Sarah Waters

In Conversation with Sarah Waters

Sarah Waters, born in Pembrokeshire, is one of the most successful novelists to ever come out of Wales. Her best-selling and critically acclaimed novels are not only familiar to lovers of literature the world over, but most have also been turned into hit television serials. Her first novel, Tipping the Velvet (1998), announced the arrival of a significant new voice in historical fiction with a Betty Trask Award. She has since been short-listed for the Man Booker Prize three times, the Orange Prize twice, and was one of the faces on Granta’s prestigious 2003 ‘Best of Young British Novelists’ list. But this December, Waters takes her first steps into the world of the playwright, as her first theatrical production, a collaboration with Christopher Green, comes to Cardiff and Birmingham, The Frozen Scream. As rehearsals hit their stride, she spoke with Wales Arts Review’s Editor, Gary Raymond.

Gary Raymond: Your first play and your first collaboration, although obviously, not the first time your work has been performed by actors and not the first ‘supernatural thriller’ (for want of a better term) you’ve worked on. What did the new ground feel like, and how important was it to have those touchstones of familiarity?

Sarah Waters: Yes, it was very important to me to have those touchstones. The Frozen Scream is set in the 1920s, which is a period that, from writing The Paying Guests (which is set in 1922), I feel I know very well; and, as you say, it has supernatural features, which I also feel very at home with. Without that gothic element, in particular, I don’t think I’d have dared to think of embarking on a play: play writing has always seemed to me like such a different discipline from writing fiction. But I had loved writing a haunted house novel in The Little Stranger, and the prospect of telling another scary story, but in a very different way – a kind of 3-D way, in real-time – was tremendously appealing.

How did this collaboration come about and what has it been like to work with Christopher Green?

I’ve known and admired Chris as a performer for many years: he has an amazing stage presence, and has always been involved in the sort of non-traditional productions – queer cabaret, immersive theatre – that really appeal to me. So when, a few years ago, he approached me as a fan of my books, and invited me to collaborate with him on ‘a spooky winter show’, I was thrilled, and very flattered. I was also extremely nervous. I didn’t know if collaboration would suit me, and the relatively compressed schedules of theatre frightened the life out of me – I’m used to spending three or four years on a novel, working through the (considerable) agony and (occasional) ecstasy of the writing process very much alone, with plenty of time to make mistakes. So at first I said I might be involved simply as some sort of ‘advisor’. But Chris’s idea for the show was so strong, I just couldn’t stop thinking about it. We began to put together an outline, then went off and worked on separate sections. It was clear that we had similar ideas, a very similar aesthetic… the script came together really naturally. It’s been a huge, huge pleasure – and exciting to discover that I can work in a new kind of way.

It must be a very rare thing to click with somebody like that on a creative level. How do you fit yourselves together? Is it a matter that you complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses or is it more complex than that?

I suspect it is rare, and I think I’ve struck very lucky with this particular project. A lot of it comes down to trust, I think: I trust Chris’s creative instincts and his professional expertise, and because of that I trust him not to let me get away with anything if he has any sort of doubt about it. I hope he feels the same way about me. It helps that we’re both quite rigorous, quite disciplined. We’re both fans of narrative; we get impatient with films and plays that aren’t cohesive, don’t deliver.

As far as the actual writing process goes, it’s just been obvious when an idea has grabbed us both. One of us might say, ‘How about if – ?’ and the other has gone, ‘Yeah, maybe.’ And that idea probably hasn’t got much further. But if one of us has said, ‘How about – ?’ and the other has gone, ‘Yes, wow, of course!’ then it’s been pretty obvious that that’s the way we should go. But even the non-starter ideas have been useful, because they’ve nudged us in new directions. They’ve been the stepping stones to other, more fruitful, places.

Apart from the influence of your collaborator, were there any artists or writers you had in mind while working on this? Did you have a visual companion, or a writer of dialogue, for instance, you were thinking of when working on The Frozen Scream?

The play is set in the 1920s, and, as I’ve said, I feel I know the ‘tone’ of that period well, after researching it quite thoroughly for The Paying Guests. I’ve read a fair bit of ’20s and ’30s detective fiction over the years, too, so that helped a lot, and to give me a flavour of how a ’20s crime story might work on the stage I looked specifically at a couple of play texts – at Dorothy L. Sayer’s Busman’s Honeymoon, for example. I didn’t want to write a pastiche, however, and though with The Frozen Scream Chris and I are clearly to a certain extent having fun with Mousetrap-style conventions, we both agreed that the story and characters ought to be played as ‘straight’ as possible. So, as with any of my novels, the period models were useful as a starting-point; after that it became about motivation, character dynamics, etc.

One of the many things I admire in your work is the craft of your prose. What is it like putting your prose on your hold for the duration of a writing project?

It’s been bliss! I love writing prose, and I put a lot of effort into the crafting of it, going over and over a sentence, a paragraph, a chapter, until I feel I’ve got it right. But all that work – it’s exhausting. With The Frozen Scream I had to be able to visualise the scene and the characters, but I didn’t have to create them through prose – all that creating will be done by the actors, the designer, the technicians and so on. That’s amazingly liberating.

I did, of course, have to evoke character through dialogue – but I always enjoy writing dialogue. It’s in dialogue that characterisation lies, I think: in how people speak, in what they say, in how they speak to each other; in the things they choose to mention and the things they leave out. I’ve become more and more interested in character as I’ve grown more experienced as a novelist – so this opportunity to leave prose behind and focus closely on dialogue was something of a treat.

A broad question here: All art forms evolve of course, but do you think the latest development of the novel is that it is moving away from ‘literariness’ and more toward the language of cinema, where chapters are structured more like scenes, and characters are more presented through their poses rather than any literary depth?

Well, in some ways I’m the worst person to ask about what’s going on with the modern novel. I’m a slow reader, and when I’m working on a project the bulk of my reading is for research; the number of contemporary novels I manage to get to in a year is embarrassingly low. But if I think back over the modern novels that have impressed me in 2014 – Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, Damon Galgut’s Arctic Summer – then, no, I’m not sure I agree with you: these seem like very ‘literary’ novels to me, in the sense that they are interested in using language to explore the world and our place in it, to look at personal and national stories; and they offer deep, immersive reading experiences, requiring time and care and commitment from their readers. They don’t seem all that different, to me, (and I mean that in a good way) from another novel I read this year, and was bowled over by – Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale. Perhaps such books are an antidote to cinema – which, in its mainstream form at least, is becoming ever more reliant on special effects, ever less interested in the mysteries and complexities of human motivation; and ever less satisfying, as a result.

You have spoken before about not feeling particularly Welsh and being surprised whenever you see yourself referred to as a Welsh Writer, but in this instance, is there a significance in your first play being a Welsh production? Or more interestingly, perhaps, has it made you think about your Welshness at all?

When I’m away from Wales I always take care to assert my Welshness, because it’s so easy for it to disappear. (I was in North America recently, and kept being introduced as ‘an English writer’ – it made me shudder, every time.) But when I’m back in Wales, or around ‘proper’ Welsh people, I always want to be humble about my Welshness, for fear of seeming a bit of a fraud. I’ve never lived in Wales as an adult, and I’ve never written about Wales; I’m not part of a Welsh writing community in the way I am, for example, part of a gay writing community, and even perhaps of a London one. For all those reasons, I don’t think it makes sense to call me a Welsh author – even though I am, most decidedly and proudly, an author who is Welsh.

But, yes, it’s been lovely for me that my début as a stage writer is taking place in Wales. And it’s been particularly thrilling to make this connection with Welsh theatre because one big influence on me as a teenager was the Torch Theatre in Milford Haven. We weren’t at all a theatre-going family when I was growing up, but I happened to make a friend at school who volunteered as an usher at the Torch, and I began to do it too; I became theatre-mad, for a while. I got to see lots of really great productions that way (and, a little later, lots of arty films). I realise now what a gift it was to have that local theatre; I might so easily have grown up without it. And working with the WMC has made me think about my Welshness, yes.

The story I tend to tell myself about my own identity has always been something like: I was a child in Wales, then moved to England, came out, and started writing novels. But working on a Welsh theatre project has made me feel a real sense of reconnection, as an author, with my creative teenage Milford self.

And do you have a sense yet how, or if, that has manifested itself in your work? Has the seed for a Welsh-based novel been planted? I think your style and thematic preoccupations suggest a fertile landscape for you there.

I think it’s too early to say. I’m still playing with ideas for the next novel – but I’m taking my time about it. I don’t want to rush into anything; I still feel like I need to recover from The Paying Guests, which took an awful lot out of me. One obvious way for me to explore a Welsh setting might be to write something inspired by my own experience of growing up in Wales. I’ve always had a hankering, for example, to write about that wave of UFO-mania that gripped Pembrokeshire in the 1970s, the ‘Broad Haven Triangle’ – do you remember that? But, I don’t know. The ’70s: it would be all Curly Wurlys and spangles and chopper bikes and anoraks; I feel I’ve seen it done a thousand times… I’ll mull it over, though.

For saying that, I have always seen the possibility of examining your work in relation to your upbringing, a relatively isolated Pembrokeshire existence. Even when your characters are climbing across the rubble of wartime London, there is always something of this isolation that creeps through. Is that fair to say?

Well, there’s definitely a lot of isolation in my novels – but I’m not sure how much my Pembrokeshire upbringing contributed to that. For one thing, my experience of Pembrokeshire life was a rather complicated one, because for a big chunk of my childhood (five years, on and off) we lived away from Wales, in Middlesbrough – not an entirely happy experience for me, with Neyland, ‘home’, always far off, a lost place of safety and adventure ‘over the field’ or ‘down the beach’.

Maybe it’s that first childhood rupture that always creeps its way into my books? A longing for community and security that can never quite be recovered? I suspect everyone feels this about their childhood; for me, however, there’s a definite geography to it. Returning to Wales, being surrounded by Welsh voices again, always fills me with a very odd mixture of sensations – I feel simultaneously pulled in and rebuffed. By contrast, I feel utterly at home in London – as someone who’s made a life there, on their own terms. London is full of people like me – full of incomers; that’s part of its charm. But incomers are always outgoers from somewhere else; and there’s a sadness in that.

You’ve created some marvellously lonely characters in your books (and I don’t mean that piteously, necessarily). They’re not often alone, but are lonely. Do you think there’s an inherent understanding of the ‘lonely’ protagonist for a novel writer?

Well, most people are ultimately lonely, aren’t they? We’re all striving, and often failing, to form meaningful connections with others; we’re all hoping to make an impression, to be understood, to matter. But being alive, heading for death, involves having to come to terms with the fact that, of course, we don’t matter at all. One of the novelist’s jobs is to empathise with all that. You have to be interested in people’s longings and frailties; you have to see them at their most vulnerable. When I’m trying to ‘get’ a character, one of the questions I often ask myself is: what is the object they keep tucked away in the most secret drawer of their heart? The answer is usually something a bit sad.

There are obvious connections between The Frozen Scream and your own The Little Stranger, in that they are tense pieces of work, thrillers in some respects, with suggestions of the supernatural. When The Little Stranger was reviewed in the Independent in 2009 the critic ended with the line, ‘It’s only a matter of time before a latter-day Hitchcock turns it into a film’.

I think one of the rewards, for me as an author, of working on The Frozen Scream is that it has given me an opportunity to try telling a story in a different sort of way. It’s hard to talk about the play without giving things away (and Chris and I want there to be some surprises for our audience), but basically there are two plots going on at once: a traditional on-stage one, and a larger, looser plot that will only become fully clear by the end of the night. It was that larger plot that really appealed to me, because it threw up so many interesting narrative challenges. How can you flag up details to a group of spectators, all of whom might be looking in different directions? How do you make a piece of theatre that disconcerts its audience, yet also satisfies them? How much plot is ‘enough’? To some extent these were issues in The Little Stranger too, which has a relatively ambiguous ending that has frustrated some of its readers. That frustration bothers me; I can only see it as a sort of authorial failure. But working on The Frozen Scream has allowed me to loosen up a bit. A piece of theatre is live, dynamic: everyone will experience our play in a slightly different way. Everyone will participate in the story. I’m not sure if that will filter back into my fiction-writing process, but I find it incredibly exciting.

Much of your work has been adapted for screen. Are you influenced by television in any way?

Well, I grew up watching telly non-stop, and I fear it’s all still there in my head somewhere: I can recite entire adverts from the 1970s, for example, or sing the whole of the theme tune to It Ain’t Half Hot Mum. We watched a lot of films on TV as a family, too, and some of them became sort of part of my mental landscape – films like Jason and the Argonauts, Quatermass and the Pit, Brief Encounter, The Time Machine, The Abominable Dr Phibes; I’m sure they’ve all leaked into my writing a bit. These days, if I watch TV it’s generally a DVD box set. Those long-running narratives like The Wire and Damages: they’re so well-crafted, I find them really inspiring. They contain some beautiful storytelling moments – moments like the one at the end of the third season of Lost where what seemed to be a flashback was actually a flashforward – wow! Or the scene in Breaking Bad where Walt is screaming down the phone at his wife, and only we and she know that he’s doing it to establish her alibi for the police, and that really he loves her – moments that make you want to cry, or gasp, or jump up out of your seat. How amazing is that, that we can provoke physical responses like that, simply by storytelling? It’s that basic excitement about what narrative can achieve, on a visceral level, that keeps me wanting to produce narratives of my own.

It comes back to that question about the evolution of the novel. Some critics have made a quite convincing argument that series like Breaking Bad and The Wire are doing what the novel once did, it is a new type of literature. Do you think young novelists are chasing a cinematic audience when in fact TV is the new novel?

By ‘chasing a cinematic’ audience, do you mean something rather cynical – ie writing with a view to being bought by a production company and adapted for the screen? There is a certain amount of that, of course, though to some extent I think it’s an effect of the movie and TV industries themselves. I’ve personally done extremely well out of screen adaptations, and have been, on the whole, happy with the way my novels have been treated; but as a viewer I wish that TV would commission more original stuff – stuff that really explored the medium – rather than being endlessly reliant on adaptations.

Then again, I think the reason that TV does turn so often to literary sources is that novels are still very good on character and plot and emotional subtlety, and those are the things we tend to want from a narrative. They are also the things that are provided by original TV when it’s at its best, in the form of shows like The Wire and Breaking Bad. So there is this huge natural overlap between the two media.

But novels (when they’re good) give us something else, don’t they? They give us language. They make language fresh. They make language zing! It has become a bit of a cliché to say that if Dickens were alive today, he’d be writing for TV – and yes, he very well might be. But think what a loss it would be, in terms of his glorious prose.

Would you like to take a run at a series like that? Not an adaptation, but to write an original longform, self-contained narrative of 50 odd hours over the next four years?

I can see the amazing appeal of it, the technical and creative challenges. But you’d have to be a genius to write like that – to write something in process, I mean; to start something off, then let it evolve, and yet keep it tight, narrative-wise. I need room to make mistakes. I need to be able to send a character down a path, then perhaps realise that the path is a wrong turning – to be able to hoick the character right back to where they started, and then try a different route. I also hate deadlines! Some authors thrive on them, I know; but me they paralyse with fright.

Has having your work transformed into performance-based work had an ongoing effect on your writing?

It’s definitely been an education for me to see my novels turned into screenplays, because screenplays are by necessity very pared down: they have to get at the heart of a story, the nub of an encounter, and that has made me work harder as a novelist to find out what is really lying at the core of my scenes. It has made me think about, say, characters, and characters’ functions. Are these two characters actually playing the same role? Could one of them be got rid of? – and so on. There is still a difference, however, between what an audience will want from a stage or a screen and a reader will want from a book. We don’t want our novels to read like screenplays; we want all the lovely upholstery of prose. So I’m still committed to providing that, if I can. It’s one of the things I like about fiction: that it can be leisurely, lush, digressive, perhaps a bit rococo.

You were first thought of as a writer of lesbian literature, but works such as The Little Stranger threw critics who tend toward lazy categorising like that. With the development of your body of work, and with The Paying Guests, a kind of Elizabeth Bowen meets Henry James socio-domestic novel, it is becoming clear that your body of work is to be a complex literature. Do you see yourself as an artist ploughing a particular thematic field, rather than a genre-based writer?

Yes, ‘lesbian literature’ has often been presented as a genre, hasn’t it? But no one, I suspect, would call ‘heterosexual literature’ a genre. And just as a writer of heterosexual stories is able to address a huge variety of themes and issues, or adopt a wide range of styles, so I feel that I can too, even though I might use lesbian characters and plots to do it. So, I would happily call The Paying Guests a lesbian novel – but it is also a novel about love and infidelity, about crime and punishment and moral dilemma… People usually see the ‘lesbian’ literary label as a restrictive one, but it has never felt like that to me: the lesbian element is both utterly vital to (most of) my novels and completely incidental to them.

In other ways, however, I do have an interest in genre. I like playing with literary rules. I’ve enjoyed taking on genres (eg the Victorian sensation novel, with Fingersmith) and making them accommodate slightly new stories. And I’ve often seen my books as a bit of a mash-up: The Little Stranger, for example, I pitched to myself as ‘Angela Thirkell meets The Omen’; while The Paying Guests was – well, not exactly Bowen meets James so much as ‘women’s middlebrow novel meets true crime’. But it’s becoming clear to me that, as you suggest, there are themes that recur in my work, regardless of how I choose to address them – themes like bravery and cowardice, betrayal, imprisonment, the eruption of passion into ordinary domestic life.

How do you think The Frozen Scream plays into that?

Well, the play definitely has its generic elements: that was part of its appeal for me, the fact that it’s very much in the tradition of the classic murder mystery. It was huge fun to be able to work inside those conventions whilst simultaneously trying to find ways, subtly, to subvert them. But it’s also a story about the menacing ‘outside’ breaking into the familiar British ‘inside’ – so in that sense, yes, it sits very neatly alongside my novels. I hadn’t thought of it like that.

Has working on The Frozen Scream awakened the playwright inside you?

It’s more that it has been exciting to discover that I can work in a different medium, and in a different sort of way – ie not just with another writer, but as part of a team with actors and technicians. The Frozen Scream, though, is pretty lighthearted, and rather mischievous. I’m not sure how I’d feel about authoring a serious play of my own; there’s something terrifying about the idea of actors standing on a stage with nothing but lines of dialogue to hold the attention of an audience. But there’s something wonderful about it, too, isn’t there? It’s so basic, so primal; it goes right back to Ancient Greece. So, yes, I would like to write for the theatre again. I would have to find the right project, though.

The Frozen Scream will be at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff from December 11-20th; see here for more information. And you can find out more about the play and the source material here.

Sarah Waters original illustration by Dean Lewis