They are celebrating their anniversary this month by reissuing one iconic book from each decade of their existence, each with a smart new cover design. Virago’s Publisher Sarah Savitt comments: ‘Each work was both a stand-out book of its time but also speaks to contemporary ideas and readers’. Here’s the list:  

1970s: The Sadeian Woman by Angela Carter 

1980s: The Fat Black Woman’s Poems by Grace Nichols 

1990s: Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters 

2000s: Living Dolls by Natasha Walter 

2010s: The Friend by Sigrid Nunez 

Mslexia was launched in 1999, so we trail Virago by 26 years – but we were in time to catch up with the young Sarah Waters in her attic flat, a few years after she wrote the blistering debut novel that helped propel lesbian literature into the mainstream. Here’s that interview, that was conducted by editor Debbie Taylor. 

‘I didn't wear any of the clothes of the time until I was an extra in the television adaptation. The bodice was so tight I couldn't fold my arms’ 

Sarah Waters is an accidental historical novelist. If her PhD had been in particle physics, her first book would probably have been science fiction. As it happens, she was studying homosexuality in the literature of the 18th Century. 'Tipping the Velvet grew out of my thesis and I ended up being sucked more and more into that period', she tells me.  

The result was a trio of chunky books, culminating in Fingersmith, which was shortlisted for both the Man Booker and Orange prizes, and made her a shoo-in on Granta's list of 20 Best Young British Novelists last year  – one of the only authors all the judges could agree on. 

She lives on the fourth floor of up-and-coming Regency terrace in south London. It's a warren of rooms with slanting ceilings, once the servants' quarters of some well-to-do family: an appropriate setting for the woman who's made the intimate shenanigans of history's underclass her stock-in-trade.

Pixyish in a faded tracksuit ('my writing clothes'), she brews up builders' tea for me and a fresh rosemary infusion for her before we settle down either side of the fireplace with her two ('lesbian icon') cats. 

Unlike with most authors, there was never a period in Waters' adult life when she wasn't a writer. There was never a day job to juggle with or a career to abandon. She embarked on Tipping the Velvet while researching her PhD, then spent a year on benefits while she finished it.  

At that book's heart – at the heart of all of her novels – is a passionate relationship between two women. 'That's not because I'm on a crusade. Lesbianism is at the top of the agenda for my books because it's at the top of the agenda for my life. It would be bizarre not to write about it.' 

For many people, analysing literature at the same time as trying to write it would be impossible. The academic enterprise would give the internal critic too much power; any creative infant would be strangled at birth. But Waters seems to have struck a bargain with her analytic left brain: she lets it direct the plot, and in return it allows her some real fun with the characters and imagery. 

Each of her books started life as 'a project' (her term for the academic challenge each represents). Tipping the Velvet's 'project' was to document an imagined sexual underworld for Victorian lesbians that would complement the existing body of writing, led by Oscar Wilde, which explored men's gay culture at that time. Related to this was her idea to use the picaresque form of the novel, loosely based on books like My Secret Life: An Erotic Diary of Victorian London by James R Kincaid.  

In this sense all her novels are pastiches: modern versions of the literary models of her chosen era. It's as though there's an invisible subtitle on the covers of all her books, as with a PhD thesis: Tipping the Velvet: a study of the lesbian underworld in 19th-Century England as depicted in the picaresque novels of the time; Affinity: an exploration of spiritualism and female transgression in the Victorian gothic novel; Fingersmith: the use of female characters and the criminal underworld in the development of the sensation novel. 

'Having gone through academia, I do think that a good book should have an agenda,' she admits. 'Something that gives it a point. I often read books and think, what's the point?'  

For a while, in the early stages of writing Fingersmith, she felt uneasy because the book didn't seem to have a 'project'. 'I remember saying to people, “I'm really worried because it's just a story”. I was so relieved when I hit on this thing about Wilkie Collins and sensation fiction. The first plot twist is lifted directly from The Woman in White.' 

In fact there are several literary traditions represented in Fingersmith, which tells the story of streetwise pickpocket Sue Trinder's part in a scam to swindle naïve upper-class Maud out of her inheritance. 'I liked the idea of writing about two girls, one belonging to one culture and one to another, but who also belonged to different genres of writing. So Maud belongs to the gothic novel and Sue grew out of my interest in Victorian journalists like Henry Mayhew, who interviewed all sorts of ordinary people, including thieves, and wrote down their stories in their own words.'

It's this additional layer of stylish sophistication that has found so much favour with the literary establishment. But it's just icing on the cake for most of Waters' readers. What they're drawn to is the irresistible combination of intimately realised characters, authentic period detail, gothic grotesquerie - and plots that grab you by the scruff of your neck and won't let go.

This combination of satisfactions means her work is appreciated by a far wider audience than is usual for a literary novel – a fact which has had some bizarre consequences. When Tipping the Velvet was serialised for TV last year, couchmeisters Richard and Judy wired one family up to an 'embarrassment meter' to monitor the squirm factor induced by watching the infamous dildo scene en famille.

I get a sense that Waters is still rubbing her eyes in surprise at the mass-market appeal of her work. 'All I wanted to do with Tipping was write something that would appeal to lesbians.' She sent it out to ten publishers – a mix of lesbian, women's and literary lists – who bounced it straight back, despite one of the most charming and compelling first paragraphs I've read for a long time, about eating oysters. 'I started to feel quite gloomy about it,' she remembers. It wasn't until she started approaching agents that things began to look up: two contacted her within days of one another. It was Virago who took it in the end, having rejected it out of hand from the slush pile (a lesson to all new novelists...).

 Despite its inauspicious start, the book was an immediate critical and commercial success – a fact that made her second novel, Affinity, far more difficult to write. 'I suddenly felt the pressure of people's expectations,' she says. But that wasn't the only problem. Because Tipping had been such a saucy romp, she felt she had to set herself a different challenge with Affinity. 'I was still attracted to that historical period, and to writing about women, but I wanted to try another kind of book.'

Affinity, with its disturbing subject matter – ghosts, madness, prison – is a much darker, more intense read. 'The imagery is very strong in that book,' she says. 'As though it was written by the other side of my brain.'  

Inhabiting that world was a gruelling experience, made more intense by the intimacy of her style. There are no distant narrators in Waters' novels; they're all written in slow-motion close-up, from inside the skin of her characters, in their own voices. So there's no escape – for reader or author. 

This close focus means that getting the detail right is paramount. Waters spends weeks researching things like locks, coins, shoes; what she calls ‘the poignant trivia' of the period. What does a dogskin coat smell like? How do you melt down a pewter cup on a kitchen fire? What is it like to share a bed with your servant? 'I wish I'd tried dressing up in a proper corset before writing Tipping the Velvet,' she says now. 'But I didn't wear any of the clothes of the time until I was an extra in the television adaptation. The bodice was so tight I couldn't fold my arms.' 

I wonder if she feels the same constriction when she's writing (see The Waters Method, below). Her plots, particularly in Affinity and Fingersmith, are so tight and fiendishly crafted, so full of twists and misunderstandings, as to allow almost no space for the unconscious to exert an influence.

'With Fingersmith especially, the characters just had to do what the plot required. But I find there's a tremendous looseness in the imagery I choose. That's where the unconscious comes in. Sometimes an image will appear and it's just so pregnant with the right kind of meaning. And I think, “God, where did that come from and how wonderful that it did –  and suppose it never happens again?”'

Hasn't the acclaim had any effect on her confidence? 'Not really. I'm very aware of my limitations. l know I'm okay at some things, because I've done similar things in all the books, so I must have got better at them. But that’s a limitation too.'

Is she worried about being a one-trick pony? 'To some extent, yes. I'll be writing a scene with someone getting on a train and I'll think: “This is so typical of how I write. ls there no better way of doing this?” And sometimes I will actually open another writers' book and read a sentence and think: “Yes, that's a great sentence, but there's no way I would ever have written it.”' She sighs: 'Sometimes l just wish I could write in a different kind of way.'

This is what she's attempting to do at the moment. If there is a Waters mould, her next book breaks it in every conceivable way. It's set in the 1940s, rather than the Victorian era; it has a cast of four or five central characters, including at least one man; it's written in third rather than first person; the narrative is character- rather than plot-driven – and the whole thing moves backwards rather than forwards in time. 'Everything is problematised,' she says. 'Which feels great sometimes, exactly as a challenge should. Really invigorating and exciting.'  


'But it's not the way I naturally write. In the other books I've always known exactly what each character will be doing in each chapter. All I had to do was join up the dots. But this book is much more character-driven, so l don't always know what has to happen.

'And l didn't know basic things about writing third-person narrative with a cast of characters. I thought you could just put in a bit from a day here, and a bit from another day there. But the result seemed mad and chaotic. I'm a big fan of Elizabeth Taylor, so I sat down with A View of the Harbour to see how she structured each chapter. And I realised each one is structured as a day. It needs that to anchor it.'

 An early extract from the new book was published in the issue of Granta that accompanied the Best Young British Novelists hoo-ha last year. 'I suspect that draft is a bit too stuffy,' she comments now. 'I was modelling it on some of the fiction of the time. But I might loosen it up when I'm more confident about where I'm going with it.'  

So she's teaching herself to be a different kind of writer? 'Yes. I have this idea that until I can write a book that's just about relationships, and still make it interesting, then I won't be a proper writer.'  

So there's a 'project' for Waters' life too. Fingersmith may have cemented her reputation as one of the most accomplished young authors in the country, but to her it was just one more step along the road she's plotted for herself. 'If I can manage this new book, I'll know I can just do it. I'll be able just to pick a subject out of the air, find a plot, and make it work.' 


The Waters Method 

Select a historical period (Victorian is good) and focus in on a corner of society that fascinates you (lesbian cliques, women's prisons, criminal underworlds), or an issue topical at that time (crossdressing, spiritualism, baby farming).  

Steep yourself in the writing of the time: fiction, journalism, diaries, letters. Try to absorb how people thought and spoke. Continue this reading throughout the writing process, to ensure your mind stays saturated with the right atmosphere.

Make meticulous notes on historical trivia and turns of speech, noting down the title of every source – its author, date and page number – as though footnoting a PhD.

Write 'Thoughts' at the top of a separate sheet and jot down ideas for the book as they arise from your reading.  

Decide on a structure, based on one of the dominant literary forms of your period, and begin sketching out a three-part plot and embryonic characters. Include at least three of the following: a plot twist, a shy lesbian, a journey, a pair of gloves. 

Divide each of your three parts into six chapters of around 10,000 words apiece and map out the detail of what happens in each chapter. 

Now begin writing, starting with one of the scenes you like best (you’re particularly fond of madhouses and bedrooms) as a way of discovering the voices of your main characters.

Return to the beginning and start moving your half-formed characters through the labyrinths of your plot. Write in past tense, in first person (try a diary format) and watch their personalities develop as they kick against the things your plot requires them to do. 

Your weeks will start to take on a pattern: a slow agonising start (as you plan the next scene) gradually easing into the steady production of 1,000 words a day until the scene is complete, then back to the agony of the blank page.

You’re unable to write a rough draft. But if a scene is particularly complex, you may use finished dialogue to create a skeleton for it: and flesh out the details when you’re happy with its shape. 

After three months, review what you've written, incorporating notes you've made in the margins and taking time out to fill in any gaps in your research. 

Send the revised section to the one friend you trust to be the first reader of your work. 

This interview appeared originally in Issue 20 of Mslexia. 

The Author

Debbie Taylor Image

Debbie Taylor

Founder and Editor
Learn more
Share this story...