Sunday, 23 January 2011

The Sarah Waters Interview

It's time to start filling in the diaries with the finest events 2011 has to offer. My two favourite literary events (Scarborough and Middlesbrough) have both recently confirmed their dates and I am looking forward to both events.

One of the biggest names announced for the Scarborough schedule is Sarah Waters. Sarah's five novels, from 'Tipping the Velvet' to 'The Little Stranger', have all proved extremely popular.

Sarah was at the Middlesbrough Literary Festival in 2010 and it was a fabulous evening. We recorded a short interview after the long book signing queue had finally died down. I have been saving the interview to tie it in with the announcement of this year's festival dates, so the time has now come to publish!

Festivals, book signings and the like are often regarded as a necessary evil in the eyes of authors. But how do you feel about them?

Well, I see them as an opportunity to meet readers which is always really nice and always feels really important to me, because I do write with readers in mind; it's lovely to get feedback. But they are tiring and they do take you away from your writing, which is sometimes a bit frustrating. But I like them; I enjoy it. It's an opportunity.

It's a bit strange at the moment because you are between books, and not really trying to publicise and sell a new one.

Yes, that's right…

…that's even more unusual, so it shows you must enjoy them.

Yes, I do…and in fact, as you can imagine, I get quite a lot of requests and I couldn't do them all, so I do end up saying no to a lot, which means that I actually end up doing the ones I do really want to do. Since I have a connection with Middlesbrough it was a really nice opportunity to come back. I haven't done an event in this part of the world - ever! - I don't think, so it was just nice to come up here.

You should come here more frequently!

I'd like to, yes!

I know that when you were younger you read a lot of horror and sci-fi but you tended to move away from that, until 'The Little Stranger', which may be horror or may not be, as the case may be (a lot is open to the interpreation of the reader). Are you ever tempted to enter those genres again as a writer?

Yes, especially having written 'The Little Stranger', I do. I felt very at home with the genre when I was writing that book, and even since I've finished I've still been reading a lot of ghost stories, a lot of classic ghost stories, and I would - the next book won't be supernatural - but I would definitely like to come back to ghost stories in the future. Maybe write a really classic, proper ghost story.

And also, you were a big fan of Doctor Who, weren't you?


Is that classed as juvenilia now, or are you still a fan?

No, I still feel a loyalty to Doctor Who. I was gutted when David Tennant left, I must admit, and I haven't quite bonded with Matt Smith yet. Since the series reinvented itself I've always found it very patchy. Some episodes I think are just a waste of time but some are really good and it's the really good ones that make it still worth watching.

Who was your Doctor?

My Doctor was Jon Pertwee!

Mine too.


I read your list of ten famous horror stories on your website…

Oh yes…

I presume there are more lists to come on the website?

When they put the website together I juts happened to have a couple of top tens and they just asked me to write a ghost story one so we sort of planned for me to do more but I've never got around to it but it's a nice thing to do so I would like to do some more.

An omission which surprised me was Edgar Allen Poe, because he's been name-checked in respect of 'The Little Stranger' in various places…

It has…they were supposed to be kind-of ghost stories he's written all those tales of mystery and the imagination yeah…they're not so much ghost stories exactly, are they?

More supernatural….

Supernatural, creepy…I do like Poe and they've certainly been a big influence on me but it's funny - no, he didn't spring to mind when I was thinking of my top ten. He's just below the bottom one, I think.

You said you weren't involved in the creative process of the adaptations of the screen versions of your books but how difficult was it to break away from feeling precious towards your works and having people change it?

I didn't find it very hard at all actually, although having said that, I think I was very lucky to get teams of people who took the novels very seriously and were careful so I can easily see that another author might have a difference experience which would sour the whole thing for them. But I always felt, actually, that the book was never going to change; the book was always going to stay my book and that whatever was made out of it was going to be somebody else's project and I still felt that, really. If it goes wrong, it's their fault, you know, but if it does well that's nice because hopefully it reflects well on the book somehow.

Were there any adaptations you were disappointed with or were you happy with all of them?

I've been happy with all them, yes. I think they've all got different strengths and weaknesses but broadly I've been happy with all of them.

I understand 'The Night Watch' is in production…?

It's in development, which is very different, because it may never develop into anything, but yes, a script has been written and I think it needs a bit of money, because of course it's the blitz, it's London and stuff, so who knows what might happen with that. But it's a nice idea.

Is that for TV?

TV, yes…BBC…

And 'The Little Stranger' will be a film?

A film, yes…

Are you sort of semi-hopeful for both going ahead…?

Yes, I would say so. 'The Night Watch' has been languishing for a while, so I've sort of lost touch with that. But 'The Little Stranger' got the option last year, so they're still quite keen. So that feels like it's moving a bit more than the other project. (Update: click here for the latest news about 'The Night Watch')

Do you have an overall plan in terms of your books? Are you just going to keep writing until you run out of ideas, or do you have a set number in mind…?

No, I don't have a set number and sometimes I feel like any author, I suppose, that I might only have so many books in me but at the moment I still have ideas; you know, I have an idea for the new book and I have dim ideas for the books after that, so I definitely…for now, I want to keep going for as long as I can.

Do you find that the more you write, the more ideas come to you?

Not necessarily, actually, but there always seems to be enough for me to envisage books in the future.

Similarly, do you have any abandoned projects? have you ever started a book and not completed it?

I've never done that; never have. I know that others have; I hear it all the time but I…the idea really alarms me; the idea of investing so much time and energy into a novel…I think what I would rather do is work at it and even if it then became another novel, you know, but it might happen one day.

Now, living in Wales and then living in London, it strikes me that they are both areas with tremendous local pride; and I'm cross-referencing this with a comment about how you don't populate your novels too much with characters - a set number of characters almost, small…

Oh, yes…

...and I was wondering if the experience of living in places steeped with pride seeps through into your characters. You take pride in each and every one of your characters and the characters themselves have their own pride.

Hmmm…I've never thought of it in terms of pride before. Certainly, place is quite strong in the novels and people are very attached to those places. I certainly feel my London characters feel very attached to London in exactly the same way that I do, with a very strong sense of London's geography and London's history and where they belong in relation to it.

So I guess that is a kind of pride, isn't it? That's interesting; I'll have to think a bit more about that. Yeah, I don't know how the Welsh…I've always thought of my Welshness as providing a bit of an alternative, really, to the…because London, you know, you think - lots of people who live in London think London is the centre of the universe. I do, a bit. Having come from Wales, a very small bit of Wales, brings something different to it I suppose; adds something to the mix.

Every one of your characters is very individual, they're all very strong characters and that does tie in with not overpopulating the novels…

Yes…I think that's crucial in novels, not to have too many characters playing the same sort of roles. So inevitably you want to make the characters vivid and complex if you can.

Yes. Do reviews have any effect on you? You get good reviews all of the time and you've won loads of awards for all of your books. Does that put any pressure on you?

The good reviews are great! Although yes, they can feel like a pressure, especially if the project you're currently working on…if people love your last book you think you're never going to be able to live up to it again, it can be really scary; its true. So I think reviews can be a bit of a cloud over you sometimes, even when they are good. But I find it's amazing how you just sort of shrug them off and get on with the new book. Reviews for me are intensely interesting for about two or three weeks after I've got a new book out and it's amazing - they just become less and less relevant to you somehow as you move on to a new project.

I read that you never re-read your books once they are published…


…Is that still true?


Why is that?

Just a kind of squeamishness about it.



But that doesn't apply when you are watching the adaptations….?

No, no…I can watch them very happily, because again it feels like somebody else's project; it doesn't feel like mine.

Very interesting. Do you think you will eventually re-read your novels?

Maybe, yes.

Finally, there's a major moment now to bring books out in digital format, with Sony Readers and that sort of thing. How do you think that will impact on your trade as a writer?

Everybody in the industry, form the writers upwards, publishers, editors, agents, booksellers - everybody is aware it's an industry in transition. Right at the moment, we all know it's going to change. We know how it's changing but we don't know exactly how things are going to end up. So I think everybody's a bit nervy. I don't use a Reader myself. I would be happy to use them for some kinds of books but I'm also very attached to physical books. I buy a lot of old books and they're never going to be replaced electronically.

But I also think, it's just another resource, just another way of reading books and so long as writers are paid for their work, continue to be paid for their work, in sort of appropriate ways, I think it's just the evolution of reading. How it will impact on the writing process, I don't think we really know yet, whether it will demand another kind of content. Iain Banks has just released something hasn't he, where he's provided sort of deleted scenes. I think it's exciting, I think it's exciting for readers, but for me as a writer, I think if my publisher starts demanding that I produce more content, that might be a bit daunting. But then again, maybe once I start it, I find I'll enjoy it. I don't know. It's all up in the air at the moment and I'm trying to feel positive about it.

Speaking of publishers, a lot of writers I've spoken to feel very confined within their own genre and the publishers demand that they churn out virtually the same novel under a slightly different guise, but you seem to have broken away from that. Was there any pressure to continue producing Victoriana?

No, I've never felt any pressure. You know, some people have asked me, did your publisher ask you to write a non-Lesbian book, you know…? No - nothing has ever come up like that and I've never been under any pressure, they've just been very happy to let me write and move in the direction I want to move in.

Sarah Waters, thank you very much!

Further reading:

The official Sarah Waters website can be found here.

The Scarborough Literature Festival will run from 14-17 April 2011. Further details are available here.

The Middlesbrough Literary Festival is scheduled for 4-18 June 2011. Some early details are available here.

1 comment:

Kathryn said...

I attended this event and I really enjoyed it,Sarah and the organisers were all fun, interesting, inspiring and gave us all plenty of food for thought. THANK YOU !