The Big Idea: Sarah Lotz

Airplanes make you nervous? You’re not alone — Author Sarah Lotz, for one, feels your pain (or at least, your anxiety). But where Lotz diverges from most people who get twitchy about air travel is that she used that unease as a launching pad, as it were, for creativity — resulting in her new novel, The Three. She’s here now to tell you how this story took flight.


I’ve always wanted to write a novel about plane crashes. Part of this is because I’m flight-phobic, so air travel has always held an extra dollop of dread and fascination for me. Those of us who suffer from aerophobia are aware that it’s an irrational fear – we all know that statistically we’re more likely to die in a freak shopping trolley incident than in a plane crash. This doesn’t stop us from mainlining valium and secretly believing, like Charles Grodin’s character in Midnight Run, that planes are just too big to stay in the air.

So that’s where the initial idea came from – a phobia. Then came: but what if there wasn’t just one air accident, but several on the same day? That would send the world’s media into a frenzy. Plane crashes tend to dominate the news – the recent global coverage of the Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 tragedy is a case in point. Next, I started thinking about survivors. What if they were children? And what if they’d escaped what should have been certain death relatively unscathed? The tabloids would be all over the story with the fervour they’d display if Princess Di rose from the dead. Then came: What if a bunch of conspiracy theorists or religious fundamentalists decided to focus on the ‘miraculous’ child survivors, and began to spread the notion that their survival and the tragedies were signs of alien activity or evidence of the forthcoming apocalypse? How would that play out? And how would it play out if they were right?

I know: So. Many. Questions.

I decided that if I wanted to make this a truly global story, the planes needed to crash on four different continents, which would also feed the conspiracists’ theories. And as it would be lazy to choose cities and countries I was familiar with simply for convenience, I made a shortlist of possible locations. In the final draft, one of the planes crashes into Florida Everglades, another into the heart of the notorious Aokigahara ‘suicide forest’ at the foot of Mount Fuji in Japan, the third slams into Khayelitsha, Cape Town’s most populous township, and the fourth, a British low-cost charter flight, falls out of the sky off the coast of Portugal. As the survivors, their guardians, the conspiracists and those investigating the crashes would all be from diverse backgrounds and cultures, I knew I’d have to do a great deal of research to have any hope of making their narratives believable.

Turns out ‘a great deal’ was an understatement. The research took months, and included interrogating commercial pilots and air crash investigators, travelling to Japan to visit the Aokigahara forest, studying NTSB reports, riding along with South African paramedics, delving into eschatology, looking into Japanese economic history, dallying on conspiracy forums chatting to people who believe that aliens really are here, and investigating the influence of the religious right on the US political landscape. I also read several CVR transcripts of pilots’ last words as their planes went down – never do this, it’s incredibly upsetting.

At the end of all this, I had too much material, too many characters and I needed to find a way in to the story that would reflect the global scope of it, but wouldn’t involve 400 pages of exposition and info-dumping. And I’ll be honest, my first three attempts were awful. Taking a leaf out of Max Brooks’s brilliantly structured World War Z, I chose to write it in a way that wasn’t necessarily conventional, marrying first person ‘interview’ narratives with non-fiction accounts and framing it as a book within a book, written by a possibly biased journalist. This also allowed me to play around with potentially unreliable narrators.

Have I pulled it off? I honestly don’t know. But I’m glad I took the risk. Writing a novel about air disasters may have made my aerophobia worse, but stepping way outside my comfort zone has meant that whenever I’m asked for writerly advice (admittedly, this doesn’t happen often), I can now say, with complete honesty, that sometimes it’s best to write what you don’t know.


The Three: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. See the trailer. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

15 Comments on “The Big Idea: Sarah Lotz”

  1. I had two thoughts reading this: 1) I guess you won’t be doing a book tour [sorry, I’ll show myself out] and 2) how were you physically able to do the research, especially visiting Japan, if you’re aerophobic? I’m assuming that you don’t live in Japan, so you probably would have had to fly there.

  2. Hi Beej. Thanks for your response, I live in Cape Town and I’m actually flying to the States to do some book tour stuff tomorrow. The flight to Japan was so long that I kind of figured I’d rather die than eat anymore airline food anyway, and tranquilisers really helped. Also, I’m getting over myself now and trying not to be such a giant wuss about stuff.

  3. This is a strange! Amazon is selling the hardcover of this book for full list price. Never saw that before. I guess they want me to buy locally instead.

  4. I already have this on my list after seeing it in Locus magazine. However I will probably wait for the paperback. I know about airplane phobia – on every overnight flight I’ve been on I’m the person who stays awake to make sure the wings don’t fall off..

  5. Nice cover!

    Here’s my plane tip, per my uncle who survived a plane crash many years ago: wear natural fibers, preferably wool. His synthetic socks melted to his feet, but he credits not being burned severely to his wool suit (as well as the fact that his smoldering seat was actually thrown out of the plane with him still strapped in).

  6. There was a famous BOAC 707 crash near Mt Fuji in 1966 following takeoff from Tokyo, when the tail fin and all four engines were wrenched off. This was less than 24 hours after a Canadian Pacific Air crash while landing at Tokyo, and a month after an All Nippon crash also at Tokyo that, with 133 dead, was then the biggest single-plane accident. People must have got a bit paranoid at the time.

    My father was a 707 pilot when I was a teen, and I’ve been flying since I was 6 months old in 1958 and mostly have been fine, but about when I was 14 I had a year of nervousness and sweaty palms during flight, especially taking off.

    And for a soundtrack – One More Red Nightmare from King Crimson, on youtube here

    Pan American nightmare
    Ten thousand feet fun-fair
    Convinced that I don’t care
    It’s safe as houses I swear
    I was just sitting musing
    The virtues of cruising
    When altitude dropping
    My ears started popping
    One more red nightmare

  7. And now I’m really curious to read those pilots’ last words. Darn it.

  8. This is a strange! Amazon is selling the hardcover of this book for full list price.

    See Charlie Stross’s recent blog for the probable reason.

  9. I just finished reading this book right before I read this blog post. It was great! Thanks, Sarah for writing a book that made me stay up way too late the past few nights because I couldn’t put it down. That hasn’t happened for a while. As for the ending, I won’t spoil anything for folks if I just say “Dayyuuummmm…….”

  10. @Fletcher: Years ago I went to a play of sorts whose script was entirely the last few minutes of various flights that crashed. Some of them everyone died, some there were survivors. I don’t remember the name of it but it was fascinating.

  11. Thanks so much, Heather!
    Getting on a plane in two hours, and thanks to @onibabmama I am dressed head to toe in wool.

  12. Eek! Sarah Lotz I feel your pain. And as great it sounds, a fellow aerophobe I will be unable to read it (never saw Lost, as all my friends–especially the ones unlucky enough to have flown with me–told me not to watch; didn’t see the Denzel movie where he was the pilot, and I love me some Denzel; and I might have to go take some Xanax just to cope with the idea of listening to the last words of pilots–j/k. Sorta)

  13. @JJS & Anthony Frost: interestingly, amazon canada is showing a 40% discounted price.

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