Sarah, tell me something of your family origins and what you were like as a child.
I grew up in a small family: just me, my sister, my mum and my dad. It was in many ways pretty idyllic, very safe and nurturing; we weren’t an academic or bookish family, but my dad in particular – an engineer – was a fantastically creative person, and encouraged me to make, build and invent all sorts of things. When I picture myself as a child, I see myself constructing something, out of plasticine or papier maché or Meccano; I used to enjoy writing poems and stories, too. But there was also an undercurrent of neuroticism to my childhood, which I can’t really account for: I had anxieties about sleeping, about schoolwork, and a real obsessive-compulsive streak. It cast a bit of a shadow over things, at times.
Will you describe the Neyland of your childhood? What were the main social, political and cultural influences of your youth?
Well, my father was a big influence, as I’ve mentioned. Neyland is a very small town – about 4 000 people – on the Pembrokeshire coast; Pembrokeshire has one of the most beautiful coastlines in Britain, so even though, culturally, it wasn’t the most thrilling place in which to grow up, it was wonderful to have so much great scenery nearby; I got a lot out of that when I was young. Politically, my family was pretty disengaged, but I became interested in pacifism as a teenager – I joined the local branch of CND - and feminism was something that made sense to me even as a very young girl. Culturally, my biggest influence was television: in our house, the TV was turned on the moment I got home from school, and stayed on all night. I still have very fond memories of awful ’70s TV. I watched a lot of horror films, and even now have a taste for the macabre.
While growing up, what did you believe about your future?
I don’t know if I thought about it much, really. I know that, for a long time, I wanted to be an archaeologist – like lots of kids. And I think I knew I was headed for university, even though no one else in my family had been. I was always bright at school, and really enjoyed learning. I remember my mother telling me that I might one day go to university and write a thesis, and explaining what a thesis was; and it seemed a very exciting prospect. I was clearly a bit of a nerd.
When did your passion for words develop?
I always enjoyed writing, at school and at home. The stories and poems I wrote were usually dreadful gothic pastiches – so when I look at a novel like Fingersmith I see that nothing much has changed. In my teenage years, when I was reading more widely and studying English at school, I began to enjoy writing in a more academic kind of way. That pleasure in analysis and criticism propelled me through university, and ultimately to a PhD; it was only as I was writing the PhD – on lesbian and gay historical fiction - that I began to think I’d like to try and write a novel of my own. I started work on Tipping the Velvet as soon as the thesis was finished, and recovered all the creative writing excitement of my childhood.
Which writers have inspired and influenced you?
I think every book I’ve ever read has left some sort of mark on me, but writers I would count as real influences include Dickens and most of the more gothic writers of the nineteenth century – for example, Wilkie Collins, Mary Shelley and the Brontës - alongside late twentieth-century writers like John Fowles and AS Byatt, who were at the heart of a sort of postmodern return to Victorian life and fiction, and whose work I found really exciting as a reader in the ’80s and ’90s. One writer in particular who had a big impact on me was Angela Carter. Her collection of rewritten fairy stories, The Bloody Chamber, is still one of my favourite books; and when I reread Nights at the Circus recently I could see how much it had influenced Tipping the Velvet. Carter was a wonderfully literary writer with a "common touch" and a clear feminist agenda – all things I admire very much.
Do you find you have to be very disciplined about setting aside time for writing? Do you write every day?
Yes, I do have to be disciplined about it; if I waited for inspiration to strike, it would never happen! I write every day when I can (except weekends), and always write at least 1 000 words – about two pages. That way, even if the words are awful – which they often are – I know that by the end of a writing week I will have 5 000 words, at the end of a month I’ll have 20 000, etc – and eventually I will come back to those words and make them better. It’s always easier to rewrite than to start from scratch.
Where is your favourite place for writing?
I can write anywhere so long as I have a desk, a computer, and peace and quiet. For a long time I lived in small shared houses, and wrote at a desk in my bedroom; a couple of years ago I bought my own place, and now I have the luxury of a study. I live alone, too, which means I can be wonderfully disciplined about my writing routine.
What is the physical act of writing like for you? Do you write first drafts in longhand or type them directly onto your computer?
I can’t write in longhand any more, I’m actually physically awkward with a pen – the result of too many years at a keyboard. But I love writing straight on to a computer – I love the ability to cut, copy and paste, to try out various drafts of a sentence or paragraph or scene. It does take its toll on one’s muscles, however: I’ve had real problems, in the past, with RSI and a bad back.
This year Virago published your fourth novel, The Night Watch. It's a departure from your previous Victorian novels. What made you decide to write about women's lives in 1940s London?
I had loved my Victorian settings, but decided it was time for a change: I knew that the longer I left it to move from the 19th century, the harder it would be; and I was interested to see what would happen to my writing if I took on a new period. Something about the 1940s called to me: I knew a little, for example, about women’s experiences in wartime Britain – about how some had had new opportunities during the war, only to lose them with the return to peace, and that seemed like fruitful ground to explore. I was also a fan of some of the very romantic films of the period – films like Brief Encounter – and I wanted to see if I could borrow that romance for lesbians.
How did you research the book and how long did your research take?
The research took quite a while, because as soon as I started I could see that I knew nothing about the era, really, and so I more or less had to begin from scratch. It felt quite overwhelming at first: there’s a lot of material available – in the form of books, films, diaries, ephemera, sound recordings – and I really wondered how I would ever find a way through it. But every time I made a decision about a character – where they lived, what they did – my research became more focused. I probably spent the first few months just doing solid research in libraries and archives; after that, I kept reading books and watching films, right up until the last day of writing. So research was something that accompanied the whole creative process. From start to finish the book took about four years.
Some writers seem to prefer not to plan a book's structure. Did you use a detailed plot outline from the outset, or did you work from instinct, page to page?
My first three novels were very tightly plotted right from the start – increasingly so, since they became more and more dependent on plot twists and revelations. The Night Watch was very different. I really started only with the broad three-part structure in mind, and with a sense of character and mood; I had more or less to figure the book out as I went along – a very time-consuming and unnerving experience for me, as I tried out scenes and chapters in lots of different ways. I ended up with a pile of rejected scenes about three feet high. It was satisfying in the end, realising just what should go where; but a lot of the time it felt like a wrestling match.
Would you briefly describe your characters, Kay, Duncan, Helen and Viv, for people who haven't read your book?
We first meet all four characters in 1947, and it soon becomes clear that they are all more or less unhappy, stuck in unsatisfactory relationships or isolated and aimless. Kay wanders the streets of London dressed in mannish clothes, occasionally picking up stray women. Helen is desperately jealous of her crime-writer girlfriend, Julia. Viv is having an affair – clearly past its best – with a married man. Duncan is living a twilit sort of existence with a much older man he calls Uncle Horace. Each character has secrets, pasts they don’t like to confront. The novel moves backwards in time, into the drama of war, to uncover their stories and tease out the connections between them.
Helen and Viv run a dating bureau above a wigmaker's behind Bond Street Station. How popular were dating agencies in post-war London?
To be honest, I’m not sure; but I imagine they were a bit of a boom industry, since so many relationships suffered under the stresses of war. Divorce rates, for example, rocketed with the return to peace. But I liked the idea of Helen – a lesbian – and Viv – a woman having an affair with a married man – giving out romantic heterosexual advice!
What was the greatest challenge you faced when writing The Night Watch and what important things did the experience teach you about yourself?
I faced a series of challenges, really: the move to a new period; the move to a third-person narrative after using first-person voices in my other novels; the backwards structure of the book; the use of an ensemble cast. This all made for a style of novel I wasn’t used to writing. My biggest struggle, I think, was in figuring out how to organise the book scene by scene – how to give away the right bit of information at the right time and how to keep the reader interested, for part of the novel at least, in characters who weren’t really saying much about themselves. There were times when the book was a complete mess, and I really worried it would stay that way. Getting through those times was a learning experience: it taught me to have confidence in the writing process, to sit tight and keep working and allow the book to develop at its own pace.
What feelings would you like readers to take away after having read your book?
The Night Watch is quite a melancholy book, but I hope people won’t go away from it depressed. To a large extent it’s about the failure of intimacy – but at the same time, it contains scenes of real human connection. For me, these work like little lights glimmering in the darkness. Some of the characters, at least, finish with the potential to make positive changes in their lives; and though people behave badly here - by letting each other down, in large and small ways – I tried to make the book a compassionate one, understanding and forgiving weakness. And everything is complicated, of course, by the novel’s reverse structure – which means that it ends on a point of optimism for nearly all the characters, but has already given us a glimpse of their sometimes unhappy futures. Lots of readers say they finish the book and want immediately to go back to the beginning. There isn’t the traditional closure of a beginning, middle and end. But that’s like life, isn’t it?
Promoting, interpreting and analysing one's own work is a very different process from writing. What do you find challenging about the publicity, launches, readings and interviews in the promotion of a novel?
I quite enjoy the publicity side of things, these days; I certainly always enjoy meeting readers. The main challenge is that touring and giving interviews eats into one’s writing routine. I found this very difficult to handle when I first became more successful, but now I am better at managing my time. I am also a bit better at saying no to things - and I have a good publicist, who filters requests for me and makes the whole process a bit more streamlined. I know now, too, that the months before and after the launch of a new book will be dominated by publicity: I don’t even try to write in that period. The rest of the time, I can have a struggle to preserve my daily writing routine – but I try not to let it stress me, because the stress doesn’t help the writing either.
Where to from here? Are you working on something new?
I have just started work on a new book – but to be honest, it’s still in such an embryonic form, there isn’t much to say about it. I can tell you that it’s set in the late 1940s again: I’ve grown very attached to that era, and, having finished The Night Watch, feel there’s more about post-war Britain that I want to explore. I’m interested, for example, in the impact of the war on the class system. I’m also thinking of setting the book in a small town, rather than in London – a new departure, for me.
Is there anyone you feel comfortable sharing your work with when it's in draft form, someone you can use as a sounding board? Do you ask your family or friends to evaluate your work?
It’s absolutely crucial, when you’re writing, to have a reader whose opinion you can trust; it’s also important, I think, not to have too many readers early on – conflicting voices will just confuse and distract you. I have a friend who reads my work for me in its roughest form. She’s a great critical reader, and totally honest – brutally honest, at times! – but that’s exactly what you need. Once a book is more polished, I will show it to my agent, who’ll give me good general feedback; the next stage is showing it to my editor – something I don’t like to do until the book is quite far advanced. Somewhere along the way, too, I will show it to my partner – and certainly, I discuss writing issues with her a lot, and really value her opinion.
What are your thoughts about literary prizes?
I have mixed feelings about them. They’re great for the people who win them; they’re also a good way of stirring up interest in and debate about writing. But having been on a couple of judging panels myself, I know how chancy the whole process is – and of course, you only have to think about it for one minute to realise that the whole idea of judging one book against another is completely daft. What worries me even more is the way in which chain bookshops have begun to latch on to things like literary prizes in their promotion of an ever-narrowing field of "bestsellers". Big bookshops look more and more like supermarkets, with discounts and special offers; publishers seem keen to promote their writers as celebrities rather than as authors. I don’t think any of that is especially good for writing and reading in general.
Could you name a few of your favourite books? Why are they important to you?
If I had to draw up a list of favourites, I suppose it would look something like this: Dickens’s Great Expectations, because of its wonderful treatment of class and family anxiety; Brontë’s Jane Eyre – formally, one of the closest-to-perfect novels ever written; Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, for its compassion; Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca, for its fabulous female masochism; Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, for its feminism and its literary verve; Adam Thorpe’s Ulverton – an account of a fictional English village over four hundred years, and a masterpiece of historical ventriloquism; and Patrick McGrath’s Asylum, for its mood and narrative drive. But ask me on another day, and this list might look completely different …
What book has recently surprised you?
Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black – though it surprised me only in the sense of being even better than I had anticipated, and much funnier and darker.
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
Read as much as you can – and try to read critically, thinking about how an author has achieved particular effects. Develop a good writing discipline: try and write every day if possible, perhaps aiming for a certain word-count (Graham Greene wrote 500 words a day). Don’t be afraid to write rubbish – your main job is to rewrite. Don’t be afraid of rejection – but also, be prepared to act on harsh feedback. Keep writing: I was rejected by about ten publishers before I found a home for my first book. And finally: get a good desk and chair, and pay attention to your posture as you work!
Thank you for your time, Sarah.
You’re welcome! Thanks for the interesting questions.
The Night Watch by Sarah Waters (ISBN 1-84408-242-3) is published by Virago, and can be purchased from all good bookstores in South Africa.