What a fine way to start the week and how delighted and grateful I am that Sarah Waters has so kindly taken time out to sit in the dovegreyreader virtual armchair and tell us more about The Little Stranger, her writing day and favourite books.
Don't miss the prize draw for three copies of the book that follows this post.
Sarah, last week I wrote "one of
the year's great reads for me because this is a book that gives up its secrets
slowly and deliberately and at unexpected moments", and still The Little
Stranger is doing that and I know I'm not alone. I wonder if you can
tell us where the idea for this book came from, how you have
managed to sustain those secrets and tensions and what were your intentions for us
as your readers?
The Little Stranger very much grew out of my last book, The Night Watch. That novel is set mainly in wartime London, but begins in 1947; I finished it still really interested in the immediate post-war period - in particular, I was interested in what was happening to the British class system then, with the Labour government being voted in and so on. I was reading post-war novels by authors like Elizabeth Jenkins, Marghanita Laski, Angela Thirkell, Josephine Tey, and I could see that class was this really painful issue. Britain was changing, working-class people were losing respect for the old hierarchies, servants were disappearing, large houses were crumbling away; middle-class people seemed to be in absolute agony about it - and the more conservative they were, of course, the worse the agony was.
It was that agony, really, that
attracted me: it was so extreme, it had an irrational, an hysterical - almost a
supernatural - intensity to it, and I ended up thinking that the only way
really to do justice to it might be with a full-blown haunted-house novel.
So that's where Hundreds Hall came from: I suppose in some ways it's a model of Britain itself at this very particular moment, with the poor old Ayres family being terrorised by forces they can't understand.
But I took the novel totally seriously as a kind of ghost story, too. I've always been drawn to novels and stories of the supernatural, and I really enjoyed this experience of writing within the genre. I wanted the book to be genuinely scary - though it was hard to judge whether that was working. I wrote the scene, say, where Roderick's shaving mirror starts to move by itself, and though I loved writing it, I thought,
'Is this spooky?
Or is it just a bit silly?'
Then I gave a draft of the novel to a friend to read, and she was really unnerved by it; so I knew I was on the right track. Dr Faraday is a bit of a dull narrator really, but I hoped that that would help the tension rather than hinder it. I was remembering those bachelor narrators in the ghost stories of M.R. James. They've rarely been involved in anything supernatural themselves; they tell us their tales at one remove, so that we get glimpses of terrifying things, rather than full-on horror. I think that's the more effective way.
I think off-blog and through countless e mails between us, we think we've fathomed the ending to our satisfaction, were we supposed to try and do that and reach a conclusion, or had you left it intentionally open to speculation?
Ha! Well - and again I'm thinking of a writer like M.R. James - it has always seemed to me that the best ghost stories are the ones that remain slightly enigmatic, slightly baffling. After all, if something is genuinely uncanny, then we shouldn't be able to explain it away with a neat resolution. So I wanted The Little Stranger to be as open-ended as I felt I could get away with; and I needed Dr Faraday to be a relatively unreliable narrator - not in the sense that he's lying to us, but in as much as there are things going on that he can't, or won't, confront. Those things seem very clear to me, personally, though not every reader has picked up on them. That's fine with me: I'm happy for people to have slightly different ideas about what's been happening at Hundreds Hall. I didn't want readers to feel frustrated, and I'm sorry that some have. But more people seem to have had your own response: they've finished the book and thought, 'Hmm'; the story has stayed in their mind; then a few days later they've gone: 'Aha!' I didn't know that that would happen; but I like it.
We're very inquisitive here at dovegreyreader so we love to know about your writing day, it really helps us imagine the writer at work so special space, perfect view, cupboards cleared out before you can settle down, fountain pen or PC, we've had woolly socks and writing jumpers, can you tell us?
But I spend a lot of time re-writing, too. Every so often I'll print up a chunk of text, read it through and annotate it, then return to the computer to make the changes on screen. (I can write on computer, but not edit: I need to see the words on paper for that.) So a novel develops, for me, in a series of loops.
For many years I didn't have a separate study, and used to to write at a desk in my bedroom, and that worked fine: I think that all I need, really, is a desk, a computer, and long stretches of peace and quiet. These days, however, I have a lovely attic study with a view of gardens, rooftops, and the local gasworks: a perfect view, actually, because it's interesting without being distracting.
Like most writers I know, I like to snack as I work. I have three cups of tea a day, and lots of toast. The crucial thing for me, however, is not food but clothes: they need to be loose, which generally means shapeless; and because I wear the same items day after day, they get increasingly stained, torn and revolting as a book proceeds. I get particularly attached to my writing trousers, and still think very fondly about the pair of khaki combats that got me through Fingersmith and half of The Night Watch; they eventually became so ragged and filthy they looked like something that might have been worn by Jo the Crossing sweeper in Bleak House. It was a very sad day when I had to give them up.
If you could just imagine for a minute that none of us read books, who must we read and why?
All shelved in strict alphabetical order, you'll notice - though should Ivy Compton Burnett be under C or B? And what about Daphne du Maurier - D or M? I'm never sure.