Microinterview with Sarah Waters

This issue features a “micro-interview” with Sarah Waters, conducted by Peter Terzian. Waters is a British writer who has written five historical novels. Tipping the Velvet (1998), Affinity (1999), and Fingersmith (2002) loosely form a trilogy in which Waters imagines a lesbian subculture in Victorian London, located in, respectively, a music hall, spiritualists’ circles, and the den of petty thieves. Each features a lesbian heroine coming to terms with her identity, often while fending off larger-than-life Dickensian villains and tricksters. The Night Watch (2005) is set in the cheerless British capital during and after the Blitz, and follows the unhappy romantic lives of four women (including a lesbian love triangle) and a gay man. Her new novel, The Little Stranger, is a return to the Gothic realm of her earliest books. Her first to include no lesbian characters, it takes place at a crumbling rural mansion in the years after the war. As the Ayres family struggles to stay afloat financially and emotionally, unidentified supernatural forces begin to drive them to the brink of sanity.


THE BELIEVER: You’ve had BBC films made of three of your five novels—Tipping the Velvet, Affinity, and Fingersmith. An adaptation of The Night Watch is in the works. Has seeing your novels become such an establish presence on British television—and on gay cable channels in the U.S.—had any effect on your writing?

SARAH WATERS: I would be lying if I said I never thought while I’m writing something that it might be adapted, because so many of my books have. But I can honestly say it hasn’t affected the way I’ve written at all. I really felt while I was writing The Night Watch that  nobody would want to adapt it. Technically it was complicated and it was too gloomy. But it didn’t make me  not want to write that book in that way. I feel slightly unnerved by the books all being adapted. I feel that  people are just going to get sick of me: “Oh no, not more lesbians in period costume.” I remember very distinctly there was a point at which if I met somebody and they knew my name it was because they knew my books. And suddenly there was a point when people knew my name and they hadn’t read my books. And it was because my name was suddenly in circulation because of the TV things.  That was an unnerving experience. It was like something was slipping away from my control. It would be  dreadful if people were put off reading my books by  the success of the adaptations. But as much as that happens, adaptations bring people to the books too. Lots of people have told me they’ve read the books because they’ve seen the adaptations first, then they’ve gone on to read the other books.


THE BELIEVER: The characters in your books often do horrible things to each other. Do you have a dark view of human nature?

SARAH WATERS: I don’t know why this happens. I always think, “This time I’m going to write a light romantic comedy.” I’m already saying that about the next book,  and God knows how that will turn out. I suppose it’s more interesting to write about people who are trapped and frustrated and disappointed. It’s interesting to me that The Night Watch is the least Gothic of all the books, even though it has Gothic hints: blacked-out London, hollow streets. In that novel, the people aren’t pantomime villains;  they’re not locking each other in asylums. They’re hurting each other in very mundane human ways. I think that’s what made it much more of a touching book for me to write. I felt that I’m living in the same world as those characters, whereas in the other novels, including this one  I suppose, I address things like betrayal and disappointment and anxiety on the level of the Gothic, which is always a psychological landscape really. The buildings of the Gothic are psychological structures, prisons or things like that. I write about people doing really terrible things to each other in the Gothicky novels, but that’s just a way of talking about quite ordinary brutality—the things we can’t avoid doing sometimes.


THE BELIEVER: All of your novels are historical novels, and most are written in the first person. Do you have a contemporary writing voice that you distort as you ventriloquize your characters?

SARAH WATERS: That’s a question I often ask my- self. I don’t know, because I’ve never written fiction in a contemporary setting, and it’s one of my reservations… well, it’s both a reservation and something really intriguing—what my voice would sound like if I moved to the present day. I think you’re always ventriloquizing, in a way. But I feel slightly anxious about that. There probably is a common voice across the books that you might be able to pick out as mine,  but I don’t know what it is myself. There’s always a  point when I’m starting a new novel where I’m shifting around, and often the voice will start off a bit too  prissy—for want of a better word—but it does very quickly settle into something that does feel like mine and yet is a voice that clearly has absorbed the idiom of the period. That’s exactly why I like to do research,  and why a big part of research for me is reading novels from the time, because there is a kind of idiom to a period. It’s been a very natural process for me to allow that to come out. I’ve never felt I’ve had to consciously shake something off in order to get something else. When I go into the world of the book, the voice is there waiting for me.


Megan Milks is the author of Margaret and the Mystery of the Missing Body (Feminist Press, 2021), a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in transgender fiction, as well as Slug and Other Stories and Remember the Internet: Tori Amos Bootleg Webring.

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