In many ways, Sarah Waters is lesbian fiction’s dream author. Not only have her books sold well around the world, they have been adapted into successful BBC television movies—all while being unabashedly, unapologetically, erotically queer. Her first novel, Tipping the Velvet (1998), a coming-out and coming-of-age tale about village girl Nan King’s forays onto the London stage as a male impersonator, was selected as a New York Times Notable Book and was later turned into a BBC miniseries. Her second novel, Affinity (1999), a dark, spooky story about spiritualism in a Victorian women’s prison, won the Somerset Maugham Prize and resulted in Waters being named the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year.
With her third novel, Fingersmith (2002), Waters showed no signs of slowing down. The suspenseful, meticulously plotted book took readers deep into the world of Victorian pornography and the lives of thieves, and was short listed for the Orange Prize as well as nominated for the Man Booker Prize, the UK ‘s most prestigious book award. In 2005, Fingersmith came to television as a three-part BBC miniseries, further cementing Waters’ status as the historical novelist of our time. The fact that her novels continue to feature lesbians as their main characters seems, wondrously, to be entirely incidental.
Her latest book, The Night Watch, is a departure from the Victorian lesbian romps we have come to expect from Waters, but it still places lesbians front and center. Set in 1940s London, The Night Watch weaves together the lives of three women and one man, moving backward in time to reveal their interconnections and the ways they are all affected by life during World War II. Last month I spoke to Waters while she was in the midst of a world-wide tour to promote the book, and asked her about taking risks in moving on from the Victorian era, how she approaches writing, and whether she still identifies as a lesbian author.
AfterEllen.com: Your books require a lot of research.
Sarah Waters: They do, they do, although that’s the side of things that I really enjoy, actually. Before I wrote fiction I was doing a Ph.D., so I feel very at home doing research. And also of course it feels terribly productive. It’s like a way of kidding yourself that you’re doing lots of work. In fact you’re not actually writing, of course, but it is crucial…so I enjoy it. I also think that…with historical fiction…the trick of it is giving the impression that you’ve done more research than you really have. [Laughs.] You just need to do enough…to immerse yourself in the period, and then you sound like you know what you’re talking about.
AE: Do you have a particular methodology that you use when you begin a novel?
SW: I usually start off a book with a few months—three or four months—of solid research, which in itself throws up ideas for me about character and plot. So I usually find that by the end of those few months that I’m kind of itching to start writing, really. Then I leave research behind, but go back to it as I need to.
AE: Once you’ve begun writing, tell me about your process. Do you have an outline? Do you just sort of go forward?
SW: With the first three books, the Victorian-set ones, I kind of had the books worked out well in advance. I mean, Affinity and Fingersmith had pretty complicated plots, so I had to really have the plots worked out before I started writing. And it was a question of getting to know my characters and getting to know how they felt about what the plot required them to do.
But with The Night Watch, it was a very different sort of book to write and, quite unnervingly for me, it was much more character-led. I found that I didn’t know what was going to happen chapter by chapter. I knew the broad structure, the three-part-structure, and I knew broadly what happened to the characters, but I didn’t know— With something like Fingersmith, I knew in advance what was going to be in chapter five, what was going to be in chapter eight…but with this book I had to try out a lot of scenes, and rewrite them or abandon them, or put them in a different order. So it was a very labor-intensive way of writing.
AE: How long do you think you spent on the writing?
SW: I spent about four years altogether on the book from start to finish, including all the time for research. That was partly a long time, too, because I’ve been busier since Fingersmith did well and Tipping the Velvet was on TV. I’ve had more demands on my time as a writer, so my writing life has actually got a bit chopped up, so that slowed me down.