Sarah Lotz is one of the key members in the South African horror and sci-fi community, which has come to dominate the genre, much like Scandinavian crime writers have taken over murder mysteries. She’s a screenwriter and novelist working in Cape Town in a house with her family and rescue animals and has two solo horror novels, as well as a slew of collaborative work with cowriters—including her daughter, Savannah—which they release under various pen names.
As a child, Lotz was raised on horror and disaster movies, which left a dark imprint on her imagination. She says, “Growing up in the ’70s, 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.”
In her youth, books were also not off-limits subject matter. “My dad had a huge and eclectic collection—everything from Philip K. Dick to Jackie Collins to Chandler to Tolstoy. I read the lot. He never censored my reading, and I’ll be forever grateful to him for encouraging me to read The Wasp Factory and The Shining when I was far too young.”
This influenced her first solo horror novel The Three about simultaneous airplane crashes in different parts of the world, where the only survivor in each accident is a child, who changes utterly from their former selves. Lotz says, “I’ve always wanted to write a novel about plane crashes and the media’s fascination with these tragedies. I’m flight phobic, which is probably why I’m obsessed with air travel.”
She followed The Three up with Day Four, about a cruise ship disaster where the action is happening simultaneously with the story from The Three, and that novel was written as she coped with post-traumatic stress disorder from a horrific event in her real life. “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,” says Lotz. “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, 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.”
Lotz likes to write in her pajamas while under the influence of massive amounts of caffeine and nicotine. She says, “Most of my writing is done in a rickety attic space above my bedroom in my tiny tumbledown Cape Town cottage. It’s full of junk, half-finished paintings, and page proofs. The wall is scrawled with notes and reminders, including a detailed sketch of a cruise ship deck plan. There’s usually a cat and at least two dogs up there with me (one or more on my lap). I can write anywhere, though. I’m usually on a deadline, which is brilliant for eradicating any highfalutin notions about only being able to write under ideal conditions.”
In the novel-writing process, Lotz’s favorite part is right at the beginning, doing all of the outlining and research for a new project, but that doesn’t make the writing stale for her. “I love the planning and plotting stage of a new book. Starting a new work is simultaneously scary and exhilarating as I really get a kick out of discussing character motivations, plot ideas, settings, etc.,” she says. “After that, I enjoy the actual writing. My stories and novels never turn out as I initially think they will, so the process is always surprising and never dull.”
Lotz’s main influence as a writer was Stephen King, which she has been reading since she was a kid. “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,” says Lotz. “In terms of storytelling and characterization, he’s number one as far as I’m concerned. I mean occasionally there’s the odd clunky sentence, but fair enough, so what?”
She still reads Stephen King and a lot of mainstream horror. Lotz says Peter Straub, Dan Simmons, China Mieville, Neil Gaiman, Joe Hill, David Moody, and Sarah Pinborough have been on her reading list lately. “The last time I was really scared was after I’d finished Adam Nevill’s story ‘Florrie’ in Jonathan Oliver’s awesome House of Fear anthology—it gave me nightmares. And while not truly horrific, I find photographer and artist Charlie White’s work genuinely disturbing (check out Understanding Joshua or Monsters).
Sarah plans on following up her disaster novels The Three and Day Four with something that will tie them all together, making them a loose trilogy. “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,” says Lotz. “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!”