Interview With Sarah Waters – Beyond Any Label


AE: I’m sure you’ve been asked this before, but do you mind being identified as a lesbian writer?

I don’t actually. I have been asked it–I do get asked it a lot. I always say no, I don’t. And partly I think if anyone’s responsible for labeling me a lesbian writer, it’s often been me. I think I’m so anxious about avoiding the label–I mean, I’m so anxious about not wanting to be seen to avoid the label–I often overcompensate by taking it on myself, because it’s important to me. … I’m writing with a clear lesbian agenda in the novels. It’s right there at the heart of the books. And it’s both at the heart of the books and yet it’s also incidental, because that’s how it is in my life, and that’s how it is, really, for most lesbian and gay people, isn’t it? It’s sort of just there in your life. So I feel it makes absolute sense to call me a lesbian writer, but at the same time…I’m just a writer.
I’m a historical novelist–that’s another label. I think there are lots of different labels that can be used about writers at the same time, and I certainly don’t sit down at my desk thinking “I am a lesbian writer, I am a lesbian writer.” I’m just writing stuff that interests me and feels important to me, but inevitably because I’m a lesbian and I’m interested in issues about sexuality and gender…those are the stories that I go to town with.

AE: Do you read what’s defined as “lesbian literature”?

I do from time to time; not as much as I used to. I think it was…fantastically exciting and important to me when I was coming out to read lesbian fiction. I remember in the ’80s there was a lot of it around, and not all of it was great, to be honest…but it was just exciting that it was there at all. These days I’d probably be less likely to read a novel just because it was lesbian…I’d want something else to grab me about it.
There are some great lesbian writers in the UK at the moment. Ali Smith is a writer I like. Joanna Briscoe, Charlotte Mendelson, they’re both writing quite interesting stuff. Jeanette Winterson, of course, I think really was responsible for allowing lesbian fiction to be more ambitious in the UK. I think there was an amazing impact from her novels. So I do [read lesbian fiction], but like I say, I don’t read it for its own sake.

AE: Some of the materials I got from your American publisher said that you are planning your next novel to be set in the 1950s.

I think so. That is the plan at the moment, although it is very early days with the book so I haven’t actually… [Laughs.] But yeah, I got very attached to the postwar scene, so I think I’ll move away from the war itself but just nudge into the early 1950s.

AE: Still in London?

Possibly not, actually. Possibly not, but anyway, it’s such early days I’m not sure where it’s going.

AE: Why do you feel that you’re so drawn to writing historical fiction? SW:

That was my way into writing fiction. It grew completely out of my Ph.D., which was about historical fiction and how we reimagine and reinvent the past. … I often get asked whether I will write a novel with a contemporary setting, and it may be that I will one day.
Ultimately I think as a novelist, you’re interested in stories, in storytelling, and it may be that a story will come along that works best with a contemporary setting and I’ll kind of go for it, but up till now what’s excited me has always been the sense of finding new stories from the past. Especially, of course, because I’ve been writing about lesbian and gay things. I still have the sense that the past is full of fascinating gay stories that are a gift to a historical novelist. So for now I’m content to play around with that.

AE: I also wanted to ask you what you think about all this stuff about gay marriage in the UK, now that you can form civil partnerships.

I think it’s quite amazing. We could never have predicted it here. Twenty years, probably even 10 years ago it would have seemed unimaginable, and things have just shifted. It is thanks to gay activism. … I think it’s pretty amazing, although my partner and I haven’t got any plans ourselves at the moment to do it. I think if we had kids or if we had shared property or something, we would do it for those very practical reasons, but we don’t feel the urge to do that ourselves.

AE: Did you ever grow up with the urge for marriage?

No, I have to say, I’ve never had that particular urge. [Laughs.] But I’m delighted that gay people who do have that urge can go ahead and do it.

AE: In the course of all your success, are there any moments where you just sit there and go, “Wow, I can’t believe all these straight people are reading my novels about lesbians!”

Yeah, every day. But…I can’t believe people are reading my books at all, you know. It’s not just the straight people reading the lesbian stuff. I still haven’t gotten over the fact that I’m in this amazingly privileged position of being able to devote myself to writing stuff that I want to write, and then people want to read it too; it’s quite amazing.

AE: That’s wonderful. Do you feel any pressure?

I have done. I have done. When I was starting The Night Watch and it was taking a long time to come together, and people were saying “When’s the next book coming out? When’s the next book?” And Fingersmith … had done so well that I knew I would have an even bigger audience for the next book, and more scrutiny on it and things like that, it was quite scary. I’d just get panic attacks about it. But at the moment I’m in a good place, I guess, because the new book’s out and it’s doing well, and it’s quite nice. No doubt I’ll be having panic attacks again…when I’m struggling with the next book, but I think that’s just part of the writer’s life, really.

Get more info on Sarah Waters at her official website

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