San Francisco Public Library

June's Pick 2007

Image representing cover The Night Watch The Night Watch
by Sarah Waters

The book chosen for On the Same Page in June was picked to coincide with Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Pride month. With her first three novels, Sarah Waters established a new literary genre — she has called them “lesbian Victorian romps.”

The first, Tipping the Velvet, influenced by Waters' research on Victorian pornography, was made into a BBC TV miniseries and has since been translated into more than 20 languages.

Set against the air raids, blacked-out streets, and sexual adventure of World War II London, The Night Watch, Waters' new historical novel, works backward in time, leaving the reader free to imagine what might have brought the four main characters to their current sorrows, which seem to go deeper than the general postwar malaise. The lives of Waters' gay characters, while repressed, prove far from passionless, and the novel turns a floodlight on a rarely-viewed aspect of British society.

Waters and her partner, Lucy, live just around the corner from each other in South London, Lucy keeping their three cats in her flat. In keeping with the quiet heroism of the characters in The Night Watch, Waters has a sign above her writing desk which states: Keep Calm and Carry On.

For On the Same Page, the Library has purchased the 2006 paperback edition of The Night Watch, published by Riverhead Books. It is also available at the Library in a downloadable e-book format, and as an unabridged talking book in CD and audiocassette formats.

Photo of Sarah Waters About the Author

Sarah Waters was born in the small town of Neyland (approximate population, 4,000) in Pembrokeshire County, Wales in 1966. She has described her childhood, with one older sister, as “very ordinary, very traditional.” Her mother was a housewife and her father an engineer who worked on oil refineries. He encouraged Waters to build and invent things. In addition to these projects, Waters wrote poems and stories, with a flair for the gothic and the macabre. An eager student at the local Catholic school, Waters has referred to her younger self as “a bit of a nerd,” “completely tomboyish” and “completely into boys.” She first fell in love with a woman when she left Wales for the University of Canterbury. They are still together.

After earning her Ph.D. in English literature, specifically late 19th-century lesbian and gay fiction, Waters taught this subject area at the University of London and lectured at the Open University. She moved quickly from the academic world to writing novels, the first three of which established a new literary genre, described by the author as “lesbian Victorian romps.”

The first novel, Tipping the Velvet, was published in 1998 and has since been translated into over twenty languages. Its themes were influenced by the author’s research on Victorian pornography. Published in 1998, it won the Betty Trask Award the following year. It was also shortlisted for the Mail on Sunday/John Llewelyn Rhys Prize. Her second novel, Affinity, published in 1999, was widely honored in 2000 – winning the Somerset Maugham Prize and the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award. In 2002, Fingersmith, her third novel, was shortlisted for the Orange Prize and the Man Booker Prize, and also won the CWA Historical Dagger prize for historical crime fiction.

In 2003, Granta listed Waters as one of twenty Best of Young British Writers. That same year, Waters received the South Bank Award for Literature and was named Author of the Year at the British Book Awards. The Night Watch was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, the Orange Prize for Fiction and the British Book Awards Book of the Year.

Of Related Interest

McGrane, Michelle. “Sarah Waters on writing: 'If I waited for inspiration to strike, it would never happen!' ” LitNet, 2006. Online interview with the author.

Lo, Melinda. “Interview with Sarah Waters.” Online interview with the author.