Netflix smash Behind Her Eyes: Sarah Pinborough on writing ‘that ending’

When Sarah Pinborough’s thriller Behind Her Eyes was published in 2017, even she described it as a “Marmite book”. Her publisher slapped on equally dire warnings, hyping it with the hashtag #WTFthatending.

Now the novel is a hit Netflix miniseries and Pinborough is still boggled by her own twist. “I finished watching it and then I had a shower and went to bed and I was still thinking, ‘That ending, man!’ – and I made it up!” she says, speaking from her home near Milton Keynes. “But it’s different seeing it.”

Behind Her Eyes is the story of Louise, played by Simona Brown, a single mother who has a one-night stand with a man in a bar, only to discover that he is her new boss, David, played by Tom Bateman. Louise’s new friend Adele (Eve Hewson) also happens to be David’s wife. As Louise gets to know the couple, she sees the cracks in their marriage widen. So far, so run of the domestic noir mill. But Pinborough made her name in horror and science fiction before she turned to thrillers – so when the big reveal comes, Behind Her Eyes is genuinely #WTFthatending.

“I’d been reading a lot of books like Gone Girl, domestic noir and psychological thrillers, and I was really enjoying them. I thought I’d quite fancy writing something like that,” she says. “But I couldn’t come up with anything original.” At that point, Pinborough had written a couple of dozen novels – a mix of horror, science fiction and fantasy – and won a handful of awards, but none had become bestsellers. She remembers sitting in a bar during the sci-fi convention Worldcon, “watching people, and seeing writers who had just got big deals. It’s really dangerous to be envious of other people’s success, but I started to worry that maybe my shelf life was running out,” she says. “I’d written, like, 20 books and never broken through.”

She went for a beer with an editor at HarperCollins, who told her she wasn’t being published right, and asked her to pitch a book. “She said, ‘Don’t worry, it doesn’t have to be brilliant.’ Which obviously means it has to be brilliant,’” Pinborough says. “I was like, oh my god. A friend had died that week, and I was looking after someone’s dog, who I had to have put down. My brain was fried.”

She tried infusing her story with “flavour” – then, suddenly, she had the twist. “I wanted it to hit all the beats of a regular thriller. The clues had to be there,” she says. “At first I thought it was going to be really easy to write, but it was quite hard. Everything had to have dual meaning, so that no one could say this character lied. I would have hated that.”

Behind Her Eyes has now sold almost 1m copies around the world, and the Netflix adaptation is set to propel sales further still. Amazon reviews give an insight into its Marmite quality, ranging from five stars and “a wicked ending”, to “a good story ruined by a preposterous ending”.

Pinborough is sanguine about the reactions. “I don’t mind people who hate the book,” she smiles. “I’d rather they hate it than be indifferent. What I don’t like is when people say, ‘She didn’t know how to end this book, she tacked on this ending.’ I’m like, ‘Go back and read it again, do your homework!’”

Pinborough was head of English in a secondary school when she began writing horror novels. She submitted to a few publishers, “but no one was publishing horror – it was 2003 and there’d been a glut of novels called The Crabs or The Worms”. On her way back to the UK after getting married in Las Vegas, she picked up a paperback horror novel in the airport and sent her book to its publisher, Leisure Books in the US. They picked up her debut The Hidden, in which an amnesia victim begins seeing visions in her mirror warning her of “impending danger at the hands of a great evil”. She wrote five more books for Leisure.

“All the people who died in my books were kids in my school. They’d be like, ‘Can I die in one of your books?’ and I’d say, ‘You can die on page one’, or ‘You can die today before I even start the book’,” she says. “The pay was terrible – about £1,000 a book. But I was teaching and it was a learning curve – if I hadn’t written those books I probably wouldn’t have got my deal with HarperCollins.”

After six horror novels, Pinborough says she was fed up with the genre. She’d been offered the chance to write novelisations for the Doctor Who spinoff Torchwood, and decided she could afford to take a six-month teaching break, rent out her London home and stay in a friend’s house in Scotland, where she would write the novel she actually wanted to write: “A kind of modern Paradise Lost retelling, a crime, dystopian story.” This became the Dog-Faced Gods trilogy, picked up by UK publisher Gollancz, who then gave her a three-book deal for a young adult trilogy, written under the name Sarah Silverwood.

Writing two books a year and renting out rooms in her house meant she could give up teaching. She wrote dark twists on fairytales, like Poison, a reimagining of Snow White – “I thought, what kind of man falls in love with a woman in a glass box?” – Charm, her take on Cinderella; and Beauty, a spin on Sleeping Beauty. Mayhem and Murder followed, two supernatural, historical murder mysteries that draw on the real-life Thames torso murders. Then came the meeting that led to Behind Her Eyes; she’s since written two more thrillers, of the same ilk: Cross Her Heart and Dead to Her. While she’s still enjoying the genre, she sounds like she’s starting to feel a little itchy.

“This whole pandemic has made a lot of people, including me, think about what they’re doing with their time and their world,” she says. “Five years ago, I would have said that the point of having money in the bank as a writer is so you can write what you want. You may take a knock in sales, but you can write what you want if you can afford not to care.”

She is refreshingly honest about the money. “I say this now – come back to me next year, it’ll be a different story,” she says, laughing. “But part of me thinks, I’ve got plenty of money in the bank because I haven’t gone and bought a big house, a flash car. When I was writing books for very little money, you can pitch your fairytales or historical horror. When someone’s paying you £10,000 a book, they don’t have to invest much in marketing to get their money back. When they’re investing quite heavily in you, it’s like, ‘No we really, really have to shift at least X amount of copies, so could you make it a little bit more commercial?’ I totally get that. But it does restrain your ideas a little.”

In addition to writing a new novel, Pinborough is also writing for film and television, including a film adaptation of her young adult novel 13 Minutes, which is due to start shooting in 2022. She is also in the writers’ room for an Amazon show, and has signed a deal to draft a Hollywood studio film.

“It’s a refreshing shift of direction from books, books, books – I’ve written 27 or 28 books now. I still love writing them, but I don’t want to be on that hamster wheel, writing a thriller a year for people who know exactly what they’re going to get,” she says, then hastens to add: “There are some people who are really skilled at writing very similar books but that’s just not me. So once I’ve finished this contract, I think I will evaluate, rather than panic. If a thriller idea comes, great. If it doesn’t, I’ll write something else.”

Behind Her Eyes is on Netflix. The novel is published by HarperCollins (£8.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.