Man Booker nominee Sarah Waters visits Birkbeck

This post was written by Hannah Merritt on behalf of the Department of External Relations.

On Monday 14 November, Sarah Waters, the award-winning author of Tipping the Velvet, Fingersmith and The Night Watch, visited Birkbeck as part of the Man Booker Foundation’s University Initiative.  I arrived early to secure my seat, which turned out to be a very good thing indeed.  More and more people poured through the door until the crowd spilt over into the gallery above as well.   They had all come to hear Sarah Waters talk about her latest book, The Little Stranger.  Many, including myself, had copies of the novel firmly in hand.  I read the book in the week before the event.  It was the first time I had read a Sarah Waters novel and it won’t be my last.  Sarah’s writing draws you into the period she writes about and her descriptions of the crumbling house Hundreds Hall make you feel like you’re watching its decay yourself.

Russell Celyn Jones, Professor of Creative Writing at Birkbeck, hosted the event.  Russell and Sarah had an existing connection: he was a judge for the Man Booker Prize in 2002 when Sarah’s previous novel Fingersmith was nominated.  Sarah kicked off the event by reading two extracts from The Little Stranger.  The first was the opening scene, in which Dr Faraday, the narrator, describes his first visit to Hundreds Hall as a child.  The vision of the house in its prime sets the scene for the despair of its later crumbling state.  The second extract came from about a third of the way through the book, when Roderick describes the spooky happenings in his room, where collars and cufflinks jump from the dresser to the wash basin behind his back.  I remembered this scene vividly from my first reading of the book: it was the first (though not the last) time I felt shivers run down my spine and made me grateful that I was sitting in a well-lit room!

Russell started the discussion by asking about the appeal of historical writing.  Sarah said that it comes from her own particular interest in the past, especially in periods of great change such as the late 1940s.  She had already done a lot of research into the period for her book The Night Watch and it was during the writing of that novel that she became fascinated by the social changes of the time in terms of gender, sexuality and class.  Sarah researches her novels by reading books from the period, which helps her both to understand the social mores and to get a feel for the ‘voice’ of the time.  It was one of these period novels which gave her the idea for The Little Stranger: Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair.  Tey’s central character Betty Kane became Betty, the young housemaid at Hundreds Hall.

Sarah also said that certain Gothic scenarios in Tey’s novel led her to think about the explanation of poltergeists as an expression of repressed energy, a popular theory in the mid-twentieth century.  She explained that stories about poltergeists often take place in domestic settings because they are connected to women’s rage at being trapped in the home.  Sarah talked about the Gothic writing which prefigured her work, particularly Rebecca, Great Expectations and The Yellow Wallpaper, to which references are scattered throughout The Little Stranger.  Though these allusions were planned deliberately, Sarah also found that they slotted in easily, without her having to engineer their placement.

Russell asked about the way that Sarah’s own past influenced her writing.  Sarah said that her childhood in a small Welsh town had given her an interest in portraying life in the margins.  She identified the ways in which the larger British national arc of social mobility in the 1940s had played out in her own family.  Her father’s rise through the ranks of British society was mirrored in Dr Faraday, the working class boy made good.

In the last half hour, Russell opened the discussion up to the floor and many of the audience had questions of their own for Sarah.  One audience member shared her own experiences with a ‘haunted house’ like Hundreds Hall.  Another asked Sarah about her writing process and she revealed that she keeps writing journals.  These allow her to go back and identify exactly what changed in the plot and the characters and at what stage in the process, from the months of research to those changes which happen during the writing itself.

The Man Booker at Birkbeck provided a great opportunity for students from across the disciplines to come together, and the large turnout proved the initiative a great success.

A podcast of the event is available online.

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