Webchat with Sarah Waters
This is an edited transcript of a live webchat with Booker-shortlisted author Sarah Waters on 3 Nov 2009.
Sarah joined the Mumsnet book club discussion about her gripping, haunting and unputdownable novel The Little Stranger. She had lots of fascinating things to tell us about her research, how she plans her novels, her favourite reads, why she tackled the ghost story genre, the state of the historical novel, who she'd like to star in a film of The Little Stranger and, of course, her favourite biscuit.
TillyBookClub: Evening everyone. Sarah, thank you very much for joining us. Your books have given Mumsnetters enormous pleasure and much cause for discussion. I thought I would start tonight's chat by asking: what childhood book shaped you most, and why?
SarahWaters: Hello everyone! It's very exciting to be joining you. Thanks for all your interest in The Little Stranger.
Childhood books? Well, I didn't actually read much memorable children's fiction as a child, and though I can recall a few exciting novels - The White Mountains, by John Christopher; The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster; The Silver Sword, by Ian Serraillier - I'm not sure any of them 'shaped' me, exactly.
I think I was much more influenced by ghost and horror stories, and one that still stands out for me is 'The Monkey's Paw', by WW Jacobs - a really brilliant little tale, in which a couple make a series of wishes on a shrivelled oriental talisman, with dreadful results... I must have been rather a macabre child. But a lot of that early affinity with the gothic has found its way into my own fiction, and I enjoy feeling that I've connected with my childhood self like that.
carriemumsnet: I couldn't put it down, found it a real page turner like all Sarah Waters' books (and I would never normally read a ghost story). As always, I wanted resolution and a happy ending... but you can't win them all and somehow I never got the feeling that love would conquer all.
I wondered if Sarah believed in ghosts or the supernatural. I don't think I do and yet all the way through I completely believed in the ghosts in the book - I assume because of the way it is written - and got quite cross with the Doctor's voice of reason, although at the same time could see that that's what a rational person would think.
Also did she do research into haunted houses? And if so did her opinion on the supernatural change at all?
SarahWaters: I don't exactly believe in the supernatural: I think it's something that, as humans, we have a need to create, sometimes for the purposes of comfort and consolation, sometimes because of guilt or remorse - unfinished business. In a way, that makes it all the more interesting to me: I think ghosts tell us a lot about the people who 'see' them; and poltergeist stories are always very revealing of domestic conflicts and tensions.
So yes, I did do a fair bit of research into the supernatural, and found the stories and cases I read really fascinating. Some are very convincing! But ultimately, I'm drawn to them as an idea. I don't think I'd like to experience anything genuinely supernatural myself - I'd find it too unbalancing.
NecromancyRocks: When writing The Little Stranger, did you decide to write a ghost story and go from there or did some other element (historical setting or specific characters, for example) come first?
SarahWaters: As I've said above, I've always loved ghost stories, and there are a few gothic moments in my earlier books - esp Affinity, which is set among Victorian spiritualists. So I saw The Little Stranger as an opportunity to really go for the genre, and enjoy it. I'd like to write another, different kind of, ghost story some time.
I was definitely influenced by other ghost stories and films: The Haunting, by Shirley Jackson, The Turn of the Screw, The Woman in Black, by Susan Hill (extremely creepy), the stories of MR James...
But the historical setting came first - specifically, the post-war scene, with all its social changes. It just seemed to me that a haunted house novel might be an interesting and effective way of exploring those changes.
blimey: Sorry for being blunt but is Dr Faraday the malevolent force behind all the bad things that happen to the family at hundreds?
SarahWaters: Hmm, what do you think? I can see that Dr Faraday and his role in the family's decline have come up a lot in discussion here; I've found that with other readers, too. I have my own ideas about what's been going on at Hundreds, and as far as I'm concerned Dr Faraday is definitely more of an agent in the supernatural events than he can or will acknowledge. But I also wanted the novel to be open-ended enough for there to be a certain amount of ambiguity.
Sorry if some readers have found that frustrating, rather than intriguing. I felt partly that, if something genuinely supernatural has happened, I couldn't tidy it away with a neat explanation.
JaceyBee: Was the last line supposed to be read as a revelation of Dr Faraday being the phantasm behind the hauntings? That's how I interpreted it, but I actually liked that it was left fairly ambiguous. Big fan by the way!
SarahWaters: Yes, the last line is definitely significant. Glad you liked the ambiguity!
BellaBonJovi: I enjoyed the book and loved the descriptions of the house, but I did find the ending ambiguous. At one point I thought I could see the ending coming - Caroline was dead, Faraday had keys to the house and no alibi! Did you consider that? Was that a red herring?
I couldn't understand why Faraday seemed to oscillate between desire and hatred for Caroline. Was that the work of the malevolent force? Or was the force really created by him in some way? After all in the end he got what he desired above all else: the house.
And last question - the one that comes to me as I lock up a dark house at night - what exactly did Caroline see to make her call out: 'You!'?
SarahWaters: What did Caroline see? Again, I have my own ideas on that, but want to leave room for a range of interpretations. But do you think Dr F oscillated between desire and hatred for her? I wanted it to be more that his feelings are complicated. He's drawn to her, but what really draws him is what she represents to him: the house, status - the whole package. Isn't desire always a mixture of things - fantasy and projection, as well as 'true' attraction? In his case, it's just all a bit more extreme.
BellaBonJovi Hmm... thank you, Sarah. Yes, I suppose there are many possibilities. I did wonder at one point if the malevolent spirit was brought about by the young maid. Wherever the force came from, it had the same effect as the encroaching council houses on Hundreds Park: the old order gave way to the new.
NecromancyRocks: I wanted to ask you whether you always intended to end the novel in a slightly ambiguous way, or whether that became the way you wanted to end it as you wrote.
Oh, do you have a favourite biscuit? It's a good question to be asked on MN!!
SarahWaters: Yes, the ambiguity was planned right from the start. Biscuits, hmm, I'm more of a savoury girl, but always find it hard to say no to a piece of all-butter shortbread.
PutDown: Hi Sarah,I loved the book,read it in one weekend. When will your next one be out?
SarahWaters: Glad you liked it! As for the next one - you tell me! I've been so busy promoting The Little Stranger, I haven't written a word in months. I'm just beginning to want to get cracking on the next book, but it's still very early days. Ask me again in three years' time...
bran: Did it remind anyone else of Turn of the Screw? I think it had the same slow build of creepiness, a feeling of remoteness and removal from the real world. I found The Little Stranger to be an easier read though, especially as there is a proper plot in terms of developing relationships. There are sections of Turn of the Screw that have to be waded through and don't seem to add much to the plot.
Was Mrs Ayres having an affair with the father of the child who was bitten? It wasn't clear to me whether all the tension was centred around wanting to marry Caroline off or whether there was something else going on?
SarahWaters: Mrs Ayres having an affair with Peter Baker-Hyde? Oo-er, I hadn't thought of that. I wanted the tensions in that scene to be both about Caroline, and about class. The Baker-Hydes represent a different kind of family from the old, landed Ayreses. They've got money, without the responsibility of failing estates etc. So the party's a bit of a car crash, in all sorts of ways. There are also Dr F's own feelings of sexual and social inadequacy...
Blimey: And if so do you see him as entirely dissociated from that aspect of himself almost like an old style 'hysteric' or rather as someone who can just lie very well. I wonder who this unreliable narrator is narrating to?
SarahWaters: 'Hysteric' is good - I like that. I don't think Dr Faraday is unreliable in the sense that he's lying to us. I think he's quite a decent bloke really, trying to do his best.
BellaBonJovi: Perhaps she 'saw' Faraday? Did you set up the no-alibi situation as a red herring?
SarahWaters: The 'non alibi' - not a red herring, exactly; more that it just opens up another kind of possible explanation.
JaceyBee: Sarah, are there currently any plans to adapt it for TV as with some of your previous works? If so who would you like to play Caroline/Faraday?
SarahWaters: I have sold an option on the film rights, and the idea that it might get made into a movie is very exciting. It's very early in the process, though. Not sure about casting. Kate Winslet would be good for Carolin, but she's too old, alas. I pictured Dr Faraday as being a bit like Johnny Lee Miller as Mr Knightley, in the latest TV Emma - but more uptight.
blimey: Gosh, aren't they both way too good looking? That's so interesting that you see Dr F as a decent chap, I suppose I did. Very dangerous though!
twoflakesanight I'd like to ask how one writes using an unreliable narrator. Are you totally in the character's head, with a comprehensive understanding of what drives them? In which case, isn't it terribly difficult not to get too heavy handed about it? There must be a temptation to spell things out to your readers. How do you keep things subtle and ambiguous? I imagine it must be very difficult across a whole novel to know that you've kept the character just credible and sort of likeable enough to keep people reading.
SarahWaters: Yes, unreliable narratives are a bit tricky. You have to be kind of a split personality: one part of you writing a sort of 'surface', the other trying to remain aware of what's going on underneath. But I try and do that anyway, when writing characters and interactions. Any moment of human interaction has a lot of other stuff going on just under its surface.
twoflakesanight: Kate Winslet too old! How depressing. Yes, agree about Jonny Lee Miller. I know you have to have big names though - maybe Ewan McGregor, he could be a bit creepy. And to stray from the point even further, I met my husband while watching that old BBC Woman In Black when I was 14! Fond memories (we didn't get together until much later. I think it had gone midnight - boom boom).
Dr Faraday? Yes, in his eyes he was a decent chap. A lot of his unappealing motives/opinions were surely from his being a product of that time; the strictures of gender and the class system. Perhaps, too, we'd all be appalled to see how unlikeable our innermost thoughts and machinations were if they were laid bare on paper?
TillyBookClub I might be reading too much into it, but the last line for me was Faraday representing the non-aristocratic class, having finally taken over all the trappings of the rich by bullying them out of their home. But now all there he has is a distorted, cracked confusion that he is not as satisfied as expected.
I thought the evocation of an aristocratic era dying was incredibly strong - do you feel a sense of warmth toward those aristocratic heydays of big parties, beautiful houses, doing one's duty? Would you say pre-war British society was better than post-war?
SarahWaters: No, I don't feel nostalgia for the pre-war world: it was a world that had to go, in order for Britain to become a fairer society. But I did end up feeling more affection and sympathy for the Ayreses than I'd expected. They had inherited a house, and a role, that was losing worth and meaning: that was very hard for them.
Pluto: I could see the influence of the Woman In Black - I've only seen the stage play - but the sections on the upper floor and the descriptions of the glimpses of the shadow moving along the corridor were really frightening and reminded me a lot of The Woman In Black. I really enjoyed your novel and it has inspired me to read your other books, which I've been meaning to do for a long time.
SarahWaters: The Woman in Black - yes, seriously scary. There's a good old BBC version of it.
Fruitpastille: I have literally just finished the last page in time for the discussion! I must admit that I didn't think of Dr F as being the reason behind all the disturbances initially as there was so much about Roderick earlier in the book. I wonder what becomes of him? Will the 'ghost' eventually get to him too? Or is he safe while away from Hundreds?
SarahWaters: Poor Roderick. He seems to me to suffer almost as much as Caroline and Mrs A.
TuttiFrutti: Did you plan the ending when you started the book, or did you ever have another ending in mind? I'm interested because I was convinced it was going to end differently - it felt as if the rug was being pulled from under my feet! I absolutely loved the book by the way.
SarahWaters: Yes, I planned the ending right from the start - I almost always do; then I know what I'm working towards. Sorry it took you by surprise!
TillyBookClub: I'm just going to flag up a question from policywonk that came earlier. Do you think you're part of a literary movement that's rehabilitating the historical novel (Hilary Mantel, Susannah Clark, Michel Faber's Crimson Petal stories spring to mind)? Or did the historical novel not need to be rehabilitated? Or do you just reject the entire premise?
SarahWaters: It seems to me that the historical novel has been being reinvigorated for a while now. Perhaps the really significant novel was The French Lieutenant's Woman, back in the '70s - that sort of allowed historical fiction to become a bit more sophisticated.
I was influenced by books like Possession and Oscar & Lucinda, which seemed to be doing something new again in the 1990s. I always fear that interest in the genre is going to fizzle out, but it's great that historical fiction seems still to be thriving - in fact, it's thriving more than ever at the moment.
carriemumsnet: How much of the your novels is mapped out before you start writing (and does it really take three years??) Do you ever get so involved with your characters as you're writing that you change or want to change what happens to them... are you ever tempted to go for an "and they all lived happily ever after..." ending?
SarahWaters: Yes, unbelievably, my books take about three years each - well The Little Strnger took two and a half; The Night Watch took four! I hardly ever change the action once I've mapped it out in advance, but what does change is how I feel about my characters, and how they feel about each other, and about the things required of them by the plot. That's the exciting part, though - getting to know them, and hopefully making them more complex.
pluto: I finally saw Dr Faraday as decent when he went shopping for all the wedding goodies for Caroline. I'm thinking about how your book relates to the present as well as shifting society at the end of the war - all the changes that happened so quickly in the post-war era that have changed our political and social landscape. Do you think that we are currently in an equally rapid climate of social change?
SarahWaters: I think perhaps we are in the grip of large and rapidly-changing historical forces right now, but maybe it always feels like that? One of the reasons I like looking back at the past is that you can get a bit of distance on it, a bit of perspective. The present can often seem a bit hard to get hold of.
JammyOLantern: This was the first of Sarah's books I've read, and I did enjoy it very much. But I don't know if I missed something - reading some of others' thoughts I I think I might have done - but I found it rather unsatisfying, especially the second half. And I'm afraid quite early on I thought "Oh please, don't be so predictable as to set up something between the doctor and Caroline" and was very disappointed when it looked like it was happening.
Having said all those negative points, I must repeat I still enjoyed it. I still really wanted to finish though, kept reading late into the evening, so I guess that's a sign it was still good. Sorry if I've not been full of praise Sarah, but it won't put me off reading your other works.
SarahWaters: No problem, thanks for being honest! Sorry it didn't quite work for you. Funnily enough, the romance between Dr F and C took me by surprise - I hadn't planned it, it just seemed to happen by itself. (So there you are: I guess I don't plan everything.)
TBMOM: Do you know what I think? That night Dr Faraday went to sleep in his car by the house, the night Caroline died, he had a strange dream. I think he had an out-of-body experience and it was him who Caroline saw as a 'ghost' on the landing and in her shock she stumbled backwards, or he pushed her out of revenge for not loving him. Is this what happened Sarah?
SarahWaters: I couldn't possibly say.
bran: I was very shocked that Caroline died, I thought she was going to succeed in making a break for it. I had expected it to end with the estate being sold and DrF watching it being done up by a new family and for the rest of his life rueing that he didn't live there. I suppose I'm looking at it from a modern viewpoint, but I wasn't clear about why Caroline moved back home after the war finished.
My family have a very similar background (although in Ireland not England, which may make a big difference) and the family tree is full of feisty women who often married late or not at all but still grabbed life by the throat. I suppose in the end she did try to take charge of her own life, had she not died she would have emigrated and done something, but she could have done that earlier. (BTW, Jonny Lee Miller is too fanciable to be Dr F.)
SarahWaters: I think a lot of women came out of the war with a new sort of confidence and purpose; but lots went home and felt trapped and dulled by domesticity. Caroline, too, feels the pull of the estate - is needed there to help run it, and to help look after Rod.
fruitpastille: I can see why it was left ambiguous in the end - I had guessed at all sorts behind the haunting - I had suspected each of the main characters as being behind it by the end. Initially, I thought it was Caroline because of all the upset with Gyp and even Dr F suspects this, doesn't he? I agree with Sarah - I saw Dr Faraday as a bit misguided and aspirational but not really 'bad'. I only began to see that later in the book when he was losing it. Sarah, can you tell us who Caroline saw when she said 'You' on that fateful night?
SarahWaters: The 'you' issue: I'd rather leave that ambiguous...
pluto: Can you tell us a bit about your time at the Hedgebrook women writers' group and how this formed your start on The Little Stranger.
SarahWaters: I spent a month at Hedgebrook, right in the middle of writing the book. It was there that I started to see the romance potential between Dr F and C (I wrote the 'dance' chapter). So maybe it was being away from home that pushed the book in a slightly unexpected direction. The retreat was great - Hedgebrook is a very nurturing place.
Thanks to everyone here - it's been great.