Novelist Sarah Waters Talks About Toxic Men And The “Futility Of Clinging On To The Past”


Her novel ‘The Little Stranger’ is now an unsettling new film

Few authors working today are as capable of writing novels as profoundly unsettling as Sarah Waters. Her characters and their lives stick in you, like burrs, and then pull you along into their darkness. Though I've long been a fan of Waters' work, I had not yet read her 2009 novel, The Little Stranger, prior to seeing its new film adaptation, directed by Lenny Abrahamson, and starring Domhnall Gleason, Ruth Wilson, and Charlotte Rampling. The plot opens in post-World War II England, and centers around a dilapidated country estate, Hundreds Hall, and the upper-class Ayres family who has long inhabited Hundreds, though is no longer able to take care of it. Told through the perspective of Faraday (Gleason), an unassuming local doctor who insinuates his way into the family's home and life as both those things start unraveling, The Little Stranger has elements of the supernatural and mysterious, but is ultimately a tale of power and patriarchy, and, as Waters told me over the phone recently, "the futility that can come with clinging on to the past."

I spoke with Waters after tearing through her novel, which I bought shortly after watching the film. The two work together as companion pieces almost, each offering new texture to the experience of the consuming the other. I was interested in hearing about her experience seeing her novels translated to the screen, why this period of British history was so fascinating to her, and what it was like to tell a story through the eyes of a toxic male narrator. You can read her answers to those questions and more, below.

The Little Stranger centers around a once-wealthy family that's fallen into disarray; what was your attraction to this story? And to this time and place?
The book really grew out of thinking about sexuality and gender and the strange freedoms of the time right after [World War II]. I was also very aware of class being a big issue right after the war; it was such an interesting time in British history. The working class people had just been through this dreadful ordeal and wanted a better country to live in and wanted better housing and better healthcare—which they found really, with the socialist government they'd voted in. So they were on the rise, and partly as a result of that, more upper class people were kind of in decline.

Where the Ayreses and Hundreds Hall came from, was from me seeing that that was something that was really happening for the landed gentry, people who had grown up generation after generation having inherited these huge great houses and having inherited a way of life that went with it. Suddenly, they couldn't get servants anymore, because working class people didn't want that, they wanted better jobs and better positions. And so can you imagine those houses, they needed an army of servants to be maintained, like you'd see in Downton Abbey. So you take those people away and the houses literally began to fall apart. It was a time of turmoil really for that kind of class. That was my starting point. I hadn't originally planned for it to be a supernatural novel, but I came to think about haunted houses and poltergeists and unruly energies, and it seemed to fit so well, it seemed to work so well as a way of capturing all the tensions of a period, that once I thought, I could do this as a haunted house novel, it really took off in my head, and I could see it all so clearly.

I feel like people either go one of two ways with a supernatural narrative: They're automatically skeptical or they believe in it wholeheartedly. But The Little Stranger, because it is told from the very specific perspective of a questionably reliable narrator, actually precludes that, and allows for more nuance, since everything is being filtered through Faraday's voice. It's like we assume his sensibility. What was it like inhabiting him? Was he always going to be so central to the story?
Early on, the doctor figure was just at a bit of a distance, he was kind of a friend of the family, and he wasn't really very emotionally involved with them. You know, in classic ghost stories they're usually told by someone at something of a remove—it's quite a nice device. And then I got more interested in him as a character and as a potential narrator, and exploring the class background. He seems to be living the professional middle-class existence, but he's not quite accepted by the gentry folk around him. He's moved away from his roots, so he's not really welcome there either, and he's uneasy in the world. As soon as I introduced him into the mix, it all came together.  

I found myself identifying with him quite closely—almost sort of worryingly closely. I found that there was lots of me in him, or lots of him in me, I'm not quite sure. And I enjoyed writing him. I've had male characters, but this was the first male narrator, and there were things I had to think about. There were thing I had to rein in, that I kind of felt wouldn't be his concern. The biggest technical challenge for me writing from the perspective of Dr. Faraday was having to keep him on the surface, very calm and very rational and a bit boring really, and just hinting what's going on underneath. Which Domhnall does with his performance, a very still performance. And what Domhnall had was a similar issue for me: how to keep the doctor interesting and compelling and sympathetic while making him such a stuffed shirt. He's almost literally a stuffed shirt, in the sense that he's just inhabiting his professional role. He doesn't have a Christian name, he's kind of missing really. He doesn't have an emotional element, or at least it's pushed so far down that it becomes something else, it becomes a bit warped. I did enjoy writing him, I did like that challenge of making him unreliable, or at least allowing the reader to only understand his unreliability quite gradually. I think some people don't really see him as unreliable at all, but I think by the end we see him as a far more sinister figure than he'd been all along.

The plot certainly builds to a major climax that's one of the more unsettling ones I've seen or read in some time. Did you always have that ending in mind? Do you always have all the plots figured out when starting a new novel?
It's different with each book, but with The Little Stranger, once I decided on the haunted house element and once I'd decided on the doctor having this complex relationship with the house and family, I had pretty much a vision of the whole book, and I definitely had the image of him as a caretaker, kind of gloating over his ownership over this house. One thing changed actually, and it became even more significant in the film adaptation, and that was the relationship between him and Caroline, because I really didn't see that coming. I kind of saw them as unlikely friends. But then I wrote that scene where they go to the dance, the doctors' dance, and I thought, oh, there's kind of something going on here. And that took me by surprise, but I liked it, and I saw immediately then how fruitful and how useful it would be. Because his relationship with Caroline kind of sums up his whole relationship with the family and the house. Because he desires her but also resents her, and it's really an ugly mix of feelings, and very controlling. She's his way into the house, and she sees him as maybe a way out. It's kind of a doomed relationship. 

It's so fascinating, the paradox that is their foundation, that she's his way in, and he's her way out, since it ultimately leads to the destruction of both their dreams. That mixture though of resentment and desire was so palpable in the novel, and really carried through to how it was portrayed onscreen. In fact, this was one of the more faithful adaptations of a novel's spirit that I've seen. How does it feel to have your work translated onscreen?
Well, it's strange, because if you go into it and feel too precious, it won't work, because things have to change a bit, even in incredibly faithful adaptations, things have to go in that translation. And also, [a film] gives the characters a look, a voice, a manner. It's so concrete. On the page, there's room [for readers] to visualize their own characters. But what happens is it becomes this other work that's intimately related to the book, but it has its own agenda. And I found that fascinating really, just from a creative point of view. I've enjoyed seeing [adaptations]. It's exciting, it's flattering really, to think these very talented people [like Lenny Abrahamson and Park Chan-Wook, who directed The Handmaiden, based off Waters' novel Fingersmith] want to take your book and do something with it. It's exciting to see how faithful the film can be and still be very much its own thing. The Little Stranger to me feels incredibly faithful to the novel; it totally gets the characters, the relationships, the atmosphere and spirit of the book, so it's a little bit unnerving sometimes to see a book brought so closely to life like that, but it's still so different. I enjoy the fact that a book of mine can give birth to another thing.

The Little Stranger can be seen in theaters now, and the novel can be purchased here.

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She's been wonderfully honest about the ups and downs of her procedures

There is a good chance that, right now, Cardi B is wearing really something really tight. I'm not talking about one of the pieces from her Fashion Nova collection, either. Instead, she's probably cooing at baby Kulture while swaddled in a compression garment, a necessary part of the healing process after certain cosmetic surgery procedures.

As reported by E! News, Cardi B has had to cancel several performances after her doctor ordered her to rest and allow her body to recover following cosmetic surgery. A rep for Cardi explained to E! that "Cardi was overzealous in getting back to work" and that "her strenuous schedule has taken a toll on her body and she has been given strict doctor's orders to pull out of the rest of her performances in May." This followed an admission by Cardi herself, at the Beale Street Music Festival earlier this month, that she should have canceled her performance because moving too much would mess up her lipo.

Cardi's transparency about plastic surgery is nothing new for her. She has opened up in the past about her underground butt injections, including the financial pressure she felt and the risks she took to get them. She's been open about both of her breast augmentation procedures as well, most recently getting them redone after giving birth to her daughter. But Cardi's transparency about the ups and downs of plastic surgery is still rare amongst celebrities and is therefore refreshing.

And it's not just celebrities who keep quiet about these procedures. The first person I knew to get a butt augmentation was a friend from high school. We reconnected as adults, and I remember going to her apartment after her surgery, and seeing her pace the floor in her compression garment, since it was still too soon to sit and put pressure on her backside. But even in the comfort of her own home, she seemed to speak in a hushed tone about having had the surgery. Before I'd arrived, she just told me she'd had a "medical procedure," and didn't say anything more. This has been the case for other women I've met who have gotten "work" done, including my aesthetician, a colleague who got a nose job, a darling YouTuber with whom I had the pleasure of having dinner; all of them would only acknowledge their enhancements in secret—the shame was palpable, and unfortunate. It's clear that women who get plastic surgery might be celebrated for the results, but there's an expectation that they should keep quiet about it, and feel bad for having made a choice about their own bodies.

So it's no surprise that, in the pop culture realm, people like Cardi are exceptions to the rule. Thanks to the internet, we can easily track the fullness of a celebrity's lips or backside over the course of time without them ever explicitly acknowledging the medical intervention that took place. And while people, of course, have the right to privacy, and should be able to do whatever they want with their bodies without offering explanations, it would still be nice if they opened up, if only to take away the attached stigma that affects so many people. Which is why I hope Cardi's willingness to lay it all out there becomes a trend. No one should have to harbor shame for investing in having a body that looks the way they want it to.

Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

"In my head I thought, This is how it ends"

Kit Harington almost lost a lot more than the Iron Throne while filming the final season of Game of Thrones. According to an interview with NowThis News, the actor almost lost one of his balls while riding a mechanical dragon.

Harington revealed that the incident took place when he was filming the scene where his character, Jon Snow, takes a ride on Rhaegal for the first time in the Season 8 premiere. Since dragons aren't real (sorry), Harington was filming the scene, where Jon almost falls off the dragon and then swings around to pick himself back up, on a mechanical contraption.

"My right ball got trapped, and I didn't have time to say, 'Stop,'" Harington said in an interview. "And I was being swung around. In my head I thought, This is how it ends. On this buck, swinging me around by my testicles, literally." We see shots of the fake dragon he's riding in front of a green screen, and it does look pretty terrifying.

Luckily, his testicles remained intact through the near-disastrous event, and he's survived with quite the story to tell to unsuspecting journalists.

Photo by Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for goop

"I had to create a harder shell about being a woman"

In a panel discussion during Gwyneth Paltrow's In Goop Health summit, actress Jessica Alba revealed that she "stopped eating" to avoid unwanted attention from men when she was first starting her career in Hollywood.

According to People, Alba said that she "had a curvy figure as a young girl" and, as such, was made to feel as though her body was the reason that men may be inappropriate toward her. "I was meant to feel ashamed if I tempted men," Alba said during the panel discussion. "Then I stopped eating a lot when I became an actress. I made myself look more like a boy so I wouldn't get as much attention. I went through a big tomboy phase."

She continued, "In Hollywood, you're really preyed upon. They see a young girl, and they just want to touch you inappropriately or talk to you inappropriately or think that they're allowed to be aggressive with you in a way."

Alba also noted that she was raised in a conservative household. "My mom would say, 'You have a body, and it's very womanly, and people don't understand that you're 12,'" she said. "I wasn't allowed to have my nalgas out, which is butt cheeks [in Spanish], but I was born with a giant booty, and they come out of everything. So, I didn't get to wear normal things that all my friends wore."

She said that these reactions to her body really affected her attitude. "I created this pretty insane 'don't fuck with me' [attitude]," she said. "I had to create a harder shell about being a woman."

According to her, her relationship to her body only changed when her first child, Honor, was born in 2008. "[After she was born,] I was like, Oh this is what these boobies are meant to do! Feed a kid!" she said. "And that was the dopest shit I'd ever done. So, I came into my body as a woman finally and I stopped being ashamed of myself."

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Photo courtesy of Teva

Because of course

Teva, the most obvious lesbian footwear brand since Birkenstock, really knows its customer base. In time for Pride, the brand has teamed up with Tegan and Sara for a gay shoe to end all gay shoes. In other words, your Pride footwear is on lock.

The shoe isn't just your average Teva sandal. Tegan and Sara's design, the Teva Flatform Universal Pride sandal, is a 2.5-inch platform shoe with a rainbow sole. Tegan and Sara noted in a press release that they have been Teva wearers for pretty much their whole lives. "We got our first pair of Teva sandals when we were 16," they said. "This rainbow Flatform collab is like full circle LGBTQ+ Pride validation."

What's better, with each sandal sale, Teva will donate $15 to the Tegan and Sara Foundation, up to $30,000. The funds donated will go toward scholarships which will give young members of the LGBTQ+ community the chance to go to summer camps which will "help develop self-confidence and leadership abilities in a safe and nurturing environment." Tegan and Sara added, "Teva's generous support for our foundation will allow us to help even more LGBTQ+ youth."

Available today at Teva's and Nordstrom's websites, the sandal retails for $80.

Photo courtesy of Teva

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"Focusing on innovative materials will allow the company to explore new boundaries of creative design"

Prada Group has announced that Prada, as well as all of its brands, will now be fur-free. According to a press release from the Humane Society, Prada, Miu Miu, Church's, and Car Shoe will ban the use of fur beginning with the Spring/Summer 2020 collection (aka the Fashion Week coming up next). The list of fashion designers banning fur only continues to grow, with 3.1 Phillip Lim, Coach, Armani, Versace, Gucci, and more having stopped using the material in seasons past.

"The Prada Group is committed to innovation and social responsibility, and our fur-free policy—reached following a positive dialogue with the Fur Free Alliance, in particular with LAV and the Humane Society of the United States—is an extension of that engagement," Miuccia Prada told the Human Society. "Focusing on innovative materials will allow the company to explore new boundaries of creative design while meeting the demand for ethical products."

Following London Fashion Week designers forgoing the use of fur in September and the first-ever Vegan Fashion Week taking place in February, it's easy to imagine an entirely fur-free fashion future. It's especially easy, I presume, for the brands to consider a fur-free future, given that entire cities and states are taking a stance. New York is following in the footsteps of Los Angeles banning fur, with a bill proposed this March that would ban sales across New York State.