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Use fiction to make history come alive: Sarah Waters

The further you go back in time, the harder it is to find information. But then you can fill the gaps – with imagination

brunch Updated: Apr 18, 2015 19:19 IST
Saudamini Jain
Saudamini Jain
Hindustan Times
The Paying Guests,Sarah Waters

The further you go back in time, the harder it is to find information. But then you can fill the gaps – with imagination

How do history and fiction merge in your books?
You have to have a basis in historical facts. I use fiction to bring them to life.

The further you go back, the harder it gets to find information. But that makes it easier to fill the gaps – with imagination. And because women’s lives have often been domestic, you have to be quite creative. You have to imagine not only what it would have been like in a certain time, but also a certain class, certain setting and certain family.

For The Paying Guests, which is set in the 20th century, I looked at newspapers, not so much for the news of the day but also little articles about what people were eating for dinner and things like that. I looked at films, photographs, diaries and letters. And department store catalogues for clothes and things that were in people’s homes. I want to know what kind of things my characters are using, the sounds they overhear when they walk down the street.

That is a lot of detail!
Well, all sorts of things can inspire you! Sometimes meeting someone and thinking about what their story might be can become a tiny reference in a book.

Do you write for your niche audience or your mainstream readers?
If you try to keep a certain type of reader in mind, you’ll go a bit mad. I try to write the books that I would like to read. But I’m creating a narrative experience for the reader: I want them hopefully to feel this on this page and maybe this a bit later on. And be surprised when I reveal something here. So I definitely have a reader in mind in the technical sense, but not in any commercial kind of way.

Sarah Waters is best known for her novels set in Victorian times, featuring lesbian protagonists, particularly Tipping The Velvet (1998) and Fingersmith (2002). Many of her books have been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and adapted into BBC TV series.

From HT Brunch, April 19
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First Published: Apr 17, 2015 17:31 IST