“I’ve always been very happy with the label ‘lesbian writer'”, says Sarah Waters, in conversation with Muriel Gray at the finale event of this year’s Edinburgh Book Festival. “In a way I’ve claimed it.”
Waters is here to discuss her new novel, The Paying Guests, which she describes as a “lesbian love story that veers into melodrama”. Set in the early 1920s at a time when Britain was recovering from the trauma of the First World War, it’s a period Waters had not previously written about but felt drawn to. “I was ready to find out more,” she says, describing the period as “a society in transition”.
Gray praises the novel’s strong sense of setting, which the author credits with reading letters and diaries from the time, as well as studying the “grand big-scale dramatic movies” from the period. “I enjoy writing dialogue that hopefully sounds realistic,” she says.
Gray then goes on to discuss the novel’s erotic sequences, which she claims were so convincing she “had to think of Jeremy Clarkson” in an attempt to stop her pulse racing. Waters describes her aim for realism in writing about sex. “It had to feel physically true and powerful,” she says.
She goes on to speak more about the time in which The Paying Guests is set, a period filled with “currents of resentment”, where certain sections of society held the view that “the best men had been lost” in the First World War. A time filled with tensions and snobbery, she thinks it has many parallels with today. “I hadn’t anticipated how many preoccupations of the present I would see in the 1920s,” she says. “Any time in British history is a great time for snobbery.”
Answering a question about her research methods, Waters describes how she starts with “a period of solid research – enough to see what the preoccupations of the time were” and how the characters then begin to emerge from that. “I researched to the very last day,” she says.
When asked what period she might write about next, she says she has thought about “nudging into the 1930s”, but has a concern she will “end up pastiching myself.” Despite that fear, she has no plans to set things in modern times. “So far nothing has led me into the present,” she says.
She is pleased with TV adaptations of her work, particularly the “faithful” and “leisurely” adaptation of Fingersmith, though she takes a hands-off approach to the medium. “It’s hard to adapt your own book,” she says. “It’s a complete translation.”
With The Paying Guests taking her four years to write, Waters describes her writing process as “pretty disciplined”, stating that most of her work is rewriting. “I just kind of chip away,” she says. “You can’t hurry it.” She goes on to describe the initial fear of exposing a completed work to the world, then experiencing a “shift” after which “suddenly it’s alive.”
Asked if she would ever set a novel “further north”, Waters smiles, describing Edinburgh as “one of those very inspiring places”. Her heart and creative soul is very much in London, however, a place where the “layers and layers of history” fascinate and inspire her.
“I love it with all the passion of an incomer,” she says.