
AM: I can tell from both THE THREE and DAY FOUR that your writing process involves a lot of research. What kind of research did you do for DAY FOUR?
SL: I always go overboard (no pun intended) when I do my research. I can be obsessive, which I’m not sure is an entirely good thing! I read countless books, blogs and accounts written by ex and current cruise ship workers, and before I started writing the novel I stocked up on anti-nausea pills and went on a cruise. As I’d chosen to focus on the lower end of the market, I picked a four-day cut-price jaunt from Miami to Mexico, a similar route to the one taken by the fictional Beautiful Dreamer vessel in the novel. Several staff members on board were kind enough to share their stories and backgrounds with me, and I was shocked at the long hours many of the lower level staff-members work, the lack of rights they have, and the staggering amount of crap and rudeness they put up with from passengers (I witnessed a lot of this).
There’s a real sense of class hierarchy on these type of ships: Life for the majority of the staff below the waterline is vastly different to the glitz and neon that passengers experience, and for many of the workers–especially those who are recruited from so-called developing nations–it’s a far cry from the stereotypical image of a slick white-uniformed officer enjoying a carefree life travelling around the world shagging and slurping cocktails after hours. I tried to bring this across in the novel. I didn’t want to focus solely on the hard-partying passengers or the officers at the top of the cruise ship hierarchy. Delving into the details about how crime on board is investigated was also an eye-opener. It’s clearly in the cruise companies’ interests to keep this side of things out of the media. Also, as one of the pivotal characters on board is a psychic medium–the cruise’s guest celebrity–I waded through a vast number of biographies written by mediums and psychics and spoke to people who work hard to expose ‘psychic’ charlatans who exploit the bereaved and desperate. I also learned how to cold read, which is surprisingly easy and is now my party trick.
AM: Those supernatural beings are creepy as hell. Why do they meddle in human affairs? Is it akin to asking why a child crushes an anthill?
SL: Nicely put! It’s possible that the three entities (for want of a better word, or there will be spoilers!) are motivated by a very human desire to destroy, and to simply see what happens next. I don’t think they are necessarily evil per se (whatever evil actually is). I can’t say any more than that!
AM: How do you balance mystery with your readers’ appetite for answers? Take a story like Lost, for instance. At first everyone complained about how ambiguous it was, and then when it delivered answers, a lot of people hated those answers. Including me.
SL: I think all the answers are there. But the question is, how much do you give? I don’t want it to be too overt, because you lose the mystery, and you want the book to carry on after the page. But at the same time, I don’t want to be too opaque. It’s a real balance, and honestly…I don’t know if I got it right this time. The answers are embedded in the text, they just don’t have neon lights. Because really, who wants that? Probably a lot of people, actually…
AM: You use a lot of different voices and perspectives in these books. How do you approach writing from those perspectives?
SL: Well, say I’m writing Althea from the Philippines. I spoke to a lot of women on cruise ships who were doing Althea’s job. And then I’d read a lot of literature about the Philippines, as much as I could get my hands on. Often the advice you get can be contradictory. Especially during The Three, when I was writing a character from Japan, someone would tell me I’d got it totally straight, and someone else would say it’s not right. But I think what it comes down to is that everyone’s human. Whether you’re writing about someone across the gender divide, or from a different background, or a different culture, or a different sexuality, it doesn’t matter, everyone’s human.
AM: Do you have a favorite character in DAY FOUR?
SL: Althea is my favorite. I really identified with her. For years I worked as a waitress in the service industry, and dealt with a lot of assholes. That smile you’ve got to put on, that double-narrative you have that people never see, the pressure that you’ve got to make money and work hard, otherwise everything will collapse.
AM: What about in THE THREE?
SL: Probably the English guy, I love writing snobby characters. They’re always the most fun to write. Me and Louis often have unlikeable characters, and we get told off a lot for it, but the challenge is always to keep someone reading when you’re writing an unlikeable character. Can you pull them through the book? They’ve got to root for that character even when they’re a complete bastard.
AM: Are you working on any more (solo) fiction now? Have we heard the last story from THE THREE universe?
SL: There will be an origin story, not a sequel, that will wrap everything up, just not for my next book, because I think I need a break from it. But I’ve got it planned. Even if the publishers aren’t willing to publish it, I’ll write it, so that the people who are interested in the mystery behind the story will get complete and utter answers. And I can tell you the third one won’t have a number in the title!