Sarah Waters on “Little Stranger,” Identity, and Lesbian Fiction

AE: Another theme that’s common in your work is the reinvention of identity. In Tipping the Velvet, Nan takes on multiple identities in order to survive. In Fingersmith, Sue poses as a lady’s maid. In The Little Stranger, Dr. Faraday is trying to reinvent himself in terms of class. Was this important to you in terms of developing his character?
Yes, very much. I suddenly thought, ‘Well, maybe he isn’t just this uncomplicated middle class character.’ I thought maybe he could be a working class boy who has done well for himself, but how would that feel at the time when class was still very rigid. He had this rather ambiguous role and obviously the fact that his mother had been a servant to the Hall was another complication. I like the idea that he had these lingering resentments.

AE: He’s haunted by his past in a different way than the Ayers are haunted by their past.
That’s true.

AE: Even his affection for Caroline is complicated by his concern over how other people see him.
It’s funny. I didn’t plan that at the start, but that just emerged. For a long time I was working on the book up to the point where Roderick gets carted off to the loony bin and I didn’t know how I was going to move it into the next phase. Then I wrote the scene where they go to the dance and I really liked it and then I could go back and foreshadow it with their interactions. But coming along late in the writing process, it became utterly key to the book because [Caroline] represents so much to [Dr. Faraday]. She’s like the whole package for him and that made lots of sense to me too because I’m interested in how when we fall in love with people we have other stuff going on to — it’s fantasy, projection. It is a package.

AE: A lot of readers were disappointed that there were no lesbians in this book. How do you respond to that disappointment?
I understand it, that’s one thing. I know for myself that we don’t have so many lesbian writers and readers, filmmakers, whatever, that we feel we can afford to lose them. I don’t in any way feel that lesbians have lost me. It’s just that this book came along and the story really grabbed me.

I knew it wasn’t a lesbian story but it had other things that appealed to me, like the gothic stuff, so as far as I’m concerned it’s very much a Sarah Waters’s novel. I hope that my readers, lesbian or straight, will feel that too. But I do understand the disappointment.

Funny enough, I looked at the site because there’s a thread about the new book and various comments about why I might have gone for a non-lesbian book. Actually, that was quite unnerving because it makes it seem like it was a calculated move on my part, but it really wasn’t.

AE: It seems like a lot of pressure to have people try to determine what you should and should not write. You have given a lot to lesbian readers.
Well I’d like to think so. And it also hasn’t changed the fact that I am still a very out lesbian writer. And for me, funny enough, it was a really interesting experience writing as the doctor desiring a woman because I often write about the desire between women in my book. But it was very interesting writing with a male voice. It was quite liberating in a funny sort of way and made me understand why lesbian writers in the past might have chosen to write in that form, people like Daphne du Maurie. Not that I’m suggesting that as a lesbian strategy, but I really noticed it.

AE: I actually thought you left a lot open for interpretation in terms of Caroline’s character.

AE: I thought you did that in an interesting way because again it comes back to the way that Dr. Faraday sees Caroline as his entry into the family.
Whereas he for her is an escape from the family or a potential escape.

AE: You’ve said that Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith were exciting books to write because of the “devious plots,” as oppose to Affinity, which was a “gloomy book to write.” What was your experience like writing The Little Stranger?
Funny enough, it was a relatively even writing process, which was pretty positive. I wrote this after writing The Night Watch, which was a difficult book. I was aware of the things that I had to get right with this book because the narrator was slightly unreliable. It’s quite a claustrophobic story in a sense. There’s no subplot. It’s all pretty much in the house and it’s like one thing after the other and I worried about that so I had to think about pacing. I was very preoccupied with details and aspects like that, which made it quite an intellectual exercise.

As fond as I was of the characters and as committed as I was to the story it didn’t have as much of me in it as The Night Watch. It wasn’t as emotional a writing experience. No less satisfying, just different. Maybe because it doesn’t have a lesbian in it, I don’t know.

AE: Some readers have said that they wanted at least one side lesbian character in the book, but I think that would have felt false.
SW: It would have felt really phony doing something like that, or tokenistic. It would have stood out, leapt out of the book. It would be obvious what I was doing, so I really resisted doing that.

AE: I agree.
It’s not as if it’s like a shining advert for heterosexuality. It’s not an anti-lesbian book. It just wasn’t a lesbian book for me.

AE: Speaking of which, do you think there’s anything missing from today’s selection of lesbian literature?  Or what would you like to see?
Lesbian in the UK seems pretty healthy at the moment [laughs].

AE: Extremely healthy.
More so than ever there seems to be a lot of high profile lesbian writers around, even if it’s someone like Ali Smith, not all of whose books are lesbian. She’s definitely a very visible lesbian presence. It would be nice, people have said this before, if there was a lesbian Queer as Folk or something that was really upbeat but very, very contemporary. Tipping the Velvet was loads of fun, but it’s a period piece. Certainly on TV it would be nice to see something a bit more contemporary. It’s been wonderful for me to have three of my novels adapted, but it’s all corsets, which gives it a bit of a remove from the contemporary.

AE: Do you read your books after they’ve been published?
No, never.

AE: Why is that?
I just feel too squeamish about it. I would just be horrified. I’ve read bits of it out loud at an event, but never the whole thing. I probably should, as a ‘serious writer,’ I should survey my work. But funnily enough, even though I’m utterly committed to the book while writing them, once I’m finished I’m ready to move on.

AE: You already know the story.
[Laughs]. Yes.

AE: Do you think you’ll ever read your books?
I don’t know. Maybe when I’m in my rocking chair. Maybe I’ll have enough distance on them so that I can view them objectively and they won’t feel too shaming.

AE: Are you working on anything new now?
I’m deliberately not trying to write because I can’t do it while I’m traveling. But I’m reading and thinking about the next one. Just taking it slowly.

AE: Any hints?
Well, I hardly dare say because it will probably change. At the moment, I’m drawn to the pre-war period of the twenties or thirties, probably back in London as much as I liked the country setting. I say this every time, but I’d really like to write something more upbeat. I’m going to write a romantic comedy this time! [Laughs]. But then I start to plan it and think, oh, but it would be much more interesting if this person was really wicked. The gloom really draws me. But Tipping the Velvet was such fun so I would like to write something a bit more rompy.

AE: Do you think the book will have lesbian characters?
I think so. I’m planning on it.

AE: Emma Donoghue said in an interview with that she sees you as a model of fearlessness in that you took a tiny margin — lesbian historic fiction — and brought it to the mass market. She said that you’re a model for how to view one’s career — “Just go about your business with enormous passion, and readers will follow.”
That’s nice. I feel incredibly lucky. I’ve always written the books that I want to write and I’ve certainly never felt pressured by a publisher or an agent or by readers or the market. I just had these obscure little interests, and it’s been wonderful to me that the readers have followed me so far.

AE: Are there plans to adapt The Little Stranger for film?
There’s interest apparently, though I haven’t sat down and talked it through with my agent. When I go back we’re going to meet up and apparently there’s been some interest from film and TV.

AE: You were recently selected to pick six “gay icons” for the National Portrait Gallery. How did you get involved in this project and what six individuals did you pick?
I was invited to do it by Sandi Toksvig. She was asked to coordinate the whole thing and she invited me to be one of the ten people. It’s a really interesting show because we were asked to choose our own personal icons, people who meant something to us. So the list is very eclectic and eccentric. I think it’s going to be quite controversial, but interesting.  My list is many quite obscure writers: Sylvia Townsend Warner, Patricia Highsmith, Daphne du Maurie, a woman called Bryher, who was the lover of H.D, Kenneth Williams, and Stephen Welsh.

AE: Anything else that you want to say to readers?
That I hope they’ll forgive me for not putting lesbians in the book.

AE: You do not need to ask for forgiveness.
[Laughs] No, that I just hope they enjoy the book.

Read our review of Little Stranger

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