Pearse’s first book, The Sanatorium, follows Elin Warner, a former detective who heads to a Hotel in the Swiss Alps for her brother’s engagement party. The dark twist? This luxury hotel used to be a Sanatorium…
We caught up with Pearse to chat all about her book, along with her personal life, the 'dark and creepy' and a lot more!
What sparked the move to Switzerland in your early 20s? Did you move there just for the mountains?
I moved there for work and to be with my then-boyfriend (happily now my husband!)
I worked for a large multi-national whose headquarters were located in Geneva, but we spent almost every weekend exploring the mountains and ski resorts nearby.
I hear that you have always been drawn to ‘the dark and creepy’; does this span further than books and abandoned areas?
Not really – I’m actually a bit of a wimp! I don’t mind reading about scary things or escaping into frightening fiction where I have the option of putting the book down or hiding away under the covers, but I don’t think I’d ever explore any isolated or abandoned areas myself, and certainly not alone!
Are you a big fan of horror films? If so, do you have any recommendations?
Strangely enough, I’m not as I always find horror films a little bit too graphic and too much gore makes me queasy! I prefer reading about scary things where my mind is perhaps able to soften the mental images for my own protection!
What is your main source of motivation for writing (and other activities)?
My main motivation for writing has always been for creative fulfilment – I’ve always had the urge to write to make sense of the world.
My young daughters and my family are also another source of motivation - I love watching how enthused and proud they are of my writing and my little successes!
Since studying English and Creative Writing at Warwick you had a few PR jobs. Did these jobs help you realise a passion for becoming an author?
Most definitely – in several ways. I think analysing copy is great practice for writing – you develop an understanding for what kind of sentences and words grab people’s attention and it is also a good trial run for the process of editing!
Working in PR also sharpened my desire for wanting to give my writing a ‘proper’ go. While it was brilliant to be working with words on a daily basis in the job, it still didn’t scratch my writing ‘itch’ enough and concentrated my mind on actually trying to work on a book of my own.
How did it feel getting Reese Witherspoon’s adoration for your novel?
Amazing – a dream come true! I heard about it through my lovely editor in America. We’d just finished having dinner as a family and I got an email from her asking if I could hop on a call together with my agent because she had some news… and that’s when she told me! Cue lots of screams and excitement!
The news was huge for me - an absolute dream but something I’d never even contemplated happening. It is an absolute privilege being part of this amazing community of authors and readers who have welcomed me with open arms.
Reese is hugely inspirational to me, and what she is doing with Reese’s Book Club is very special - championing a diverse range of women’s voices and their stories and changing the narrative for women everywhere - a trailblazer in every sense of the word. I couldn’t be prouder that my book is part of this wonderful community.
What ignited your decision to write a novel?
I had been writing short stories for a while but wanted to try my hand at a novel. There are such differences in the two forms, and I loved the idea of challenging myself. I’d always dreamt of writing a novel one day and I knew I had to give it a try – it was one of those now or never moments!
Can we expect another book at some point?
Yes, the next book, also featuring Elin will be out next year, in 2022. It’s another dark and creepy story but in a very different location. I think Elin will be relieved to be away from the snow…
How did you come up with the intense and intriguing plot for The Sanatorium?
While living in Switzerland, in both Geneva and Crans Montana, I became immediately drawn to the mountains – strikingly beautiful, but also raw and wild. It’s a stunning place in both summer and winter, but for me, the winter is when it’s at its most dramatic.
When the snow starts falling, totally transforming the landscape, you get a real sense of nature’s power and the inherent dangers, and I started thinking that this backdrop would be perfect for fiction.
The idea of setting the novel in a converted sanatorium came about after reading an article in a local magazine about the legacy of tuberculosis sanatoriums in Crans Montana.
Sanatoriums were the main driver of people coming in numbers to the town, but when antibiotics became available in the mid-twentieth century, many were converted into hotels, which was the start of the town’s winter tourism industry.
This sparked my imagination, and I started thinking about the darker side of this – how would it feel to stay somewhere that had once been a hospital, a place where many people lived and died?
As I researched, I began to think an old sanatorium would be the perfect creepy, gothic setting for a novel. I’m fascinated by repurposed buildings in general and I loved the idea of making the building itself a character within the novel, exploring the idea that the history, the energy and malevolent forces of the past might still be lingering, despite its conversion.
I was also inspired by the architecture of sanatoriums, in particular, how they were often designed according to the principles of ‘functionalism’ - the design and decor optimised to stop the spread of infection and help tuberculosis patients recover (the building itself as a medical instrument).
The design of these buildings was so influential, that early 20th Century Modernist architects picked up many key elements of the minimalist design of sanatoria - large windows, balconies to maximise sunlight exposure, clean, smooth surfaces without clutter, floors and walls clear so there were less places for germs to hide.
I began thinking about how this minimalist, clinical design might be used in the hotel and how it would be viewed by a guest – a great way to heighten tension in the novel, especially if some reminders of the building’s clinical past were included within the design.
I was also inspired by the fact these sanatoriums were often based in remote, high altitude locations not only for health reasons of being at altitude but in order to stop the spread of infection. I really wanted to use this isolation to put my characters, especially Elin, under pressure.
Whilst researching, I also discovered that there were sanatoriums in Switzerland (and elsewhere) for people classed as ‘morally insane.’ In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, many women were placed in medical care for spurious reasons by a male guardian, often diagnosed with ‘Nervenkranke’ (those ill in their nerves).
Sometimes this was trickery, a guise to take control of an inheritance, or to suppress independent thought and ideas. Some women spent decades being ‘treated.’ This gave me the idea of exploring this theme within the novel and the echoes with the present day where women are still being judged for their emotions and experiences.
Can you tell us a little bit about the main character, Elin Warner?
The novel follows Elin Warner, a British detective as she travels to the Swiss hotel to celebrate her brother’s engagement… but things take a dark turn when her brother’s fiancée, Laure, disappears.
I loved writing Elin as a character. She’s a strong woman but she’s troubled by both a past case that haunts her and a family tragedy. Her swirling emotions around these mean she’s being constantly judged by the people around her, but she breaks the mould by refusing to do what’s expected in suppressing her feelings, and that’s what I love about her.
I really wanted her to be a female detective who doesn’t have it all together, someone who has the same fears and anxieties as people do in real life and isn’t afraid to listen to and show her emotions.
Elin goes on such a journey throughout the book, facing down her past and embracing her fears and anxieties in order to survive and progress - something I think we all do on day to day in our own way and in our own journeys.
What was your process for writing this book?
I had a fairly long research period (a few months) before writing as there was so much to learn and explore about sanatoria and the area where the book is set and then I started the plotting process.
Once I had the rough idea for the plot down (I like to have key points sketched out in advance although these inevitably evolve!), I began writing the first draft. I’m pretty rigid when I’m drafting – I try and write most weekdays and occasionally into the weekend if I’m on a deadline, as I find it hard to get back into the plot and characters if I leave it too long between writing sessions.
I like to write in the mornings with a backdrop of total silence although in lockdown this have been few and far between!
Written by Melissa, who you can follow on Twitter @melissajournal
Horror and thriller books may be the hardest to write, with the author having to describe each moment through language rather than through sight. Fortunately, Sarah Pearse cuts right through this with her debut novel, The Sanatorium... to read more click HERE