Sarah Waters, Author of 'The Paying Guests,' Talks Domestic Drama, Erotic Love Affairs, and Tackling a Sixth Novel
“I'm perennially interested in the past and the way that the past is different from the present. I'm interested in trying to do justice to that difference,” says British novelist Sarah Waters. “I’m interested in trying to capture it and bring it alive for a reader.”
And indeed, throughout Waters’ 16-year career as an historical novelist, the past — Britain’s past in particular— is a subject in which she has become quite the literary connoisseur. Her works, ambitious, emotionally charged, and rich with period detail, have traversed the lush music halls, lesbian demimondes, and grimy jailhouses of Victorian England; explored the working class realms of a dangerous WWII-era London; and roamed the halls of haunted mansions deep in the crumbling postwar countryside. And with her sixth novel The Paying Guests (Riverhead), released in September, Waters returns to London, this time to the disillusioned south London of 1922, emotionally and physically scarred by the Great War, where ex-servicemen beg on the streets and ghosts of lost husbands and sons haunt those left behind.
Here spinster Frances and her widowed mother, burdened by the debts of Frances’ father and bereft of sons and servants, are forced to take in a young couple as lodgers, euphemistically called “paying guests,” for extra income, but what is at first a relationship of fiscal necessity becomes much more. From within the walls of this genteel Camberwella villa, Waters explores with supreme nuance the constraints of domesticity, the dismantling of class barriers, and the nebulous gender roles of a postwar world in transition, while illuminating the beauty and chaos of daily domestic life and the poetics of longing. The Paying Guests is a love story complicated by a troubled marriage, an accidental crime, and the consequential crisis of conscience, an ambitious, sexy, tension-filled romance-cum-thriller only Waters could write.
I sat down and talked to Waters about her new novel, sexy lesbian love affairs, the allures of domestic drama, and chronicling the past.
BUSTLE: What sparked the idea for this particular novel?
SARAH WATERS: Well, I went to the 19th century, I didn't really know much about it and I began to do my research, not knowing what sort of story I would tell. Then, I began to look into some of the murders of the period really as a way of getting details about people's domestic lives. There were a couple of high-profile murders in the '20s and '30s in the U.K. involving married women who were having affairs with younger men who then killed their husbands. The women were kind of put on trail alongside them. I became really interested in that classic domestic crime scenario — a wife, a husband, and a male lover and I began to think about what it might look like if the lover was a female rather than a male, and that's when the novel first began to come alive for me.
You’ve displayed an interest in domestic relationships and the drama that unfolds behind closed doors in your previous novels, but this particular relationship — that between landlords and “paying guests” — is a unique one. What made you want to explore that?
Paying guest and lodgers crop up quite a lot in the 1920s — in novels and diaries and things — because it was a time that was still very post-war. There were housing shortages in the U.K., society had been shaken up a bit and crucially the middle classes had lost money. They'd lost servants and lots of people who only a few years before would've been living along with servants suddenly found the need to bring in paying guests as a bit of extra income. I really liked the idea of that scenario. As you say, I'm interested in domestic and social history and in the shifting relationships between the classes in the U.K., so the scenario of Frances and her mother having to bring these strangers in their house just seemed ripe with all sorts of possibilities.
Do you find that the domestic setting serves well for the sort of social upheaval taking place on a larger scale?
Exactly. I think social settings often do that and this was a time when lots of changes were happening around class and gender, too. Men had come back from the war and there was a certain amount of resentment towards women who, in a sense, had done quite well after the war. Obviously lots of women had lost loved ones and it had been traumatic, but women, especially working women, had gained new freedoms during the war. Society had kind of loosened up an awful lot and not all men were happy with those changes and in terms of class too, the lower middle class — the class that Lillian and Lenard belong to — the “clerk” class, that was a class that had done well between about 1912 and 1922. There was this huge opening up of salaried occupations so the lower middle classes had a bit more money and a bit more leisure time. They were definitely on their way up just as the class that Frances and her mother belong to was sort of on their way down, and the house as you say is a kind of symbol of all those things that are going on in the larger society.
What benefits and challenges did you face have a love affair unfold in this very enclosed space?
That sort of thing is kind of a gift for a novelist, especially if, like me, you're interested in suspense and narrative excitement because the house becomes this place of all kind of illicit activity which, in the first half of the novel, is thrilling for Frances and Lillian as they pursue their affair, but then in the second part of the novel, Leonard's death becomes dangerous; it becomes a completely different kind of drama. I really liked thinking through what it would be like, what sort of possibilities were afforded by sharing a space with somebody, and what the dangers were in terms of the presence of Frances' mother and Leonard — what they might walk in on, what they might hear, and how Frances and Lilly would have to negotiate those sort of risks. There was great mileage in that for a novelist.
This novel moves very quickly from an erotic romance to dangerous thriller, and you’ve become quite the master of implementing such twists into your novels. Do you have these twists plotted out at the start or do some come along as you write?
Often with novels I do have a pretty good idea of all the twists and turns right from the start, but with this novel I had the basic scenario, the murder for want of a better word. I knew that was going to happen, but the things that unfolded afterward came a bit later in the process, although still relatively early on. I think the thing that I had to figure out most with this book were the motivations of everyone involved. You can plot a novel very carefully, but it's still not clear to you when you start how exactly your characters are going to feel.
You can plot a novel very carefully, but it's still not clear to you when you start how exactly your characters are going to feel.
With this novel in particular that was the thing I had to really work out — how I wanted Frances and Lillian to feel about what happens, how I wanted them to feel about each other. For a while I was worried that their story was just a romance. The novel really pulled together for me when I realized that their love story is at the heart of the narrative and I really committed to it then. It became very much a novel about their relationship and how it’s tested by this terrible event.
Like this one, all but one of your novels includes a lesbian romance element. Why is this such a crucial element to your novels?
To me it seems like the most natural thing to write … and it's not rare anymore to see lesbian lives depicted well, but it still feels relatively uncommon so it’s important to me to write about lesbian characters in a way that feels respectful and ambitious and authentic, whatever that means. I suppose as long as I feel that it is important to do that, I'll keep doing it, but like I said, it just feels natural to me to have lesbians at the heart of my stories and with this novel in particular it was really great to have Frances and Lillian’s story be center stage even though I give them a really hard time as the novel goes on. In a funny way I think that's a way of respecting your lesbian characters, as well — not to give them an easy time, but to test them, as characters. So the way I see it, the lesbianism of my characters is both really central, but at the same time weirdly incidental. It’s just there, and my real interests in them are about the other sorts of things they go through, just like a character of any sexuality would in a novel.
How does Frances and Lillian’s romance compare to the romantic relationships you’ve captured in your previous novels?
It's funny because though most of my novels have a love element to them, this is the first where I felt I really was writing a love story. It just became the heart of the book. I was interested in what something like Leonard's death and the stuff that follows, I was interested in the kind of nightmarishness of what that would do to a relationship. I didn't want the murder to be something they could just brush off and walk away from. That was the thing that put them to the test and it was interesting to me in terms of how they responded to it. Frances, I always saw her as quite strong from the start, but she's the one I think who crumbles in a way, she becomes prey to all sorts of paranoia and suspicions whereas Lillian I think grows up over the course of the novel and ends up being sadder, but wiser and much more of an adult who is a stronger figure than she is at the start.
It's not rare anymore to see lesbian lives depicted well, but it still feels relatively uncommon so it’s important to me to write about lesbian characters in a way that feels respectful and ambitious and authentic.
I wanted there to be a happy ending, but I knew it had to be a very qualified happy ending. When they meet each other in the end they do meet as sadder, wiser women and I hope that they can come together in a completely honest way and maybe form a future together then.
Which character do you relate to most?
Well, I got very very attached to this book — perhaps because it is a very emotional book and you have to enter into the emotions of your character — so I'm attached to all of them, even Leonard in a weird way. But Frances I suppose — we see the story through her eyes, so inevitably I had to spend the most time in her head. She's kind of frustrating in some ways and annoying in others, but I felt close to Frances. I was sad to say goodbye to her when the novel ended.
Your novels have explored several different historical periods in London, but this is the first novel that ventures into the 1920s, post-Great War. What made you finally want to explore this period and how did you go about researching for the novel?
Because I've written Victorian stuff and 1940s stuff, the '20s was that area between them that I didn't know much about so I went there to find out more. A great resource for me when I'm researching is reading the literature of the period, so I read lots of the fiction of the '20s; diaries and letters were really useful, too. Newspapers actually were a great resources for this novel — so many are online now — that was great for giving me a sense of the affairs of the day and things like what people were wearing, what they were reading, all the stuff they were talking about at the dinner table.
The lesbianism of my characters is both really central, but at the same time weirdly incidental.
The post-war mood of the period lingers prominently in the background. What role do you see it playing in the lives of your main characters and their individual motivations?
Stupidly when I first began researching the early '20s I wasn’t thinking of how close it was to the war, but of course 1922 was only four years after ... and it was still very present in people's lives. For people who lost love ones It was still very raw, so I had to think through what it would be like to be living with that grief. People were tired, their morale was low — that’s certainly something that comes across when you read diaries of the period. Everyone was a bit fed up and London was — after the war there were ex-servicemen visible on the street, some of them begging — a scarred nation both physically and emotionally. I had to think through what that would feel like for my characters and how it might make them want to move on.
I think Frances, when we first meet her, she's got that tiredness, that stuckness that lots of people had in the period, but then through falling in love with Lillian she has this sense that life can be different, that they can make a new life together.
I think when we fall in love with somebody it’s because they provide us with something that we truly want — or at least we think they do anyway.
There’s a sense that Frances had a lot of unrealized ambitions after the war — a disappointment that the war didn’t change things as much as she’d hoped. Do you see this influencing her attraction to Lillian?
Yes, I think I do because, yes, this is a love story, but love is a very complicated thing and full of all sorts of motives, some of them conscious some of them unconscious. I think when we fall in love with somebody it’s because they provide us with something that we truly want — or at least we think they do anyway. There's a lot of fantasy and production in even that truest kind of love, so, yes, that was there, that notion that Lillian offers Frances a way out and Frances offers Lillian a kind of excitement and bohemianness that she wants, as well.
From the start of your career, you’ve developed a very distinctive, genre-melding style in your works, one that includes a mix of gothic influences, supernatural elements, historical portraiture, and reoccurring themes of domesticity, homosexuality, and spiritualism. How did you go about shaping this prismatic style of yours? What writers inspired you?
It's kind of an unconscious sort of thing in that it's just where my interests lie both as a reader myself and as a writer. Certainly for the first three novels, which are all set in the 19th century, I'd read a lot of Dickens and Wilkie Collins and those fabulous kind of long, melodramatic novels of the 19th century. For the more recent books, I'm a big reader of 20th century British fiction — the big names, but also much more minor writers, like Patrick Hamilton and Robert Penn, that sort of British tradition of writing that's about domestic life, about lives that may be a bit suburban or a bit ordinary, that we don't tend to think of as being dramatic, but obviously are — all lives are dramatic. It's about finding those quiet dramas in ordinary lives. And yes, the gothic side is there, too.
It's about finding those quiet dramas in ordinary lives.
Where do you see you works fitting in the grand scheme of British historical fiction in general and gay and lesbian fiction in particular?
That's the funny thing about writing — you just sort of keep your head down and get on with it. Certainly when I started I'd been a big reader of lesbian and gay fiction and felt part of a kind of reading community; that was a great enabler of my own fiction. I really wanted to contribute something to that community and that's definitely where Tipping the Velvet came from, but the fact that, in the U.K. in particular, my novels have crossed over, kept a lesbian readership but also found a mainstream one, as well, has been really delightful and exciting. I don't have any kind of grand plan. I just write the books that I really want to write and I’m just happy that people want to read them.
Was there anything in particular that you were hoping to add to the genre that you felt it was lacking?
My Ph.D. thesis started off looking at the representation of homosexuality in Victorian literature. I'd seen that there were some really interesting information around about gay life, about the gay underworld in the late 19th century, but they tended to be male and I kind of wanted to claim them for lesbians and invent my own version of them for lesbians. There had been historical fiction that I'd read at that point, and some of it was very good … but I still felt that there was room for a lesbian historical novel that was kind of sexy with an urban setting and fun and so I suppose in that sense I felt I had something slightly new to write with Tipping the Velvet, but my ambitions were really rather small; I just wanted to have fun and try and write a novel I thought I would like to read myself.
Do you find it particularly compelling, though, to create a portrait of these relationships during this particular historical period when social sentiments were very different from today?
I do. I'm really interested in social history and of course we don't know that much about lesbian and gay life in this period. We know much more about it than say we do about lesbian life in the 19th century, but still it feels relatively unexplored, so that was a great thrill for me, to try and imagine a life for my lesbian characters, to try and make them not shadowy, but fully fleshed characters, characters who are confident about their sexualities — not characters for whom their sexuality is any sort of problem except for in the way the world makes it a problem, but just confident lesbian characters getting on with things as I do in my life.