Sarah Waters was born in Neyland, Pembrokeshire, Wales in 1966.
She grew up in a family that included her father Ron, mother Mary, and a sister. Her mother was a housewife and her father an engineer who worked on oil refineries. She describes her family as "pretty idyllic, very safe and nurturing". Her father, "a fantastically creative person", encouraged her to build and invent.
Waters said, "When I picture myself as a child, I see myself constructing something, out of plasticine or papier-mâché or Meccano; I used to enjoy writing poems and stories, too." She wrote stories and poems that she describes as "dreadful gothic pastiches", but had not planned her career. Despite her obvious enjoyment of writing, she did not feel any special calling or preference for becoming a novelist in her youth.
I don’t know if I thought about it much, really. I know that, for a long time, I wanted to be an archaeologist – like lots of kids. And I think I knew I was headed for university, even though no one else in my family had been. I really enjoyed learning. I remember my mother telling me that I might one day go to university and write a thesis, and explaining what a thesis was; and it seemed a very exciting prospect. I was clearly a bit of a nerd.After Milford Haven Grammar School, Waters attended university, and earned degrees in English literature. She received a BA from the University of Kent, an MA from Lancaster University, and a PhD from Queen Mary, University of London. Her PhD thesis, entitled Wolfskins and togas : lesbian and gay historical fictions, 1870 to the present, served as inspiration and material for future books. As part of her research she read 19th-century pornography, in which she came across the title of her first book, Tipping the Velvet. However, her literary influences are also found in the popular classics of Victorian literature, such as Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins and the Brontës, and in the contemporary novelists that combine a keen interest in Victoriana with a post-modernist approach to fiction, especially A.S. Byatt and John Fowles. Angela Carter's 'Nights at the Circus' had a huge influence on her début novel as well, and Waters praises her for her literary prose, her "common touch", and her commitment to feminism.
Waters lives in a top-floor Victorian flat in Kennington, south-east London.
Before writing novels, Waters worked as an academic, earning a doctorate and teaching. Waters went directly from her doctoral thesis to her first novel. It was during the process of writing her thesis that she thought she would write a novel; she began as soon as the thesis was complete. Her work is very research-intensive, which is an aspect she enjoys. Waters was briefly a member of the long-running London North Writers circle, whose members have included the novelists Charles Palliser and Neil Blackmore, among others.
With the exception of her most recent book, The Little Stranger, all of her books contain lesbian themes, and she does not mind being labelled a lesbian writer. She said, "I'm writing with a clear lesbian agenda in the novels. It's right there at the heart of the books." Despite this "common agenda in teasing out lesbian stories from parts of history that are regarded as quite heterosexual", she also calls her lesbian protagonists "incidental", due to her own sexual orientation. "That's how it is in my life, and that's how it is, really, for most lesbian and gay people, isn't it? It's sort of just there in your life."
Her debut work was the Victorian picaresque Tipping the Velvet, published by Virago in 1998. The novel took 18 months to write. The book takes its title from Victorian slang for cunnilingus. Waters describes the novel as a "very upbeat [...] kind of a romp".
It won a 1999 Betty Trask Award, and was shortlisted for the Mail on Sunday / John Llewellyn Rhys Prize.
In 2002, the novel was adapted into a three-part television serial of the same name for BBC Two. It has been translated into at least 24 languages, including Chinese, Latvian, Hungarian, Korean and Slovenian.
Waters' next book will be set in the 1920s, and she expects to finish writing it by the end of 2012.
The new novel will feature lesbian characters. Waters said: "I did kind of miss lesbians when I did The Little Stranger. I was ready to return! I was looking for a 1920s lesbian story and I’ve settled on a romance – lots of drama and complications, so definitely some lesbians this time."
Tipping the Velvet, by Sarah Waters, is a guilty pleasure. To put it mildly. I feel guilty adding it here. Why? I don’t know. It’s “not the sort of book” I usually read. Sounds like a person objecting to the person their son or daughter brings home and then trying to pass it off as something other than prejudice. Okay, I’ll say it straight out. Maybe a bit fluffy. But it was fun. It was just fun, damn it. It was approximately the size and weight of an anvil, and I raced through it in about three sittings. And if it crossed over for me, it might cross over for anybody. PS: Did I mention it’s a guilty pleasure? --Catherine Ryan Hyde
In 2003-ish, there was a BBC miniseries based on Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters. A good friend of mine called and invited herself over to watch it with me. I’d never even heard of Sarah Waters, but I genuinely enjoyed the miniseries, enough so that I went out and bought the book. I love a good Victorian epic, and I still think this is one of the best I’ve ever read. I think I also really identified with Nan, and it’s fun to watch her blossom over the course of the book. --Kate McMurrayFurther Readings:
Tipping the Velvet: A Novel by Sarah Waters
Reading level: Ages 18 and up
Paperback: 480 pages
Publisher: Riverhead Trade (May 1, 2000)
Amazon: Tipping the Velvet: A Novel
"Lavishly crammed with the songs, smells, and costumes of late Victorian England" (The Daily Telegraph), this delicious, steamy debut novel chronicles the adventures of Nan King, who begins life as an oyster girl in the provincial seaside town of Whitstable and whose fortunes are forever changed when she falls in love with a cross-dressing music-hall singer named Miss Kitty Butler. When Kitty is called up to London for an engagement on "Grease Paint Avenue, " Nan follows as her dresser and secret lover, and, soon after, dons trousers herself and joins the act.
In time, Kitty breaks her heart, and Nan assumes the guise of butch roue to commence her own thrilling and varied sexual education—a sort of Moll Flanders in drag—finally finding friendship and true love in the most unexpected places.
Drawing comparison to the work of Jeanette Winterson, Sarah Waters's novel is a feast for the senses—an erotic, lushly detailed historical novel that bursts with life and dazzlingly casts the turn of the century in a different light.
Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
Reading level: Ages 18 and up
Paperback: 582 pages
Publisher: Riverhead Trade; 1st edition (October 1, 2002)
Sue Trinder is an orphan, left as an infant in the care of Mrs. Sucksby, a "baby farmer," who raised her with unusual tenderness, as if Sue were her own. Mrs. Sucksby’s household, with its fussy babies calmed with doses of gin, also hosts a transient family of petty thieves—fingersmiths—for whom this house in the heart of a mean London slum is home.
One day, the most beloved thief of all arrives—Gentleman, an elegant con man, who carries with him an enticing proposition for Sue: If she wins a position as the maid to Maud Lilly, a naïve gentlewoman, and aids Gentleman in her seduction, then they will all share in Maud’s vast inheritance. Once the inheritance is secured, Maud will be disposed of—passed off as mad, and made to live out the rest of her days in a lunatic asylum.
With dreams of paying back the kindness of her adopted family, Sue agrees to the plan. Once in, however, Sue begins to pity her helpless mark and care for Maud Lilly in unexpected ways...But no one and nothing is as it seems in this Dickensian novel of thrills and reversals.
The New York Times Book Review has called Sarah Waters a writer of "startling power" and The Seattle Times has praised her work as "gripping, astute fiction that feeds the mind and the senses." Fingersmith marks a major leap forward in this young and brilliant career.
The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination by Sarah Schulman
Hardcover: 192 pages
Publisher: University of California Press; 1 edition (February 6, 2012)
Amazon: The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination
In this gripping memoir of the AIDS years (1981-1996), Sarah Schulman recalls how much of the rebellious queer culture, cheap rents, and a vibrant downtown arts movement vanished almost overnight to be replaced by gay conservative spokespeople and mainstream consumerism. Schulman takes us back to her Lower East Side and brings it to life, filling these pages with vivid memories of her avant-garde queer friends and dramatically recreating the early years of the AIDS crisis as experienced by a political insider. Interweaving personal reminiscence with cogent analysis, Schulman details her experience as a witness to the loss of a generation's imagination and the consequences of that loss.
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