Great LezBritain: Sarah Waters talks inspiration, adaptations at World Book Night

AE: Since the adaptations, do you visualise the stories differently during the writing process?

SW:
Well I think I write very visually anyway. I’m part of that generation that grew up watching lots of telly and I think I see a scene before I write it, so I always have a strong sense of the visual of a scene. Although, not always of characters funnily enough. They do exist very strongly for me, but sometimes more as a presence — especially the narrator. So sometimes when I see the characters in the adaptation, I get a real surprise. Rachael Stirling, for example, I thought was wonderful, but she wasn’t as I had imagined Nancy to be. But you very quickly just get used to that and they just become like “other Nancy.”

AE: When you were writing Tipping The Velvet did you doubt that it would ever breakthrough because it is such a lesbian story?
SW:
I never thought it would reach beyond the lesbian community but that didn’t bother me at all because that’s what I was aspiring to do. I was so used to reading things published mainly by lesbian or gay press that I just hoped it would appeal to lesbian readers and wasn’t looking beyond that.

So once the idea was raised for it to be made into a mainstream TV show, I just didn’t believe it, I thought it was a great idea but would never happen. And then when it did, it was part of a real “moment.” A moment when things just started opening up in British culture, a relaxation around gayness. It was just the right time.

A scene from The Night Watch

AE: On that note, we feel like it is the right time for Tipping The Velvet to be made into a stage musical — any chance of that happening?
SW:
Well, there is a chance that could happen but I don’t know if I can actually say.

AE: Really? I’ve been saying this for years; I can’t believe it might happen? I thought it was my idea.
SW:
There are some tentative plans for it to happen.

AE: Has it been cast? Because we know all of the dialogue. [All laugh]

AE: Isn’t it funny that not long ago lesbian content was considered controversial, but in fact your most controversial book was The Little Stranger because there was no lesbian content in it?
SW:
I guess that’s a sign of progress somehow. [Laughs]

AE: Some of your lesbian readers felt a bit bereft by the fact there were no lesbians in the book. How did that criticism make you feel?
SW:
They did a bit. I think they felt I was turning my back on them which is not the case at all. It was funny that, but I did suspect there may be a bit of that when I was writing it, if only because I’ve become so known for being a lesbian novelist. But I still wanted to write the book. My books are not just about sexuality, they’re about more than that and, you know there are some little queer things in there.

The book I’m writing now has got lesbian characters, but in the future I can’t say. You’ve got to go where the book takes you.

AE: I guess in The Little Stranger, the story was the story and it would have been odd for you to insert a lesbian that had nothing to do with the plot for the sake of it?
SW:
Yes I didn’t want to do that. I do feel a loyalty to my lesbian readers but I also feel a loyalty to my stories.

AE: Can you tell us more about the next book?
SW:
I’ve been working on it for a year but it still feels relatively early days and I think it will still be another year or two before it is finished. But it’s set in London in the 1920s and it’s a kind of lesbian affair; I don’t really know what else to say right now.

AE: You’ve got to say more than that
SW:
[Laughs] No, I can’t. That’s really all I can say

AE: What sort of interaction do you have with your readers? Do you get a lot of letters telling you that your books have had an impact on their lives?
SW:
I do get regular emails, not tons and tons, but i do get a few. And actually not just from lesbians, but also from men, straight women — a real mix really. But I do feel very connected to my lesbian fans when they write because their emails do have an extra emotional element. Sometimes I hear from young women, or just women who’ve read Tipping The Velvet and it’s helped them come out. Sometimes it is just really lovely and poignant.

AE: When I came out someone bought me Tipping The Velvet and said “Here you go, welcome.” And I definitely feel that it is still more than just a book for me, it’s bigger than its pages and the characters kind of go with me through my life, if that makes sense? When you were growing up was there a book like that for you?
SW:
There are books like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights that had a huge impact on me when I was a teenager. But certainly, when I was a young lesbian, reading was a really big part of coming out, not the actual process, more just getting to know my community and what it means to be gay. I found it really exciting and there were a lot of independent gay and feminist press about then, like Pandora, Women’s Press, Only women — most of which are sadly gone now. There was a lot of fiction around, most of it American, some of it brilliant, but a lot of it awful really, sort of romance pulp, but it was just important that it was there. It really made me feel part of something. I could never have written any of my books without that grounding in a sort of literature that was very relaxed about lesbianism, it gave me a confidence.

Then Jeanette Winterson also had a big impact on me because she felt like a really literary writer writing lesbian stories and that felt like a very new and exciting thing.

AE: What are you reading at the moment?
SW:
I’m reading lots of Muriel Spark. I’m reading all of her books in chronological order and she’s just fantastic, I’m nearly half way through. I just read Emma Donoghue‘s new novel, Room, and I absolutely loved it. It’s not at all lesbian is it? It’s a real feat that book, I think.

The BBC’s adaptation of The Night Watch will premiere with a special screening at the London BFI on Monday, April 4. Adapted by award-winning British writer Paula Milne and directed by Richard Laxton, the 90-minute adaptation starring Anna Maxwell Martin, Claire Foy, Jodie Whittaker and Harry Treadaway. We’ll be bringing you interviews with the cast and more news soon.

“Great LezBritain” authors Sarah, a Londoner, and Lee, a Glaswegian, met in a gay discotheque one bleak mid winter, eight years ago and have been shacked up together ever since. When not watching Tipping The Velvet, they find time to write, run a PR company, DJ at their own club nights and love a bit of jam on toast. Follow them on Twitter at greatlezbritain.

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