There is not one kind of feminism but many different kinds: Sarah Waters
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Author of best-selling works like Fingersmith (2002), The Night Watch (2006) and The Little Stranger (2009), Welsh author Sarah Waters is attending the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF). On her maiden trip to India, Waters, whose books explore changing social mores in late 19th century England through the lens of lesbian relationships, speaks to Mint about the craft of writing a novel, rising above the label of a gay writer and the different layers to her writing.
So this is your first visit to India. What is your impression? Chaotic?
Yes, it is my first time to India. Chaotic yes but there is such energy behind the chaos. It’s very appealing, very attractive. For me it is a great introduction to India. I intend to come back.
In a session at the literature festival today you spoke about how you want the reading experience of a book to be as intense for the reader as writing it is for you.
It takes me a long time to write a novel. My last book (The Paying Guests, 2014) took four years. Obviously you can’t write at an intense pitch for that long, you will go mad. There are many different phases in writing…first phase is, which might take up to two years, and that is building a manuscript, a first draft which in itself would have been re-written several times along the way. And then there is the re-writing, and sometimes that’s the most interesting part...it’s when you are understanding how the story is, what needs to be brought into sharper focus. Then there are the final few months which for me are always the most intense…I have a deadline, a vision of the book, it becomes all consuming. Along the way there are spells of intensity but there are also long spells of work, just work, very technical like thinking of a scene, why it doesn’t work, what can you do to make it work. With a novel there are two, three, maybe four lightning bolts of inspiration…that’s the core of the book. All you need are a handful of good ideas and the rest of it is slowly building the book around them.
Do you re-visit your books once you are done with them?
Writing a book is almost an emotional engagement, but you get to a point where it is finished, it’s done and you want to move onto another story. In a way it’s like an old relationship. I have re-read Tipping the Velvet, as there was a new edition coming out and there were lots of typos. It was an odd experience, it was my first novel and like all first novels, it’s a little exuberant, a little untidy.
Your books are set in 19th century, mostly post-war England. Is there any particular reason for that?
My first book, Tipping the Velvet, it looked at Victorian London and then I wanted to write another different Victorian novel. All my novels have usually grown out of the ones that came before. With my third book, Fingersmith, I wanted to move forward and so I set it in the 1940s. With my latest book Paying Guest, I moved to 1920s so I have stayed in that time frame but there have been significant shifts in that period in terms of behavior, in terms of attitude.
You’ve often been classified as a writer writing about gay issues but your books work on many other levels, social, emotional and there is almost always an element of mystery.
I do want the book to work on different levels…they are historical, so there is research. I try to make them as accurate historically as I can. There is the lesbian element but...I am interested in lesbian history, what stories I can tell about it. I am gay and for me it’s normal so why shouldn’t it be normal in my books? It’s also liberating as it is there and I can write other things.
Your women protagonists are extremely well etched with great detailing. What kind of research goes into their creation?
I feel as a writer it is important to pay attention to women because their lives have been domesticated and fiction tends to be more about public events. I think of myself as a feminist and so I want to do that. When I was looking at the World War II for The Night Watch, I looked specifically at women and their roles in the war. Women in London were involved in civil defence, manning search lights etc. Similarly with my last book, it is a domesticated setting even though it becomes a crime book and I had to spend a lot of time thinking about what a woman would do in the house in 1920s.
Is today’s writing about women far more representative of them?
Women have always been big novel writers. Think of Mary Shelly writing Frankenstein, George Eliot and others in the 20th century. With someone like Virgina Woolf, it became okay for fiction to focus on inner lives, on emotions in a way that hadn’t been there in 19th century novels. Women can write about bigger issues too but they are also writing about details of family life, domestic life. There are several writers I can look at like Elizabeth Bowen, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield etc. so it seems to me there was a strong tradition for me to draw on.
You spoke about being a feminist but today most young women tend to abjure the label, if not the movement. What do you make out of that?
I find it sad that younger women have felt alienated from the word because for me it is a word that has been at the heart of my life, it seems to me to mean something very uncomplicated which is to stand up for equal gender rights. I think it’s become associated with something unattractive and I can only think that it’s a kind of failure on the part of my generation. How on earth did that happen? The thing about feminism is that there is not one kind of feminism but many different kinds. It’s always been a plural thing, how can it be anything else? There is room in the world today for women of many different kinds.
Have you started working on your next book?
No. I am not working on anything which is strange. Usually there is always the germ of an idea, just enough for me to know which direction I am facing in, by the end of the writing process. Currently I don’t have an idea for the next novel and it is a strange experience. I am trying to be zen about it.
What kind of books do you like to read?
I read a lot for research. That is my day-time reading. But my bed-time reading is all kind of things…I try and read contemporary fiction…I am reading Neel Mukherjee’s book, The Lives of Others (2014).