Sarah Waters was writing her PhD thesis on lesbian and gay historical fiction when she began thinking about a story with characters that she wanted to read about. Wasting no time at all, Waters, 48, began to write one herself. Set in Victorian England, Tipping the Velvet is about a young woman who falls in love with a male impersonator and follows her to London. Published in 1998, it won high praise and literary awards for its original plot, its raunchiness and Waters’ imaginative yet faithful representation of London in the 1890s. She followed it up with three more novels with lesbian themes — Affinity (1999), Fingersmith (2002) and The Night Watch (2006) — the last two were shortlisted for the Man Booker prize. In 2014, the Welsh novelist came out with her sixth novel, The Paying Guests, five years after The Little Stranger (2009).
Set in London in the 1920s, The Paying Guests features Frances Wray and her widowed mother who have fallen on hard times after World War I and must lease their house to tenants to make ends meet. A young woman and her husband move in and for a time all is well, till an affair makes Frances throw caution to the wind. Shuttling between numerous sessions at the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival, Waters catches her breath for a chat:
Would you say that you became a writer quite by accident?
I did stumble into writing my first book. I was doing my PhD thesis when the idea for Tipping the Velvet came to me. The thesis was about how the lesbian and gay past has been constructed differently through the years, depending on how homosexuality was perceived at the time. I wasn’t nervous about writing Tipping the Velvet, I was writing it for myself. I didn’t know if it would ever get published, at the time, it was just fun, an adventure. When the BBC adapted it into a series in 2002, suddenly, there was a whole new audience for the book.
Five novels later, you’re being called the “Queen of the Tortured Lesbian Romance”.
(Laughs) Yes, some of my characters have been a little tortured. And while my books have love stories, all of them except one (The Little Stranger) have had lesbian protagonists and lesbian desire has been at the heart of the narrative. I don’t want it ever to be forgotten. Sometimes, straight readers say to me, “Oh it doesn’t matter to me that they’re lesbians, I still love reading your books.” I can understand why they mean that as a compliment and it’s great that my books are read widely. But at the same time, I think it matters to me that there are lesbians in the novels, and I think it matters politically, even though we have so many freedoms now in the UK. But I want to tell these stories and tell them in a really ordinary, matter-of-fact way so that it’s not a big deal, just a part of life. The fact that my characters are lesbian is both central and incidental.
As a young child, who were your favourite authors, and when did you begin reading seriously to become a writer?
I was a big reader as a child. My father was an engineer, my mother was a housewife — we weren’t a bookish family. We used to go to the library, so I read a lot of ghost stories and horror stories and sci-fi, especially John Christopher who wrote the Tripods series, and a book called Trillions, but I can’t remember who that was by (Nicholas Fisk). I began to study literature at school — Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens — and I’ve been reading seriously ever since.
I wasn’t very critical as a young reader, I was so delighted to be given Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights to read. It was all new, and soon, I went to university to do a degree in English literature — it was a voyage of discovery. As I grew older and I had an overview of the canon, I began to see the stories that weren’t being told.
With your most popular books set in the Victorian age, what was it about the 1920s that drew you to set The Paying Guests in that era? And why did you think of setting the plot inside a house, which almost becomes a character as the novel progresses?
In The Paying Guests, I was looking at the years just after WWI. There were changes in terms of domestic life for men and women. Older families had lost their wealth, and a whole class of people had come into money. Mrs Wray and Frances have to share their house and do all their housework, so the house becomes their source of income.
I’m very interested in how people live in houses, how they share them and at the same time, how we have to live in the outside world as well. For women, it’s a very interesting shift because in history and in a lot of cultures even now, the woman’s place is predominantly at home and the outside world is a difficult place. In the 1920s, women were stepping out and participating in various social and political movements.
I live in London so I walk about a lot, all my favourite characters walk a great deal, too. The first thing I noticed after coming to Jaipur is that I couldn’t walk here. The men dominate the spaces and I can’t read the streets here. But it makes me think of Victorian England where respectable women didn’t venture out into the streets alone, they were chaperoned, and only working women used the streets. I find it fascinating how our streets tell us stories about our times.
As somebody who writes fiction with lesbian themes, is there pressure to write good sex or have erotic passages in your novels?
Sex scenes are a challenge but I don’t feel the pressure to put one in my books. I hope I only do it when I feel it’s appropriate to the story. The Little Stranger has one failed sex scene, Affinity has none at all, although there is lots of heavy breathing. The Paying Guests was a love story, so they had to have really good sex.
Will you set a book in the present day anytime soon?
Maybe, it’ll be an interesting move for me because I’m so used to doing historical settings and voices. I know it sounds like an obvious thing to say, but the past is so different from the present. You don’t have to go back very far for things to look very different in terms of social mores, the way people live their lives, the way people fall in love and have sex. I find it fascinating that not very long ago the landscape was so different and I try to capture that.
But someday I might want a different kind of a project that might work better in a contemporary setting.
Could it be the future?
That’s too much of a leap for me. You need a particular kind of a mind to imagine a whole new world. I deeply admire people like Margaret Atwood and Ursula Le Guin who can do that. And it’s always a novel of ideas, isn’t it, and I’m happy to do that by looking at the world we live in and in the worlds we used to live in. I don’t know where we’re going, but I don’t think it can be very good.