Interview: Lesbian voices amid the clamour of war
One of the most acclaimed novelists in Britain, Sarah Waters is the woman behind seminal lesbian fiction like Tipping The Velvet and Fingersmith.
Tony Grew met her to chat about sex scenes, The L Word and her latest work, The Night Watch.
When I mentioned to my lesbian friend Rachel that I was going to interview Sarah Waters, her big blue eyes lit up.
Rachel told me a story about being 16 and secretly sleeping with the most popular girl in her village, and how all the little lesbians at her school read and re-read and read again Waters first novel, Tipping The Velvet.
For them, it was Sapphic version of Catcher In The Rye, a dazzlingly exciting, sexy and fun novel that spoke directly to their experiences of the joy of discovering their sexuality.
Joy and excitement that can so often be absent from lesbian fiction.
Rachel also said that Waters is damn sexy, and when I did finally sit down with her to discuss her latest novel, the award-winning, best selling The Night Watch, I understood why.
Waters, 40, is petite, pixie-faced and just about the easiest person to talk to I have ever met.
Before the interview I had been a bit worried about it. Novelists, you see, can be the most pretentious artists of all, especially about their own work.
Some will refuse to talk about their writing process or how they come up with characters.
They will sit there and talk absolute bollocks about their “art,” about how they are channelling their muse, about how hard their work is.
And one is always tempted to say, try a ten-hour shift in a cake factory and you will see what hard work is.
As you might have guessed, Waters was chatty, open, pragmatic and best of all amusing. After Tipping, she wrote Affinity and Fingersmith.
All three were set in Victorian England. With The Night Watch, Waters moved out of her comfort zone and chose to write about the lives of characters, gay and straight, in the London of the 1940’s, during the war and two years after it ended.
Why the change of time period?
“For the sake of making a change, which sounds a bit calculating. I had written the first three, absolutely loved the Victorian setting, but I began to feel I might be in danger of getting a bit stuck there and become known for only being able to do one thing.
“I wanted to see what sort of book I would produce if I moved setting.
“I knew a bit about the war, like everybody who lives in the UK does, but as soon as I started researching I realised that actually I knew nothing about it.
“I started with a few books about London at war and then read published diaries which were really great, ordinary people talking about what they did the night before.
“Gradually I started to accumulate knowledge and I began to realise how and where to focus.
“Every time I made a decision about a character like where they work, driving an ambulance or something, where they lived, that guided my research more and more.”
The book is rightly feted as a triumph. Waters manages to build the landscape of London, and in a style reminiscent of Dickens, makes the reader feel like they are actually on the street or in the room with the character.
I assumed this attention to tiny detail, such as the taste of wartime tea or the sounds and smells of a men’s prison, must have come from first-hand accounts.
“I didn’t talk to lots of people actually, I talked to a few when I had the chance and I gave the manuscript to a couple of people. My girlfriend’s grandmother read it, she was a WREN.
“I went to local archives and called up actual Civil Defence pamphlets. I went to the London Metropolitan archives and called up photos and maps of bomb-damaged streets. It felt a lot more real to me.
“It’s always those details that interest me, even when I was doing my Victorian novels it was always ‘what did the clothes feel like, where did your shoes rub you.’
“I feel very mired in details like that myself and I fasten on them when I am writing my characters.”
Waters began her career as a novelist after completing a PhD in gay and lesbian historical fiction at the University of London’s Queen Mary and Westfield College.
Her wide reading of Victorian fiction certainly paid off when it came to her first novel, Tipping The Velvet.
“Doing the PhD was like a complete liberation of creativity for me. It is great training for being a novelist -it is a long project, you are on your own, you have to research.
“I finished it with this new competence about writing and a real urge to do something more imaginative.
“It was really a question of trying to write a scene, and then another. I remember giving it to my girlfriend at the time to read, and she really liked it and that felt really great because she is a smart girl, a clever reader, and I would have known if it was crap.”
After all the usual rigmarole with finding a literary agent and then a publisher, she found a home at Virago.
Tipping was an instant success, loved by women, gay and straight.
It was turned into a saucy BBC drama starring Keeley Hawes that everyone from The Guardian to the tabloids adored.
“I thought that Tipping was a lark!” says Waters.
“I could tell quite early on that it was not going to alienate lesbians.
“If it only appealed to middle-aged men or boys I would have been very disappointed but to me it seemed to have a very wide appeal – lesbians liked it, my mum liked it and The Sun liked it too and I thought that was great.”
Waters, who has been with her present partner for over four years, explained that writing The Night Watch was more difficult than her previous novels.
“I did practically lose sleep over it and was certainly in tears over it more than once,” she reveals. It took four years to write.
“This book was different from my other novels because they were all very tightly structured in my head from the start.
“With this it was much more fragments – I had fragments of lives and at first I did not really know how they might go together or what the connections might be.
“When it did all start to fall into place it was really exciting. I have not re-read it since I finished it and I probably never will.
“I have never re-read any of them. But I feel very fond of it and my characters.”
When we begin to discuss those characters, her love for some of them is evident. The Night Watch is in three sections. It starts in 1947, then jumps back to 1944, then back again to 1941.
It is concerned with the intertwined lives of three lesbians, Kay, Julia and Helen, a heterosexual couple having an extra-marital affair, Viv and Reggie, and Viv’s younger brother, Duncan, who is gay, though his sexuality is never explicitly referred to.
Lots of literary types will talk intelligently about women writing a male character, but what about a lesbian writing straight voices?
“I think it is about the individual writer rather than anything more broad about gender or sexuality,” says Waters.
“I have had the experience of reading a novel that is supposed to be narrated by a woman, or supposed to be a gay voice, and it does not ring true.
“At the same time a writer like Mary Renault, for example, often wrote as a man.
“Roddy Doyle has written really convincingly as a woman, some writers can do it. Ideally all writers should be able to do it because it is all about imagination.”
That said, Waters admits that some characters she is more in tune with.
“Viv is a woman, I can relate to that, I have straight women friends, but I did not feel close to her in the way that I did to my lesbian characters.”
The male characters are nicely drawn, but the novel’s third person narrative and backwards structure does add a level of dislocation to the book.
The sex has a peculiar distance to it as well, and there is not much of it.
“After Tipping the Velvet I did get this reputation for being a rather raunchy writer and that book has lots of sex in it and it is very celebratory, it’s fun.
“Since then I have never written a book that needed the same sort of sex, never written a book that is about a sexual awakening in the way that novel is.
“Fingersmith had one sex scene that is written twice.
“This book has sex scenes that are not great. There is something slightly unpleasant about each of them for the characters involved.
“Maybe that gives them an edge. This novel was written in the third person and what is an effect of that is distance.
“Sex can be something that transports you out of your body but lots and lots of times you are far too aware of your body, it does not quite work or you are not quite there.
“That kind of sex is more interesting and more of a challenge to write about because we very rarely see it.
“We see sex in movies and it is athletic and seamless, simultaneous orgasm, and on the whole sex is a lot more messy than that in real life, emotionally and physically. The whole novel is slightly shabby, all the surfaces are dirty.”
Waters was nominated for the Booker Prize and won a Stonewall Award last year for The Night Watch.
Her interest in the past experiences of gay men and lesbians gives her body of work a real sense of those lives.
“Moving to the 1940s after the Victorian era I expected everything to be a lot more rosy for my lesbian and gay characters, they would be more mobile and visible.
“They were, but what I had not really taken on board before I started my research was how their new visibility made them targets for homophobia.
“People could make nasty comments about fairies or lesbians – it was a more dangerous time.
“When you read autobiographies and novels about gay life of that period, you have these enclosed worlds which are quite outrageous.
“Gay parties that are lots of fun and butch women and camp men but its like they are sealed off and the public bits in between, although gay men were cruising and having casual sex, in other ways you had to be so careful of blackmail and women could lose their jobs.
“In my novels I have never wanted to dwell on homophobia because lesbians and gay men just get on with their lives and do have fun and their emotional lives can be separated away from a hostile world.
“In this novel I wanted to show lesbians and gay men living on their own terms but then suggest the greater hostility.”
Waters is working on a new book, as yet untitled, and she confides that it is going “OK,” though it is still at an early stage.
“It is set in the late 1940s and it is not set in London but the Midlands. There are no queer characters in it at all.
“It is a novel in which sex and romance do not really feature so it is not like a great straight romance.”
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Towards the end of my time with her we discuss the newest lesbian phenomenon to hit our TV screens, namely that LA-set Queer as Folk -wannabe, The L Word.
Is the cerebral Sarah Waters a fan?
“You see very sexualised images of lesbians, women who tend not to look like the lesbians I know, very made up and girlie and in one way it’s a nice advert for lesbianism but it does not feel very real.
“It is nothing to do with the political side of lesbianism, which has become quite a small issue these days. I think it is a shame that is the only type of lesbians we get to see on TV.”
Given that television companies seem to want to film everything she writes, it seems Ms Waters owes it to the sisters to return to lesbian lives very soon.
The Night Watch is published by Virago and is now on sale in paperback for £7.99.