Tender gloom

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 April, 2006, 12:00am

ONE PERK OF winning the Booker prize (besides the adulation, sharply increased sales and GBP50,000) is a trip to the Man Hong Kong International Literary Festival. The 2003 winner, Alan Hollinghurst, visited last year. John Banville, who won in 2005, recently attended the sixth annual gathering.

If early betting on the 2007 prize proves correct, then Sarah Waters should be the main attraction 12 months from now. Having previously been nominated for Fingersmith, her fourth novel The Night Watch is the bookie's early favourite, thanks to ecstatic reviews and impressive sales.

The reception has enhanced Waters' status as a publishing phenomenon. Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith were adapted as successful television series. Affinity has attracted Roman Polanski's interest. She's just won another Orange Prize nomination and The Observer newspaper has named Waters among its Top 50 Players in the World of Books. Noting that she has 'taken lesbian writing well and truly into the mainstream', it says Waters has pulled off the rare trick of attracting a popular audience without alienating her original readership.

Waters seems cheerfully immune to fame's worst excesses. She's funny and unstuffy. One reason for her fascination with gothic, she says, is Ingrid Pitt's plunging necklines in Hammer Horror movies. When I compare her daily writing schedule to Graham Greene's, she says: 'He only wrote 500 words a day - I do 1,000. Although 500 of Greene's were worth 10,000 of mine.'

Waters also patiently answers questions she must have heard a million times before - for example, about gay marriage. 'It's an amazing achievement for a certain kind of gay activism,' she says brightly. 'It's especially great for older couples who need practical support and assurance. But I don't feel I need it as an emotional or public statement about me or my partner.'

Not that a soft heart doesn't beat beneath this flinty exterior. 'When I went to my first [lesbian wedding] ceremony, I was perfectly all right until the moment my friends walked in. Then I started to cry. I was much more moved than I thought I would be.'

Civil ceremonies may indicate how far the gay community has come, but Waters says there's still much to do - and that her own high profile is proof. 'There's always this extra emotional and political intensity to lesbian readings of my novels because lesbian readers see themselves represented relatively infrequently. So, when we do get something, we tend to fixate on it a bit.'

As a result of this 'extra emotional intensity', Waters receives some highly personal fan-mail. 'I get letters about coming out, or dealing with the loss of a girlfriend.' She calls this responsibility an honour, but is there a downside? After all, the likes of Philip Roth or Zadie Smith are never asked what it's like to be a heterosexual novelist.

'It's funny, isn't it?' Waters says. 'I understand why people talk about the lesbian content because it's such a part of the books. But, funnily enough, the question I get more impatient with is, 'Will I always write lesbian fiction?' A straight writer would never get asked if he's always going to write straight fiction. It suggests there's something freakish about writing lesbian stories. My own experience is utterly normal and natural. Why wouldn't I want to write about it?'

Waters was born in Neyland, a small seaside town in southern Wales. She jokes that 'it's not the sort of place you want to linger', before recalling proudly that Affinity was nominated for a Welsh literary prize. She went to university in England, writing a PhD on 'lesbian and gay historical fictions from 1870 onwards'. It was this thesis that inspired her first book, Tipping the Velvet.

'I went on the dole and just wrote for a year,' she says. 'It was a great experience because I did it in complete innocence. I had never written fiction, I didn't even know if I was going to finish the book. It was a complete leap of faith.'

Getting published proved rather harder. After being rejected by 10 houses, Waters got an agent, only to be rejected for another year. Eventually, Virago picked her up and the rest is history (or at least historical novels). In another sense, however, it was all downhill from there. 'I never wrote with such freedom again. Tipping had been loads of fun. I always overuse the word, but it was a romp. Affinity was a bleaker story. I'm fond of the book now, but it was gruelling.'

The 'upbeat and playful' Fingersmith returned Waters to lighter arenas, setting a pattern of 'romp then dark' that the mournful The Night Watch continues. 'One book does make you want to do something different,' she says. 'I always knew this was going to be melancholy.' Waters takes a risk in The Night Watch. Having mined a Victorian era filled with sex and secrets for her first three books, she has forsaken fin de siecle fun for second world war London. The prose, as always, is a pleasure, yet the plot is more daringly structured. Not content with dividing the action into three interwoven narratives, she makes it go backwards, from 1947 to 1941, ushering in irony and pathos aplenty. And although the central themes - gender, sexuality, love, loss and class - are typical Waters fare, her elegiac tone strikes unfamiliar chords. Even the gloom of her second book, Affinity, was not as tenderly drawn as this.

In part, this reflects the period Waters wrote about. But, it also speaks for the one she was writing in. She can name the exact date she began The Night Watch for the simple reason that it was September 11 2001. 'I was reading about London being blown to bits [during the Blitz] and suddenly there were the twin towers on TV. I was really interested in how the war was a time of muddle for people, and comparing that to how things were unfolding for us - how personally small I felt in relation to all that, and yet how I was part of the process.'

Although she says she hides behind her fictional voice, Waters admits to strong personal undercurrents in her new novel. 'There's a lot of me in this book, but in odd ways. I'm often aware of some feeling that I magnify in the writing. I have certainly had moments of jealousy, of being utterly trapped by a feeling and not knowing how to get out of it. But it becomes something else when you write about it.'

This transformation of feeling into fiction is neither cathartic nor therapeutic. If anything, the bleak years of the blitz have taken their toll. 'You can never overestimate what kind of a shadow this casts over you,' she says. 'I was dealing with characters who were unhappy or stuck. I lived with it for four years and I didn't want to think about loss, or being stuck any more.'

Waters jokes that she's leaving the war to write a romantic comedy next, the lighter the better. 'I was having drinks in the Savoy, just like Jeeves and Wooster, and I thought, 'This is what I'm going to do next'.' Yet, rather than moving backwards to the jazz age, she's ploughing on into the 1950s, ignoring the calls for a Sarah Waters novel set in the present. 'I still find it hard to imagine what sort of contemporary novel I would write, what my voice would be like.'

This leaves just one more mystery. The Night Watch's acknowledgements thank Martina Cole for buying a character named after her for GBP1,000 at a charity auction. So, where was she? Waters has lots of time for the best-selling crime writer, but couldn't quite imagine someone called Martina Cole in the 1940s. 'Martina kindly let me use her initials for E.M. Cole. To get saddled with a name that isn't right must be awful.'

On the way out, one of her publisher's staff says, 'I wish all our writers were like Sarah Waters.' Whether this refers to her books, her sales or her personality isn't clear. But whatever the case, it's hard not to agree.


Genre Historical fiction

Latest book The Night Watch (Virago, $202)

Age 40

Born Pembrokeshire, Wales

Lives London, England

Family Partner, Louise

Other works include Tipping the Velvet (Virago, 1998); Affinity (Virago, 1999); Fingersmith (Virago, 2002)

Next project A novel set in 1950s England

Other jobs University lecturer

What the papers say 'One of the best storytellers alive today' Independent on Sunday

author's bookshelf

The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter

'Lots of writers have had a go at retelling the fairy stories of Perrault and the Brothers Grimm, but Angela Carter did it best, in this beautiful, unsettling collection. I've read these stories many times ... and always find something new in them.'

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

'Like many other 19th-century novels (Frankenstein, Dracula), this one gave the world a gothic archetype which is still resonant today. I like the construction of this novel, too - the way we get various teasing reports of the horrible events, followed by Dr Jekyll's own startling statement of the case.'

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

'I like all of Dickens' novels, but this one is my favourite. It's his most economical book - a concentrated study of guilt, anxiety, and the return of the repressed.'

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

'I don't think anybody could call Daphne du Maurier a great writer, but Rebecca is somehow a small masterpiece - a beautiful, nervous book, full of memorable characters and scenes. A wonderful example of 20th-century British gothic.'

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

'A huge, brilliant, compassionate novel, beautifully constructed and full of insight.'