How I Wrote It: Sarah Lotz on "The Three"

The Three I was sleep deprived because every time I finished a chapter and saw which character's perspective the next was in, I'd simply have to keep reading. I was half-listening to people talking to me because my inner dialogue was busy arguing about which theory would ultimately be the right one. I was wearing extra layers of clothes because I thought I was cold when it was the creepy undertones of the book that were giving me the chills.

Almost needles to say, The Three -- one of our picks for Best of the Month in May -- really got to me. If that's not the mark of a great horror story, I don't know what is.

The title refers to the children who, against the odds, survived nearly simultaneous plane crashes in different parts of the world. How they lived is a mystery -- the source of intense speculation and incredible conspiracy theories. The conceit is a book within a book; Lotz's primary narrator is an author who -- through interviews, letters, and transcripts -- explored these strange events, but we generally hear her voice only as an introduction to each chapter, in which the other players in this drama speak.

We asked Lotz to tell us more about writing The Three: the concept, the research, the format, and more. Here's what she had to say:

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.

I generally start by coming up with an idea that I know I'll enjoy writing, rather than considering a particular type of market or readership. As THE THREE is a horror/thriller novel written in an unconventional style, I guess I'm hoping it will appeal to anyone who likes something a little different. That said, it's probably not ideal reading for anyone who has pteromerhanophobia (you know who you are).

As the novel is set in multiple locations, such as the Aokigahara suicide forest in Japan and Khayelitsha, Cape Town, and is focalised through multiple characters, I knew early on that the research would be daunting. And it was! A lot of the locations, characters and issues I chose to deal with were way out of my comfort zone, so months of dedicated reading and researching were essential if I had any hope of pulling the whole thing off.

Among other things, I interrogated commercial pilots and investigators, travelled to Tokyo to visit the Aokigahara forest, studied NTSB reports, rode along with South African paramedics, hung out with Japanese Otaku, re-read the Old Testament, delved into eschatology, looked into Japanese economic history, read up on the influence of religion on American politics, and wallowed in the murky depths of the internet with conspiracy theorists who truly believe that The Aliens Are Here. A lot of it was pretty upsetting, especially reading the accounts of people who have lost loved ones in tragic circumstances.

I initially attempted to write the novel using a more traditional narrative, but it just wasn't coming together. I needed to find a way to explore the global scope of the tragedies and the ensuing fallout without resorting to reams of exposition. I really admire the oral history approach Max Brooks took in World War Z, and I love the notion of the unreliable narrator, so I decided to go this route. As it was, about 80 000 words ended up on the cutting room floor! I will be forever grateful to my editor for reeling me in.

Constantly! That's the problem with research -- the more you read, the more you want to include. When I started writing, I'd had the vague notion that someone could possibly believe that the three child crash survivors were three of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, but it was only when I started looking into prophecy theory that it hit me that this actually had a real-world application tied to those who believe that the rapture is imminent.

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 that I'm using for my current novel. 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 high-falutin notions about only being able to write under ideal conditions.

I have a Nespresso machine called George that's in constant action. I love it, although I do feel guilty about its lack of environmental friendliness. I'm old school, so nicotine and caffeine are my fuel of choice. Their benefits (or lack thereof) are self-explanatory. Appalling, I know.

I've recently gone on Twitter, which is far more addictive than I thought it would be, mainly because the people on my timeline are so witty. One-liners zinging at you all day can be distracting. If @ChuckWendig, @sarahpinborough, @dbbovey and @TomeatonSA could stop being so goddamned funny, that would help.

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