Interview With Sarah Waters


AE: Many critics have said that The Night Watch was a big risk for you because it's not a Victorian-era historical. Did you ever think of it as a risk?
I know, it's quite an alarming seeing that, isn't it? I'm glad nobody said it to me like that when I started. … It felt like a leap of faith, put it like that, because parts of what I wanted from the experience of writing the book was to push my writing into new territory and see what happened to it. I was slightly worried.

I'd got an audience with Fingersmith who seemed to enjoy all the things that Fingersmith did, and I knew that the new book precisely wouldn't do those things. It wouldn't be kind of extravagant and twists and turns, and all that sort of lush Victorian stuff. So I was a bit anxious about it at the start, and I was also anxious that I had a vision of a novel that I might…not be able to pull off. But once I got…two years in, it sort of all began to fall into place, so I felt a bit more relaxed about it.

AE: When you said you were worried at the beginning that you wouldn't be able to pull it off, were you referring to the moving backward in time construction, or was it something else?
Actually, that sort of technical challenge I've always quite enjoyed. It was more the mood of the book—like I said, the fact that it's character-driven, the fact that it starts off with characters who are kind of tired and a bit stuck, and there's a lot of conversations. People just sort of wander around in part one, or they sit down and have a conversation, and of course I'm used to writing novels where there's quite a nice pace from the start, where it's clear that this is a story that's going to take you on a bit of a journey.

But with this book, it wasn't until I was writing part two, really, that I felt that pace, because that's the point of the book that their lives were more dramatic, in the war, and afterwards they were all a bit displaced. So there were things like that that made me anxious about it and slowed me down. … It's 'cause it's written in the third person and the others were all written in the first person. It's just a question of having to work out how to do that because I hadn't done it before.

AE: I found that it began as a somewhat slow, kind of depressing situation.
SW: Yeah, absolutely.

AE: And that moving backward in time made it much more understandable and ultimately hopeful. Was that your intention or did that just kind of happen?
That I think just kind of happened because…I knew it was going to be a melancholy book, right from the start. That was what I wanted to write about, and I didn't know what kind of reading experience it would be, given the structure and the fact that not only do you move back into the past, but you move from the sadness of the first part to the…optimism of some of the characters in the 1941 situation. So I just didn't know how that would work for a reader. I knew what I was trying to suggest, I suppose, with it.

AE: And what were you trying to suggest?
Just this tension, I suppose, between optimism and disappointment, I guess. It's fundamentally a novel about disappointment and loss and betrayal to a certain extent, but at the same time I hope that's tempered by the moments in the book where…there are moments of real contact between people and genuine intimacy between people.

AE: The style also is very different from your other ones, but I feel like it still sounds like a book written by Sarah Waters. Did that come naturally to you or was that something you had to work on?
That was something that emerged as I was writing. I could tell quite soon after I started that my writing would be different, because…the mood of the '40s was just so different to the mood of the 19th century as I'd been writing it. My 19th-century novels have got increasingly extravagant, really, as they took on Victorian models like melodrama and the novel of temptation and things like that. But '40s fiction is much more restrained and much more domestic and quiet, and a bit chillier really, which I like. I like all that stuff, so I was interested to feel my own writing change as I was writing. I just had to sit back and let it happen, really.

AE: Why did you choose Second World War London ?
I'm not even sure why I did. … It was almost arbitrary, in the sense that I didn't want to go further back in time. I wanted to move from the 19th century and I didn't want to go backward, I didn't want to come into the present either, so it had to be somewhere in the 20th century. … Initially it was the postwar world I wanted to write about, it was very much that—again because I knew that I wanted to write a sad novel about loss, so that immediate postwar world seemed to fit. But then once I'd made the decision to set the book backwards, I knew the war was going to be quite central to the book too, which was actually great because I'd started to read about the war and got very captivated by the impact of the war on London and on women's lives, gay life, whatever, so it all sort of fitted then. It all kind of fell into place.

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