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Sarah Waters is undoubtedly one of our great contemporary storytellers. Perhaps not since Daphne du Maurier has a popular woman writer so enthralled the English-speaking literary world. Waters’ success – both critically and commercially – lies in her novels’ great crossover appeal. Her rich and inventive writing, often rollicking and always full of twists, endears her to a broad audience, while her unfalteringly authentic historical voice lends her novels gravitas in higher literary echelons.

The Little Stranger, however, marks a departure from her previous exuberant romps. Located in drab and straitlaced Warwickshire during that ‘miserable year’ of 1947, it is a ghost story. More than any of her earlier novels, The Little Stranger investigates the changing class system – and Waters relates these supernatural aspects to the social and cultural landscape of postwar Britain. Yet she has retained the captivating elements of the Gothic: traumatic shock, death, grief, ghostly happenings, creepy houses, unexplained fires. Despite its austerity and restraint, The Little Stranger pulses with wicked energy; the atmosphere is addictively tense. It is a genuinely frightening novel.

This March, Sarah Waters is a guest of Adelaide Writers’ Week. Kill Your Darlings spoke with her about The Little Stranger, her research practice and creative process, historical fiction and some of the more unexpected trials and tribulations of writing.

Rebecca Starford

KYD: Congratulations on the publication – and fantastic reception – of The Little Stranger, both in the UK, here in Australia and around the world. Let’s begin by talking about the process of writing it. Did you adopt a different approach to it, in contrast to your other novels? You once said, in reference to The Night Watch, that when writing about the particular period of the 1940s you felt a responsibility to get aspects of war-ravaged London ‘right’ – and in this you felt a responsibility to the people who lived during that time. Did you have that same feeling with The Little Stranger?

SW: Not so acutely, no. I think, with The Night Watch, because I was writing about actual events, and in a period that’s relatively recent…You know, with the nineteenth century, nobody’s alive; there’s no one who can actually remember the nineteenth century, and I felt that gave me a kind of licence to play around with it. But moving to the 1940s, I didn’t feel like I quite had that licence. I was reading a lot of diaries about the Second World War; I was reading about people’s experiences in wartime London. And so it felt like this very real landscape that my novel had to fit within. I mean, I wanted it to fit, but I had a very specific sense of life in the city at that time, and I wanted that, in a way, to leak into the novel.

But with The Little Stranger, even though it’s a similar period, I did want to get things right. I was very anxious, for example, about Warwickshire, because it’s the first novel of mine that’s not set in London.

I know London very well, but I don’t have a personal connection with Warwickshire. I didn’t want to make any glaring errors about the area. But because The Little Stranger is kind of a ghost story, I found that whenever I moved into Hundreds Hall, it was slightly dislocated from history. Even though the story, for me, is completely rooted in that postwar scene, and is absolutely informed by the changes that were happening then in Britain, it nevertheless had this slightly dislocated feel to it, too. So, it was almost like Hundreds Hall had rules of its own.

KYD: As you say, you’re very familiar with London. During the research process, were you going out on location in Warwickshire? Was there a particular home that inspired Hundreds Hall?

SW: No, not exactly. I did go and visit Warwickshire, several times, and I read books about Warwickshire. I tried to read books from the 1940s. I also managed to make contact with a woman, who lives in Warwickshire, who has written some histories of families around there. In the end, she read the manuscript for me and that was wonderful because she picked up a couple of details that weren’t quite right.

In terms of the house, there are many large country houses in Warwickshire, but Hundreds Hall isn’t based on any actual house. It sort of resembles a couple of other houses, one of which is in Shropshire, which is the neighbouring county to Warwickshire. But what I tried to do was to visit a lot of country houses. I suppose I probably borrowed bits and pieces from lots of different houses and I put them all together to make a purely fictional Hundreds.

KYD: You’ve mentioned reading diaries from the 1940s. Could you please talk a little bit about the kind of external texts that influence you when you first formulate ideas? You’ve said previously that the starting point for The Little Stranger actually came from Josephine Tey’s 1948 novel, The Franchise Affair.

SW: Yes, that was my starting point, really, with the whole book. It’s a novel that has always fascinated me, and it’s a novel that’s so symptomatic of the conservative attitudes towards class and the class changes that were happening at the time. I knew that those were the sorts of issues I wanted to explore after having finished The Night Watch. I just feel drawn to those issues. And with The Franchise Affair, not only does it capture this particular mood, but it’s an interesting story in itself. So, at first I thought I really wanted to write something that was quite closely related to The Franchise Affair – but I wasn’t quite sure what to do with that. Then I thought about the supernatural element and immediately got excited, because I’ve always enjoyed ghost stories. So I think at that point my novel began to diverge from Tey’s. But, for me, it’s still quite literally a similar landscape because Tey’s book is set in the Midlands – which is why I went there in the first place – but also socially and culturally in a similar landscape. Hers is about class following on immediately from the war.

KYD: Do you feel this is what differentiates The Little Stranger from your earlier novels, this explicit preoccupation with issues of class? When you talk about this original influence, did you take that idea of class and think, ‘I want to expand on this’? Or did it happen naturally during the process of writing and researching?

SW: Both, I suppose. For me it seems that I just kept coming up against class as an issue when I was researching the 1940s. You can’t miss it, really, it’s such a hot topic of the time, and it informs so much of the writing of the period. There’s a kind of snobbery there, or there’s just an anxiety about what’s happening to the classes. Especially in the wake of the Labour government being voted in immediately after the end of the war, (and Churchill being voted out) which I think was an enormous shock for lots of people. Certainly for conservative people. It was a real blow, and it seemed to be the start of something dreadful. Whereas, for a lot of other people, it was exciting: everybody had been through this really long war and ordinary people had played a really important part in it; they felt they wanted something in return. It was one of those real turning points, I think, in British history, and I wanted to tackle those issues.

I’ve always been interested in class, and I think it is there in my other novels. I mean, it’s usually there in a complicated way within a bigger story about sexuality. Here, obviously, there’s no lesbian element. I guess it was more class as a pure issue that I wanted to be looking at.

KYD: Do you think that historical novels, in the way in which they can explore these issues, are political texts? Is that how you identify your novels?

SW: I’m not sure. It depends what you mean. The worst kind of historical novel is a novel you feel is nothing more than modern characters in fancy dress. You know, where the past is just this picturesque backdrop. I think a good historical novel is one that tries to enter into a different cultural landscape, a different social landscape, and tries to think about what’s making that landscape work; what’s going on both on the surface and underneath the surface. Certainly for me, I’ve always been interested in going back to bits of the past that we think we know quite well, and hopefully finding slightly new stories. Obviously, where I’ve done that in the past is to look at lesbian stories and gay life. So in that sense, yes, I think it is a political activity.

But, at the same time, The Little Stranger – it’s a funny book. It ended up being a lot more ambiguous than I planned it to be, inasmuch as it doesn’t really have a message about class. In fact, in some ways you could read it as quite a conservative novel. I don’t know. The doctor is the central character and he both belongs to a kind of new era, but he’s also enthralled with the old order. He both wants and hates that old, conservative world.

KYD: I suppose, in this way, we don’t read him as wholly reliable or necessarily trustworthy. There are moments when he makes such snide remarks about class and about the family, yet you can tell he’s compelled to keep visiting them. It makes such an interesting contrast to your other novels, where you feel you can trust the narrators and protagonists, but Doctor Faraday does remain, up until the end, untrustworthy and unreliable.

SW: I liked that about him. He became more interesting for me the more ambivalent he became. He started off for me as a very transparent, middle-class narrator. Actually, he was just going to be a friend of the family and record their decline for us in an uninvolved kind of way. But then I thought it would be much more interesting if I give him this complicated class background, and complicated relationship with the family as a result of it. Then, as you say, he becomes less reliable and just a bit more intriguing.

KYD: How important do you think it is today, in the UK, to be writing revisionist narratives? Here in Australia, we are having a robust interrogation of the past, particularly addressing issues of colonialisation and its impact upon the indigenous population. How important are such interrogations of the past in Britain today, particularly if you look at the question of class? Is this something that has a contemporary resonance?

SW: Yes, I think so. There’s been a real movement to complicate our relationship with the past and to interrogate the historical narratives that we’ve inherited. I think that historical fiction is a genre that has been particularly sensitive to that and, in some ways, I think that it has revitalised historical novels. It’s been a fantastically popular form in the UK, and all the time I think, ‘Oh my God, people are going to lose interest in the historical novel.’ But, actually, it’s quite the opposite. I mean, look at the 2009 Booker shortlist! They are all historical novels.

It’s quite startling that there seems to be this real interest. And not just in writing about the past in a traditional kind of way, but in rethinking the past. There’s been a kind of opening out in British literature, probably in the past ten years, in terms of welcoming new voices, like lesbian and gay voices, and so on. I think this is a very healthy aspect of British fiction at the moment. And I guess my own writing must be informed by those changes, definitely.

KYD: Of course, there aren’t any lesbian characters within The Little Stranger. Do you still consider it to be a queer text? The reason why I ask is because when you came out to Melbourne a few years ago to promote The Night Watch, you were talking about your next novel and how you were considering having no lesbian characters in it. The audience was horrified, crying: ‘No!’ But then you then asked, rhetorically, if a novel can still be a lesbian text without having lesbians.

SW: I remember that, actually, and it’s something that still really interests me. I don’t think The Little Stranger is a book that answers that question. I wouldn’t call it a lesbian novel, but I think there are queer aspects to it. Like that fact that I am well-known as a lesbian writer and then this is a novel in which there is a male narrator who talks an awful lot about his desire for a woman, who is not a very traditional kind of woman. There’s a lot of desire in the novel. Certainly, lots of readers have been keen to hunt the lesbian in it! They think Caroline is a sort of embryonic lesbian, or a repressed lesbian. Somebody suggested to me that Doctor Faraday was the lesbian, because of the way he desires, because of the way he talks about Caroline. And somebody said to me the other day, no, the house is the lesbian! So everybody wants to ‘find the lesbian’. But I do think there is a kind of queerness to it. There’s always been a long tradition of lesbians and gay men using the Gothic, or having an affinity with the Gothic. I’d like to think that this novel maybe fits into that tradition.

KYD: This next question goes back to your creative process. How do you create a character, and, more particularly, their highly individual vernacular? Do you get yourself into character as an actor would? How do you sustain these sections of writing?

SW: I’m not sure, really. I don’t think I consciously get into character. The voice just seems to come from somewhere; it slightly inhabits me. It’s definitely something quite physical. Characterisation is a bit mysterious to me. I can see how I create plot, and I can see how I create mood, but characterisation – it’s a very funny thing. It has an awful lot to do with voice. I think it’s intuitive; getting a feel for one’s character and how they should talk, and what they should say. This sounds very obvious, but I can’t think of a better way to put it. It just sort of happens. Research is enormously helpful.

KYD: How do you regard the relationship between research and writing? You’ve just mentioned that your characterisation is stimulated by research – is there something you seek out specifically, knowing what it is you’re looking for? Or is it just something that you stumble across that leads you in another direction?

SW: It’s all those things actually, it really is. It’s very interesting, because I’m in the very early stages of the next book (very early, though) and I’m trying to be conscious about how the process works. Something takes me to a period, and I begin to read about that period. At that point, I’ll already have a slight sense of the sort of characters I want to write about. With The Night Watch, I remember I had three main women characters in mind. I knew a bit about how they might be related, and that was as much as I had. When I go into the period, I begin to see the issues of the period and how characters might represent those issues, and that begins to flesh out the vague characters I had in my head to start with. Then, as they begin to be fleshed out, I can begin to direct the research in specific ways. For instance, Kay in The Night Watch; I wanted her to work in civil defence in some way, and then I thought about ambulance driving, which seemed absolutely right for her because she’s a rescuer figure. Once I decided on that, I researched ambulance drivers and that gave me details I could then take back to Kay. It’s a real back and forth thing. But I think it’s crucial for them to be representative and individual at the same time, so that they feel like individuals, and yet – because I think this is true of all of us – they are representative of historical moments and their cultural world. I want my characters to seem somehow produced by and belonging to their society, whilst also seeming like individuals.

KYD: What’s most notable about The Little Stranger is the austerity of the prose. Did you find it more difficult to write in a restrained manner after the rollicking style of Tipping the Velvet and, to some extent, Fingersmith? Did you find you were consciously reigning yourself in?

SW: A bit, although by just moving to the 1940s I felt my voice begin to change. There’s something wonderfully extravagant about nineteenth-century fiction and I used that extravagance – not so much in Affinity, that’s a bit different – with Tipping and Fingersmith. In those novels my characters are loquacious; they have a story to tell and it’s an extraordinary story, a crazy story. They can be passionate and larger than life. Moving to the 1940s, which was a much more buttoned-up time – especially for the British middle classes – with a more reigned in idiom, I found that that my own style in the books was naturally affected. Of course, with a character like Doctor Faraday, who’s male, not extravagant and slightly cut off from his own feelings, the voice did become terribly banal. Then I started a new challenge of finding ways to make him more interesting, and to introduce lyricism in his voice, without making it seem unlikely or implausible. I find that once the voice settles, which it doesn’t do straight away, but does after a little while, it just is what it is, and I work within it.

KYD: The austere style of The Little Stranger also seems to highlight the secretive and hidden nature of your characters. Is this something that you’re aware of ? Obviously, within the Gothic tradition this is a usual preoccupation, but it seems that narratives about secrets are present throughout all of your fiction.

SW: Secrets are more interesting to write about: what’s below the surface, or what’s being kept back. It seems to me that we all have an internal life that is sometimes very different from the life we present to the world. I suppose I’m interested in the extremes of feeling that even very calm people, very ordinary people can have inside them. You’re right. I do seem to go there.

KYD: All the better for us! Do you find that you have the same motivations as a novelist now as you did when Tipping the Velvet was first published?

SW: That’s interesting. I don’t think I do. I absolutely loved writing those first three novels, and I was totally involved in those narratives, but I don’t think I could write them now. I think I’ve become more interested in psychological realism. I mean, the plot of The Little Stranger is mad, it’s incredibly melodramatic and incredibly bizarre things happen to people, but at the same time the characters aren’t larger than life in the way that they are in the Victorian-set novels. That’s partly a product of the Victorian setting. I’m much more interested in writing about characters who are less colourful, now. I’m not sure that I could give myself to melodrama in the same way I used to be able to.

I miss it, in a way. I miss the exuberance of those novels, and I’m very conscious that my novels are getting bleaker and bleaker. I don’t really want that to happen. With this next book, I was determined to write something a bit rompy again, because I enjoy that style so much, but it just didn’t work. I found myself being drawn in a much, much darker direction. I don’t really know why that is [laughs].

KYD: Do you have plans to write a novel located in a contemporary setting?

SW: I’ve no immediate plans, but I can see that it would be an interesting thing to try. I made a very deliberate move out of the nineteenth century to a different period to give myself a new challenge and to see what would happen to my writing. I might want to do that again. I might want to move into the present, take it on and see what happens. But probably not in the next book or two.

KYD: If you weren’t a writer, what would you like to be doing?

SW: If I wasn’t writing I would probably still be a semi-academic, which is what I was when I started. I probably would have continued with that, and carried on writing in a different sort of way; academic articles and things like that – which I would have enjoyed very much. In some ways, I think being a historical novelist is a displaced way of being an academic. But what I would like to do? God, I don’t know. I love writing. I mean, writing is torture, but I do think it is an absolutely brilliant job. Best job in the world. I guess if I could be anything it would be something that offered the same sort of pleasures that writing does. Something creative, I guess.

KYD: What do you find to be the most frustrating thing about being a novelist?

SW: I get frustrated with my own limitations as a writer. I really do. I feel like I have only one kind of register. It’s funny. In some ways I’m always trying to do something slightly different with the novels, but I still feel like I am writing a ‘Sarah Waters novel’. There are things I love about that. But sometimes I’ll read other people’s novels and just go, ‘Wow, that’s amazing, but I’ll never be able to write like that.’ My writing style seems a bit confining then. There’s also ‘machinery’ to publishing, and sometimes you feel everything is slightly out of your control. That can be a bit odd sometimes.

KYD: The media junkets and publicity tours can be strange experiences.

SW: It is strange, because touring is so different from writing itself, which is a solitary act. You develop a very peculiar relationship with a book over a long period of time and then, suddenly, the book is out there in the world and your relationship with it changes. It’s quite exciting, but there is the publicity side to things. I always enjoy meeting people and getting a sense of how the book has been received, but traveling is tiring and it takes you away from writing. This can be quite frustrating.

KYD: There’s recently been a real influx of creative writing programs in universities. What is your opinion of these programs? Do you think that writing, creativity or imagination can be taught?

SW: I think there’s a lot to be gained from creative writing courses, simply from hearing other people’s experiences and sharing your work with them, and by listening to people who are more experienced than you are. I think there’s a technical side to writing that can benefit enormously from courses. Can you be taught to be creative? Well, no, probably not. Can you be taught to be imaginative? No, probably not. But we’re all naturally creative and imaginative, anyway. Anything that carves out a space for someone to indulge their creativity and imagination in is going to be productive. I feel rather ambivalent about the creative writing industry because that’s exactly what it is: an industry, there to make money and to exploit people’s aspirations. Not just to become writers, but to also become celebrities. It slightly feeds that culture where people want to have the author’s life, without the…

KYD: Without the hard work, locked away in your room?

SW: Yes! I never did a creative writing course, but I did do a PhD. That was fantastic training. I had a great supervisor for my PhD and I was part of an academic writing community. I benefitted a lot from that. So, in some ways, I did get writing training and it was fantastically useful. If people are getting that from creative writing courses, then I think they can be really good. Then again, I was in America on a retreat a couple of years ago, meeting mainly North American writers, and I got the impression that most authors over there have been through some sort of creative writing program. It seemed unusual for a writer not to have been. I’d hate it for things to get like that in the UK, where there’s a sort of conveyor belt system that people have to go through.

KYD: Do you ever feel afraid to write? Do you ever suffer from any kind of inhibition? If so, how do you overcome that feeling?

SW: I certainly feel terror sometimes, but it’s never really about writing. It’s always about failing – if I’m stuck with the process, or if I feel that I’m not writing well, or if the book’s not working. I find it absolutely terrifying. I become secretly gripped by panic at my desk. It’s horrible. The more you become a successful writer, the greater the expectations and the greater the scrutiny; it can be very paralysing. But the only way through is to keep going; to just keep plugging away at the book in the hope that it will be righted in the end. But it can be really quite gruelling.

KYD: Are these moments of fear usually brief, or is it more of a protracted terror?

SW: Both. It can happen over the course of a day, or just briefly. I might have an hour of feeling panicky. My days tend to have this arc to them. I usually write all day long and peak in the early afternoon, but each day there is a working through of something. I remember when writing The Night Watch I had weeks on end where the book felt like a disaster. I thought it was never going to work. I felt really, really uncomfortable and panicky, and I thought it would be the end of my career. It was scary. Then something just shifted very slightly, and it began to look different. You begin to take it in a new direction. I’ve written five novels now and I trust the process a bit more. I know that if I get stuck, so long as I keep going, I will get through it. Actually, no – I don’t know if I really trust the process! Just because it’s worked before doesn’t mean it’s going to work again [laughs].

KYD: If you had to pick three books that have impacted upon your character and your life and, in turn, your writing, what would they be?

SW: Oh gosh. That’s hard, isn’t it? I can think of books that have seeped into my mental landscape. Great Expectations is definitely one of them; it often pops up in my novels in some sort of way. I think that’s because the book is about class and aspiration. And desire. And guilt. And shame! It’s such a Gothic novel. I love that book. I’ve read it many times and still love it.

Angela Carter was a writer who had a big influence on me, probably more than anyone, actually. When I re-read Nights at the Circus recently, I could see what an impact it had on me as a young reader in my twenties, long before I ever thought of writing. I could see her interest in gender and history, and in playing around with the canon, playing around with genre. But actually, The Bloody Chamber, her short stories, is a book that I always feel most affection towards when I think of her work. That had a big impact on me, and again, it’s about genre and gender.

There’s also a novel that’s much more commercial than either of those, and it’s a novel by Philippa Gregory called Wideacre. It was her first novel. Again, it had a huge impact on me. It’s very melodramatic. It’s set in the eighteenth century and it’s about a girl who grows up in an aristocratic family thinking she’s going to inherit the land and then she doesn’t, her brother does. She’s driven to all these desperate, melodramatic schemes to hang on to the land. It’s a brilliant, fantastically clever novel about gender and power. I remember reading that at a time when I was thinking about going back to university to do a PhD and, again, it was about gender and genre! It made me really think about what you could do with historical fiction and how transgressive it can be, even when it’s quite generic.

KYD: What contemporary authors do you admire? For what reasons?

SW: Kazuo Ishiguro. They’re so interesting, his novels. He often has these very inarticulate narrators, or these narrators that have a very banal voice, yet he manages to produce this incredible power, this very unsettling power in his novels, which I really, really admire. Colm Tóibín, the Irish writer, I like a lot. He’s very different to Ishiguro, but there are similarities. He, too, has these limpid narratives that are somehow amazingly evocative and powerful. I like that. Margaret Atwood, she’s one of the writers who I’ll read – I’ll just read every new book. Hilary Mantel – I just read Wolf Hall. She’s a wonderful, wonderful writer. And Cormac McCarthy. I read The Road recently and was absolutely blown away by it.

KYD: Sarah, this has been fantastic and we do really appreciate you chatting with us.

SW: It’s my pleasure. Good luck with Kill Your Darlings.