Q&A with Sarah Waters

With a brand new stage adaptation of her critically acclaimed novel The Night Watch underway, Vicky Edwards puts best-selling author Sarah Waters is in the hot seat… 

What was the inspiration for The Night Watch?

I wanted to explore a more sombre story – a story about people who’d seen a bit of life and been bruised by it – and I was drawn to the idea of the Second World War. I knew that the war had been a time of great fear and anxiety for people on the home front, but also a time of adventure, of social and sexual license – especially perhaps for young people, and especially for women, who had subsequently experienced a certain closing-down of opportunity with the return to peacetime life. Once I started to explore the period, I became fascinated by it. I looked in particular at London, and could see that the war had cast this extraordinary spell over the city, transforming its landscape with bomb sites and the blackout, creating vivid, sometimes secret pockets of intimacy and excitement. I thought about heroism, and rising to the occasion, and ‘doing one’s bit’ – but also about betrayal and failure and letting people down. I found characters, and stories, to play out those issues for me.

Novels, once written, are pretty much done and dusted. Being performed live, plays have scope to evolve. How do you feel about that?

It’s one of the things I love about theatre: the fact that plays are alive, immediate, different in every production – different, in fact, in every performance. A play text itself is really the skeleton of a play: it’s given flesh, brought to life, by its cast, its director, its lighting, its sound and costume designers. With Hattie’s [Naylor’s] adaptation, I could see new layers being added at every point of its journey to the stage. That was very exciting. 

Hattie Naylor adapted your book for the stage. What was the process of working together on your book like? 

Well, I feel a bit grand claiming to have ‘worked’ with Hattie, since all the work was hers. However, I definitely felt very included in the process, though not really in a creative way – I didn’t see that as my role. First we met, right at the start, to discuss the book and her vision of it. After that I saw drafts of the play, and gave a little bit of feedback, which Hattie was very generous about taking on board. I could tell from early on that Hattie wasn’t going to misrepresent the story and its characters, so I never felt anxious about the adaptation. I found it fascinating, actually, to watch that translation from page to stage.

Without giving too much away, what can audiences who have read and loved the book expect from the stage production?

 Hattie’s play, to me, feels utterly true to the spirit of the novel. It keeps the reverse chronology of the book, so we first meet the characters when they’re disappointed, a bit stuck – when they are, almost literally, living in the ruins of their former lives – and then we follow them back in time, to uncover the dramas that have brought them to where they are. The Night Watch is a novel of intense ‘moments’: we visit the characters at certain key times in their lives, and have to a certain extent to fill in the gaps between them. The play captures this quite physically, with a pared-down cast, and it uses the theatre space in a pared-down way, too. The effect is very moving. In fact, it was only from watching the play that I realised what a sad story I had written. 

Are you a keen theatre-goer?

I’ve loved the theatre for a long time. I grew up near Milford Haven in Pembrokeshire, where we were lucky enough to have a lively local repertory theatre, the Torch. I used to volunteer as an usher there when I was a teenager in the early 1980s, so got to see a whole range of plays and shows, things like Joking ApartGodspellRope, the odd bit of George Bernard Shaw – the productions occasionally a bit creaky, but all completely enthralling to someone like me, whose only experience of theatre as a child had been Christmas pantomimes. (I still really love pantomimes, however.) Now I go to the theatre a lot. I like smaller, more intimate or immersive experiences, as well as more traditional plays. When theatre’s bad, it’s excruciating. But when it’s good, it’s like nothing else – it’s electric.

According to a recent report there are more submissions to publishers than ever before. What advice would you give to unpublished aspiring novelist?

It’s definitely a tough time to be a debut novelist. Publishers are far less willing than they used to be to take a punt on more unusual novels, far keener to chase bestsellers, to follow literary formulas. There are also pressures on authors to have an online presence – to be their own publicist, to a certain extent – and while that suits some authors really well, it doesn’t suit all. The important thing, however, is the quality of the writing, so most of my advice would concentrate on that. I’d say: develop a discipline. Write every day if you can, even if you don’t feel like it. (I hardly ever feel like it for the first hour or so; then, suddenly, I’m flying.) I’d say: read a lot, and read critically. Think about the effects that other authors have achieved in their books, and try to work out how they’ve achieved them. Above all: keep going! Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. Don’t fall back on lazy story-telling or lazy phrasing. The finished book doesn’t have to be the best book in the world; but it does have to be the best book you can personally make it.

The Night Watch is at York Theatre Royal from 4th to 7th September. It’s going to be a good one!


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