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Muddy meets Sarah Pearse

The bestselling Torbay author on selling film rights to Hollywood, south Devon's best beaches and eateries, and Zoom chats with Reese Witherspoon.

If you’re looking for a spine-chilling winter read, then look no further! The Sanatorium is set in an eery alpine spa hotel, with enough mysterious murders to keep you page turning, and enough snow, mountains and luxury sauna treatments to give you a vicarious top-up.

Penned by mum of two, Sarah Pearse, who lives in South Devon, it’s been likened to a cross between The Shining and crime novelist Agatha Christie at her finest – not bad for a debut novel, and her second novel The Retreat is out this Spring.

M: Congrats, Sarah! How does it feel to be a best-selling Sunday Times author?

S: Genuinely crazy. Beyond my every dream and then some. You don’t expect that with your first book. I went in at number 8 after three days of sales, number one after ten days.

M: That must have been some celebration?

S: We’ve got two young daughters so it wasn’t huge, just a nice glass of wine and my husband James got me a cake with Sunday Times Bestseller written on it from a local bakery. 

M: How old are your girls?

S: Rosie is 11 and Molly is 9 so old enough to really relish it. My eldest has actually read the book – even the scary parts.

M: Have they given you only notes?

S: No, but my youngest is now writing her own novel. And there’s a sanatorium in it!

M: Well, imitation is the biggest form of flattery… and we hear Reese Witherspoon liked it too?

S: Yes, she picked it for her Book Club which for a debut novel is very unusual. And I actually had a Zoom call with Reese! She was launching a Book Club App so all the Reese’s Book Club alumni were on the call. I totally embarrassed myself though because my daughter had been using my computer to Zoom and had changed my Zoom pic to a silly cartoon cat with huge sunglasses.

M: Cringe! Did you just have to cool it out?

S: Yes! I’m sure they must be used to high-pitched, embarrassed authors though. 

M: What’s Reese like?

S: She’s lovely. She only chooses female authors for her Book Club so it’s really about lifting women. She doesn’t always go for established authors so for her to pick me, you know, her star power rubs off on you a bit.

M: Reese has her own production company. Is there a film in the offing?

S: The film rights have already gone! Sold to Studio Canal who work in partnership with a Hollywood production company.

M: Hollywood hills here you come! Will you go over and see the filming?

S: Well, just because the film rights are sold it doesn’t necessarily happen straight away but yeah, you get to be an executive producer on the film and if there was a film premiere I’d go too that so – yeah exciting!

M: You live in South Devon yet The Sanatorium is set in the Swiss Alps. Why snow and mountains, and not sea and sand?

S: I lived in Switzerland in my mid-twenties and it always struck me, coming from an area of wide open vistas like Devon, how claustrophobic it could be, like when there’s a storm, and how well it could lend itself to fiction.

It was only when we went out as a family – we always go to the same resort and I’d read a feature about the history of sanatoriums particularly in Crans-Montana and how a lot of these sanatoria had been turned into hotels. I thought “now that would be quite a freaky place to stay!” I’m fascinated by repurposed buildings, particularly how the old energy of the places hangs around in the building.

M: Elin, the book’s detective, feels the hotel almost like a physical entity…

S: You can definitely feel the history within a building. I live in quite a modern house but when we were looking for a house in Torbay we saw a lot of old Victorian villas and I think you can feel that history, especially in the basements!

M: A luxury spa hotel is quite an unusual setting for a murder mystery. Not a sauna fan?

This luxe Swiss hotel, converted from an old ski lift station, is the inspiration for The Sanatorium

S: Ha, I think there is probably a bit of Elin in me. I do get claustrophobia sometimes and I’ve never been a fan of saunas. I don’t like that feeling of being overly warm and that group collective thing doesn’t always appeal.

M: Your writing has been likened to Agatha Christie. Do her novels inspire you?

S: Definitely. I love her exotic settings, and how she transports you somewhere. You’re reading while also learning about a totally different environment. I also love the ‘closed case’ where you have a fixed pool of suspects and there’s no police coming to help. They’re stranded together.

M: The weird thing is I still really want to go to this hotel…

S: That’s so funny! I’ve had a few people asking m “is that a real hotel – can I go and stay there”? Just don’t have the ‘mask’ treatment!

M:The Sanatorium came out in hardback in Feb 2021 – how did you manage to write and home school?

S: I was actually writing my second book, The Retreat, so my husband and I shared the home schooling. You need that silence and head space to write but I also want to be be involved with the girls so I ended getting an extension on my deadline. And I heard male authors saying, ‘this lockdown is amazing, I’ve got so much work done’…

M: Where is home for you?

We live in Torquay – not too far away from a local beach so everyday before I write I try and get a run or a walk in – and it inspired the next book as well. We’re a really outdoorsy family.

M: So Torquay makes an appearance in the new book?

S: My next book, The Retreat, is about a luxury wellness retreat set in a fictionalised version of Torquay called Torhun, on a rock like Thatcher Rock which you can see from Meadfoot Beach, except mine is named for a reaper. Elin is called to another dark and creepy case on the island.

I’ve tried to incorporate that pine-filled Mediterranean feel you get around Meadfoot Beach, and that beautiful walk from Daddyhole Plain down to the town centre.

M: Both of your books are set in hotels…any local faves?

S: We’ve eaten at The Pig at Combe, near Honiton (above), but we’d like to stay there as a family as it’s so different from where we live by the sea, more countrified, but very laidback and child-friendly.

I’d also recommend The Cary Arms on Babbacombe Beach (above). It has a wonderful waterside setting.

M: And it has a spa though, Sarah…

S: Haha! Brilliant, great for people watching. I love that about hotels, they’re endlessly intriguing. 

M: Do you have a fave Devon beach? 

S: Bantham beach for surfing and paddle-boarding and we love Meadfoot Beach in Torquay (above). It’s super-sheltered, with beach huts, and there’s a little gem of a suntrap cafe for breakfasts and snacks, and in summer they have evening specials on a Friday.

M: Any other good eateries we should get on our radar?

S: We love The Linny at Coffinswell between Torquay and Newton Abbot. The food is home cooked and they do everything from roasts to lamb cutlets. It’s our place for family outings.

M: When’s your new book out?

Thatcher Rock, the inspiration for the island in Sarah’s second novel, The Retreat

S: The Retreat was meant to be April but because the deadline got pushed back to summer because of lockdown. The story is that someone’s been pushed off the yoga platform and Elin, the detective from my first book goes back to investigate. It doesn’t turn out to be a relaxing retreat, let’s just put it that way…

Want more murder mystery and intrigue from Sarah? You can hear her speaking at the English Riviera Literature Festival at Palace Theatre Paignton on Friday 11 March, 10.30am. Tickets £5.

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