Sarah Waters: On Exploring Moral Complexity and Why Writing Her New Novel Made Her Anxious
Author: Sara Rauch
October 5, 2014
“We see murder represented a lot in movies and pop culture and it can be quite glib. So I didn’t want to be glib; I wanted to be faithful to the moral mess, the emotional mess of it.”
Award-winning, bestselling author Sarah Waters has written six novels. Her newest, The Paying Guests (Riverhead Books), tells the story of Frances Wray, an upper middle class young woman living alone with her mother in post-WWI London. Her brothers have died in the War and her father has died as well, leaving them with a legacy of unsound investments and debt. In order to make ends meet, Frances and her mother take in lodgers—the eponymous guests: a young married couple, Lilian and Leonard. The entrance of this young couple has profound and unexpected consequences for all involved—and as Charlotte Mendelson says in her review of the novel for The Financial Times, “There is too much here to convey in brief, or without revealing the switchback twists that make all Waters’ novels dazzling. She can, it seems, do everything: the madness of love; the squalor of desire; the coexistence of devotion and annoyance; ‘the tangle of it all.’”
Waters’ reputation for “gripping, astute” historical fiction is well deserved. Her portrayals of Victorian England (Tipping the Velvet, Fingersmith, Affinity) and post-WWII England (The Night Watch, The Little Stranger) are lush and detailed, evocative and intelligent. Also, don’t let the words “historical fiction” dissuade you. Waters’ writing transcends genre: her plots are sinuous and suspenseful; her language is saucy, sexy and direct; all of her characters, especially her lesbian protagonists, are complex and superbly drawn. She has succeeded, The New York Times recently noted, “in having it both ways, writing mainstream novels that happen to have lesbians in them.”
While on a book tour in the U.S., Waters spoke with Lambda over the phone from her hotel room in San Francisco. She shared her thoughts about her writing and research processes, her draw to explore moral complexity, the birth of the modern era, why writing The Paying Guests made her anxious, and her great affection for her latest protagonist.
How did you come by the idea for The Paying Guests?
I’d gone to the 1920s, looking, not really knowing. It’s fairly unusual for me not to have a sense of a period. There was much more not knowing with this one and wanting to find out more. I struggled with that. I started reading about murder cases from the period (I mention these in the back of the book) and found them gripping. There was one about a sexually confident lower-middle class woman whose lover murdered her husband. She was arrested and tried alongside her lover, and both were hanged. We can look at it now and see it as a miscarriage of justice, but the thought at the time was that she had somehow “corrupted” this young man. And I wanted to write about ordinary suburban life, normal people—and here you have this basic [love] triangle, though of course, in The Paying Guests, the lover is female—thrown into a nightmare. I wanted to look at the individual players and the drama.
What’s your writing process like?
It’s different for every book. When I was writing about the Victorian era, I already knew a lot; I had read a ton of Victorian fiction, and so could create stories belonging in that era. The Paying Guests was unusual in my not knowing which story I wanted to tell, but rather starting with the preoccupations of the time and researching.
There’s obviously a ton of research that goes into your books. What’s that process like?
It’s an ongoing thing. I usually do two to three months of pure research getting to know the period and the story I might tell. While I’m writing, I do a bit every day. At the end of the day, say 400 p.m., I can shut the computer and read. Research for me takes many forms; I read a lot of fiction from the period, diaries.
While I was reading the novel, I kept thinking of the word bleak, and I mentioned this in my review—that this book has a different feel than some of your earlier books. I mean, all of your books have a certain darkness—and there are hopeful moments in the novel, but even those moments seem have to a dark edge to them. Is this just realism? Is it partly because this book feels more modern, which makes it easier to imagine the reality Frances and Lilian face? I’m curious: Does this novel feel different to you than your earlier books?
The Night Watch and The Little Stranger are bleak stories, too. And Affinity. They’re all somber. Sometimes I’m nostalgic for the exuberance of Fingersmith or Tipping the Velvet. But you’re right, The Paying Guests is somber. It’s sort of impossible to talk about this book without giving it all away, but when I came up with the murder idea, I thought, “Well, Len could get it,” and I could write it as a sort of a bound: Len as a villain, and Lilian and Frances getting rid of him and getting away. But I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to be faithful to the complexity of the situation. We see murder represented a lot in movies and pop culture and it can be quite glib. So I didn’t want to be glib; I wanted to be faithful to the moral mess, the emotional mess of it. Essentially, this is a love story. Frances and Lilian are in love, but they’re under these dreadful pressures. I’ve only myself to blame, really. I’m older now and have fewer reserves of exuberance. I’m more interested in moral complexity.
I want to ask about writing Frances. I know there’s a purposeful choice you make as a writer when choosing who tells a story, and I think that if Lilian were the protagonist, this novel would have been very different. Instead, Frances tells the story—and she’s someone who’s not a “new” lesbian. She’s experienced, intelligent, she knows what she wants, she’s jaded and she’s given stuff up. What was it like writing her?
She does seem older than her years, doesn’t she? But someone in her position in 1922 would have had to be more mature. I felt very close to Frances—I liked her a lot—but she does play the martyr. She’s chosen this path of domestic servitude, and she’s really making a meal of it. She is in a difficult position. Middle class daughters in that time were expected to stay home and serve the family. And she is jaded, you’re right. Making her the protagonist was a means of ensuring a tone of impatience and frustration, but there was also an opening up of excitement. I wanted to let her be excited. She knows what she wants; she has a sort of confidence—though she does lose her faith in Lilian toward the end and that was painful. But I was happy to see the situation through her eyes.
Your books tend to be psychologically intense, and The Paying Guests is no different. I read the book really slowly, really paying attention to this, and there were a few times during the second half that I put the book down and thought, “Damn, it’s like I’m reading Crime and Punishment.” What’s that like to write?
(Laughter) Intense. It was a challenge. Frances and Lilian become very frightened around the middle and then had to remain frightened for the rest of the book, so I was constantly looking for new ways, new words, to keep them frightened. But I enjoyed writing the suspense, the narrative energy of it, the technical side. It was exciting to be churning toward something. I get emotionally involved. I wrote the last chapter last—saved this long, complex part for the last phase, when I was really exhausted. So I was stressed and tense, but that couldn’t compare with what Frances was going through. Maybe it was good that I did that, that there was some overlap.
Do you outline your novels in full before you begin? As you go? Do your characters surprise you when you’re writing
I prefer to know the plot in advance. For The Little Stranger, I had the whole thing worked out tightly—though I do allow surprises around how my characters are feeling. With The Paying Guests, I had the broad structure, but there were big gaps and that was stressful. I’d start a scene and realize I got it wrong and have to rewrite it. I do a lot of rewriting anyway—but that first scene of Frances and Lilian together, I rewrote several times. This is a love story that’s really, terribly complicated by the crime. I worried it [their love] was small, too small. I wanted to infuse their relationship with quiet drama. I had to figure out the pace; it starts slowly. I mean, Lilian is straight. It’s 1922. They couldn’t just leap into bed together. So I had to make it leisurely. I worried it was too leisurely. The Paying Guests made me anxious.
Ruins and ghosts are important metaphors in The Little Stranger, and they come up a lot in The Paying Guests. Is this a product of writing about the post-war periods? Do you think they inform the periods or rise out of the periods, or both? Is it possible to write historical fiction without acknowledging ruins and ghosts?
I was very conscious of this for The Little Stranger. I knew it was the end of an era for a class of people, that the country was moving forward, but there was this island of people that was being left behind. I had to engage much more with the war in The Paying Guests than I’d first thought. I didn’t realize the mixture of feeling. Some people had optimism—the clerk class, the lower-middle class that Lilian and Leonard belong to; their lives were opening up. Frances and her mother had lost things, so for them, it was a very different sort of time. At the heart of the book is this sense of loss—muddle. Things were politically unsafe; things felt sort of how they do now. The war had been dreadful, and people thought it would only lead to another, which of course it did. Everyone was newly very unsafe and full of conflict. I hadn’t realized that in advance. So the metaphor wasn’t a grand plan; it just kind of happened.
You just mentioned this briefly: a sort of connection between the 1920s and now. I thought about this a lot because there’s a strong emphasis on sensationalism and the rise of tabloid culture in this novel, and in this regard, history feels very contemporary here. We’re not much different now than we were then, with our paparazzi and our fascination with and celebration of crimes. I studied history, so I’m always thinking about how history informs the present, if it does at all. What do you think history’s place is in informing the present? Does it, or can it, give us a new perspective with which to view our current lives?
I remember this all the time. I try to take the long view. We think in our current moment that we’re special, but it’s partly too this particular moment [in The Paying Guests]. In the early 1920s, there was this birth of so much of what is modern: electricity in the home, the radio, motorcars, and the way we view cinema. Tabloids—pictorial papers—were quite a new thing, and news barons controlled big sections, just like today. Our modern era has its roots in this first post-war period. I always reflect on continuities, always try to find the differences and the connections.
You said earlier that it’s hard to talk about this novel without giving it all away, and that’s true. I wanted to ask about the crime scene and the court scenes, and I was trying to figure out a way to do that without revealing too much, and I was thinking about how I was holding my breath for most of the last third of the book, so what I’ve settled on is: Did you hold your breath while you were writing those scenes?
Not really, because if I held my breath I’d kind of die. (Laughter) The last section came together rather straightforwardly. I’d done the research; I just needed things to happen. It’s brilliant to have you say that—I’m always thinking about creating that for the reader. It’s like working on a tapestry: the back is a terrible tangle, but you want the front to be as seamless as possible, so you’re constantly going back and forth—doing the work of putting things in place. The actual writing is too technical, too nuts-and-bolts to hold my breath, but I do try to enter the mind of the reader while I’m writing.
What’s your next project?
Novel-wise, I don’t know. I’m on an enforced break while I travel around, and it’s quite good to have a break. I have a couple of small ideas, but they’re still very small. I am co-writing a play with a friend that will be performed in December in London. I’ve never written for the theater before or done a collaboration.
Lastly, I always ask this: What are you reading right now?
I have here, on my hotel bedside table, Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, which my new publisher gave me because she loved it. I’m enjoying it very much.