I received a somewhat disturbing text from a friend the other afternoon. She was running late for work because she couldn't put a book down that I'd recently leant her. "How can I go? I must read on!" "But, the children!" I cried. She is a nanny, you see, so while I could relate to her plight--I had spent a rare sunny day in Seattle, indoors, eschewing some much needed vitamin D reading the very same book--I didn't have children to keep alive. Such are the perils when one picks up The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. So readers, clear your calendars.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with Ms. Waters recently, on a not-so-rare rainy day in Seattle, to talk about this historical page-turner, set during a "politically untidy" time that has many parallels to our own.
The story takes place in 1922 in suburban South London. WWI has ended and ex-soldiers are roaming the streets, unemployed and uncertain about the future. In a once grand and genteel house, Frances Wray--a spinster with a surprising past--lives with her mother. "They've lost their men to war, and they've lost income and servants, and so they've had to bring in lodgers to make ends meet, and they are Leonard and Lilian Barber, the paying guests of the title. Francis is at first appalled by their gaudy furniture and bothered by the sound of them moving about upstairs, but finds herself increasingly drawn to Lilian. So the novel is the story of their affair and the sort of dramatic and really violent and alarming consequences that it has for everybody involved."
The novel was inspired, in part, by an actual murder case from that time--a case that had a "classic triangle at [its] heart--a wife, a husband, and a male lover. And, I began to think what it would be like if the lover was female--what that would do to the story, how it would touch on other issues in the period." With this germ of an idea, Waters began researching similar cases in earnest. "I was struck when I looked at those murder cases--and I looked at lots of other murder cases from the period. They did tend to feature ordinary people who by some sort of mistake, by a moment of madness, were plunged into nightmare and into disaster and ultimately towards some sort of violent death. And I was very struck by the fact that people in murder cases like that, they don't know what's coming...In the months, weeks, days leading up to the murder, they were just leading their ordinary lives."
Waters is known for plotting-out most of her books ahead of time, but she admits that she was knee-deep in the writing process before realizing that--despite the murder and the mayhem--the book is mainly a love story. "I really was sort of rooting for Frances and Lilian but very conscious that their love came at a cost...Once I'd realized, though, that that was kind of the trajectory of the book--that it was based on their love--the book came together for me more smoothly. And then it became a novel very much about how their love is put under pressure, how it's tested by this dramatic incident, and the moral complexity of the events that follow."
Sound a bit dark? Fortunately, as fans of other Waters’s novels like Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith can attest, she has a knack for humanizing her characters with pitch-perfect humor for the period that also resonates with a modern audience. "Often humor is so specific to its moment that it doesn't date well. There's nothing worse than, sort of, terrible comics movies from the 20s, for example...The best of them last but they just seem incredibly tiresome now as no doubt our movies will in another hundred years. So, it's trying to find humor that belongs, feels like it belongs to the period and yet still seems kind of funny to us. That’s quite a challenge...We do need to get beyond those static black and white pictures of the past and remember that people live their lives in color, and with laughter, as well as with tears and sternness. The whole range, that's how you bring the past to life."
The Paying Guests was a Best of the Month selection for September.