Archive for December, 2012

I think I’d like her to be happy: Alison Graham on the Lund effect

December 31, 2012

I spoke to a lot of interesting and knowledge people in the course of writing my article on the Lund effect. Alison Graham, TV Editor of the Radio Times, was high on the list of people I knew were essential to talk to  about The Killing. Not just because she’s a high-profile fan but because I also knew I could rely on her for an intelligent commentary and encyclopaedic telly knowledge. Naturally, she didn’t disappoint and her comments on social media, I think, are particularly perceptive.  Here’s our conversation in full.

Why do you love Sarah Lund?
I thought she was so different from your usual – not just police heroines  – but heroines, in that you never see a glimmer of flighty emotion from her. She doesn’t behave like a girly. You know the convention of tough, female heroines on telly – whether they’re cops or nurses or doctors or whatever – is that they might cope with their jobs brilliantly well and be very clever at what they do, but they’ve always got to have chaotic personal lives and they always have to go home and fall apart. Which she never did. She had a chaotic personal life but it didn’t really matter to her. She had a child and a relationship that never really went anywhere, but you felt she didn’t… care is the wrong word, but it wasn’t up there with the job. The job, and getting it done and finding out who killed [Nanna Birk Larsen] was the most important thing to her. She was so committed to that and to her job, and to doing the right thing for this victim.

What I’ve noticed is that so many women seem to be in love with her. Why do you think that is? Why does Lund have that effect?
She does yes. I certainly have a slight crush on her. It’s so hard to explain. It’s for all those things that I’ve just said: she is every woman who doesn’t drop to bits. She is a great heroine for every woman like me and probably you and a lot of other women who don’t sort of drop to bits when they go home, even if things go wrong. They don’t fall apart and they’re committed to what they do. She’s so strong and she doesn’t feel she has to apologise for being strong. And she doesn’t behave like a woman’s expected to behave on telly. She’s got that scruffy old jumper that she wears for the whole duration of the investigation and her hair’s scruffy. She doesn’t feel the need to put on little heels and skirts. She doesn’t do any of that. It must be quite liberating. It’s quite liberating to watch her in a way: there’s no vanity. She doesn’t have any vanity and she just doesn’t care.  She doesn’t behave as people expect her to because she’s a woman.

Do you think she’s vulnerable beneath that brave exterior?
I don’t know if she is really. It’s hard to tell because she’s so closed up; she doesn’t give anything away. I can’t even think of when we saw her as being particularly vulnerable. We saw her let her guard down a little bit when she had that faintly flirty dinner with Troels Hartmann early in the first series, but it was sort of nothing and even then we thought she was only trying to get to know him because she thought he’d killed Nanna Birk Larsen. I think we want her to be vulnerable because that’s what we want from women but I’m not sure that she is.

You’ve got vast knowledge of TV characters. Have you ever seen another character have this effect on women?
No, not to that degree anyway. The only character who comes close – and she’s still a long way off – is Jane Tennison, who again was strong and did what she did. But she was the one who went home and got horribly drunk because she was so unhappy and she fell apart as soon as she got into her flat. She was desperate, flawed and lonely but she was tough during the day, and she was vulnerable too. But no, I’ve known nothing [like this].

I think the thing you’ve got to remember, too, is that The Killing came along in the era of Twitter and Facebook and instant reaction. Once word of mouth gets out there, it just gets bigger and bigger, and becomes the big talking point, because it’s easy. You know, we can all immediately go on Twitter and go: “isn’t she marvellous? We love her!” So it was perfect, she came along at just the right time, because technology allows the flourishing of these kinds of crushes now and we can all chat to each other about it.

So, do you think Twitter invented the girlcrush?
I don’t think it created it but I think it facilitated that sort of fandom. Quite sensible people don’t feel at all shy about going on Twitter and going “ooh, I have a crush on her!”

Series 3 of The Killing will be the last one, we’re assured. How should it end for Lund? What would you like to happen to her?
I don’t really know. I think it’s good that it’s ending. I think it’s quite right that she’s not going on and on and on. I do like things that end slightly before their time – I think that’s actually a good idea. I think I’d like her to be happy. I would like her to be happy but I’d like her to be still working, still doing what she’s doing still with her ideals intact. Because she doesn’t compromise: that’s one of the other things I really like about her. She doesn’t give any quarter – she believes in something. I hope that she would stay the same, that she’d still be the Lund that we first knew, however many years ago: still clever and still focused and still doing what she is driven to do. I don’t want to see her settled in a little cottage. I want to see her in that jumper, still looking a bit scruffy, still doing what she was born to do, what she loves. She’d let us all down if she moved to a tiny cottage with Bengt and baked scones or rye bread.

Do you think she can ever be happy, though?
I don’t think it matters really. I think in her own dark, emotionally closed down way she is happy, because she does her job. You know, one of the great things about her is that she’s a woman who loves her job. It’s a really difficult job and she loves it, and it’s what she does. It’s what she is to the exclusion of so much else. I’m not saying that’s completely ideal but I think it’s admirable to see that in a female character. She’s not always weeping, she keeps a lid on it and she doesn’t go home and drop to bits.


She’s on the side of the angels: Val McDermid on Lund & The Killing

December 22, 2012

A couple of months ago, I was fortunate enough to have a very interesting conversation with Val McDermid about Sarah Lund and The Killing. I caught her before she gave a reading from her new book, Vanishing Point, at Bristol Central Library for a piece I was writing for Diva Magazine. Word count restrictions meant that, sadly, I was only able to use a few quotes from our conversation but I think what Val said was fascinating and it deserves reading in full. So here it is. The interview was conducted, of course, when we were innocents, long before we knew anything about what would happen to Lund in the third and final series.

You’re a well-known fan of The Killing – why do you love Lund?
I love her tenacity and her doggedness and her refusal to be palmed off, and her refusal to be seduced by the surface glamour of things. The whole political side of it is very glamorous and very exciting, and here there and yon and she’s like completely like “so?” I think the refusal to take anything at face value is the admirable thing about her as a character.

I found it quite interesting in the second series, there was a moment when she was taken to the crime scene and it just struck me that the way she was reading the crime scene is not the way your average cop reads a crime scene. To me, it had lots of echoes of the way Tony Hill reads a crime scene: you’re coming at it entirely from the position of inside the killer’s head. Why these things are the shape they are, why are things disarrayed in this particular way, what’s happened here…  it’s that sort of difference, that being apart, that separateness I suppose that probably also speaks to the lesbian experience, if you like.

I think one of the reasons why the whole lesbian crime fiction started in the first place was the sense of the lesbian as an outsider, very much in the American tradition of the maverick who walks alone. For a lot of lesbians, that’s part of their early experience, being the outsider, so it’s a genre which suits us particularly well. I’m not alone, probably, in seeing aspects of my own experience in Sarah Lund. I think we’ve all got a Sarah Lund in our past, we’ve all got a fucked-up, emotionally unavailable woman who we’ve fallen in love with, who has then just gone through out lives like a forest fire leaving scorched earth behind it.  You’d just have to feel so. This is a woman whose focus is elsewhere.

Lund seems to have a very particular effect on, well, all women really but lesbians in particular. Why do you think that is?
I think partly it’s the jumpers. It’s very lesbian-wear, you know, in the winter, your big thick jumper, because you’re going to go out and chop logs – or at least look like you’re chopping logs.

When you interviewed Sofie Gråbøl for the Culture Show, you said that Lund is an aspirational character. Why do you think that?
I think we’d all like to have that ability to see something through to the end and not be diverted by all the flimflam in the way. I think that notion of determining that you’re going to go for something and you go straight for it, I think that’s something more of us need to do I think: have a very clear idea of what we want to go for and just go for it.

And to just hang the phone up and walk off…
Yeah. We need to do a lot more of that kind of thing. Something happened the other day and I said to my wife, I’m just far too polite! It’s not a word people normally associate with me but in this particular instance I was polite to someone and, really, there were several things I could have – should have – said and I just didn’t. I thought, if I can’t do it, then what chance has the rest of the world got? Because I can be Bolshie at times. Sarah Lund wouldn’t have stood for it. She’d just have been ‘you’re full of shit’.

This phenomenon of the girlcrush (for example, the producer who announced she had one on her, at the BAFTAs). What do you make of that? Lund seems to affect straight women in a way I haven’t ever seen with other characters on television.
Given that sexuality is a continuum, the notion that all these straight women are going to find somebody attractive somewhere down the line. They’re going to have a girlcrush and I suspect that someone who’s clearly a no-shit figure, who has that determination and who blows every body else off that gets between her and her goal is quite an attractive figure if you’re going to have a girlcrush to go for.

Possibly another reason she’s so attractive is that there’s a real air of ambiguity around her, including in terms of gender. She’s very androgynous. She occupies the middle ground.
I think some of the ownership she takes of the situation without a second thought, without a backward glance, most people would perceive as a male characteristic, particularly in the workplace. We do tend to defer and that’s a word that doesn’t quite work in the same sentence as Sarah Lund. So I think all of those are the things we wish we could do in the fleeting moment, but we never quite manage it. Like the things we think of three days later which we should have said and even if we’d thought of them at the time, we probably wouldn’t have had the balls to say them. And it’s quite interesting when people do actually do that in the workplace and do the equivalent of putting the phone down, people talk about it for years. It’s extraordinary. We don’t do this often enough; it’s not about being aggressive. It’s about responding in a way a guy would respond without actually thinking about it and the world won’t end if we do it. She takes agency. She takes it upon herself to do it, but she doesn’t do it in a way that makes you think: ‘look! I’m making a statement.’ It’s completely ‘this is how I am, take it or leave it’. She doesn’t court favour from anyone, not even her own kid. We’re all in thrall to her children, she’s not!

Do you think she’s a Good Cop or Bad Cop?
I don’t think she’s corrupt.

What about in terms of moral ambiguity? I see Lund as something of a Thomas Ripley character, less concerned with right and wrong, more concerned with her being in the right.
I think there is an absolute conviction of right and wrong. I think she’s on the side of the angels, whereas Ripley’s entirely on the side of himself. I don’t think Sarah Lund does things because they’re in her self-interest – I think she does things because she’s absolutely certain they are the right thing. I suppose in that sense, the trouble would come if she thinks the right thing is in direct conflict with what her colleagues or her organisation needs her to do. She’d have been a very inconvenient cop if she’d been in South Yorkshire police during the time of Hillsborough, because she’d have just gone round saying ‘that’s not how it was’. So she’s not corruptible in that way, she’s not interested in her own best interests because, if she was interested in her own best interests, she wouldn’t be policing a ferry crossing somewhere in the middle of nowhere. I think she really doesn’t care about herself.

So you think she could never go over to the dark side?
No, because it wouldn’t interest her. What would be the point? There would be no point in it for her. I think people have said she has elements of the autistic personality and I think that is one of the areas where it does come through. Absolutely I think she has a moral compass and that steers her.

You know a lot about iconic female detectives, having created a fair few yourself. Where do you think Lund stands in the canon?
She’s up there in the pantheon. She’s definitely well on the way to being a classic of the genre. She’s a sort of Helen Mirren de nos jours, but in a very different way, I think Helen Mirren’s [character Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect] another one that provokes girlcrushes, in the same kind of way. She takes power, she takes what she needs to do the job she needs to do. It’s understandable that Linda La Plante steers her down the path of having a drink problem and this lonely old age: there’s an authenticity in that, but I was disappointed at the same time. I wanted her to go, invincible, into the far distance…

Do you think that Lund will ever be happy?
I think she can be quite content when she works things out and everything’s sorted, but I don’t think she weighs her life in those sorts of terms. I think she weighs her life in terms of ‘did I do the right thing?’ I think she feels terrible guilt over Meyer and I think she carries that with her. Those burdens make it hard to have an uncomplicated happiness. It’s hard to imagine her having a relationship. It’s hard to imagine her in love because of all the things that means about granting control to someone else and letting yourself go.

What did you get from the programme, watching it from the perspective of crime novelist?

What I liked best about both was giving a story space. We’ve become very stripped down and episodic about the way we tell stories now. It’s very hard to get a season that lasts more than six weeks and it’s very hard to get a season where it isn’t a different core storyline every week. You can’t get under the skin if you do it like that. It becomes superficial, a series of tropes and it stops being a powerful drama. I really hope that British television companies are going to understand that, particularly with adaptations. If you have a 400-page novel, you can’t do it in 90 minutes. You end up with bad TV drama and it doesn’t work for anybody because nobody buys the books afterwards. I think we need to learn to take a deep breath and understand that our viewers are very sophisticated. My readers are very sophisticated. They have no problem in grasping a storyline that has four subplots going on. Certainly, viewers can do that too: when you see something like The Killing, it’s labyrinthine and we stay with it.

Do you think it help that it was subtitled, in that you have to concentrate and you have to focus on the screen?
I couldn’t watch it when it first went out because my wife likes to stitch in front of the television, so subtitles is a no-no. So I had these secret sessions of The Killing or Inspector Montalbano when she’s out of the country or late at night after she’s gone to bed. So I watched the first one over the space of about a week and a half. It was completely that ‘I’ll just watch one more episode…’ It’s not even like the American stuff where it’s only 40 minutes, this was an hour long and you had to concentrate.

I came to The Killing late. I’d heard about it, thought ‘well, I’d better watch because everybody says it’s great, but I don’t get the thing where everyone is obsessed with that woman…’ then after about one and a half episodes, BAM! I want to marry her!
It’s the intelligence. Clare Balding says the secret of happiness is concentration – so I’m all for that. Then I also love her complete lack of self-consciousness, the character. She’s completely not thinking about how she looks or how she appears to other people. She couldn’t give a shit.

How do you think it will Series 3 will end? How would you like it to end?

Hopefully not dead. That would be very unsatisfying. I can see the dramatic power of that, that she makes that final sacrifice, to go out as the ultimate right – whatever that might be. I don’t know. It’s hard to think of it ending in a way that fulfils the needs of the drama and the audience. I can’t imagine a way that will satisfy both. If I was writing it, I probably would have to kill her – and then leave the country.

Perhaps she could bad, go to a women’s prison and then we could have a new spin-off series…
It’s possible she may go to women’s prison. Not because she goes to the dark side, but because she’s so inflexible about the good side. I can see her ending up there, that’s a possibility… just because we want more series, isn’t it? I think one of the difficulties for Sofie is that for us, she didn’t exist before The Killing and in fact she’s had a very successful, long career in Denmark. I think it’s easy for us to think ‘well, she can just go and do The Killing’ but she has other things she wants to do. But you never know, if the writer comes up with a good idea, it’s always tempting for the actor to come back and reprise it…

I think it would be very wrong if there was a happy ending, with Lund in love…
Finding love and happiness would be terrible for her! It wouldn’t be believable. It would undermine everything we know about her.



December 13, 2012

Published in Diva magazine, May 2008

INTERVIEW Sandra Bernhard, the Michigan motormouth, is revving her rage for a one-off Manchester revival. Words Kim Renfrew

Sandra Bernhard has a reputation. The all-round artist and entertainer is known for being tough, intimidating and no mincer of words. In the past, targets such as Mother Theresa and the Bush children have all fallen foul of her acid tongue.

So it’s a bit of a surprise when the Bernhard I talk to over the phone in New York is charming, discreet and even a little cautious, naming no names and skilfully batting away queries about the Kabbalah (the Jewish esoteric practice to which she is rumoured to have introduced Madonna and Demi Moore). Could it be that the Michigan motormouth has mellowed in her middle years? ‘That’s the last thing I’d have done! You can’t live in this life and be mellow. Day to day, I’m mellow: I love my family, I love my life, my girlfriend [Vanity Fair exec Sara Switzer], my daughter… but when I look outside my window and I see the crap going on, you’d better believe it gets my back up.’

No, that razor edge hasn’t been blunted, and it’s clear that Bernhard still rages at the many inadequacies of the world. And boy, can she talk. She leads me through a passionate tirade against the wars in Vietnam (bloodshed, which ultimately, she says, just enabled us to buy underwear stitched together in the Far East) and Iraq, the current futility of American politics and — the hot topic on the day we speak — the presidential race. ‘We’ve had the same sort of patriarchy running this country from the beginning: white men with a narrow view of the world and all their fears and desires to serve the master, the corporate structure. In theory, I would love the idea of a woman president, but I don’t think Hillary Clinton represents the change we need right now.’

In fact, Everything Bad & Beautiful, the album of her current show, is shot through with politics of every kind. Traditional politics is there, in the imagined meeting between US Secretary of Stare Condoleeza Rice and Rosa Parks, the woman who sparked the American civil rights movement in the 50s after refusing to give up her seat to a white man on an Alabama bus. There’s a guitar-driven femi­nist rant against the bland – though dan­gerous – conformism of fashion in Undressed, And there’s also tender, yet impassioned, material like The Flame, addressed to her daughter Cicely, now nearly ten. Motherhood has changed Bernhard’s worldview: ‘Certainly I’m looking to the future,’ she says. ‘The world I want to create for my daughter, and the world I want her to live in.’ And it’s seems that some of Mom’s idealism has already rubbed off: ‘She wants to be a hippy, she wants peace, she wants love, she loves John Lennon…’

Everything Bad & Beautiful is Bernhard’s eleventh record, and her umpteenth show in a career that spans 30 years. There’s something very old-fash­ioned about the honest, hardworking route to fame that Bernhard followed, playing the clubs, plugging away at a bit of this and a bit of that, climbing through the ranks. The opposite, in fact, of the shallow promises of instant fame and for­tune promoted by the likes of Pop Idol and its multitude of copyists, a concept that, unsurprisingly, she has little time for: ‘It’s part and parcel of what I’ve been talk­ing about, this sort of immediacy. You don’t have to work for anything, we’ll just hand it to you and – guess what? – it all comes back to bite you on the ass in the end, because every five minutes there’s somebody new.’ It’s troopers like herself that she really admires. ‘Chrissie Hynde, Marianne Faithfull, Joni Mitchell, Nina Simone, Dusty Springfield, the great voices of the past who were destined to be great singers and artists.’

Destiny, though, also involves a hell of a lot of hard graft, and Bernhard is no shirker. After touring Everything Bad… around the UK last autumn, she’s back at Manchester’s Queerupnorth festival on May 9th, something she’s relishing: ‘I love place and the people. You Brits are just a whole other breed.’

And, thrillingly, she’s reprising her legendary 1988 work, Without You I’m Nothing. Why? Because she can: ‘The show really put me on the map, and we just thought it would be great to bring out a classic for a new generation. There’s really nothing to say, other than it’s a great show and it touched on a lot of things that are still relevant.’

And for this performer, lesbian and gay audiences have changed immeasurably in the time since Without You… debuted. After all, back in the day, when Bernhard played her all-nighter at The Scala in London, she bemoaned onstage the fact that lesbian promoters were perhaps a little on the stingy side, expecting her to do something for nothing. But now ‘the whole gay experience is completely different. People feel much more comfortable and I think that acceptance in general society has changed people.’

As well as looking back, Bernhard is still being carried forward by her compulsion to create. She’s just started writing a new book, she’s touring, doing some music  and TV work, and she clearly adores it all: ‘I love being a performer and an artist. It’s really the most fulfilling thing in the world.’ So, is she ever going to stop, or will she still be at it when she’s 90, held together with ostrich feathers and safety pins, like Marlene Dietrich? ‘Why not?’ she says. ‘But I hope I won’t fall off the stage.’

Thirsting for Waters

December 8, 2012

This was the second time I interviewed Sarah Waters, just before Affinity was televised. It was originally published in Diva, April 2008

ITV’s adaptation of Sarah Waters’ second novel, Affinity, follows a South Bank Show special on the nation’s best-loved lesbian author. Kim Renfrew’s cup runneth over.

You know you’re important when Melvyn Bragg selects you for scrutiny on his highbrow ITV arts digest, The South Bank Show. That’s exactly what’s happening to Sarah Waters in late March, when she’ll be profiled by the bequiffed peer, and it surely marks another step towards lesbian culture nudging its way into the establishment. ‘Everybody’s been saying “Ooh, you’ve arrived!”‘ says Waters. ‘I really like The South Bank Show because it has such a spectrum of popular culture as well as highbrow stuff, so I feel very flattered and excited to be on their radar.’


The show is part of the build up to the transmission of the Andrew Davies’ (he also did the screenplay for Tipping The Velvet) adaptation of Waters’ dark and difficult second novel Affinity. The programme takes us back to 1870s’ London, where we follow Margaret (Anna Madeley), a wealthy woman who, in the wake of her father’s death, becomes a do-gooder visitor at Millbank women’s prison. There, she’s entranced by Selina (Zoe Tapper, set to become the next big lesbian pin-up), a psychic who’s been jailed for fraud and assault connected to one of her seances. A bond – an affinity, in fact – develops between the two women, who embark on a romantic friendship-cum-romance proper, complete with much heaving of stays. Without giving too much plot away, Margaret is lured into a world of spiritualism, charlatanry and betrayal. (And watch for the traditional  cameo: as Margaret mounts the steps to the dressmakers’ shop, Waters can be seen walking down them.)

Perhaps it’s the transfer to the screen that does it, but the love-in-a-women’s prison theme – a juicy genre stretching back through Bad Girls to Prisoner, 1970s’ sexploitation movies to 1950s’ pulp fiction — seems foregrounded. Was there ever a cheeky element of homage in Waters’ subject choice? ‘My girlfriend thinks we should have had Bodybag from Bad Girls [in the programme],’ she laughs. ‘Actually, every depiction of women’s prisons draws on the same sources: women pent up together, passions building up like a kettle. It’s impossible to write a story now about a women’s prison and not invoke it. But of course,’ she adds, ‘I wrote Affinity before Bad Girls‘.

Stylistically, too, this TV adaptation is different from Waters’ others, as it’s a single-episode drama: quite risky for a slow, brooding and –  literally – haunting book like Affinity. But Waters is unperturbed: ‘I always thought it would work better as a one-off because the narrative is tight. I think Andrew’s structure is brilliant. It’s quite fast, but that’s the nature of TV, and audiences are used to that.’ Inevitably, though, simmering 350 pages down to 80 screen minutes is bound to entail changes, and this drama does rather romanticise the ending, which in the book, as Waters herself freely admits, is ‘quite brutal, really.’ But she likes what Davies has done, which certainly takes a kinder view of women than Waters ever has in any of her novels; they hardly paint a rosy picture about communities of women. All her novels, in fact, are riven with the betrayals and cruelties that women heap upon each other. ‘I keep thinking that people are going to start getting at me for this,’ she laughs, ‘I’d hate my books to feel misogynist – that would be awful! We tend to think about feminism as celebrating women, but I’m more interested in fractures across women’s communities. I suppose, as a writer, I’m drawn to people’s darker motivations. But when my women are nasty to each other, I hope I show it as part of a larger system influenced by other forces, like class.’

Another difference is that, unlike Tipping The Velvet and Fingersmith, Affinity won’t be broadcast on the home of costume drama, BBC1, but on ITV, a move that may well raise Waters’ profile even further and open her up to whole new audiences. And although it’s been – astonishingly – nearly ten years since Affinity was first published, Waters is very glad to revisit it. She says, ‘It’s been really nice to see it given a second life,’ – or perhaps that should be ‘afterlife’, given the subject matter – ‘but my main interest is always the book I’m working on.’

Currently, she’s busy with her brand-new novel, which she describes as ‘a post-war crumbling country house, rather gothic, full of class and gender tension.’ When I ask about the new book, she groans then quickly says: ‘I don’t know why I’m groaning, because it’s coming along quite nicely. I’ve been working on it for a year and a half, finished the first draft last year, and now I’m doing the first rewrite. It’s a much more traditional sort of story and I hope that people aren’t going to be shocked but,’ and here she lets loose a bombshell, ‘there’s no lesbian element at all.’ But she does hint that there’s a ‘rather mannish’ character in the book.

In the meantime, we still have the gothic girl-on-girl action of Affinity to relish and, beyond that, a screen adaptation of The Night Watch is also in the developmental stages. With so much Waters around, we need never thirst for quality lesbian screentime.

Because the Night

December 5, 2012

Published in Amsterdam Weekly, May 2007 (the Rock ‘n’ Roll issue)


It’s one of the most rock ‘n’ roll things imaginable: making a living from writing, often very rudely indeed, about lesbian life and selling it to the masses. So did Sarah Waters ever think she would get rich and famous from peddling dirty lesbian books? ‘No,’ the author laughs. ‘I never knew there was so much money in being a lesbian!’

It’s a flippant assessment of Waters’ short – her first novel, Tipping the Velvet was published in 1998 – but stellar career. She’s one of Granta’s prestigious Best Young British Writers; two of her novels were adapted into hugely successful TV series; she’s won 11 awards including the Betty Trask and John Rhys Llewellyn and been nominated for many more, notably the Booker and Orange prizes – the latter for both Fingersmith and her most recent, The Night Watch, which Waters was in town to talk about as part of the Amsterdam Literary Festival.

But it isn’t an inaccurate assessment. Waters has changed the landscape of literature – and quite probably lesbian life – forever. For many, reading Tipping the Velvet, her extraordinary debut about a cross-dressing oyster seller who conquers Victorian London first as a music hall star and then as a rent boy, was an epiphany. Here was an author who portrayed lesbianism in unflinching detail, and on its own terms, then got it – hand-tooled leather dildos and all – on prime-time BBC. And her books sell by the cartload. No one, not even Jeanette Winterson – the writer to whom Waters can most closely be compared, and to whom she feels indebted – has done that.

So, is the fact that she’s made lesbianism mainstream something to do with herself, or with the times? ‘I think it must be something to do with the times, really,’ she says. ‘It’s not like I came from nowhere. [Jeanette Winterson] is a writer who [did] such a bold thing: write ambitious literary fiction which was also completely lesbian, and there was no problem with that. In something like Tipping the Velvet, I think I just did the right thing at the right time.’

This modest response (she and Winterson must part company here) goes some way to explaining why, in London publishing circles, Waters has a reputation for being one of the nicest people in the biz.

But to ascribe her popularity to the zeitgeist alone would be to underestimate waters’ power as a storyteller – she’s up there with Fielding and Dickens in terms of page-turnability – the very thing that ensnares readers and which allows her to slip in often esoteric, and sometimes eyebrow-raising, aspects of women’s sexuality. ‘It’s a very old-fashioned sort of storytelling,’ she explains. ‘All my novels are in a way. They’re very accessible fiction, and they’re completely relaxed about lesbianism. Lesbianism is both completely important in them and also totally incidental.’

Although all of Waters books are historical, she denies that this is a distancing tactic: ‘I’ve never wanted to make lesbianism palatable by setting it in the past. If I was a historian, nobody would ever say to me: “Why do you bang on about the historians all the time?”’ In fact, it could be argued that the historical contexts of her stories are a way of connecting with the present: they sniff out the reasons for why we’ve ended up where we are now.

That’s certainly the case with the The Night Watch, whose very narrative structure – it begins in 1947 and ends in 1941 – explores where people have arrived by tracing where they came from. It’s a complex, tricksy, formidably researched book (as you’d expect from someone with a PhD in historical fiction), which all at once manages to capture the horror and after-shock of war, tell several love stories across every shade of the sexual rainbow, while also examining shifting patterns of gender. It’s also the most contemporary of Waters’ novels, though she’s slowly creeping towards today. ‘I’m doing a lot of thinking and reading and I have plans to write another book in the post-war setting. Maybe about 1950, that sort of period,’ she reveals. ‘I think I’m going to stay in this post-war world.’

Can she ever imagine writing something set now? ‘If I did write a contemporary novel it would have some sort of identity of its own – it might be a ghost story or something more gothic. I’m as interested in genre as I am in history, so that could take me into the present. For now, it’s still very much the past that inspires me.’

And from that fascination with the past, Waters has achieved a very modern version of success. Could all that fame have gone to her head? What, for example, is the most rock ‘n’ roll thing she’s ever done? ‘I did a gig with the Indigo Girls. That’s the closest I’ve ever come – I was on stage with people with electric guitars!’ she says.

Good answer. But did anyone throw their knickers onstage?

‘No, unfortunately.’