June 30, 2011
“Television isn’t great at showing butch characters” – exclusive interview with Sarah Waters
With the television adaptation of best-selling novel The Night Watch about to hit our screens, three-time Man Booker Prize nominee Sarah Waters talks exclusively to Lesbilicious’ Chloe Setter about why she wanted to put lesbians back at the heart of her next project.
You saw the premiere of the TV adaptation of The Night Watch; what did you make of it?
Yes, I liked it very much. I thought it looked lovely – it captured the mood and feel of the novel very well. The sombre colours with the odd splash of red at dramatic moments really worked. And the cast were great too and the music was noticeably good.
The premiere itself at the London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival was really special. As it was mainly a gay audience, there was a real warmth. And I could talk about dildos and things without feeling silly!
Tell us more about what you thought of the cast…
It’s always strange seeing your characters on screen. Television isn’t great at showing butch characters and Kay is an example of this – I wrote her as a butch woman.
[The actress] Anna Maxwell Martin is a lot daintier than how Kay was meant to be, however, I loved Anna’s portrayal – she was really compelling because she is such a good actress. Viv too is really brought to life. The whole cast was excellent.
You’ve said previously that Kay is a favourite character of yours. How did you feel she came across in the adaptation?
I do love Kay, yes. And Anna Maxwell Martin does a great job with her. The Night Watch is a book about betrayals, big and small.
Unlike many of the other characters, Kay doesn’t let anyone down – she has a moral centre and is very noble. I think that does come across on the screen. In a small way, she’s quite heroic.
Did you have any doubts about the novel being adapted for the screen?
My biggest reservation was that it was so short. The BBC decided it would be 90 minutes, but there is so much going on in the book – it’s so long – that I was concerned it would skip over things. Yet this actually helps characters like Duncan and Vic, who have relatively simple stories, as it makes them more accessible.
I would have loved it to be slightly longer so that it could explore Kay, Helen and Julia more and their complexities. However, once the time frame was decided upon, everyone did such a great job at accommodating that in the structure. They got a lot in there in the end.
Was there anything you weren’t so keen on in the adaptation?
The Night Watch didn’t use so much of my dialogue, and that’s always strange to hear. Inevitably, it makes the characters feel less yours, but that always happens to a certain extent. You have to let it. And besides, how much is the TV production mine? Everyone has a share in it – the directors and producers, me, the actors…
Were you worried about the structure of The Night Watch for television, given that it moves backwards in time?
While I was writing it, I actually thought it would put adapters off, but when I was approached, the BBC saw it as an interesting challenge. I’m glad they didn’t attempt to change the structure.
At the end, there’s a kind of coding that quickly brings the characters back to the present, which doesn’t happen in the book, and this gives it a slightly more uplifting ending. But I think that’s something that TV does a lot.
At the end of a TV programme, you are left with the final mood of the piece – with a book you can be bleaker as you can go back and revisit it, so I understand why TV likes to lessen the sadness.
What about the period The Night Watch is set in?
I loved finding out about the 1940s. I’d gone to them with only the sketchiest sense of what it was like. I had read a certain amount but found there was so much to learn – I read books and diaries, and watched films.
The 40s have a distinct voice; that mixture of restraint and strong feeling just underneath it. It was a unique time and a long time too – it was half a decade, plus the build-up to the war and the aftermath.
I guess it gave it a very particular mood and allowed people to do things they’d not been able to before.
Most of your novels have been adapted for TV now. Do you have a favourite adaptation?
It’s hard to say. They’ve all got different strengths and weaknesses. Before the premiere of The Night Watch, I sat down watched them all again – Tipping the Velvet, Fingersmith, Affinity – and I really loved seeing them all again.
I guess Fingersmith stuck out for me as a really strong one, partly because it’s three hours long. It really has time to go into the book and moves at a leisurely pace. It’s also very faithful to the book and does use a lot of my dialogue.
Tipping was great fun though and Affinity is also very, very faithful to the book. I loved seeing The Night Watch brought to TV. It gave it something extra being on the big screen. It was quite emotional for me really.
Would you like to be able to live in any of the eras you have written about?
I don’t think so really. They were all tough times for women and for gay people too. All the things that are central to my life would have been so different and hard.
I’d love to pop back and visit though. Things always look more captivating when you are looking back at them I think.
Tell us about what you are working on now…
It’s a move into the 1920s this time, which is turning out to be really fascinating. I’ve written about the Victorian age and the 1940s, and this is sort of a midway point between the two.
I can really see the aftermath of the 19th century still there but it was a much more modern type of life. The fiction I’ve read from the period is very modern but much the style is more old-fashioned story-telling. The movies are also more alienating as they are silent or often have exaggerated acting, so it’s harder to actually relate it to people’s real lives.
It’s been a real challenge to find the voice of the period. The 1940s has a distinctive voice, but the 20s has proved harder to hear. I am enjoying it though.
And when can we expect it?
I’m not racing through it, but it’s well under way. I’m about halfway through so hope to finish writing by the end of next year.
Was there a pressure to include any lesbian characters in this latest book?
I did kind of miss lesbians when I did The Little Stranger. I was ready to return!
I was looking for a 1920s lesbian story and I’ve settled on a romance – lots of drama and complications, so definitely some lesbians this time.
Were you nervous of not including any lesbian characters in The Little Stranger then?
I was a little nervous. There was definitely some antagonism and disappointment when people realised.
I totally understand it though. I have become known as a lesbian writer. The thought for some people that they might be losing a lesbian writer might seem like a bad idea. But I can reassure my lesbian fans, I haven’t been lost!
Is there pressure to uphold this role model status as a gay woman in the public eye?
No, it’s always felt very benign. There are all sorts of other pressures, such as working on the next book and deadlines and so on. I just have to focus on the book, just me and it.
I am aware of my reputation and role in the community, but it is not a bad thing. It’s very much where the books have all come from as it’s where I came from – the London lesbian and gay world. It’s lovely to have that forum around me, lovely to know there are readers interested.
You know, I’ve never lost that basic excitement about fiction – knowing you’ve got something you can hand over to complete strangers to enjoy and share. That exchange is just wonderful. It’s what I love the most.
What do you do to relax when you’re not busy writing?
Oh very boring things – pottering about at home, watching television and DVDs, walking around London, reading – I really love reading so do a lot of that.
My partner and I have just got through the last series of Lost and watched the entire series of The Wire. Lots of friends keep telling me to see Mad Men so I’m hoping to catch up with that soon.
Do you do all of your writing at home?
Yes. I did go on a writers’ retreat for women in America when writing The Little Stranger, which was nice, but I still feel I’ve got a very good set-up at home, a nice study. It’s a 9-5 job for me. I have to do it that way to get things done.
Inspiration comes to me at odd moments but I do have to work on it – if I didn’t, it wouldn’t happen.
The adaptation of The Night Watch has been a lovely distraction from writing recently but there are always distractions; I’ve got to go to Spain next week to promote The Little Stranger there and Greece next month, so it’s a pretty busy time.
And any final tips for budding lesbian authors out there?
Just go for it really. I had an idea and hadn’t written anything before Tipping the Velvet. You’ve just got to be a bit ruthless about carving out that space and time for yourself.
You don’t want to get to the end of your life and wish you had written a novel – I think that would be so sad. Just make time for it and, of course, enjoy it.
The Night Watch will be shown on BBC Two and BBC HD at 9pm on Tuesday 12 July 2011.
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