AE: In one part of The Night Watch, Julia says that she only wrote her first novel as a joke and then discovered that she was sort of good at it. That made me wonder if you had always known that you were going to be a writer. Tipping the Velvet came out of your graduate research, didn't it?
SW: Yeah, it did. No, a couple of people have mentioned that comment [and asked if] it might be a sort of thing about my own experience, and I didn't intend it to be. Although actually it might as well be in a way, because yeahâ€¦having written my Ph.D., I had an idea for a lesbian historical novel that was Tipping the Velvet. It was very much one idea, and I thought I'd give it a go and see what happened.
I hadn't always planned to be a novelist at all, and in fact it took me a few years to realize that was what I'd becomeâ€¦and that I actually really liked it and I felt very at home. I feel very at home doing it, and it's made me realize now that as a child I did love to write, in a sense, and I have always loved language and loved writing and stuff, but I think doing academic work as a studentâ€”that was where my creative energies went for a long time.
AE: And why did you choose to not continue in academics? I mean, you're no longer teaching, right?
SW: No, no. Well, you know, I enjoyed teaching. I enjoyed research much more, though. â€¦ I didn't especially want to become an academic. I had friends who were academics and I thought it was completely fine, but not something I wanted to devote my life to, whereas the idea of writing a novel seemed a lot more appealing, actually. Then it just kind of took off, really.
AE: So Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith were both made into miniseries. Do you want The Night Watch to be made into a movie?
SW: It's funny, isn't it? Because of course with those two adaptations behind me, people have been saying to me from the start, "Will The Night Watch be made? Won't it be great if it is made?" And it will be interesting if it's made, and of course money-wise…undoubtedly it would be a treat, but I've always felt with The Night Watch that it wouldn't lend itself very easily to adaptation.
Part of me feels there's no reason why books have to be adapted for TV or film at all. In some ways I get quite frustrated that the TV and film industry do always go to books. I kind of thinkâ€¦commission something new, leave books alone. But obviously I won't be saying that if I get handed a nice big check. [Laughs.] So basically, yeah, it would be interesting. I've found the processes of seeing Tipping and Fingersmith adapted just absolutely fascinating, because it is a complete translation into another medium. And it was tremendous fun, too, meeting the actors and talking about it. It was great fun, so I would certainly not be reluctant to go through the process again, put it like that.
AE: How did you feel about the finished products?
SW: I thought they were great. I thought Fingersmith was especially a really good quality showâ€¦and it was very faithful to the book. It was spookily faithful to the book at times, which was exciting. Tipping the Velvet was fantastic fun, and certainly got a lot of attention in the UK when it came out and all of that felt very exciting, so they were both very good experiences.
AE: I wanted to ask you about prisons because they seem to feature quite prominently in your books. Why are you so interested in these places of confinement?
SW: I'm not even really sure. When I was planning The Night Watch and I realized it was going to feature a prison I was kind of [thinking], oh God, here's another one, where's that come from? I don't really know, except that I think I find the idea of confinement peculiarly horribleâ€¦as do lots of people, really.
Certainly with The Night Watch there was lots about space in the book, and it made sense to have the prison setting there, inasmuch as I got interested in how the war had intruded on people's domestic spaces. It either blew their homes up or it meant that people had to share intimate spaces. Like their homesâ€”they had to take in lodgers and things like that, or they had to share shelters and railway carriages and things like that. It's something that people talk about a lot.
And I realize that there are a few significant moments in the book that take place in bathrooms or toilets, where people can actually lock the door behind them. So I think there's a tension in the book between being in control of your own space and being out of control of your own spaceâ€”the idea of being able to lock yourself in the bathroom or the idea of somebody locking you into a cellâ€¦with in between all these disrupted spaces of the city of London. Thematically the prison seemed to make sense, I suppose, but I think ultimately there's some other psychological pull for it for me that I can't quite account for. I was probably locked in a cupboard when I was three or something.
AE: Maybe it's just a continual metaphor for the closet that comes in and out of your books.
SW: Yeah, maybe it is, maybe it is.