Carol Seajay interviewed Sarah Waters for Lambda Book Report back in 2006. So how could we possibly top that? This time around, instead of a traditional interview, we asked you, our readers, to interview the award-winning author. Waters is currently promoting the paperback release of her latest critically acclaimed novel, The Little Stranger, reviewed by Susan Stinson earlier this summer. Three authors answered the call and the result is a refreshing dialog between four women on topics that range from the appeal of historical fiction, to novels as political art, to incidental lesbianism.
1. In my opinion your novels are some of the best current examples of political art — they’re fantastically readable, beautifully written and at the same time packed with many layers of commentary on Britain’s class society in a given era — so I wonder about your own view of this aspect of your fiction. What’s your take on the establishment rule that true art can’t be political?
Hi Shelly. You sound like my ideal reader! My ambition for my books has always been to combine more or less exactly the elements you describe: to write fiction that’s well-phrased and well-constructed but also accessible and compelling, and with something to say about the world – i.e. “political” in the broadest sense of being engaged with the social dynamics of things like gender, sexuality and class. Some of my favourite writers — Dickens, Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood — are novelists with definite political agendas, but I don’t think anyone would dispute that their work was “art.” And isn’t every piece of art political, in as much as it’s necessarily informed by, and “writing back to,” the culture that has produced it?
2. What do you find most compelling about historical fiction as a genre?
Hello Katharine. Although, most annoyingly, I’ve found myself less and less able to read it since I started writing it myself, I’ve always loved historical fiction, and some of the authors who have most impressed me over the years have been historical novelists: Mary Renault, AS Byatt, Peter Carey, Hilary Mantel… One thing that’s always intrigued me about our relationship with the past is how we’re always rewriting it. You can date a historical novel just like you can a period drama for TV or film: they always tell us as much about the period in which they were produced, as about the period they’re attempting to describe. I don’t see that as a limitation, though. The past is necessarily elusive; we can never “reproduce” it. But we can have lots of fun trying! That’s a big attraction of the genre, for me — taking on stereotypes about the past, and finding way to revise them, or to overturn them altogether.
3. What do you draw on from your training as a literary critic when writing fiction? (Totally selfish question; I’m finishing my dissertation while working on my second historical novel.)
It feels a long time, now, since I could call myself a literary critic, and it’s hard to say how precisely my academic background manifests itself in my work. I do know that my PhD was brilliant training in very practical ways — mainly in that it gave me a discipline and a confidence about writing that I wouldn’t otherwise have had. I remember the move from thesis to novel being wonderfully liberating, but apart from that feeling pretty seamless. Perhaps what
I’ve retained above all is a sort of rigour as a reader: I try and read other novels critically, to keep a sense of what fiction is capable of, and how it achieves its effects. But I don’t think you need a literary critical training to get that. I think most writers probably have it instinctively. Good luck with your dissertation!
4. Are there any speculative fiction tropes that you’re interested in exploring in your writing?
When I was coming out, in the ’80s and ’90s, there was a lot of great lesbian and/or feminist science fiction and fantasy around, and I loved it — but for some reason I’ve never been drawn to writing sci-fi myself. I’m much more attracted to supernatural and horror fiction — I’m just reading, with great enjoyment, John Ajvide Lindqvist’s suburban Swedish vampire novel Let the Right One In. Having recently finished writing The Little Stranger, which has a definite supernatural element, I find myself missing the gothic genre, so the ghost story or haunted house novel is definitely something I want to return to in the future.
5. What do you consider the main characteristics of your writing that allow it to cross the divide and appeal to mainstream audiences?
Hi Jeri. I think it’s a lot to do with timing. The period in which I’ve been writing — the mid 1990s onwards — has exactly coincided with huge changes in cultural life in the UK. There’s been a loosening up of mainstream attitudes to homosexuality, and a corresponding relaxing, I think, in lesbian and gay communities themselves. That’s impacted both on me as a writer, and on my audiences. In most of my novels, the lesbian element is crucial; but in a funny sort of way, it’s also quite incidental. I’ve never wanted to write about lesbianism as if it were a “problem,” or even much of an issue. My characters don’t struggle with their sexuality; their sexuality is a given. Their struggles are with things like loss, betrayal, and the chaos of ordinary life — in other words, with issues that are certainly inflected by homosexual experience, but are not sexuality-specific. Maybe this means that mainstream readers have easily been able to identify with the stories, too?