It’s not every day you get to interview your favourite author. As I sit down to interview Sarah Waters, my copies of ‘Tipping the Velvet’ and ‘The Little Stranger’ on my desk, I was slightly overwhelmed. Famous for her nineteenth century based novels, with groundbreaking female protagonists, Waters has won numerous awards for her work. Amongst these include a Betty Trask and the Somerset Maugham Award. Named author of the year three times in 2003, writer of the year in 2006 and 2009, Waters has now earned her place as a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Keen to find out more about her incredible career, if you have ever picked up one of her books, or dreamt of following in her footsteps, this is an interview worth reading.
Lets start with The Little Stranger, which was a ghost story set in the 1940s. What was your inspiration for this, is there a memorable ghost story or scary novel that sent chills down your spine?
I’ve always enjoyed spooky stories. I read a lot of ghost and horror stories when I was a child. One that made a big impression on me is The Monkey’s Paw, by WW Jacobs. It’s about a husband and wife who are given a mummified paw they are told will grant three wishes. Only once the first wish has been made do they realise that there’s a condition attached: the wishes will come true, but in horrifying ways. It’s a great story.
What inspired you to write The Little Stranger?
My previous novel, The Night Watch, is set in wartime London, and I found when I’d finished it that I was still really interested in the 1940s. But I wanted to tell a different sort of ‘40s story – one about post-war life. I imagined a crumbling country house with an old-fashioned family in it, unable to cope with all the changes, feeling menaced by a new society. I just let that sense of menace develop, until I had a full-blown haunted-house novel on my hands. Lots of my earlier books have Gothic moments, but The Little Stranger ended up being very Gothic indeed.
The Night Watch was developed for the BBC, as was Tipping the Velvet– how involved do you get with the process of adapting your novels for screen?
When you make a book available for adaptation, you have to be prepared to let the adaptation be something distinct, something with its own shape and logic. It’s not your project any more, it’s someone else’s. So, though I am fascinated by the process, I have never tried to get control of it.
Can you describe an average day in the life of Sarah Waters?
I’m pretty disciplined about writing. I try to be at my desk by 10am, and when I’m writing new material. I aim to write 1,000 words a day. Sometimes that’s easy to achieve, sometimes it’s hard, but I will make myself stick to that target. A lot of my writing time is spent in rewriting. I will print up a chunk of text, read and annotate it, then go back to the computer to try and pull it into shape. I usually switch the computer off about 4.30 or 5pm, then spend an hour or so reading: I’ve always got books on the go, for research. I treat writing like a job, and only write in the evenings or at weekends in the final few demented months, when a deadline is looming.
If you hadn’t succeeded as a writer, what profession might have appealed?
I’ve always quite fancied being a dentist. I think a mouthful of teeth would be a bit like a novel in progress: a complete little world of its own. I’d enjoy going into it and trying to fix all its problems.
What would you say to those writers out there who are trying to get published?
Find an agent. You’ll get nowhere without one. Seek out agents who represent authors whose work is similar to yours, and check their website to see if they welcome unsolicited submissions.
Finally then, what advice can you give to any aspiring writers out there?
First, try to develop a writing routine. Not everyone’s lucky enough to be able to write full time, but putting aside some time every day, or every week, will help you commit to your writing. Be selfish about it. Second, read a lot and try to read analytically. When I am stuck with a book, I’ll often look at other novels to see how their authors managed to make things work. Third, find readers for your own work. Not too many – too many voices can be confusing. But find people who will be honest and whose opinion you respect. Finally, be prepared to cut and make changes. Writing is like surgery, sometimes whole limbs must go.
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