Last of the summer tomatoes. Gorgeous color, no?
“My name, in those days, was Susan Trinder. People called me Sue. I know the year I was born in, but for many years I did not know the date, and took my birthday at Christmas. I believe I am an orphan….”
—opening lines of FINGERSMITH by Sarah Waters
The novels of Sarah Waters came to my attention soon after I finished writing my first draft of A GATHERING OF SHADOWS (aka The Novel Formerly Known as THE LILY MAID). My reading of Waters arrived in an inadvertent manner, as many momentous things do: my literary agent had given me a recommended reading list to aid my transition into writing historical fiction. Sarah Waters was not on her list. Even so, that first reading list spurred me into looking beyond for something I couldn’t quite name yet. And then I happened upon Sarah Waters’ FINGERSMITH—and knew I’d found what I was looking for. Here was a historical novel encompassing stunning language, richly realized characters, an immersive sense of time and place, narrative tension, intense sexuality, and deep sense of humanity. And I haven’t even touched on Waters’ masterful use of plot to propel her novels.
I read the rest of Waters’ five novels soon after in a grateful rush. They offered me a roadmap for what historical fiction could be as literature—for what I wanted to write one day if I worked very very hard at the craft. Since then, I’ve reread Waters’ novels whenever I’m in need of writerly inspiration. The ending of FINGERSMITH still makes me cry no matter how many times I’ve read it.
This is a roundabout way of saying that when I learned Sarah Waters was publishing THE PAYING GUESTS, her first novel in five years, I was beyond excited. I went out of my way to locate an advance copy in Europe, which I read in nearly one fell swoop on the plane back. Even better: Waters was giving a reading in New York City, my home town. Of course I had to be there!
To be honest, I was a bit nervous to meet Sarah Waters in person. I love her novels so much. Authors are only human (hello!), and it’s far too easy to project our own idealizations and insecurities onto them. It’s unfair —cruel even—to expect anyone to live up to this.
To my delight, Waters was even warmer and more charming and intelligent in person than I could have hoped. She was funny, generous, and shockingly modest about her work. She spoke at length about writing her novels, researching historical fiction, lesbians and sexual identity in fiction, and more.
A few highlights, paraphrased from memory and notes:
On whether she plans to write about characters from previous novels: Nope. Waters described herself as a “serial monogamist” when it comes to her characters. She really falls in love with them while she’s writing them. (She said this in particular regarding Frances and Lillian from THE PAYING GUESTS, whom she became very fond of over the five years she was immersed in the novel.) Waters always thinks she can never leave her characters behind, which makes it hard for her to finish a novel. However, once she’s done, she’s shocked how easily the characters leave her consciousness. She imagines them walking off and waving goodbye. So, no desire to revisit characters.
On deciding on point of view in a novel: Waters replied that her plot dictates her choice of point of view. For example, in THE PAYING GUESTS, she chose a third person point of view to increase narrative tension; in THE LITTLE STRANGER, first person. That said, she finds herself second guessing her point of view choice as she writes, hoping she made the right decision.
On the use of houses in her fiction: The “great houses” in Waters’ novels THE LITTLE STRANGER and THE PAYING GUEST pay dominant roles in shaping her plot. She explained that houses enact a moment in human history, and become stranded there as time moves on; what’s interesting to her is how humans adapt them as environments as their needs change.
Her favorite books: Waters loves literary novels that incorporate the tropes of genre fiction, such as cliffhangers. She’s a fan of Victorian sensation novels, including those by Wilkie Collins. Other favorite writers: Willa Cather, Hilary Mantel, and Patrick Hamilton. She mentioned Hamilton’s THE SLAVES OF SOLITUDE as a particular inspiration for THE PAYING GUESTS.
As for me, I asked Waters about a quote of hers that I use as a credo:
“Novels are for readers, and writing them means the crafty, patient, selfless construction of effects. I think of my novels as being something like fairground rides: my job is to strap the reader into their car at the start of chapter one, then trundle and whizz them through scenes and surprises, on a carefully planned route, and at a finely engineered pace.”
I said, “Bearing all this in mind, are you ever surprised by your plot taking an unexpected turn as you write?”
Waters answered that she really does know the plot from the beginning; what takes her the longest is figuring out how her characters feel and act in response to plot. She said that with THE PAYING GUESTS she must have written thirty times as many scenes to what went into the final novel. Another interesting fact about her process: She prints out all her scenes whether she uses them or not. She said that by the time she finished THE PAYING GUESTS, she had about thirty inches of draft in comparison to one inch of finished novel! In her writing log, she admonished herself in big red letters: DO NOT WRITE ANOTHER NOVEL WITHOUT KNOWING THE OUTCOME.
After the reading, Waters signed books for us, and even posed for photographs. I was so excited to meet her that I nearly tripped on the podium after getting my books signed. Not my smoothest moment, alas. But then again, how often does one get to meet a literary goddess like Sarah Waters? I am beyond grateful for my encounter with her.
Further reading about Sarah Waters and THE PAYING GUESTS:
If you visit this blog on a regular basis, you’ve probably noticed the photographs that top most of my posts. These photographs have become important to me. Besides allowing me me to share my daily life on an informal basis, they mark another major change in me since I’ve stopped concentrating on Illustration as a Path of Creative Expression for Storytelling (or IPCES for short): I’ve become obsessed with photography.
Above: Snow in the garden at Blue House. Below: Opera Garnier in Paris
One reason for my newish obsession is that my iPhone makes it incredibly easy to take photographs anywhere I’d like. It’s so small that hardly anyone notices when I’m at work. I carry it with me at all times, sometimes walking with phone in hand in case I see something.
My love for my iPhone is especially ironic because I have an expensive single lens reflex camera with fancy lenses that I barely use. When it comes to making art, sometimes the simplest tool is the right tool.
My favorite model! Above: Japanese restaurant in Paris. Below: In a theater box at the Opera Garnier.
I’m especially enthralled with the Hipstamatic app. I love how it saturates colors and alters images much in the way I would if I was painting. I also appreciate how immediate a photograph is. Unlike a painting, which can take me weeks to get just right, if I don’t like a photograph, I simply take another. This allows me to experiment with different picture compositions and color combinations I’d otherwise avoid to save time.
In other words, I’m able to be at play, a necessary component of inspiration and creativity. And how freeing is that?
Above: Slug in autumn leaves, Kent, England. Below: Marlborough Tower, Le Hameau de la Reine, Versailles.
Photography is also leading me into new territory as a novelist. My protagonist for the Next Novel is a male mid-Victorian era photographer. To aid my research, I plan to take a course on nineteenth century photography techniques at the George Eastman House. Tintypes? Glass negatives? I’m so down.
Ultimately, my love for photography reminds me that, even if I’m no longer spending years illustrating books, I remain a visual artist. Come what may, I’ll always yearn to capture the world’s beauties and complexities.
Above: Subway pillar, South Bank, London.
Ever since Thea started elementary school, summer has become delineated in our house between the last day of school and the first. By this standard, we’re nearly halfway through the season.
Thus far, my summer has included the following activities:
~ Travel to beautiful lakes in faraway places.
~ Take Thea to camp in various parts of Brooklyn.
~ Pick up Thea from camp in various parts of Brooklyn.
~ Gardening. (This includes sub-activities involving wildlife, such as obsessing over raccoons attacking the water lilies I’m raising in a tub outside*, and squeeing over the sparrows at the bird feeder.)
~ Eating herbs and vegetables from our garden. (Can’t get more locavore than this.)
~ Design schtuff.
~ Writing the Next Novel.** (I am deep into my first draft, which I’m hoping to finish up by the end of the year. Now with added intensity and gothic romanticism!)
It’s this final activity which brings me to writing prompts, the subject of this post. ”What’s a writing prompt?” you might be asking. I think of writing prompts as a way to subvert your inner critic, like playing the party game of Charades on a blank page. They’re also useful for dealing with writer’s block because it takes the pressure of deciding What To Write About out of your hot little hands. It’s a very simple two step process:
Step one: Someone besides yourself suggests a subject to write about.
Step two: You write for a specified amount of time. No excuses.
Now that we’re deep into summer, my intensely creative writer friend Anca Szilagyi, a fellow at Seattle’s Richard Hugo House, has thoughtfully posted a list of summer-inspired writing prompts over at Ploughshares. They range from five minutes prompts such as “describe the physical sensation of sunburn” to more involved twenty minute ones.
So, what are you waiting for? Go forth and write!
*Water lilies budding in my garden. I’ve saved them several times from curious raccoons. The tiny circles in the center will grow to become blossoms. Amazing, no?