Sarah Pinborough, INSOMNIA: A Novel

Sarah Pinborough, INSOMNIA: A Novel

Zibby is joined by #1 New York Times and Sunday Times bestselling author Sarah Pinborough to discuss her latest novel Insomnia, a heart-pounding, mind-twisting thriller about a successful lawyer who stops being able to sleep and fears she will turn into a monster like her mother. Sarah talks about her journey to becoming a published author and the unexpected, tremendous success of Behind Her Eyes (which you can watch on Netflix!). The two also chat about the books they have read and loved recently!


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Sarah. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Insomnia: A Novel.

Sarah Pinborough: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: This is so timely because I feel like I am often up in the middle of the night. This is something that we all sort of have in common, everyone I talk to. I’m like, I was up from two to five. Well, I was up at four. I couldn’t fall asleep. There’s always something.

Sarah: It’s always women. It’s always women as well. I was in the park this morning with my dog. I saw a woman who lives on my street. She said to me, “Four o’clock this morning.” I was like, “I was four o’clock yesterday. I managed until half five today.” The whole street, we might as well just meet up, all the women, and have a cup of tea at five because we’re all awake. It’s crazy.

Zibby: It is crazy. I do have to say, my husband has terrible insomnia. He’s my one case.

Sarah: Oh, good.

Zibby: Yeah, good.

Sarah: He’s faking it for the team.

Zibby: The one man. Although, I have to say, he doesn’t really talk about it, which means I really should not be talking about it here myself on this podcast. I feel like women are much more likely to wake up and talk about it than men. They’ll just be like, okay, off to do whatever. These are terrible generalizations.

Sarah: Some men have a pride in it as well. It’s like, I only slept for four hours last night. I’m like, wow, I would rather have seven.

Zibby: I love how you take this very common thing and make it part of the backdrop of this story. Not even the backdrop; how insomnia can lead to madness, essentially. What does that even mean? I feel like I can relate to when you’re really tired.

Sarah: It’s amazing. When you research it, it’s crazy. I’ve lacked sleep, but I never go completely without for days. People worry about having no water or food, but no sleep will kill you faster than anything else. Within three days, you’re hallucinating. That’s crazy, isn’t it?

Zibby: It’s true. It almost makes you want to try it, doesn’t it?

Sarah: I know. I remember being a kid and staying up for twenty-four hours when I was nine or ten. A friend of mine, we had a sleepover. We did it. That was hard work at nine. I don’t know how trying to do three days would be. I think I’d pass out.

Zibby: Although, I have to say, when I was going to sleep last night, I told my husband — he’s in LA right now. I was like, “I’ve now been up for twenty hours, so I think I’m going to go sleep.”

Sarah: Don’t you find your heart kind of kicks in as if to say, okay, we’re staying awake, then? You can’t go to sleep. Terrible.

Zibby: I had to read. Can I read this one passage which totally summarizes my headspace when all of these things happen?

Sarah: Go for it.

Zibby: It’s just one of many great descriptions. “I put the kettle on and make a chamomile tea. Maybe I should put vodka in it like Michelle suggested. I stare at the booze cupboard for a moment too long, more tempted than I should be, before turning away. She drank when she didn’t sleep.” Meaning, the character’s mom. “The kettle clicks off, and I pour and then glance at the back door once more as the tea steeps. It is locked, isn’t it? Yes. Yes. I check again. This is ridiculous. This is — I stop myself before the word crazy. This is not crazy. This is a blip. Too much on my mind. Maybe it’s even hormonal, the start of the runup to the change. I roll my head around on my shoulders and then sip the hot drink. I look at the clock. Five past two. Creeping closer to Monday morning already.”

Sarah: We’ve all been there.

Zibby: Maybe I should back up so you can tell listeners the plot of Insomnia.

Sarah: I’m terrible at this, so I’m going to apologize to your listeners in advance. It’s basically the story of a woman called Emma, who is a very successful businesswoman. She’s a lawyer. She’s married to a stay-at-home dad. She has a seventeen-year-old daughter and a five-year-old son. On the surface, everything is perfect, but she’s pedaling hard under the water and is trying to manage everything. Her husband’s getting a little bit unhappy with being at home all the time, problems with the kids. As she approaches her fortieth birthday, she stops sleeping, which for anybody else would be a blip, but for Emma, her own mother stopped sleeping about two weeks before her fortieth birthday and did something really, really terrible. She always implied to Emma that the same thing would happen to her. Emma is now in this cycle of, am I going crazy, or is someone messing with me? Is it possible that both things are happening? She is the ultimate unreliable narrator because even she doesn’t trust herself. I’ve tried to make serious points out of a couple of tongue-in-cheek things I have with women. I just turned fifty, so I’m a decade ahead of Emma. Women, we grow up with this fear of turning forty and getting older. It’s conditioned to feel like this is some big change when it’s just a number. Also, we have a real fear of turning into our mothers, which I think is also kind of weird because until you’re twelve, your mom’s the center of your universe. Then suddenly, you’re kicking back. This poor woman who’s done everything for you becomes the last person in the world you want to be like, which is very strange. I have taken those two themes and played around in a more serious way with them.

Zibby: It’s so true. I’m forty-six. I was afraid of forty. Although, not a hundred percent afraid because my mother had always told me that her life got good in her forties. I’m like, what’s going to happen in my forties? Actually, my forties have been great. I will say, I look at pictures, and people are like, even other people, they’re like, you guys look like twins. I’m like, no.

Sarah: You hear yourself saying something that sounds like your mom would say. You’re like, no, I’m much younger and freer. I stopped saying judgmental things. That’s my mother’s .

Zibby: Meanwhile, my mother has a younger-looking face, I feel like, at this point than I do because of the work she’s doing. She’s just blessed. It’s very funny as we circle the age drain here together. You did have one little passage — then I’ll stop reading. You said, “Forty has always loomed like a specter in my life, more so –” Hold on, I can’t even read. Case in point.

Sarah: You’ve got vodka in that tea, haven’t you?

Zibby: No vodka, but I can’t read. My glasses are now on. “Forty has always loomed like a specter in my life, more so for me than for Phoebe because Phoebe was never called the mad child by our mother. It was me she’d whispered to sometimes that I’d go mad like her, hissed in my face as her fingers dug too tightly into my arms, that I had the bad blood too. It ran in our family.”

Sarah: That’s making all other families seem quite normal.

Zibby: You took things that were going on in your life. You turned them into fiction. You’ve written many books, best-selling author. How did this whole thing start? When did you start? Take me back.

Sarah: Oh, god, way back in ’83.

Zibby: Way back. Go back in the day.

Sarah: I think anybody who writes for a living has always been a writer from childhood. It’s the kind of job, if you’re lucky, you have success. If you’re very lucky, you can make a living. A lot of people, it doesn’t work that way, but they still write books. It’s got to be in your blood to do it. I always wrote short stories and bits and pieces, but it was only when I was about thirty, I sat down to write a whole book. I wrote a horror novel because I grew up with Stephen King, Dean Koontz, who you had on. I grew up on horror, The Pan Book of Ghost Stories, and all these kind of things. I was always scared of the dark. I never slept as a child. I started out writing horror for the American market for a company called Leisure that are no longer in existence. They were a mass market paperback publisher. I learned a few things there. Then I’ve just continued on. That was nearly twenty years ago now. It’s crazy. I still think I’m new. Then obviously, Behind Her Eyes came along. That changed everything for me.

Zibby: Tell me about that. What was that like?

Sarah: It was a really interesting journey because I was with two other publishers, Orion and Quercus. I owed each a book. I was at this big writers’ convention in London at the O2 Centre. It was really massive. I was hearing people getting really good deals and stuff. I’ve never been a person to be envious of other deals because one person’s success does not stop anybody else, as you know. I was thinking, oh, god, am I ever going to have my moment? Is my shelf life coming to an end? If you’re not getting paid enough, you don’t get the marketing. You know how it goes. The machine has to work in your favor. I thought, well, I’m getting these mid-list deals, so I’m never going to break out. Are they going to stop buying my books? Then there was an editor at HarperCollins called Natasha Bardon, who I knew socially. She texted me. She said, “Do you want to come for dinner with Joe Abercrombie and a couple of people tonight?” I was like, “I think I’m going to go home. I’m a bit tired.” She said, “Why don’t we meet for a coffee now?” We met and obviously had a beer, not a coffee.

She then said, “We want to publish you at HarperCollins. We don’t think you’re being published right.” For me, this was dream come true. I owed these other books. I had to buy my way out of one, which was not a pleasant experience. I said to her, “I haven’t really got anything. I haven’t got an idea.” She said, “Come up with something that I can take to the publishing meeting in ten days. It doesn’t have to be brilliant.” She’s not going to sell something that’s terrible. Oh, she’s given me this really rubbish idea. I was like, oh, god. I went away. I wanted to write about affairs. I was in my early forties. I wanted to write about dynamics of long-term relationships and all the worst parts of love, if you know what I mean. They always talk about love as this great thing. Actually, women get murdered because of obsessive love partners, and men as well. People get murdered over love. It’s not always a good thing. I started playing around with a couple with secrets. I’d been reading all these Gone Girl kind of books and really getting into it. Sorry, I talk very fast. I do . Give me the cut-off signal if I’m —

Zibby: — No, I love it. Keep going. No, don’t cut off.

Sarah: Then I was like, maybe they’ve murdered someone in the past. I was looking at all this. I just thought, it’s not that original. There’s nothing in here that says that it’s mine. It could be any number of thrillers. Actually, what I did was — this makes me sound like an alcoholic. I don’t actually drink very much. It had been a really bad week. I’d been looking after my friend’s dog. I’d had to have it put down. Another friend of mine who’d been dying died. I’m trying to come up with this book. I was just like, I’ve got nothing. I went to the pub, got a glass of wine, and thought, it’s my big opportunity, and I’ve already blown it. Then I just got the ending. I started to think about a murder. I thought, this could work. Then when I pitched it, they were originally going to publish it under the fantasy imprint. Then they said, “No, we can play this as a straight thriller and sell it as a straight thriller and then let people be surprised by it,” which did work. It was love or hate, but it did work.

Zibby: Amazing. Then how did you feel when that took off? Tell me about that.

Sarah: It was crazy. Things like New York Times and Sunday Times, I never looked at it. I was never expected to be on those lists. It was very strange and very exciting and great. Then obviously, we sold the TV to Left Bank. That’s all gone really well. I’m writing Insomnia for Left Bank as we speak.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, no way.

Sarah: Yeah. That book did change my life, really. I’m glad it wasn’t my first book. You see people who have that big success with the first book, and they think, this is publishing, rather than, actually, most people are getting twenty thousand for a book. Thirty thousand, tops, is a nice figure. I found it fascinating, the shift in things. For years, I’d been going to festivals. I’d pay my own way. I’d pay my hotel. Even if they were paying for part of it after a little while, I got myself there. I got myself to the event because I’m a grown-up. Then suddenly, they’re like, “Do you need me to come on the train with you?” It’s like, I’m not your grandma. I can get a train by myself. Suddenly, when you don’t need them to give you the money, everyone wants to give you the money for things. I kind of am like, with all due respect, people who’ve got a best-seller don’t necessarily need the publisher to pay the train fare, but the person four rungs down the ladder does. They should maybe shift that. I know it doesn’t work that way because they want to fluff you and make you feel special, but it’s also crazy. You spend all those years scrimping to go places. Then suddenly when you don’t really need to go, people want to pay. That’s the world. That’s my little menopausal rant for the .

Zibby: I like it. Actually, I started a publishing company. The books start coming out in February.

Sarah: Because you’re not busy enough.

Zibby: Oh, stop. I’m trying to play with different elements. That’s a really interesting point. Everybody should be treated kind of equally.

Sarah: Yeah. I mean, I get it. If you’re publishing in England — I always say Ian Rankin. The poor man. I just use him as an example because he’s . He’s really successful. A Lee Child, someone like that, they’re getting paid a fortunate anyway. I kind of think, does it really matter if you have to pay a hundred pounds for your train fare? Whereas that person who only got paid five thousand for their book, that’s a lot of money to pay, and then hotels. It’s crazy.

Zibby: All right, good point. I’m going to stew over that. Aside from drinking heavily, what do you like to do when you’re not writing?

Sarah: I’ve got a dog called Ted. He takes quite a lot of time.

Zibby: What kind of dog?

Sarah: He’s a Romanian rescue. He looks like a fat fox. He was a lot of hard work, but he’s a very, very sweet, lovely dog. I don’t know about you — you’re obviously very busy. The pandemic kind of slowed everything down. I worked. I walked my dog. I worked. I walked my dog. I was fifty in March. I think there is that thing when you hit a decade number, like forty or fifty or thirty, that you reevaluate a bit. I’ve been living in my little lovely town called Stony Stratford. I have now just taken on an apartment in London for two years to split my time. I used to live in London. Not in Central London. It’s in Chiswick. It’s West London. It’s a leafy suburb. It’s got the buzz. It’s got lots of places, lots of things to do. I need to try and do more because I do just work. You can get in that rut of it being — I don’t have a husband. I don’t have kids. There’s no one to pull you out of it, that you have to go and do other things. I’ve decided that at fifty — also, I broke my back last year.

Zibby: Oh, no.

Sarah: Yeah, which was a bit boring. It just did make me revaluate things a little bit. Now that I’m less wobbly on my feet, I think, well, maybe I’ll go out. I might meet some handsome man in the park and maybe write a rom-com after that. As long as it’s not a murder mystery.

Zibby: Rom-com murder mysteries, there we go. That’s fun. Wait, how did you break your back?

Sarah: It was really exciting. I was carrying a vacuum cleaner, and I fell over backwards. I hit this wall with this vacuum cleaner in a box. I landed on my bottom holding this box. My spine just . It was nice.

Zibby: That is not glamorous. I think you need a new story there.

Sarah: I know. I did tell someone I did it skiing. They just looked at me and laughed and said, “You’ve never skied in your life.” I’m quite a lazy person. I’ve got to be careful with what lie I come up with for that one.

Zibby: That’s really funny. What about reading? Do you like to read?

Sarah: Yes, I read. I’ve really gotten into watching a lot of movies and TV, I think because I’m working more in movies and TV at the moment. Reading, that vanished in the pandemic. I used to always read. Then my concentration just went. Now I am getting back into it. You’re going to ask me something I’ve read recently, and my brain’s going to —

Zibby: — I won’t ask you. No, I’m not going to ask you.

Sarah: Okay, but I have been reading. You must get this loads. You get sent a lot of proofs. They’re very similar after a little while. Sometimes you just think, this probably is a really great thriller, but all I’ve done is read thrillers for three months. I need to stop and read something else. I’m trying to vary my reading a little bit more. I’ve just bought some historical fiction because I used to love reading historical fiction. I haven’t read any for ages. I’m reading a lot of anthologies. You can dip in and out. What did I read that I really loved last? The new Ruth Ware, I really enjoyed. Then what did I finish the other day that I was raving about on the internet? I can’t remember. Menopause brain. It goes in. It comes out. It goes in. It comes out. Oh, Laura Purcell’s new one set in Victorian theater. It’s a ghost story/thriller, which was really interesting to read something that was a bit less, who’s killed my baby or my husband or whatever? Those psychological thrillers, it was slightly different. Especially when I’m writing one, I don’t always want to read one because you can get nervous. Oh, god, this one’s really good. Mine’s really rubbish.

Zibby: That’s funny. I’m reading an anthology now too. I feel like I’ve been so tired lately that it’s great. I read one essay, and then I’m like, now I need to read the next one because this one. Then I end up reading just as much as I would have read anything else.

Sarah: Have you read — there’s a book called Eight Detectives.

Zibby: No.

Sarah: I think it’s Alex Pavesi. It’s really clever. It’s eight interwoven — it’s short stories, but there’s a story going between them all. It’s really, really, really clever. It was quite a big hit here. I’m not sure the paperback’s out yet. It was really good. It kind of mashes up the idea of an anthology and a novel. You can do that thing of reading one. It was really clever.

Zibby: Wait, say it again. Eight Strangers? No.

Sarah: Eight Detectives.

Zibby: Eight Detectives. This is my brain today, so there you go.

Sarah: We’re doing well with our brains.

Zibby: I can’t even maintain information for thirty seconds. Eight Detectives. Maybe now that I said it out loud, I’ll remember, but I probably won’t. The anthology I’m reading is the actress Zosia Mamet. I don’t think that’s even how you pronounce it. She got all these people to write about food and feelings, which I’m very interested in.

Sarah: I am a big eater of my feelings. I am a massive eater of my feelings.

Zibby: As am I. It’s really interesting. It has recipes. It’s people breaking up at dinner. It’s really good. I’m really enjoying the different perspectives and feeling a little less crazy, perhaps, myself, which is always nice.

Sarah: That’s always good. That’s always helpful, while eating a donut reading it.

Zibby: I’m trying intermittent fasting right now, which is all the rage.

Sarah: God, I know. I try and do that too.

Zibby: I’m on day ten. Let’s see how long I can pull this off.

Sarah: Are you doing the 16/8?

Zibby: I’m not even measuring it. I’m just eating dinner, and then I’m not eating again until twelve, twelve thirty. I’m just not being crazy. Really, is there a difference between eight PM and nine PM? Maybe, but whatever. I’m just not snacking at night anymore. For me, now that I’m not inhaling chocolate chip cookies, I’ll be fine. It’s not eight or nine.

Sarah: I don’t know if you ever saw — we had a show over here, which was one of my favorite things ever, called Absolutely Fabulous.

Zibby: I’ve heard of it.

Sarah: It’s these two women. They’re very funny. One of them, she comes downstairs. She’s on this diet where she’s eating weird things. The daughter just looks at her. The daughter’s very sensible. She goes, “Mother, just eat less and move more.” The mom turns around. She went, “Darling, if it was that easy, everyone would do it.” It’s so true, isn’t it? It’s just that you stop snacking. They make it sound easy.

Zibby: I know. It’s so true. It’s all about your headspace. It’s all about, am I really motivated to do this right now? If I’m not, then I could try a hundred things. None of them are going to work. If I am, then basically anything will work.

Sarah: I just end up looking at cake on the computer. Today, I spent a lot of time looking at cake on Deliveroo and then texting my best friend saying I wanted cake. Then she orders the cake and eats the cake. I’m still just looking at the pictures of it. She’s like, “Stop telling me about cake.”

Zibby: What is Deliveroo? Is that a food delivery service?

Sarah: Oh, my gosh, yes. Deliveroo is everything. They do supermarkets, restaurants. For my area, which is quite small, there’s maybe 150 places. You just say what you want, and they go and get it.

Zibby: It’s called Postmates here.

Sarah: Yeah, same thing, basically.

Zibby: I’d never heard of Deliveroo, but there you go. Learn something new.

Sarah: It facilitates all my bad habits.

Zibby: Thank you, Sarah. This has been a blast. Thank you for making my own insomnia feel a little less problematic and all of that. I hope you have fun in London. I would love to get a drink at some point in real life.

Sarah: If you’re over, .

Zibby: I might be. You never know about me.

Sarah: Definitely. It would be great fun. I’m still in awe of your study.

Zibby: Thank you. This too could be yours. You just have to rearrange your books.

Sarah: I’m not going to show you mine. It’s way too messy.

Zibby: Thank you so much. Have a great day.

Sarah: Thank you so much. Bye.

Zibby: Take care. Buh-bye.

Sarah Pinborough, INSOMNIA: A Novel

INSOMNIA: A Novel by Sarah Pinborough

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