Author Interview: Sarah Waters

I recently posted a lengthy book review about The Little Stranger (the best book I’ve ever read) and gave a ton of credit to the author, Sarah Waters. After all, there aren’t many people who can write a 700-page book and maintain the level of suspense and mystery that she did. She was deserving of that praise and inspired me to start a new novel of my own. Because of that, I reached out to her shortly after the review went live.

After that book review, I tried to connect with Sarah Waters via social media and found out she had none, at least nothing I could find. So, instead, I located an email address and sent her a few interview questions. I didn’t expect anything to come of it; much to my surprise, I actually got a response, and her answers are post-worthy for sure.

So, without further ado, here is a short interview with Sarah Waters, author of The Little Stranger… Oh, and no spoilers!

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Question 1) After reading The Little Stranger, one has to wonder whether or not you have lived in a house similar to that of the book. The descriptions are so vivid and real-life, that it seems impossible you gained all the knowledge through research. Have you ever lived in a house of that variety? If so, what were your experiences, and were there any creepy events? If not, how did you manage to make the house in the book so believable?

Answer: Ha! No, I grew up in a very ordinary, small, distinctly uncreepy 1960s house, so my only experience of grand country mansions has been – like Dr Faraday’s – as a visitor. Houses and large buildings often feature in my novels, though. I’m fascinated by them both as physical edifices and as cultural and psychological structures. They become infected, in good and bad ways, by the lives that are lived in them. The house in The Little Stranger is a mid-eighteenth-century one, so I visited as many houses of that period as I could, and just absorbed all the details. In one, for example, I noticed a huge junction of bells in the servants’ basement, and it got me thinking about the bell-wires running through a house of that scale – like nerves through a body, I thought. Others had grand public rooms downstairs, then rather warren-like rooms and passages upstairs – were unexpectedly claustrophobic, in fact. I tried to anchor the novel’s creepiness in the materiality of a house like that – by thinking, say, about the way light and sound would carry in it (or perhaps not carry), or about the way you might feel uneasily cut off from other people just by turning a corner or climbing a stair.

Question 2) There has been much discussion about the ending of the book. Did you mean for the doctor to seem like a suspect, or was this incidental? There has also been discussion of that final line. Did you begin writing with that end in mind, or was the end clouded until you arrived there?

Answer: When I first began planning the book, Dr Faraday had a pretty minor role: he was the classic gothic observer – someone who would look on, appalled, at the family’s decline, without really being part of it. But as I became more interested in him as a character – as I began to see the possibility of putting unruly depths beneath his smooth, professional surface – he became much more of an agent in the narrative, so that, by the time I started proper writing, yes, I definitely had that final scene in mind, in spirit if not in total detail. His doctor-ness, by then, had become pretty central too. Doctors can be quite creepy, can’t they? They know too much about us, they heal us but they also invade us, and they sometimes have a financial interest in keeping us unwell. One book I kept thinking back to a lot while I was writing The Little Stranger was Patrick McGrath’s wonderful Asylum.

Question 3) If you were to change one thing about the novel, with hindsight being 20/20, what would you alter, whether that be a character’s fate or a particular plot point you wanted to add/delete?

Answer: I tried hard to keep the novel quite ambiguous, but also hoped subtly to steer readers towards a very particular understanding of what’s going on; and while this has worked for some people it hasn’t worked for everyone. Lots of readers seem to have assumed that Hundreds Hall is being haunted, in the classic sense, and have fastened on the figure of Susan, the dead daughter, as its ghost. But in fact I always saw Susan as a bit of a red herring: I just meant her to be Mrs Ayres’s weakness, her ‘soft spot’, as it were. As far as I’m concerned, the house isn’t haunted so much as infested, or infected… So I would play Susan down a bit, if I was writing the book again.

Question 4) I noticed you do not have Twitter or Facebook, and as an author this is unusual. What is your reasoning for this, and what is the effect on your writing habits/promotional methods?

Answer: It’s mainly a question of energy. I can see that it would be fun, and stimulating, to post on Twitter and Facebook; that it would give me a way to connect, in very immediate ways, with readers and with other writers; that it would allow me to comment on some of the political issues I feel strongly about. But I wouldn’t want to post if I couldn’t do it well – by which I mean carefully, and thoughtfully – and the time and energy that would take from me… I just know that my writing would suffer. It’s just not something I want to take on right now. I feel very lucky, though, to have great publishers in the UK and US who, to a certain extent, maintain an online presence for me.

Question 5) Will you ever write another “ghost story” like The Little Stranger, knowing how well this book was received and the fan base it has developed? If you did, would it have the same, Gothic mansion setting, or would you tackle a new situation with this theoretical novel?

Answer: I’ve always been a big reader of ghost stories and a big watcher of horror films, so the fact that The Little Stranger has been so warmly received by other horror fans has been bliss. And yes, I would love to write another ghost story – in fact, I hope to do just that once my current novel-in-progress is finished. It won’t take place in a mansion, but somewhere far more ordinary, and it’ll perhaps have a contemporary setting – which would be a first for me. The details are hazy at the moment, but it’s a nice thing to have on the back burner, just simmering away.

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Could that be another ghost story in the making? If so, you’ll definitely find a review of it on this website as soon as possible 🙂 And don’t forget to check out The Little Stranger on Amazon, of course.

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