You have to love a writer who describes herself as a “genre-crossing pulp fiction writer with a fondness for the macabre and fake names.” That’s Sarah Lotz, to a T. With 15 years of writing experience under her belt and a host of pseudonyms and alter egos, the South African author graduates to the big leagues this summer with The Three, a creepy novel about a major disaster and its impacts worldwide on politics, religion and the very social fabric of Earth.
It sounds like a major departure but it’s really just the culmination of the long, strange road for this talented writer. She first broke out in 2008 with her autobiographical novel Pompidou Posse, which drew on her year living as a street performer in Paris. She followed those up with the crime novels Exhibit A and Tooth and Nailed. Elsewhere, she works with various collaborators in writing erotica as Helena S. Paige, horror novels as S.L. Grey, and an over-the-top young adult series with her daughter Savannah, writing as Lily Herne.
“I honestly think that it’s my dad’s fault,” says a giggling Lotz from her home in Cape Town. “When I was a kid—and I mean a really young kid—he gave me a whole bunch of books that I probably shouldn’t have been reading. This was Phillip K. Dick and Stephen King at a very young age, and I absolutely loved them. It was kind of a safe fear, where you know there’s no real boogeyman who’s going to come snatch you up. Living here, where there is a real, visceral fear, I can see why I was attracted to them. It’s a real rollercoaster—maybe it’s a cheap thrill, but I like it.”
For The Three, Lotz tapped into one of her own very real fears: flying. The novel is something of an epistolary construction, seemingly a nonfiction book called Black Thursday, written by a journalist named Elspeth Martins. Concocted from journal entries, interviews, chat transcripts and other entries, the book tells the story of a terrible day when not just one plane crashes, but three, all with one survivor.
“One plane crash is pretty terrifying but then I started thinking, ‘What if there were more than one plane crash in a single day? How would the media react?’ As we’ve seen recently, it gets all over the news, and people are fascinated.”
In the novel, a garbled voice mail message from an American on one of the flights is quickly misinterpreted by the religious right, and a movement erupts that believes the three survivors are harbingers of the biblical rapture.
“I do think that an event on this scale would change society to some extent,” Lotz explains. “Perhaps not to the extent that I’ve depicted in my novel, but I do think it’s these disasters that cause us to look at ourselves and reexamine our society. We don’t always learn from them but they do tend to cause a shift either in the way we live in the world, or the way we perceive it.”
She admits that some of the material in The Three was inspired by the 2008 elections in America, which were typically deeply divisive, especially among more extreme factions like the Tea Party and the Occupy movement.
“At the time, it did seem possible that you could have a candidate backed by the Christian fundamentalists,” she says. “What effect would that have on society, especially if, for example, you’re gay? It could end up having a truly detrimental effect on people’s lives. That was one of the influences as well, this use of fundamentalism for hatred. It’s an idea that affects me quite deeply and upsets me a lot. At the other end of the spectrum, I wasn’t at all going after religion. Quite a few of the characters in the book are religious without being cruel. It was a weird balance to pull off.”
Perhaps—no, for sure, actually—the biggest influence on The Three came from an unexpected source and one of the writers Lotz most admires in the world: Max Brooks and his seminal zombie apocalypse novel World War Z.
“Oh, he’s brilliant,” Lotz says. “World War Z was a massive influence on the structure of this book. There was just so much plot and story that I was either going to end up with a 600-page tome that no one wants to read, or I was going to find a way into the story that was accessible. My biggest problem was capturing that authenticity of voice. You have to remember that I was writing across cultures, and there’s nothing worse for readers than getting that wrong.”
Noting that writing about the rapture is bound to stir up at least some readers, Lotz laughs again.
“I’m expecting to get my ass kicked on this one, to be quite honest,” she says. “I know that’s something I’m going to get called out on. I re-read the Bible, and I read all the Left Behind novels, which I was surprised to find I really enjoyed, and tons and tons of books and websites detailing how we’re on the countdown to the rapture. I promise you, I read so much of this stuff that sometimes, at 3 o’clock in the morning, I would find myself awake, thinking ‘Oh my God. What if they’re right?’ Some of those things were so compelling that it made for a very weird journey to go down.”
Clayton Moore is a freelance writer, journalist, book critic, and prolific interviewer of other writers. His work appears in numerous newspapers, magazines, websites and other media. He is based in Boulder, Colorado.