Great LezBritain: Sarah Waters talks inspiration, adaptations at World Book Night

Great LezBritain is a fortnightly stroll through the very best of British lesbo-centric entertainment and culture. Plus there will be some jolly good interviews with the top ladies who are waving the flag for gay UK.

Some books are more than just books. Some reveal such vivid, involving worlds that it’s impossible to leave them behind. You become so wrapped up in the characters that their experiences become entangled in your own and their words become a part of your own vocabulary.

Sarah WatersTipping The Velvet is such a book. In all honesty, there is barely a day that goes by without one of us calling the other “An exquisite little tart.” To say we love Tipping The Velvet is silly — it is quite simply the pulpy love of our lives. And although we’ve had affairs along the way — quite passionate, filthy ones with Waters’ other novels Fingersmith, The Night Watch and The Little Stranger it must be said — our true heart’s desire will always be the story of Nancy Astley, the oyster girl.

So we’re still amazed that when Sarah Waters agreed to meet us for a chat at Aye Write, Glasgow’s book festival, we managed to restrain ourselves from dressing up like soldier boys and greeting her with the words “Tommy Atkins at your service,” and talk to her quite calmly about World Book Night, the new TV adaptation of The Night Watch and most excitingly yet another new lease on life for Tipping The Velvet. You’re here for World Book Night to read from Fingersmith which is one of the selected novels. Why did you want to take part in this initiative?
Sarah Waters: To be honest it wasn’t really a choice. The first I knew about it was from my publisher who called to say Fingersmith had been chosen as one of the 25 books that would be given away as part of World Book Night.

But it’s a great idea, quite a mind-boggling idea to give away a million free books. In London there was a huge event at Trafalgar Square and around 5000 people came and stood in the cold listening to people read. So it’s felt like a real celebration of books, and of reading, and it is lovely to be part of that.

AE: Fingersmith is not only the book that was picked for World Book Night, it’s also the book that crossed you over into the mainstream from being seen as a celebrated “lesbian writer” to just “celebrated writer” — would you agree?
Yes, it came out in 2002 just at the time Tipping The Velvet was on telly and suddenly I was much better known as a writer. And it is a book that seems to appeal to lots of different kinds of people and when they like it they just seem to really, really like it. It’s a book that really enjoys storytelling.

AE: The Night Watch has been adapted by the BBC for television and The Little Stranger is being made into a film, which means that every one of your books has made it onto our screens. How does that feel? Would you be disappointed if the next book wasn’t adapted?
It is amazing really, but I never write with that in mind. I mean, with something like The Night Watch, when I was writing it, I thought no one would ever want to adapt it because it is quite miserable in a way, quite gloomy …

AE: I’ve only read it once so far because it broke my heart.
Yeah, it’s a very sad book and the structure is backward and so I just thought no one would want to do it, and the fact they have is just delightful. It’s great, if only in that, each adaptation brings new readers to the books, gives each of them a bit of extra new life.

AE: How involved are you with the casting or on set?
Not at all, but that’s fine, that’s what you want, to just hand it over and to let them get on with it. I’m included in the process in the sense that I meet the director and I meet the scriptwriter and I see drafts of the script and I do get the opportunity to hive some feedback then. But once it starts I’m just an observer, so it’s exciting to see the finished film for me too.

AE: Do you ever feel a bit frustrated when you see it, like “I wouldn’t have done it like that” or “That’s not how I saw it”?
Sometimes. But you have to let it go because it’s not your book anymore. My book is there, that’s the thing. It doesn’t change the book, it’s just this extra thing that is closely related to mine, but it’s someone else’s project.

AE: In Tipping The Velvet the book, no one could really want Nan to go back to Kitty, but then in the TV adaptation, we disagreed over it and Sarah did want that. What were your thoughts about how that was played out slightly different in the TV adaptation?
I think that has a lot to do with how charming Keeley is. Also in that first part of the adaptation there is a lot of colour and really you know it’s the most exciting time of Nancy’s life. But I really liked Jodhi May as Florence and I never for a minute would have liked Nancy and Kitty to get back together. I always wanted her to be with Flo who was proud to be a lesbian. Kitty is always going to be in the closet.

AE: Poor kitty
Yeah, poor Kitty.