Photograph: Sam Jones
Sarah Waters in London, April 2009
The Observer, May 10, 2009
Edited by Andy Ross
Sarah Waters lives in a pretty little Victorian terrace in south London, an easy
walk from the Imperial War Museum. She has
freckled white skin, an almost boyish smile and a floppy haircut. It's hard
to believe she is 43.
Sarah Waters first attracted attention with Tipping the Velvet, a title derived
from Victorian slang for cunnilingus, in 1998. Waters merrily characterised the
work as "a lesbo historical romp". She has now disowned this saucy phrase, but
it inflamed a generation of headline writers and set her on course. Her second
novel, Affinity (1999), was darker and weirder.
Waters' breakthrough into the mainstream came in 2002 with Fingersmith
(Victorian slang for a pickpocket, and also a midwife). Fidelis Morgan, who
writes the Countess Ashby de la Zouche series, said, "Fingersmith is an
intoxicating novel with a twist so astonishing it made me gasp aloud." The
novelist Philip Hensher says she has made "a great link between the secrecy of
queer sexualities and the secrets and revelations of the Gothic tradition."
From 2002 to 2006, she struggled with her most ambitious novel to date, The
Night Watch, a haunting love story set in wartime and postwar London. Her father
was only a boy then, but had memories of firewatching with his father. Her
mother had tales of the RAF in wartime Wales. As a child, says Waters, she was
"a real tomboy" who "had a lot of guns and really wanted to be a commando". She
would dash about with comic-book cries of "Achtung!" and "Schnell! Schnell!" She
remembers her father encouraging her to make Airfix models of Heinkels,
Spitfires and Lancasters.
Waters says she got the idea for her latest novel, The Little Stranger, while
working on the postwar sections of The Night Watch. The Little Stranger (the
title is a Victorian euphemism for "an unborn child") is a ghost story set in
austerity Britain. Waters is worried that the absence of lesbians will
disappoint her fans.
Waters recalls reading widely as a child, "but nothing memorable", and watching
"an awful lot of telly, sci-fi, horror and Doctor Who". As a teenager, she says,
she moved from her tomboy days to a "girly phase" in which "it was a relief to
feel I could date boys". Provincial Wales discouraged explorations of sexual
identity. She says she was always interested in homosexuality, but thought of
herself as bisexual - "I just liked the idea."
Literature didn't come into the picture until she took "a fairly old-fashioned
English course" at the university of Kent. She fell in love with another girl,
Kate, sharing a single bed for two "wonderfully memorable" freezing winters by
the sea. "It was cold, isolated, romantic and so intense - quite special," she
remembers. "We were together for six years."
Waters went on to take an MA at Lancaster, and then a PhD at Queen Mary's,
London. Waiting for news about an academic grant, she began to write Tipping the
Velvet. She says that her ambitions for her first novel came from her doctoral
work on the idea of history in lesbian and gay writing.
Waters' life in sunny Lambeth is discreet, unassuming and contented. She lives
with two cats and a partner of seven years. She is very practical and
matter-of-fact about writing. "I treat it like a job. I normally write Monday to
Friday, in working hours. I like a nice long day, I can't work in bits and
pieces, and I prefer not to work at evenings or weekends."
AR I recall Robert McCrum from the
years 1977/78, when we were both young unknowns in southwest London. He let me
read the draft typescript of his first novel.