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A Seminar with Sarah Waters

Alongside studying Wilde’s brilliantly timeless ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, this year’s English Literature A Level class also read Sarah Water’s 2009 ‘The Little Stranger’. Despite the vast timeframe between both novels, they provided interesting comparisons for themes of class, love, reputation and the supernatural. Last week, the class had the wonderful privilege to have a seminar with Sarah Waters herself via zoom, and the chance to ask her about her writing process, inspiration and research for the book, and its links with Dorian Gray. This is what the students had to say about the experience:

"It is not everyday that, as a student studying a text, one has the unique and outstanding privilege of being able to meet face to face (a figure of speech given our current Zoom reliant way of life) with the author of said work. Being able to take part in a seminar with Sarah Waters, critically and commercially acclaimed author and nominee for the prestigious Man Booker Prize, was an unparalleled opportunity, and a charm. To read critical analysis and reviews or compare haphazard improvised ideas and interpretations on a novel is one thing, but to be able to be guided through the nuances, subtleties, the details missed or misinterpreted, the true meaning of a plot point or purpose of an ending by the very person who put pen to page (or more accurately in a digital age, finger to keyboard) is an experience I have seldom been offered, not to mention imagined. As an aspiring author myself (fingers crossed) the chance to see the creative process dissected, unravelled, laid bare, to be able to absorb new ideas and learn new truths (the evolution of characters, the fickle nature of inspiration, the staggering amount of research needed for a piece of historical fiction) is a godsend, improved only by Mrs Water’s extraordinarily humble, modest and kind demeanour-to her; no question is ever too obvious, no explanation too taxing. It was an experience that allowed me to see the trials of writing, yet always present, its beauty, the unrivalled magic of being able to create, to give light to something, and share it with the world."

Pablo L, Year 13

"Having the opportunity to speak to Sarah Waters was a wonderful experience, and I particularly enjoyed the insight she gave us into her writing process. It was so interesting to see how the initial idea for ‘The Little Stranger’ was sparked by a nightmare, and the incredibly detailed research that went into setting the context of the novel. Her perspective on writing itself was also fascinating— the way that certain stylistic decisions (having an unreliable narrator for example) were seen as a form of challenging herself, and that even though the overall plot was very much planned before she started writing, she spoke of the character and their reactions to the plot as sometimes surprising. There were moments in the novel, such as Faraday and Caroline’s romance that she was not expecting, and it was interesting to hear her talk of her characters as if they were acting independently.

"This seminar also made me rethink the way I perceived certain themes in the book. It wasn’t until now that I realised the importance of the theme of entrapment, both physically through the use of isolated locations like Hundreds Hall, but also in a more abstract sense, through ideas of gender and class, and how these pent-up frustrations and negative emotions mean that everyone in the house could be equally responsible for the manifestation of the poltergeist. Furthermore, Sarah Waters made a very interesting point about how Faraday and Caroline’s romance is doomed from the start, as he sees her as his gateway into the house while she sees him as her way out, which fully encompasses the lack of communication and romantic connection between them in a way I hadn’t really seen before.

"Finally, Sarah Waters’ discussion of her changing opinions of the book after it was published was fascinating, as she mentioned certain aspects she would perhaps change in hindsight, such as the way she presented Susan. This struck me as particularly curious as I had always imagined that after writing a book, an author’s opinion of it would remain the same forever, but I now realise that it must change once it is published and other people start developing opinions about it too. People’s response, and Sarah Waters’ interaction with her readers was also something that intrigued me, especially hearing her talk about different theories readers had come up with about the characters, the causes behind the supernatural manifestation, and perhaps most interestingly, the reasons behind the lack of openly LGBT representation in the book."

Sofie C, Y13

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