Thursday, March 16, 2006

Interview: Writer Sarah Waters

(Link) The author of "Tipping the Velvet," "Affinity" and "Fingersmith" discusses the trip from being quietly published with good reviews to putting lesbian literature into the mainstream.

1 comment:

LNewsEditor said...

JIC Post:

By Catherine Keenan
Sydney Morning Herald

WHEN The Observer newspaper recently listed the 50 most important people in British publishing, the usual figures featured near the top: J.K. Rowling, the chairman and chief executive of Random House, the creator of the Richard & Judy Book Club.

But at number 14 - above the author Ian McEwan, the head of Faber and Faber, and the poet laureate - was Sarah Waters. Why? Because she had taken lesbian writing "well and truly into the mainstream".

Waters is, perhaps rightly, a little sceptical of this. Looking slightly rumpled and bleary-eyed after a quick stint at the Adelaide Festival, she certainly doesn't look powerful, although she jokes she's looking forward to ordering editors about. But she is glad her novels are finding a mainstream audience, as she never wanted to write only for lesbians. She started writing fiction after finishing a PhD in gay and lesbian studies, and was happy if anyone read her work.

Her first novel, Tipping the Velvet (it's a Victorian euphemism for cunnilingus), was rejected by 10 publishers, including Virago. An agent later convinced Virago to change its mind, and Waters's high-camp story of lesbian love in the "naughty nineties" (the 1890s, that is) appeared. It had a modest print run of 5000 copies, and garnered a few short, though very positive, reviews.

Her second novel, Affinity, another story of dawning lesbian love, this time set in a Victorian asylum, was received in much the same low-key manner, generating good word-of-mouth sales in the lesbian community, but creating barely a ripple elsewhere. It was her third book, Fingersmith, that really broke through. A virtuoso Victorian pastiche with a racing plot, and more dawning lesbian love, it was shortlisted for the Orange and Man Booker Prizes, and hit popular pay dirt, too. It became that rare thing, a literary bestseller.

Around the same time, the BBC screened an adaptation of Tipping the Velvet, and the press coverage was frenetic. The screenplay was by Andrew Davies - the man who famously gave Mr Darcy an erection in the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice - and the combination of pretty young girls, corsets and giant dildos proved irresistible. The book sold 60,000 copies in the following two weeks. Lesbian fiction really had hit the mainstream. This was, of course, quite a surprise to Waters.

"It's not something I was on a crusade to do. Lesbianism is absolutely incidental to my view of the world, really: it's just there. It's at the heart of things for me, but I take it for granted and I think the books do the same."

She speculates this may be part of the reason for their success. Much of the lesbian fiction she read when she was younger was thrilling, but very angsty and aimed only at lesbian readers.

Waters, 39, didn't set out to correct this, so much as to write a book that she would like to read. Her agenda, insofar as she had one, was much more to do with playing around with historical fiction, and the conventions of 19th-century writing. For her, it's always the period that comes first, then the story. So far, these stories have involved lesbians, but then, why wouldn't they?

If she had any aim regarding the "lesbian-ness" of her writing, it was the more properly historical one of writing lesbians back into history, of telling stories that were once left untold. In this sense, the label historical novelist, rather than lesbian novelist, makes more sense to her, though she is happy with both.

Her new book, The Night Watch, will perhaps test the public's new-found taste for lesbianism. After three Victorian novels, she has left corsets behind and moved into the much more subdued 1940s.

The story opens in 1947, in London, with four main characters struggling to come to terms with the legacy of World War II. Waters wasn't sure what she was going to do with them until she realised it was their pasts that interested her, more than their futures. That's when she settled on her backwards structure - the book moves from 1947, to 1944, to 1941 - and the rest fell into place.

The book has received excellent reviews so far, but there's no denying it's a quieter, more melancholy read, far removed from one she once (to her enduring regret) called her "lesbo-Victorian romps".

It is also about older lesbians, rather than pretty young ones, and Waters assumed that, combined with the complex structure, this would render it unsuitable for TV. The production company which did Tipping, and later turned Fingersmith into a series, too, quietly passed on it, and while Davies is still working on turning Affinity into a film, she hasn't heard anything from him about The Night Watch. She doesn't hold out much hope.

"Not enough coming-of-age sex. Too miserable."

Waters acknowledges the irony that two straight male middle-aged screenwriters - Davies and the adaptor of Fingersmith, Peter Ransley - have been integral to her success, and hence to bringing lesbian fiction into the mainstream. But this doesn't bother her. She likes both adaptations, despite the prettying up of her characters (Nancy, the main character in Tipping, was butch in the novel, but a devastating femme on TV).

Both series would have been quite different if they'd been made by a lesbian director, with a lesbian writer, and lesbian actors. "If you can imagine such a thing." Who knows, it may happen yet. To Waters's surprise, various parties have expressed interest in filming The Night Watch, but as she warns, it's early days yet.