Sarah Waters: Mulit-award-winning author

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image-sarahwaters200Sarah Waters’ 2009 novel, The Little Stranger, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and has received much praise and critical acclaim since its release. Set in 1940s England, it is a chilling ghost story about the Ayres family

She is also the multi-award winning author of The Night Watch, and the Victorian trilogy of Tipping the Velvet, Affinity and Fingersmith.

Since 2003, she has been awarded the Betty Trask Award, the Somerset Maugham Awards, and the CWA Ellis Peters Dagger Award for Historical Crime Fiction for Fingersmith. She has also been shortlisted twice for both the Orange Prize and the Man Booker Prize.

She has a PhD in English Literature and is also an associate lecturer with the Open University.

Click play to listen. Running time: 29.23

The Little Stranger


* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability

Thanks for joining us today, Sarah.

Oh, pleasure. Thank you.

Now, you’ve been a very successful writer for a number of years. Have you always planned to be a writer? What is something that you always wanted to do from when you were a young child?

No, not really, actually. I know lots of writers do have that in their past. I did write a lot as a child. I loved it. You’re kind of encouraged to write at that age at school, to write stories and poems, and I did that, and wrote outside of school.

But, then as a teenager I think I, you know, I was always quite academically minded as well. So, I then just got in to sort of writing about other people’s writing, I suppose. I went to university and did English literature there. But, then after a couple of years, after university I went back to do PhD. on historical fiction. It was as I was finishing off that, that I began to think, “I might like to have a go at writing a historical novel of my own,” and it was really kind of making a decision to try and go for it. And, when I finished the thesis I took a year and I wrote the novel that became, Tipping the Velvet.

How did that happen? Did you get an idea and you thought, “Oh, this could be a great idea for a book”? Or, did you decide, “I really want to write a historical novel, so I’m going to just sit down and get one out”?

It was a bit of both really. I finished my academic working looking at modern lesbian and gay historical novels. But, I had started looking at the Victorians, and sort of what was happening in the sexual underworlds of late Victorian London.

Yeah, I thought, “I’d like to write a lesbian historical novel.” I was looking at the 1890’s and seeing all this fascinating stuff there. And, really began to plot the novel as I was finishing off my Ph.D. As soon as I had the opportunity then I kind of thought, well, you know. It was real leap of faith. It really was.

The whole writing process was a learning curve. It was, “Can I write a scene?” “OK, I’ve written a scene.” “Can I write a chapter?” “OK, now I’ve written a chapter.” You know, “Can I add another one?” It was really like I learned how to write as I was doing it really, I suppose.

When you say you learned how to write as you were doing it, where did you get that learning from? Did you actually go and do some courses or study while you were writing? Or, what happened there?

No, gosh, I mean I’m still learning how to write actually.

But, I suppose what I mean is, no, I didn’t do any writing courses at all. I’ve always been a big reader. I think a lot of it came intuitively. What I did begin to learn was how to structure a chapter, how to pace a story, when to linger on a scene, when to pull away from it and move onto the next one, you know?

So much of writing is very, very technical. It really is a craft. It’s craft more than an art in some ways. I suppose with plunging into a novel like that I just had to figure those things out as I went along really.

You say that plotted it all out. Did you actually plot out the whole thing? And, then sat down and kind of filled in the gaps? Because I know that some writers have no idea about plot and they just sit down and see what comes out.

Yeah, I know writers are very different on this issue, aren’t they? No, the idea of sitting down- I mean I know writers who start with one sentence and they take it from there. That’s absolutely terrifies me at the prospect. I much- maybe a bit of a control freak. I like to have pretty much the whole novel plotted out in sort of greater or lesser detail.

Sometimes with some novels- I mean my third novel, Fingersmith, has an incredibly complicated plot and I really had to have the ins and outs of that book down. And the novel like The Night Watch, the next one, that was a bit more character-led and that was a bit more trial and error for me. I had to feel my way through that novel. I found that quite unsettling as a result. I’m happiest when I’ve got the skeleton work out.

And then for me there’s this- the next excitement is discovering my characters, I think. Because I know what my characters have to do, I really do at start. But, what I don’t know is how they’ll feel about that, and how they’ll feel about each other. And, what they’re really like, what their motivations are for doing the things that the plot needs them to do. I love that aspect of writing.

Now, it sounds like your fairly structured when you plot out the story. With your characters do you have a similar approach? Do, you have a very clear idea of who they are and what their background is, and what has impact their lives? Do you think all that through before hand?

I think I have that in broadly in advance. That can change. The plot rarely changes with me as I writing, but my characters can emerge for me quite a lot. So, with my newest book, The Little Stranger, I knew I was going to have this male narrator, middle-aged country doctor narrator right from the start, but initially he was going to be a solidly middle class figure, a rather transparent narrator who was just going to account the events of the book.

But, quite early on I decided it would be more interesting if I made him- gave him a different class background. He became a working class boy who’s sort of done well, but as a consequence feels cut off from his working class roots, and his social state is a bit more ambiguous. So, he’s became a man with a bit of a chip on his shoulders.

So I mean just by making sort of basic decisions like that a lot followed. And, then because he became more interesting, his relationship to the story he was telling became more complicated. He ended up being much less reliable than I thought he was going to be at the start.


See that actually transformed the feel of the book, the mood of the book, even though the plot itself hadn’t changed, you know what I mean? From my first vision. I think plot- it sounds like every is plot, but in fact it’s sometimes only the start.

So, The Little Stranger, which was short-listed for the Book of Prize set in 1940’s England, where did that idea come from? Tell us a little bit about the seed of your most recent book.

It came from lots of different places really. Mainly it came… like the book before it, The Night Watch, was set in the 1940’s during and just after the Second World War. I finished that book still really interested in the ‘40s and particularly interested in the issue of class and the impact the war had on class in Britain, and how it had shaken things up.

But, also one big resource for me is other novels, actually. They’ve always been a great research resource for me. So, while I was writing, The Little Stranger, and The Night Watch I read a lot of ‘40s fiction. I was trying to get a grip of that particular idiom of that fiction.

One book that made a big impression on me was a book called A Franchise Affair, by Josephine Tey, which is a crime novel from the 1948. It was really fascinating. She was a great story teller, Josephine Tey, but she was very conservative too. It’s this very conservative depiction of a working class girl and how she wrecks really middle class life- the lives of two women.

I thought, “Wow, what an interesting story, and how well in encapsulates some of the issues at the time.” I kind of wanted to retell it in a way that was fairer to its working class protagonist, and that’s what I… but then I decided that maybe a novel of the supernatural would be an interesting way to explore the class tension of the time.

The first vision I had of taking on kind of Tey’s story and doing something with it quite quickly morphed into something else. So, I ended up using the same kind of cultural landscape as Tey’s novel uses, but finding different ways to address the issues at the time.

So, you first three books: Tipping the Velvet, Affinity, and Fingersmith were a Victorian trilogy. And then The Night Watch and The Little Stranger was set in the ‘40s, is there a pattern here? Does that mean the next book is in the ‘40s?

I thought myself it would be quite nice if that were the case, sort of neatness. I mean the first three novels aren’t a trilogy in any sense, for me there was kind of a logical progression from one to the other. There was a sort of completeness to those three.

It would have been nice if I replicate that with the ‘40s, but actually I felt- I did consider it, but I felt that I slightly exhausted something in myself, my own relationship with the ‘40s. I didn’t know what I could bring that was new to the decade if I stayed there. In fact I think I’m going to move slightly backwards into the war years, and looking at the ‘20s and ‘30s at the moment.

Oh, OK.

I mean I’ve often done this backwards thing. With the Victorian novels I started in the 1890s and I moved backwards into the ‘70s and ‘60s. So, it all seems quite natural to me to look at one period, but then actually to think about, “OK, well, where did that come from? What was producing that?” So, now it’s really fascinating going back to the ‘20s and seeing things being put in place that would then become big issues in the war and the post-war period.

Now writing historical fiction obliviously involves research. Do you typically do the great bulk of the research first that you think that you need to and then sit down and write? Or, do you write and kind of research as you go along? What’s your process there?

Again, it’s a bit of both. It really is. Usually I go to a period with the broadest of sense of the sort of story I’d like to tell, and the sort of characters I might want to write about. That kind of guides my research to a certain extent. But, at that point I do need to do quite broad research too. I’ll usually spend the first three or more months just reading about a period, beginning to read the novels from that period to get a feel for the language, and the vocabulary of the time.

Then as I’m doing that somehow, and it just sometimes feel like a bit of a mystery how this happens, but somehow my own plot and my own characters they kind of emerge for me out of the mist of research, like that. I get to the point where I really want to stop. I want to close the books and get on with my own novel.

I suppose what it is, I think, is you get to a point where of course you don’t know everything about the period, but you know enough to be able to start making educated guesses about the bits you don’t know. That’s a crucial point where you suddenly get a kind of confidence in talking about the period.

But, then I carry on researching the whole time. For me, I’ve had enough of writing at say four o’clock in the afternoon. Well, I can turn the computer off, but I can carry on working by reading. Or, in the case of my last book watching a ‘40s film, or something. This is all important research for me.

So, for me, researching and writing are very complimentary activities. I just keep on researching for the whole life of a book, right to the very end.

Now, you’ve been prolific really as a writer. How- I mean you must obviously have a quite disciplined approach to your writing and research. Do you have some kind of daily routine when you’re writing, or any kind of writing rituals that you have to start the day with, or anything like that?

I don’t know if I have any rituals exactly, but I think I am kind of a creature of habit. I like to have sort of a structure in place, I suppose. I mean writing is my job and I’ve always treated it as a job, so I get up as early as I can and then start writing and carry on writing really for most of the day. But, at least until I’ve written a 1,000 words. That is my warn and I suppose my warn, it’s slightly kind of a ritualistic thing that I aim to write.

When I’m writing new material- a lot of writing for me is rewriting, so that doesn’t count, but when I’m writing new material I aim to write at least 1,000 words a day, which is sometimes very easy. Sometimes I’ll write way more than that. But, it’s sometimes hard. But, even on the hard days, which is probably most days, I’ll keep sitting there until I’ve done it. Because it keeps the book moving forward.

Also you can start a day’s work and it just looks the most unpromising kind of day, and sometimes even one small idea can emerge in those 1,000 words. So, you know, 950 of those words might be awful, but there might be fifty in there that have just got something to them. So, it’s that old thing about- I mean if I sat around waiting for inspiration to strike I would probably never write at all. For me, it’s you have to kind of do the work in order to find those moments of inspiration.

Now, as a author you have won many awards. The list seems to just go on. Betty Trask Award, The Somerset Mom Award, The CWA Ellis Peters Award, Short listed for the Orange.

Yes, I haven’t won the Orange, but…

But, the thing when you get to a stage where you’ve got so many awards do you feel this pressure to perform? It’s like, “Oh my God, my next book has got to be short-listed, or has got to win an award, or I’ll feel like I haven’t lived up to the rest of the books?

Well, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel that pressure sometimes. It’s true. It’s true. Yeah. I mean most of the time when you’re working on a book you’re working. It’s just you and the book. And you can, I find, that they can kind of shrug off those concerns in your day-to-day writing life.

But, yes, the closer you draw to publication day and the closer you draw to the reviews coming out and things like that, yeah, it can feel like pressure. It really can. Of course you don’t want to, you know, your publisher has expectations, your agent. I mean my parents have expectations …

Oh, my God.

Yeah, you can sometimes feel madly that you’re letting people down. So there’s a real mix, it’s not an unmixed blessing I think getting awards. I mean it’s always delightful to be, you know even just to be short-listed. It’s always wonderful to get that kind of approval and recognition.

It does sound hard as you say on some days, and there is that pressure. What’s the joy that you get from writing?

Yes, sometimes that joy can feel very far away, you know? I think every book probably has periods of you’re feeling stuck. I mean that was certainly true of The Night Watch, for example. I remember it was just weeks and weeks of really feeling I wasn’t getting anywhere. I was feeling really, really gloomy about the whole process.

I would say everyday actually has those moments, especially at the start. Writing for me is like going to the gym, it’s a horrible start. Once you get going you’re in the zone, and then when you finish you feel this wonderful glow of satisfaction, but there is always that sort of – and it’s actually- for me it’s a kind of panic about, “OK, I’ve pulled it off in the past, but maybe it’s just not going to work this time.” “Maybe the idea at the heart of this book is completely flawed. It’s a dead-end,” and all of these terrible kind of negative thoughts can just kind of completely overwhelm you.

Sorry, to get back to the question. Where is the joy? Yes, where is the joy? I think the joy is when you break through those phases. Or, just that moment in the day when you do have the one small good idea that you know is good, and you know is helping the book and moving the book forward and bringing the book into focus for  you.

And, yes, I mean writing has highs and lows like nothing else, and the lows are awful, but the highs are- the highs are satisfaction. And, moments that feel like genuine creativity, genuine inspiration, something is almost like revealed to you and it’s like, “Of course, of course…” and then the book begins to fall into place. Those are wonderful moments.

Also, of course, a fundamental joy for me is the joy of having finished a book and then it going out into the world and people reading it and enjoying it, and people sort of entering into a world I’ve created sort of from nothing. I find that sort of pleasure of story telling is just wonderful.

Do you get a lot of feedback from fans, or readers? And, in what way?

Yeah, well I do. Actually being here in Australia at the moment is great because I’m meeting fans, literally on the other side of the world from where I live. So, it’s nice to get that kind of face-to-face feedback.

Yeah, I get a lot of emails via my website, and I get letters. Or, I just- sometimes people stop me in the street and tell me they like my books. It’s really great. I love that contact. I love that.

There are some lesbian themes in your books, and some people would categorize you as a lesbian writer. How do you feel about that?

I’ve never really had a problem with that label, actually. I think perhaps because I came into writing via some academic research into lesbian and gay writing. It’s always kind of made sense to me that label makes sense.

I think the label can become a problem if it feels kind of restrictive, or if it puts other people off. As far as I’m concerned, yes, there is significant lesbian content in most of my novels, but that doesn’t mean that those novels are only for lesbians. There about all sorts of other things too. They’re about desire, and loss, and betrayal, and grief. The things that are kind of pretty universal sort of appeal.

So, I think the label makes sense, and yes, lesbian content of my books has been important to me. I’m perfectly happy to see myself as part of a contemporary lesbian and gay writing world, or sort of longer tradition of lesbian and gay writing.

But, when I sit down at my desk every morning I don’t think, “Oh, I’m a lesbian writer,” at that point I’m just a writer…

Yeah, sure.

…like every other writer just grappling with the text.

Now this journey kind of all started because you did your PhD and you started off in academia really. Have you been tempted at all to go back to academia and to research some other area of English literature?

No, I haven’t, but I think partly I get I mean I’ve always loved doing research, but I still get that. I still get the satisfaction of doing research, but what I also get is the liberation of writing fiction rather than writing non-fiction. You know? I think for a historical novelist that’s especially acute, that freedom because of course historians, as a historian you’re limited to the sometimes fragmentary evidence that you have about people’s lives.

Certainly if you’re talking about lesbian and gay history, you know, it really is fragments, and sometimes quite tantalizing. Of course as a novelist your job is to fill in the gaps between those fragments.

So, I would really miss the freedom of that, and also I mean more realistically the longer I’ve stayed away from the academic world the kind of less fit I am for saying anything kind of intelligent about it.

So, I’m very happy to be a novelist now.

Some of your books have made it to television. Did you ever expect that was going to happen? What was it like to actually turn on the TV and see your characters in human form on the screen?

No, I never expected anything like that. I mean I can’t tell you how small my ambitions were for my writing when I started. I certainly didn’t ever imagine the books would get adapted.

When I was first approached by a production company who wanted to do Tipping the Velvet with Andrew Davis, a script writer who is very well respected screen writer, I thought it was a lovely idea, but it was never going to happen.

So, the fact that I’ve now had three adapted is amazing. It’s been a fascinating process. With my first one, Tipping the Velvet, was tremendously exciting because it was the first adaptation, and also because TV watching has become a lot more kind of fragment now. We all watch DVDs or we tape things.

But, in 2002 I think it was still enough of a time when something was on BBC too, at nine o’clock and you knew that across the country a lot of people were sitting down to watch it. There had been a lot of advanced publicity for Tipping the Velvet on TV. It was a real little TV event in the UK. It was really exciting.

Although, it wasn’t like I sat down and turned on the telly along with everybody else. That was my first glimpse of it. I’ve been on set and watched bits of the act thing. I’ve met the cast and I’d seen the rushes. So, it was a gradual exposure to it really.

There were moments that felt like it was just as I had imagined it. Some of the musical scenes were exactly as I had imagined them. That was a little bit spooky, I must admit. Yeah.

Now, on a practical level you said that when you started off, after your Ph.D. you decided to devote a year to writing your first novel, which became Tipping the Velvet, so on a practical level how did you afford that?

Well, that’s the thing, you see, I was used to having no money.


Because I had been a student for several years. I don’t have kids, so I didn’t have that problem. More crucially, because I’d finished a period of research I was eligible to claim unemployment benefits. I unofficially was being supported by the state. I guess. But the main thing is I was young enough still that I could kind of coast along with not much money.

Yeah, live freely.

It’s a real issue for people. If you’re going to devote the time you need to devote to writing fiction you do need to support yourself somehow and it is real issue. Yeah.

Well, it was obviously worth it. It’s been freakishly successful, which is great.

Now, you are working on exploring the 1920’s, it sounds like for you next novel, so fast-forward us say ten years- can you paint a picture of what you think you’ll be doing then? Like how many novels you will have written? One a year- or…?

It’s really interesting looking forward. I think every writer probably gets to the point where they think, they kind counting the years ahead of them, and knowing how long it takes them to write a book. And, knowing how much energy it takes to write a book, and wondering slightly how many books they’ve got left inside of them.

I write a book- I mean the last one took about two and a half years. That was actually quite quick for me. So, I would say within ten years I might write three novels at the most, but that’s assuming that I carry on at the pace I’ve been writing in so far. And, actually, I’m not sure I can, or want to sustain that kind of pace.

Sometimes I even wonder, “Well, will I just keep writing novels forever?” There was a point, as I’ve talked about, when I started writing fiction. I made a decision to try and start writing fiction and sometimes I think there might come a point where I’ll think, “OK, I’ve writing ‘X’ amount of novels, maybe that’s it. Maybe I’ve exhausted the particular creative energies I have for novel writing.”

I just don’t know to be honest. I don’t know. And of course things depend on your career and how your books are received. That’s a bit imponderable.

But, I would like to think, I’m about to start a new book. I can sort of see the vague outline of one or two after that. So, that’s as far as I really want to look at the moment.

OK. And, finally for the people who are listening who are in that situation that you were in all those years ago, when you were not published and where it was just an idea to be a novelist- what’s your advice to them?

Well, I think if anybody has an ambition to write, but they’re kind of unsure about whether or not to do it. I would say go for it. I mean that’s exactly what I did. I had an idea for a novel and I gave myself, I suppose, I gave myself the opportunity to do it. I think you do have to be, not exactly selfish, but I think that you do need to be a bit new agey about it. You have to give yourself the gift of that.

But, at the same time, of course, it takes a lot of work. It’s quite a- it’s a very lonely life being a writer especially when you start off. It’s very solitary. But, I think if you want to do it, do it. You’re the only person who can do it. That’s the thing. You’ve got to allow yourself to do it, but you’ve also got to just kind of get on with it as well, I think. Then maybe worry about agents and publishers a bit further down the line, when you’ve actually got something.

Wonderful. On that note thank you very much for your time today, Sarah.

Oh, pleasure. Thank you.

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