When Stephen King praised Sarah Lotz’s previous novel, The Three, calling it “hard to put down and vastly entertaining,” she was astonished (“it blew my mind”) and did not expect it to happen again. Yet when her new novel, Day Four, came out, King called it “really good… the cruise ship from hell.”
“I still don’t believe it,” says Lotz on the phone from the UK. “I thought you only get that lucky once in your life.”
Some might call it luck. Others might say her good fortune is the product of tenacity, talent and a remarkable lack of pretension.
Lotz has published 16 books, some under her own name and some as collaborations: urban horror novels with Louis Greenberg under the name SL Grey; young-adult zombie novels with her daughter Savannah under the name Lily Herne; and choose-your-own-adventure erotica with Paige Nick and Helen Moffett under the pseudonym Helena S Paige.
“The thing with collaborations is you can’t have an ego,” she says. “You’ve got to dump that at the door. It’s different working on my own. When I’m working on a book I don’t think about anything else. I’m probably the worst person to be married to as far as writers go, because all I talk about and all I think about are the characters and the stories. But my husband’s brilliant with that. And the dogs are great as well.”
The Three dealt with four plane crashes that left three child survivors at the nexus of frenzied speculation. Day Four is not a sequel, although it makes oblique reference to The Three. It is an even creepier novel, set on a cruise ship that has lost touch with the world. As conditions worsen, so too does the behaviour of those on board.
While completing Day Four, Lotz began work with Greenberg on her new SL Grey novel, Under Ground (also published this month). She says writing the sort of books she does often gives her nightmares, but this time was worse, partly because she and her family had recently been attacked at their home in Noordhoek, though none of them suffered physical harm.
“I had just been through one of those horrible home invasions, and to be wWriting a horror story while dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder was such an intense experience. I still can’t work out if the writing was good therapy or if it fed into the fear.”
Her books might give readers sleepless nights, but part of their appeal is the strength of the characters and the authenticity of the settings. “Writing is a massive excuse for me to go off and do research,” she laughs.
Day Four required her to go on a cruise aimed at the lower end of the market. “It’s all about cabaret and duty-free,” she says. “On top you’ve got all these people chowing down, eating as much as they can, buying as much crap as they can and drinking as much alcohol as they can, whereas down below there’s a huge workforce who are working for buggerall, supporting extended families and away from home for months, and nobody on the top is aware of this – or if they know they don’t care.”
Her favourite character in Day Four, she says, is the Filipino cleaner Althea.
“Most of the workers on the cruise I went on were from the Philippines, and after some coaxing they told me their stories. I like making that cultural shift. If I make a mistake I make a mistake, but because Althea is in the service industry, and I worked for years as a waitress, I know that kind of façade you have to put on when you’re serving someone, so I really liked writing her.”
Lotz’s own story is the stuff of which novels are made. She grew up in Wolverhampton in the UK, then ran away from home and lived on the streets of Paris. Her first novel, Pompidou Posse (published in South Africa in 2008 and about to be re-released by her UK publisher) describes this experience, which she says was “very exciting and very grim”. She moved to Israel, where she met her first husband, and in 1991 they moved to South Africa. “We had zero cash,” says Lotz. “We lived in a township and all over the country.”
She settled in Cape Town and lived there until last year, when she moved to the UK to be close to Savannah, 23, who studied screenwriting at the University of East Anglia but wants to join the British police-dog unit.
“We’re here for now,” says Lotz. “We haven’t decided what we’re going to do next.”
Whatever it is, she will be writing. “Writing is a long game,” she says. “It’s not just about getting one book out. If you want to be a writer, you’ve got to be tenacious, and you’ve got to be generous.”