Because the Night

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.’


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One Response to “Because the Night”

  1. leniking Says:

    Reblogged this on leniking.

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