Interview with Sarah WatersSeptember, 2014
Sarah Waters: It's been different with each book, actually. For example, with The Night Watch I did have a slight sense of the characters, and I already knew enough about the postwar period to feel that they would fit in that era, so that worked out very well. But with this book, I must admit, it was purely about wanting to know more about the era, beginning to research it, and finding out what the issues at the time were. I'm always interested in women's history, class history, and lesbian and gay history. Once I began to see how those things played out in the decade, the story and characters began to emerge for me.
GR: In The Paying Guests, although their fortunes have faded, Frances and her mother are still members of the upper class, while their lodgers, Lilian and Leonard Barber, are members of the clerk class, a fact that is frequently remarked upon. What made you decide to explore the changing class system following World War I?
SW: Partly because it was such an interesting time. If you look at the 19th century, class differences were so rigid; there wasn't much blurring between them. By the time we move into the 1920s, upper-middle-class people were losing their income, losing their servants, losing their status, and there was a big opening up of opportunity for lower-middle-class people. The lower-middle class expanded to allow people who previously would have been stuck in working-class lives that might not have been terribly secure or comfortable. There was a newly confident lower-middle class with a bit more money, a bit more leisure time. Even clothes had changed. It was easier to buy ready-made, good-quality clothes more cheaply, for example. In the 19th century, what someone wore on the street would have told you immediately an awful lot about them, and there wouldn't have been much chance for people to play around with those distinctions. By the '20s, lower-middle-class people could be very well turned out quite cheaply in a way that was exciting for them. But for people in the class above them it was quite threatening. The key result was a lot of snobbery. Snobbery became a way of asserting a status that you were losing.
GR: Goodreads member Thomas Ullman asks, "You write very well about clothing. Is this something you are keen to make a point of showing in your books?"
SW: Clothing did come up a lot in The Paying Guests. It was a time when clothing acquired a new significance. Lilian makes her own clothes, which says a lot about Lilian. She's inventing herself in a way that Frances can't because Frances is trapped in the traditions of her class and of her family. Lilian doesn't have that. She's completely liberated, and she can make herself up and have fun doing it. I think it's because I write about class, and clothing is always significant there—the way we present ourselves to the world, the way the world sees us, and the resources we have to do that. It's about how we project ourselves in the world, isn't it? That's why I'm drawn to clothes in writing—what we reveal, what we keep hidden. It's funny, because I'm not very interested in clothing. If you could see me now, I'm in the most terrible indoor clothes. I'd be ashamed to be seen on the street in them.
GR: Did you initially imagine a love triangle between Lilian, Leonard, and Frances or did that develop as you were writing?
SW: Actually, that came quite early on, and I think that was the point when the novel began to come into being for me. I looked at murder trials; I mentioned some of them in the back of the book. There were a couple of infamous murder trials in the '20s and '30s that were rather similar. There was the Bywaters/Thompson case in '22 and the Rattenbury/Stoner case in '35. They both involved married women who had affairs with much younger men, and the men then killed the husbands in a jealous rage. The women were implicated and put on trial. Edith Thompson was found guilty and hanged along with [her lover, Frederick Bywaters], even though she had no part in the murder itself. It was a trial that caught the public's imagination, partly because it touched on class and women's new sexual autonomy and social mobility. It was such the classic scenario—the wife, the husband, and the male lover. It played out in very predictable ways in a society that was largely heterosexual and patriarchal. I began to think, What would happen if there was a lesbian affair rather than a heterosexual one. And that really became the spark for the whole novel. I began to think about what might bring all these people together. I liked the idea of them all living together in this relatively small house and the house becoming full of domestic intrigue and dangers.
GR: It seems that in several of your books the houses function as characters in their own right.
SW: I can't quite explain my fascination with houses except that I'm writing largely about female history, and women's lives tend to be played out in the domestic sphere. It's that thing about a confined space. In this book in particular, a lot of action builds up over what you overhear and what's going on in the next room or on the floor above. In the first part of the novel that's a source of excitement, as Frances and Lilian start their affair, but it becomes darker and more sinister in the second part. I really enjoyed that switch—thinking about how we can use space, how we can use the confines of a house to our own excitements, but then something happens, and it switches around and we're trapped.
But by the end of the book they have to get out [of the house]. When I was working toward the final scene, I didn't know where it would be, but I felt I couldn't take them back to that house, and I couldn't take them to Lilian's, because that's an even more claustrophobic house, even though I like her family. It had to be in the open air.
GR: Your last book, The Little Stranger, was a departure from your previous novels. Were you excited to return to some familiar themes like lesbian romance?
SW: I really enjoyed writing that novel. I'm a big fan of the gothic and a big fan of ghost stories. When I realized that it was an opportunity to write a haunted house story, I was really excited. I enjoyed trying to scare my reader. It was great fun. But I knew early on that that book wasn't going to be a lesbian novel; it just wasn't that type of story. But I did kind of miss the lesbian element. I missed writing about desire, the excitement of desire, and romance. It was exciting to get back to that with The Paying Guests. It took me a while to commit to Frances and Lilian's love. I was rather squeamish about it. I thought, Oh, God, it's just a romance, it's small scale. But I realized that's the point—it is a small story in a way. It's two women falling in love in a house in South London. But it's got this weight of feeling to it, and it plunges into a really complicated moral predicament. Once I realized that was at the heart of the novel, I could commit to it. I ended up feeling very close to Frances and Lilian.
GR: Goodreads member Laura Lillard asks, "I've always been curious how difficult it has been to research the queer culture and the lives of those considered sexual outliers at the time. How does she go about this research?"
SW: It's been different for the different books and eras I've written about. With the 19th century there is some information, but it tends to be very fragmentary. I was looking at things like medical records, police records, prison records, basically anything I could find. You have evidence about women's lives and women living together as long-term companions. Women have left love letters to each other, which are very suggestive to the matter. Oddly enough, not having information about lesbian life can be very liberating for a novelist, because it gives you license to fill in the gaps. I've tried to do that sensitively in most of the books. But with something like Tipping the Velvet, which was much more me inventing a lesbian history, I often call it a fantasy lesbian history. It was me taking the evidence that we have and building on it, elaborating on it to create the kind of lesbian history that I'd like us to have. It's only when we move into the 20th century that there is a lot more in the historical record. The '40s, for example, with The Night Watch, I think I was being quite true, hopefully, to the reality of lesbian life then.
GR: Goodreads Author H.D. Russell asks, "Since most of her novels have a touch of darkness, does she think that there is a fun romp like Tipping the Velvet floating around in her mind to write in the future?"
SW: Yes, they got darker and darker as I got older, I think. Sometimes I look back on a book like Fingersmith, which was such fun to write and had a lot of energy to it, and I think it would be great to write something like that again, something that's as exuberant and playful as Fingersmith. Tipping the Velvet was a nice playful book, too. It is something I'd like to think about returning to in the future. Often I think about that when I start a book, and then I don't know, it just gets kind of darker. There is something about getting older—you see the complexities of life. I'm interested in those murky motives that everyone has—those murky currents in all sorts of relationships—and moral ambiguity. Those are the things that have been interesting lately. But I would like to recapture some of that early exuberance.
GR: Several of your books have been adapted by the BBC. Are there any plans for a miniseries of The Paying Guests?
SW: It's early days. There's been a bit of interest from production companies, but I've been so busy with promoting the book that I haven't even had time to see to that. It's a nice idea. There are plans to do The Little Stranger as a feature film, which is also really nice. I've had two TV adaptations but never a movie adaptation, so that will be very interesting. But as far as The Paying Guests goes, it's just a question of the right production company coming along.
GR: Your fans really enjoy your books' erotic moments. How do you balance the love scenes with the overall story?
SW: In earlier drafts of The Paying Guests, there was a lot more sex. I really wanted to show the passion in Frances and Lilian's relationship and them getting drawn into this very heady physical relationship. So it was one scene after another where they were getting more and more adventurous. But it wasn't right for the pace of the book. It's always sad to have to get rid of things, but they have to go. And it's just a question of keeping the scenes that felt absolutely vital. I did want their relationship to feel physically compelling, and I wanted to write about their sex with the attention that I write about their other sorts of experiences. There definitely had to be some lingering sex scenes, but only as it felt right for the book as a whole.
GR: Tell us about your writing process. How do you go from an idea to a finished book?
SW: Yes, gosh, the thought of doing it all over again is scaring me a bit at the moment. Because it is an extraordinary thing to go from nothing—a mustard-seed-size idea—to a finished book of 500 pages. If I think about it too hard, I feel I'd never actually do it again because it's too daunting. It's a slow accretion of thought and knowledge, with a flash of genuine inspiration. It's about starting with a very small idea and just letting it go where it wants to go. And reading, thinking, getting to know a period, following it through, then just lots and lots of rewriting. Lots and lots and lots and lots of rewriting. Mainly getting things wrong before I get them right. There were certain bits of The Paying Guests that were very hard to get right. The whole first section was a challenge. Frances is what we would call a lesbian; Lilian is straight, married. It's 1922—they couldn't just leap into bed together in the first chapter. They had to gradually get to know each other. It was challenging to get the pace and tone right. I got Frances's voice quite quickly, but Lilian took longer for me. It is just about patience and trial and error on a big scale.
GR: Do you have a typical writing day?
SW: It depends very much on what phase of the book I'm in. For the bulk of the writing I aim to write 1,000 words a day, about two pages, which sometimes I can achieve very easily and sometimes is much, much harder. I do rather force myself to keep going, even if the words are awful, which often they are. It's then going to be easier to work with something than to work with nothing. A lot of my time is spent rewriting, which is much harder to quantify. It's just a sense of doing a good day's work and moving the book along, even if it's just by a millimeter. The bulk of the writing is like a day job—Monday through Friday, 9 to 4:30. But then in the last few months of it, it becomes much more intense, and I'm writing on the weekends. I just keep my head down and get on with it. It's a tiring phase, but it's also an exciting phase because you feel the book is really coming together.
GR: What books have influenced you as a writer?
SW: The most inspiring thing for me is somebody else's good book. There have been so many over the years that it's hard to say. When I started off as a writer in the '90s, I'd been very inspired by a lot of the historical fiction that had been coming out around then, books like A.S. Byatt's Possession. This isn't really historical, but Alan Hollinghurst's The Swimming-Pool Library was a big influence on me. The gay novels that were coming out in the '90s that seemed to be newly confident and ambitious, like Jeanette Winterson's, seemed to have a big impact on me. Angela Carter, actually, was a writer who made a big impression on me, and I still love her writing. I think it's at that point in your career that you're most susceptible to genuine inspiration from other writers. Once you've got your footing, it's just a question of admiring writers over the years and learning from them.
GR: What are you reading right now?
SW: I'm reading a book by Arnold Bennett called The Old Wives Tale. It's a funny thing—he's deeply, deeply unfashionable here now. He was a really big name in the late 19th century and on into the 20th century, like E.M. Forster or Thomas Hardy. He was a very big literary figure and wrote loads of novels, some of which are much better than others. But this one is great. It's one of those big Victorian/Edwardian novels, a long leisurely story about a family and their ups and downs. That's my bedtime reading at the moment, and it's great. It's really absorbing and nurturing.
Interview by Elizabeth Stamp for Goodreads. Stamp is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, New York, and was previously an editor at Architectural Digest and Elle Decor.
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