t’s already being hyped as the new The Girl on the Train. Sarah Pinborough’s first grip-lit thriller, Behind Her Eyes, out next month, has had the fastest number of downloads on Netgalley, the publishing website for reviewers and bloggers, at one point averaging 100 every three minutes. And it’s been the talk of the Sainsbury’s locker rooms after the supermarket’s head book buyer left out sample proof copies for the rest of the staff to road test. “He told me that colleagues who usually talk about TV were coming up to him, saying, ‘Have you read that book yet, I really need to talk to someone about it’,” says Pinborough, her eyes lighting up.
Bought by HarperCollins in a pre-emptive six-figure deal four days before the Frankfurt Book Fair last year, foreign rights have been sold in 21 territories, while film and TV rights are currently being fought over.
At 44 — incidentally the same age as both Paula Hawkins and Gillian Flynn — and, like Hawkins, childless, Pinborough, who was born in Milton Keynes and recently moved back there, has already had a successful career in publishing, having written more than 20 young adult and fantasy novels, as well as screenplays for the BBC, including episodes of Torchwood.
But Behind Her Eyes looks set to be her breakthrough novel, a psycho-thriller for women that goes right to the dark heart of domestic noir with its themes of middle-class marital affairs, girl-on-girl jealousy, abuse and domestic violence, all set in London. Notwithstanding its twisty, supernatural — and frankly preposterous — ending, already earning itself #wtfthatending on Twitter, much of it is autobiographical.
“I wanted to write about relationships, especially affairs,” says Pinborough, who readily admits to having had a few herself. Dressed in ripped jeans and a loose sweater she has a carefree, girlish manner, laughing easily when she talks.
“I like the flirtation, the excitement and the passion of an affair but I’m really shit at the long haul, although I now realise they cause an awful lot of pain for no result,” she admits. “We’re still quite puritanical about them but everyone seems to do it. I don’t want to sound like an awful husband-stealer but I’m single and nearly every man who ever hits on me is already in a relationship.”
Pinborough clearly prefers dating married men to singletons, or did until recently. Why? “If I’m honest it’s because I don’t have to commit to anything or take any responsibility.” Her brief marriage — which took place in Las Vegas when she was 28 — was just one of many “poor choices” that has left her feeling cynical. “I also think that a woman would rather her husband was dead than sleeping around. If I was married, I would,” she says with a sudden glint in her eye.
One thing grip-lit has done quite definitively is to skewer the notion that only men behave badly and women are always the victims. Girls have gone ghastly too. We can get every bit as drunk, be just as violent and promiscuous as men. And we are jealous, ooh yes.
In Behind Her Eyes the two female lead characters (the male protagonist’s slim, cool wife and his plump, exuberant assistant/mistress) endlessly compare themselves to each another, coveting what the other has, while simultaneously becoming best friends. You only have to go to a girl’s boarding school, says Pinborough, as she did, to see how much more spiteful girls are than boys.
More recently, when her friend’s husband cheated on her, it took the two of them just 20 minutes to track “the other woman” down on the internet. “My friend wanted to know who she was and what she looked like. It was far more about her than about her own husband; he was just the pawn in the middle.” Worse still, “we implicitly don’t trust each other”.
So how does she square that with calling herself a feminist? She laughs and flicks back her long blonde hair. “Yes, it’s terrible isn’t it — and that’s part of feminism’s problem. This isn’t the most feminist book but it is about women’s dynamics and our fascination with each other. We’re conditioned to compare ourselves to other women all the time.”
On the other hand, she says, “I’m very much, like, we’ve all got to help each other. If there’s a new female writer I’m much more likely to read her book than if it’s by a new male writer.” Presumably if only for comparison purposes.
Grip-lit’s other central theme is that you can never truly know another person, however close to them you think you are. “Anybody’s life is probably a mess of secrets and lies when you boil it right down. We can never see who someone really is underneath the skin,” says one of her characters. How true that turns out to be. “And that’s what people have to make their peace with when they sign up for marriage,” says Pinborough.
The descriptions of controlling behaviour and abuse in the story are based on a relationship she had when she was 19. It was with a fellow student at the West London Institute (now Brunel), where she was studying history and English and they had moved in together. “He started out being what felt like very protective. But then we had an argument and he sat across me, squeezed my eyes into my head and spat on me.”
The relationship continued for a year in spite of violent outbursts. On one occasion he banged Pinborough’s head against the sink, on another he broke her rib, and when he went out to his band rehearsals he would ring the landline every hour to check she hadn’t gone out. “I felt awful. I stopped seeing my friends but then he’d be all apologetic and say, ‘Look what you made me do, you know how I am’.” It wasn’t until he threw a beer bottle at her head while she was on the phone to his mother — who told Pinborough to get out — that she found the courage to leave.
“It’s easier to get into controlling relationships when you’re young because you’re much more eager to please and controlling men pick up on that. If they like to make decisions for you at the start of a relationship it can be a warning sign. I’m sure what happened to me has affected my issues around commitment.”
Pinborough’s father was a diplomat and the family lived in Syria until she was eight, when she was sent to board at Bedford High School. She describes herself as “the naughtiest girl in the school” and was thrown out at 16, after which she went to Edinburgh Academy for Boys.
In her early twenties she managed a strip club in Soho and later became head of English at Lea Manor High School in Luton. She has been a full-time writer for nine years. Her last novel, a YA horror story called 13 Minutes is in production with Michael “Fifty Shades” De Luca for Netflix and she is writing her next book as part of this two-book deal.
One of her biggest thrills — and who can blame her — is that her literary hero Stephen King follows her on Twitter and once expressed concern that she might be drinking too much. If Behind her Eyes takes off she’ll move back to London and buy a house for herself and her new love, a rescue dog called Ted. “It’s been the biggest life change and for the first week, I thought: ‘What have I done? I’m so used to doing what I want and now I’ve got this creature who depends on me’.” It turns out that even dogs can be controlling too.