Sarah Waters on “Little Stranger,” Identity, and Lesbian Fiction

Sarah Waters impressed both gay and straight readers alike with the release of her first novel, Tipping the Velvet, a lesbian romp through Victorian England. Her next two books, Affinity and Fingersmith, completed her “Victorian Trilogy” and in her forth novel, The Night Watch, Waters moved into the forties by bringing to life London during the Blitz.

All three of Waters’s Victorian novels were adapted for television, and The Night Watch is currently in development with the BBC. She has won numerous awards, including Orange prizes and the Somerset Maugham award, and was listed as one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists in 2003.

I recently meet up with Waters in New York as she began her tour to promote her latest novel, The Little Stranger, a gothic postwar tale of a haunted house. She talked about her writing process, why she never reads her own work once it’s been published, and how lesbian readers haven’t “lost her” despite the lack of lesbian characters in The Little Stranger. Your new novel, The Little Stranger, centers around an eccentric family, the Ayres, a lonely bachelor, Dr. Faraday, and a haunted house, Hundreds Hall. What inspired this story?
Sarah Waters: I wrote it after writing The Night Watch so I was already in that period, the late forties, and I really wanted to stay there because I felt there were other stories to tell about the period. I’ve always been interested in that postwar world.

I was especially interested in how the war had shaken up the British class system. After the war, the Labour government was voted in and the working class felt empowered, or at least they wanted to make changes, and the upper middle class as a result felt really under attack. That idea of them being under attack really interested me so I thought I’d make a move out of London. I liked the idea of a country house that was collapsing because its owners couldn’t afford it and couldn’t get service anymore.

The supernatural element came in pretty late in the planning process, but then I suddenly thought, actually, the best way to represent this sense of menace and attackness might be through a haunted house. I saw an opportunity to write a real proper haunted house novel.

AE: You’ve said that you began your Victorian novels with a focus on plot, and The Night Watch with a focus on character. In The Little Stranger, the point of view of Dr. Faraday as an unreliable first-person narrator was an interesting technical choice. Did you have a particular focus for this book?
That’s a good question really. I had a vision early on for the whole book. I knew that this was going to be a doomed family — not to give anything away — but rather like a country house murder where people get picked off one by one. I kind of wanted it to be a bit like that. The narration was crucial because there were lots of different ways I could have told the story. I liked the idea of the doctor partially because he fitted nicely into the genre of British ghost stories — a gentlemen bachelor narrator who would tell the story from a slight distance.

Dr. Faraday was very much like them, a middle class country doctor, a friend of the family, and he was going to report these tragedies from a distance, not really understanding them. But then he became much more interesting to me as he became more complicated and that made the book much richer for me. He essentially becomes a bit of an unreliable narrator. Not in the sense that he’s lying to us — I don’t think he is anyway — but there are things going on that he can’t appreciate.

AE: I think it has to do with his perception. He is such a unique filter and lens not only because he is both the outsider and the insider, but because he’s experiencing this family and these happenings for the first time alongside the reader.
That’s right. And technically it was interesting having him as the narrator because he never experiences anything supernatural firsthand and that means we don’t either. We’re getting them reported to us, which does allow for a range of interpretations. I knew I wanted that. I knew I wanted the book as open-ended as I thought I could get away with without disappointing readers.

AE: There is a strong theme of entrapment in many of your novels — whether it’s sexual, emotional, or literally having the character in a prison or an asylum — but in The Little Stranger, it’s the home. Hundreds Hall imprisons the family emotionally and financially, which has a different weight to it.
Yes it does, in the sense that [the Ayers] could leave, but they chose to stay. Or they chose to feel that they don’t have any other options. Mrs. Ayers is there because she couldn’t evolve. Roderick feels this terrible weight of responsibility. And Caroline is sort of caught there — she does get a glimpse of a different life at the end but then never gets to enjoy it. That was interesting to me. And I did start the book thinking there’s this dreadful gentry family and they and their ancestors had this great life of privilege and entitlement exploiting the working classes, but I found as I wrote the characters I did feel for their predicament quiet keenly. There was a class of people, especially landowners, who had traditionally been at the heart of the community in the sense that they’d been the employers, and suddenly losing their land and their role and function was traumatic.