By Sarah Waters
Sarah Waters reveals which of her shortlisted books she’d have liked to seen win the Booker Prize.
First shortlisted for the Booker Prize with Fingersmith in 2002, Sarah Waters has since also been shortlisted for her 2006 novel The Night Watch and her 2009 novel The Little Stranger.
In this interview – which took place at London’s Kennington Bookshop – from our archives, Waters told us about the impact of being shortlisted for the prize and revealed her favourite Booker books.
You’ve been shortlisted for the Booker Prize three times in seven years for Fingersmith, The Night Watch and The Little Stranger – if you could pick just one of those three to win the prize, which would it be?
I would say either The Night Watch or Fingersmith because they were both, for me, quite ambitious but in very different ways. The Night Watch probably has a slightly bigger canvas, so I’d go for that I guess.
What impact do you think being shortlisted for the prize each time had on your status as a writer?
Well, the first time felt really something. It was my third novel; I’d had very modest success with the other two, so to suddenly get on a shortlist like that was amazing. It was quite scary too; there’s something about the Booker that is a bit daunting because it attracts so much attention and the books get a lot of critical scrutiny. But it was just a tremendous boost, and it did a huge amount for me at that particular time [with Fingersmith]. The whole thing pushed me to a slightly different level, really.
Howard Jacobson told us that he wouldn’t want to inflict a Booker win on a debut novelist as they have no back catalogue to benefit from. Do you feel your three nominations introduced a new audience to your previous novels?
Inevitably it has an impact, but it was that first nomination [for Fingersmith] that made a huge difference because it was just such a jump for me to get on that shortlist. I completely agree with Howard Jacobson, you’d have to be an incredibly resilient first novelist to withstand the pressures that come with something like that. I mean, the excitement would be tremendous, but it just brings such a lot with it. When you’re an established writer, you’ve already been through the ‘second novel syndrome’, which in itself is an anxious time. You’ve weathered some highs and lows, so you’re a bit tougher.
What about your international reputation – do you think your Booker history has raised your profile around the world?
Yes. The books are sold in 30-odd countries now. The Booker Prize definitely has that international status and that’s helped me enormously. I’ve benefited particularly, I think, because here in the UK lesbian and gay writing has entered the mainstream whereas that’s not the case in other countries, including the US. I think a writer like me would still be seen as a niche writer in some of those countries, but with the Booker endorsement it does encourage people to pick me up in a way they mightn’t otherwise have done.
After your Orange [now the Women’s Prize for Fiction] and Man Booker prize nominations, being included in Granta’s ‘Best of Young British Novelists’ list in 2003 and seeing your novels adapted for television, do you feel an increased pressure or sense of expectancy when writing these days?
The fact that Fingersmith received a lot of positive attention actually made me a bit anxious. It happened just as I was beginning to think about The Night Watch, and I felt suddenly very self-conscious about writing – as if I had something to prove, I suppose. But, balancing that was the knowledge that there were people waiting for another book from me. On the whole there’s always the anxiety about what’s the next book is going to be: will I get an idea I’ll feel excited about again? will it have legs? – that kind of thing. But once you’ve got the idea I think it does become very much about you as a writer, you’ve got your own sense of pressure and expectations you want to meet. But yes, of course, I’d be lying if I said I never felt external pressures too. I resist selling a book for as long as I can, so that takes away the publisher pressure a bit. I hate the idea of being paid for a book before I’ve written it, I’d rather be writing it at my own speed. I am quite disciplined as a writer as well. It may take a year or two longer than I expect at the start, but that’s just how it goes. I’m into the third year of writing my new book at the moment, and I think it’s probably going to need another year. You just have to give them as long as they need.
Excluding your own, which are your favourite Man Booker novels?
Wolf Hall I loved. Hilary Mantel I love generally; perhaps even more than Wolf Hall, I loved Beyond Black. Colm Toibin as well, I’m a big fan of his writing. And I’ve just recently read Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room. That’s an amazing book, it’s just fantastic. I’ve read it twice now and I’ve been recommending it madly to friends.