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Sarah Waters started writing her first novel, Tipping the Velvet, as she was finishing a dissertation on lesbian and gay historical fiction from 1870 to the present at the University of London. Her burst onto the literary scene with three very lesbian-inclusive romps through the underbelly of Victorian England and has rescued lesbians from the cracks in history and taken England by storm. Her novel Affinity won the Sunday Times Young Writers of the Year Award; Channel Four has produced both her novels Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith; in 2003 she was named one of Granta’s best British writers under forty; Fingersmith was shortlisted for both the Orange Prize and the Man Booker Prize.
Here in the states she has a passionate cult following among queer and feminist readers, but our more Puritan literary establishment has yet to catch on. Perhaps they’ll get the message with her new book, The Night Watch where Waters moves to mid-blitz London to take up her themes. I caught up with her while she was on tour in Ireland and Australia, before coming to the U.S.
Where did your fascination with the Victorian Era come from?
The fascination with the period really came as I was writing Tipping, rather than before. I went to the 1890s because it seemed a perfect decade in which to set a lesbian historical novel (all the socialism, the utopianism, the suffragism etc – plus the general ‘naughtiness’); but then I got increasingly hooked on the Victorians.
Had you always intended to be a writer?
I hadn’t written anything before Tipping, so it was a real leap of faith. I’d always loved writing as a kid, but I was always ‘bookish’, too; my writing became academic rather than ‘creative’. But doing the PhD gave me a confidence with words, and a daily writing routine. It was perfect training for a novelist like me.
What was your original goal when you started writing?
My goal was to pursue some ideas which interested me (much as I had in the PhD), and to write the kind of novel I’d have liked to read myself — a lesbian historical romance, that would be a bit ambitious, and literary, too. I’d been reading lots of lesbian historical novels and they all seemed to me to tell the same small-scale story: two women meet in some rural town, and fall in love; there’s a frowning patriarchal figure in the way —an elder brother, or a minister who accuses them of witchcraft; but finally they get together and escape into the forest to become wise women. I wanted to write a story that had lesbians at the heart of urban life; that played with literary models; and, more importantly, showed that there was not just one way of being a lesbian, but many.
Was the publishing world eagerly awaiting a series of deep, accurate, racy Victorian lesbian tales?
It took what felt like ages to find a publisher (actually, less than a year, I think). I tried about 10 UK publishers, large and small — including Virago — and they all sent the manuscript straight back. I had just got to a point where I was considering some of the American gay presses when I got an agent. It took her a little time to sell the novel, though — she had the idea that she could place it with a very ‘mainstream’ publisher, but didn’t find any takers. It was very disheartening; but I must have had some confidence in my writing, because I’d already started Affinity when we finally sold the book to Virago.
With The Night Watch you’ve moved your storytelling to WW II London, looking at women’s lives – and pacifist men’s lives – as London is being constantly bombed. What piqued your interest and shifted your imagination to such a different era?
I wanted a change. Much as I loved the nineteenth century, I didn’t want to get stuck there. I’m not sure what it was about the 1940s that really called to me; but something did. One of my favorite films is Brief Encounter; it has an utterly heterosexual plot, but there’s always seemed to me to be something very gay about it – the lure of forbidden love; the secret passion; the necessity to put family duty over desire. These aren’t that different to the sort of issues that attracted me to the Victorian period, really. But I was interested to see those issues being played out on a very different social (and physical) landscape.
I’m haunted by your opening scene in Night Watch: Kay, standing in the open window, considerably worse for wear, with even her clocks and watches stopped. My Irish grandmother used to ask me (usually at the most inopportune moments), “How do you get that way?” As a young person I always heard it as abject disapproval, but more recently it’s occurred to me that she really wanted to know. Was this your question for Kay and the others?
Yes, that was absolutely my question. I started with the 1947 setting and a group of characters who were all clearly ‘damaged’ in some way (an early title for the novel was ‘Harm’). They were so damaged and tired and jaded, in fact, I didn’t know what to do with them, didn’t know how to move them forwards. Then I realized that (especially given the ’40s setting) what was most interesting about them might be not what was going to happen to them, but what already had. The backwards structure made perfect sense to me after that because that’s what life is like — getting to know someone new is, as you say, all about getting to know about ‘how they got that way’.
How did you research lesbian lives during the war?
I read everything I could get hold of — which, to honest, wasn’t that much. There have been some great collections of lesbian and gay oral histories published in the UK; there’s a particularly good book about London’s lesbian club, The Gateways (From the Closet to the Screen, by Jill Gardiner). I found bits and pieces in odd places—in diaries, for example (the young Joan Wyndham records seeing handsome “lezzies” in Soho; the artist and writer Denton Welch talks about his lesbian friends). There’s a good novel of lesbian love set in 1940s’ London, called Winter Love, by Han Suyin. I also talked to older lesbians, when I got the chance.
Where has your imagination turned now? Will you continue with this era?
Yes, people seem to finish The Night Watch wanting a sequel… I think that’s unlikely, to be honest; but for the next book I do plan to move into the early ’50s. I’ve become very attached to the post-war scene, and feel there’s more about it that I’d like to explore. I’d like to look more at how the war really shook up the British class system, for example.