Sarah Waters: A room of one's own

Steamy lesbian sex, cross-dressing girls, chilling twists. Phew! If that's everyday life in Sarah Waters' novels, says Suzi Feay, what on earth does she get up to at home?
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Sarah Waters lives in the top floor flat of a Georgian terrace, a stone's throw from a grimy South London tube station on a busy main road. But once up in her eyrie, all traffic noises except police sirens fade away, and you can see treetops and sky. The flat is low and long, snug and booklined. On the wall is a elegant painted board advertising church services, retrieved from a skip. My first impression after climbing several steep flights of stairs is that this really is "a room of one's own", fulfilling Virginia Woolf's prescription for the female writer: warmth, comfort and a door to shut on the world.

Sarah Waters lives in the top floor flat of a Georgian terrace, a stone's throw from a grimy South London tube station on a busy main road. But once up in her eyrie, all traffic noises except police sirens fade away, and you can see treetops and sky. The flat is low and long, snug and booklined. On the wall is a elegant painted board advertising church services, retrieved from a skip. My first impression after climbing several steep flights of stairs is that this really is "a room of one's own", fulfilling Virginia Woolf's prescription for the female writer: warmth, comfort and a door to shut on the world.

The scene isn't quite what I was expecting. I'd read several previous interviews given in Waters' annus mirabilis, 2002, when her last book Fingersmith was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize and her first novel, Tipping the Velvet, was adapted for TV by Andrew Davies (the giant dildos raising some eyebrows). Then, interviewers were rapturous about this elfin woman who despite her success still lived in a high-rise council flat in Brixton. "Oh, yes, journalists loved that flat," Waters smiles sardonically.

The other thing I noted from the press coverage was a tendency to describe her work in a rather pejorative way: "pastiche", it would say; or "faux-Victorian", or worst of all, "lesbo-Victorian romp". I tell her that I was taken aback to find that these all turned out to be her own descriptions of her work. "They are pastiches, really - is that a bad word? It always seems to be appropriate for them in a positive sense. They plunder... We've got so many good real Victorian novels, I've always thought, why just write another one? I've tried to take on the genre but do something a bit different, to tell a story they couldn't quite tell. Play around with it, have fun with it!" And particularly, get lots of lesbian sex in it. The new BBC adaptation of Fingersmith will not disappoint Tipping's many fans in this respect.

An enormous cat strolls in ("That's Tink") followed by another one, virtually identical but less huge ("That's Trilby"). Clearly used to upstaging, they spend the whole interview whining for food, begging for attention and at one point, using their mistress's bejeaned legs as a stropping post.

I've spent the morning watching the first two episodes of Fingersmith, a Wilkie Collins-inspired tale of a devilish plot that goes awry. Sue Trinder, a girl from the stews of Victorian London, is enticed into helping the mysterious criminal "Gentleman" capture in marriage a mentally vulnerable heiress, Maud. Sue gets a job as Maud's maid and the wicked pair begin to to undermine her defences. There's a part for Charles Dance as Maud's sinister uncle, and for Imelda Staunton as Sue's adoptive mother, a baby-farmer. But the programme stands or falls on the performances of the three leads, and the girls - Sally Hawkins as Sue and Elaine Cassidy as the distracted Maud - are superb. But Gentleman (Rupert Evans) is not at all what I expected. Evans looks too young to me; I don't understand why he reverts to a Cockney accent when he returns to the underworld (his nickname is Gentleman for a reason), and, more of a straight villain than the character in the book, he's just not slippery and protean enough.

"He does seem a bit of a psycho at times," Waters agrees, "but he actually looks just as I'd imagined him, not younger or anything. I wasn't sure about the accent thing myself. We talked about it at the read-through, but Aisling [Walsh, the director] and Rupert were quite keen, so I thought, far enough... I think the character suffers a little bit from the editing. TV has to move so damn quickly, it never lingers. It never allows Gentleman to be charming. He had lots of good lines in the book, but you don't really get that side of him, which is a shame. I hadn't really had an extended male character before and it was a surprise to me how much I enjoyed writing him."

Loud scrabblings are coming from the kitchen and Waters is temporarily diverted from her theme. "Oh God, she's gone to her tray to have a really big poo - typical." Tink stalks back in, looking affronted.

The TV adaptation also uses practically every telly Victorian slum cliché, from grimy urchins to street cries to manic cackling. This is combined with a surprising sentimentality about the baby-farming aspect - all Mrs Sucksby's small charges look wonderfully bonny and well-fed. But once Sue has been dispatched to the gloomy country house to take up her new post, the setting becomes less hackneyed and the complex plot kicks in. Waters is a terrific plotter, which means I can't write too much about the series without spoiling it. But, I tell her, it's a relief that this story doesn't conclude as devastatingly sadly as her second novel, Affinity, a story of supernatural obsession which has never been filmed (and is possibly unfilmable).

"I was talking to a friend about fiction and she said that she liked fiction that showed people triumphing, and I thought, there's something in that. Some people liked Affinity for its bleakness, but others said, 'I liked Affinity, but it was so sad, I'd never want to reread it.'" Mmmrreow, mmmrrreeooww, goes Tink urgently.

"I think Affinity... oh, God, I must just give her some food." She pokes her head out from the kitchen and announces: "Fingersmith is the antidote to Affinity!"

I take the chance to examine the bookshelves. Here's John Fowles's The Magus (we agree that this has got the twist of all twists), but what's this? Three battered old Philippa Gregory novels? Explain...

"I haven't read her recent stuff, but Wideacre was one of the books that got me writing. I was about to start my PhD on historical fiction and I was especially into the populist stuff and how it could be quietly subversive. Her novels, God, they're great! They're so diabolical. Wideacre's got all that stuff about getting people committed to asylums and things like that. It's got this fantastic female character in it, so yes, I'm a huge fan of those."

Waters was born and brought up in Pembrokeshire in Wales, and attended a mixed school in Milford Haven. She has an ambivalent attitude to her Welshness, though she's learning the language ("I've always fancied learning it, but it's fiendishly difficult"). "I feel a bit of a fraud being labelled as a Welsh writer, because I don't write about Wales, don't know about Welsh culture and politics and I'm not part of the Welsh literary scene. I don't feel English, yet I do feel like a Londoner."

You get the impression that life really began for her when she touched down in the capital. "I was a real Hackney lesbian when I first came to London! I lived in a lesbian shared house, then I lived with a girlfriend for a few years. Then I had to move, so I went to a lesbian squat in Brixton. That was in 2000. We ate stir-fries every night. I've probably never been so healthy. Then I lived in that council flat, which was a lot of fun. Now I've become more genteel and the word 'Georgian' has really entered my vocabulary."

Her routine - writing all day, Monday to Friday (her new novel will be published next spring) - hasn't changed for 13 years, and nor, you suspect, has her lifestyle. She talks about Seinfeld and The Simpsons as much as Woolf and Dickens. She doesn't attend literary parties, isn't a blurb whore (unread, unsolicited proof copies of novels languish outside her door), doesn't hang out with writers. "I've still got friends I had before I was writing, and they're lesbian social workers, or academics or teachers. My girlfriend is a copy editor on a TV listings magazine - it's great, we always know what's going to be on the telly."

So what has she treated herself to with her new fortune? I'm thinking of Jeanette Winterson's paintings and first editions... "No, no. I'm a right pleb. My Sky Plus Machine? That'll do for me. I've bought this flat, which is lovely, and actually I'm just about to buy another." Moving so soon? "No, my girlfriend lives in Stamford Hill and it's a real pain shuttling between flats, so I'm buying her one round the corner. So space is what money's bought me, and that's lovely."

The cats have departed, rather alarmingly, out of the window ("they play on the roofs - they're daredevils") and it's time for me to go too, via the more conventional door. Waters is a marvellous hostess (not many interviewees email in advance to say they're getting the chocolate biscuits in), but I can't help thinking she just wants to have that room of her own back.

'Fingersmith' begins on 27 March, 9pm, BBC 1

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