Waters at a book signing for The Night Watch
21 July 1966 |
Neyland, Pembrokeshire, Wales
She grew up in a family that included her father Ron, mother Mary, and a sister. Her mother was a housewife and her father an engineer who worked on oil refineries. She describes her family as "pretty idyllic, very safe and nurturing". Her father, "a fantastically creative person", encouraged her to build and invent.
Waters said, "When I picture myself as a child, I see myself constructing something, out of plasticine or papier-mâché or Meccano; I used to enjoy writing poems and stories, too." She wrote stories and poems that she describes as "dreadful gothic pastiches", but had not planned her career. Despite her obvious enjoyment of writing, she did not feel any special calling or preference for becoming a novelist in her youth.
|“||I don’t know if I thought about it much, really. I know that, for a long time, I wanted to be an archaeologist – like lots of kids. And I think I knew I was headed for university, even though no one else in my family had been. I really enjoyed learning. I remember my mother telling me that I might one day go to university and write a thesis, and explaining what a thesis was; and it seemed a very exciting prospect. I was clearly a bit of a nerd.||”|
After Milford Haven Grammar School, Waters attended university, and earned degrees in English literature. She received a BA from the University of Kent, an MA from Lancaster University, and a PhD from Queen Mary, University of London. Her PhD thesis, entitled Wolfskins and togas : lesbian and gay historical fictions, 1870 to the present, served as inspiration and material for future books. As part of her research she read 19th-century pornography, in which she came across the title of her first book, Tipping the Velvet. However, her literary influences are also found in the popular classics of Victorian literature, such as Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins and the Brontës, and in the contemporary novelists that combine a keen interest in Victoriana with a post-modernist approach to fiction, especially A.S. Byatt and John Fowles. Angela Carter's 'Nights at the Circus' had a huge influence on her début novel as well, and Waters praises her for her literary prose, her "common touch", and her commitment to feminism.
Before writing novels, Waters worked as an academic, earning a doctorate and teaching. Waters went directly from her doctoral thesis to her first novel. It was during the process of writing her thesis that she thought she would write a novel; she began as soon as the thesis was complete. Her work is very research-intensive, which is an aspect she enjoys. Waters was briefly a member of the long-running London North Writers circle, whose members have included the novelists Charles Palliser and Neil Blackmore, among others.
With the exception of her most recent book, The Little Stranger, all of her books contain lesbian themes, and she does not mind being labelled a lesbian writer. She said, "I'm writing with a clear lesbian agenda in the novels. It's right there at the heart of the books." Despite this "common agenda in teasing out lesbian stories from parts of history that are regarded as quite heterosexual", she also calls her lesbian protagonists "incidental", due to her own sexual orientation. "That's how it is in my life, and that's how it is, really, for most lesbian and gay people, isn't it? It's sort of just there in your life."
Tipping the Velvet (1998)
Her debut work was the Victorian picaresque Tipping the Velvet, published by Virago in 1998. The novel took 18 months to write. The book takes its title from Victorian slang for cunnilingus. Waters describes the novel as a "very upbeat [...] kind of a romp".
It won a 1999 Betty Trask Award, and was shortlisted for the Mail on Sunday / John Llewellyn Rhys Prize.
In 2002, the novel was adapted into a three-part television serial of the same name for BBC Two. It has been translated into at least 24 languages, including Chinese, Latvian, Hungarian, Korean and Slovenian.
Waters's second book, Affinity was published a year after her first, in 1999. The novel, also set in the Victorian era, centres on the world of Victorian Spiritualism. While finishing her debut novel, Waters had been working on an academic paper on spiritualism. She combined her interests in spiritualism, prisons, and the Victorian era in Affinity, which tells the story of the relationship between an upper middle-class woman and an imprisoned spiritualist.
Affinity won the Stonewall Book Award and Somerset Maugham Award. Andrew Davies wrote a screenplay adapting Affinity and the resulting feature film premiered 19 June 2008 at the opening night of Frameline the San Francisco LGBT Film Festival at the Castro Theater.
Fingersmith was made into a serial for BBC One in 2005, starring Sally Hawkins, Elaine Cassidy and Imelda Staunton. Waters approved of the adaptation, calling it "a really good quality show", and said it was "very faithful to the book. It was spookily faithful to the book at times, which was exciting."
The Night Watch (2006)
The Night Watch took four years for Waters to write. It differs from the first three novels in its time period and its structure. Although her thesis and previous books focused on the 19th century, Waters said that "Something about the 1940s called to me". It was also less tightly plotted than her other books. Waters said,
|“||I had more or less to figure the book out as I went along – a very time-consuming and unnerving experience for me, as I tried out scenes and chapters in lots of different ways. I ended up with a pile of rejected scenes about three feet high. It was satisfying in the end, realising just what should go where; but a lot of the time it felt like a wrestling match.||”|
The novel tells the stories of a man and three women in 1940s London. Waters describes it as "fundamentally a novel about disappointment and loss and betrayal", as well as "real contact between people and genuine intimacy".
In 2005, Waters received the highest bid (£1,000) during a charity auction in which the prize was the opportunity to have the winner's name immortalised in The Night Watch. The auction featured many notable British novelists, and the name of the bidder, author Martina Cole, appeared in Waters' novel.
The Night Watch was adapted for television by BBC2 and broadcast on 12 July 2011.
The Little Stranger (2009)
Also set in the 1940s, The Little Stranger also differs from Waters' previous novels. It is her first with no overtly lesbian characters. Initially, Waters set out to write a book about the economic changes brought by socialism in postwar Britain, and reviewers note the connection with Evelyn Waugh. During the novel's construction, it turned into a ghost story, focussing on a gentry family who own a large country house they can no longer afford to maintain.
- Waters, S. (1994). "'A Girton Girl on a Throne': Queen Christina and Versions of Lesbianism, 1906-1933". Feminist Review (46): 41–60. doi:10.2307/1395418.
- Waters, S. (1995). ""The Most Famous Fairy in History": Antinous and Homosexual Fantasy". Journal of the History of Sexuality 6 (2): 194–230. doi:10.2307/3704122.
- Wolfskins and togas : lesbian and gay historical fictions, 1870 to the present (PhD thesis), Queen Mary, University of London, 1995
- Tipping the Velvet, 1998
- Affinity, 1999
- Fingersmith, 2002
- The Night Watch, 2006
- The Little Stranger, 2009
- Tipping the Velvet (2002), BBC Two
- Fingersmith (2005), BBC One
- Affinity (2008), ITV1
- The Night Watch (2011), BBC Two
Sarah Waters was named as one of Granta's 20 Best of Young British Writers in January 2003. The same year, she received the South Bank Award for Literature. She was named Author of the Year at the 2003 British Book Awards. In both 2006 and 2009 she won "Writer of the Year" at the annual Stonewall Awards. She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2009.
Each of her novels has received awards as well.
Tipping the Velvet
- Betty Trask Award, 1999
- Library Journal's Best Book of the Year, 1999
- Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, 1999
- New York Times Notable Book of the Year Award, 1999
- Ferro-Grumley Award for Lesbian and Gay Fiction (shortlist), 2000
- Lambda Literary Award for Fiction, 2000
- Stonewall Book Award (American Library Association GLBT Roundtable Book Award), 2000
- Arts Council of Wales Book of the Year Award (shortlist), 2000
- Ferro-Grumley Award for Lesbian and Gay Fiction, 2000
- Lambda Literary Award for Fiction (shortlist), 2000
- Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize (shortlist), 2000
- Somerset Maugham Award, 2000
- Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, 2000
- The Best Translated Crime Fiction of the Year in Japan, Kono Mystery ga Sugoi! 2004
- British Book Awards Author of the Year, 2002
- Crime Writers' Association Ellis Peters Historical Dagger, 2002
- Man Booker Prize for Fiction (shortlist), 2002
- Orange Prize for Fiction (shortlist), 2002
- The Best Translated Crime Fiction of the Year in Japan, Kono Mystery ga Sugoi! 2005
The Night Watch
- Man Booker Prize for Fiction (shortlist), 2006
- Orange Prize for Fiction (shortlist), 2006
- Lambda Literary Award, 2007
The Little Stranger
- Who's Who 2009
- McGrane, Michelle (2006). "Sarah Waters on writing: 'If I waited for inspiration to strike, it would never happen!' (Interview)". LitNet. Retrieved 24 February 2007.
- Allardice, Lisa (1 June 2006). "Uncharted Waters". The Guardian (UK). Retrieved 24 February 2007.
- "Sarah Waters: Interview". Retrieved 27 July 2012.
- The thesis can be downloaded from the British Library's EthOS Archive: uk.bl.ethos.393332
- Waters, Sarah. "Biography". sarahwaters.com. Archived from the original on 17 February. Retrieved 24 February 2007.
- "Sarah Waters on writing: If I waited for inspiration to strike, it would never happen!". Retrieved 27 July 2012.
- Page, Benedicte. "Her Thieving Hands". Virago. Retrieved 17 November 2011.
- Lo, Malinda (6 April 2006). "Interview with Sarah Waters". AfterEllen.com. Retrieved 17 November 2011.
- "North London Writers Official Website". Retrieved 17 November 2011.
- "Sarah Waters: 'Is there a poltergeist within me?'". Retrieved 27 July 2012.
- Hogan, Ron. "Sarah Waters (Interview)". IndieBound. Retrieved 17 November 2011.
- "Sarah Waters: Interview". Time Out London. Retrieved 24 February 2007.
- "Sarah Waters: From Victoria to VE Day (Interview)". Powells. Retrieved 24 February 2007.
- "Book role auction nudges £20,000". BBC News. 31 March 2004. Retrieved 24 February 2007.
- Didock, Barry (30 May 2009). "Capturing the spirit of the age: A haunting novel evokes the claustrophobia of postwar Britain", The Herald (Glasgow), p. 9.
- "Royal Society of Literature All Fellows". Royal Society of Literature. Retrieved 10 August 2010.
- "Sarah signs in for fans". Croydon Post (Northcliffe Media). 2 December 2009. p. 12. "A library was bursting at the seams when Man Booker Prize short-listed author Sarah Waters visited... [she] signed copies of The Little Stranger, her novel praised by the prestigious literary prize's judges this year."
- "2009 Shirley Jackson Awards Winners". The Shirley Jackson Awards. Retrieved 17 November 2011.
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