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A Love Story Complicated by a Crime: “The Paying Guests” by Sarah Waters

I received a somewhat disturbing text from a friend the other afternoon. She was running late for work Paying_guestsbecause 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.

How One Nation Is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture

The Birth of Korean Cool reveals how a really uncool country became cool, and how a nation that once The Birth of Korean Coolbanned miniskirts, long hair on men, and rock ‘n’ roll could come to mass produce boy bands, soap operas, and one of the world’s most important smart phones. Here, the author, Euny Hong, gives a guide to modern Korean etiquette.

1. It is never considered rude to ask someone’s age—technically, instead ask, "What year were you born?" Without knowing which party is older, no one knows how to act or speak. One central tenet of etiquette in Korea is that you have to pay attention to who you are in relation to those around you: Man or woman? Older or younger? Professional rank? Etc. etc. You base all of your actions on hierarchy. If someone new enters the room, you have to recalibrate your behavior.

2. Food and drink are to be consumed whilst sitting or not at all, and indoors unless you are sitting on a picnic blanket. Do not carry around food or drink; not even a bottled water. And definitely not coffee. That would be like walking the streets with a pint of Guinness. And for crying out loud, don't bring beverages into the subway. You don't want to be the jerk who spills liquids on someone's Samsung Galaxy smartphone while they're live-streaming their morning TV programs.

3. Corollary to above: Under no circumstances should you bring your refreshment into someone else's home or office. I don't care if you still have a 3/4 cup full of iced latte; you have to toss it before you cross the threshold. By bringing your own insolent beverage, you have denied your hosts the chance to offer a refreshment. They will per custom offer you a coffee even though you have one; you are obligated to say yes and you will end up with two coffees. If you refuse, your hosts can’t have any coffee either.

4. Do not pour your own alcohol. If you want your glass topped off, hint at this by pouring alcohol into someone else’s glass, whether this person wants it or not. That person must then offer to pour some into your glass. A second and very important rule is that when you are pouring alcohol for someone, pour with your right hand and use your left hand to hold your sleeve. This will assure your drinking buddies that you will not stab them with your free hand.

5. If you are out drinking with friends or colleagues, it's not considered sporting to go home until everyone does. Nausea is in no way a good reason to go home. If you must vomit, go off and do it in the bathroom or alleyway, then return and repeat the self-poisoning/purge process. It is totally within bounds to ask a friend to help you barf.

6. If you are a student at a public K-12 school, never raise your hand in class. No good can come of it. If you have to use the bathroom, wait till after class. If you have a question, let it go. If the teacher is horribly wrong about something and you are trying to correct him/her…you are mistaken. Also, jackets are to be zipped/buttoned up or not worn at all.

7. Your pockets are no place for your hands.

Who is the Shadow Hero? An Exclusive Interview with Gene Luen Yang

Go back in time and listen to an interview recorded last year with Gene Luen Yang where he talks to us about who The Shadow Hero is and where he comes from.

Click to Listen: Gene Yang Interview on The Shadow Hero


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Comics, Wrestling and Telling the Story of Andre the Giant

Box Brown, the author of the new Andre the Giant graphic novel talks about the similarities between the art of comics and professional wrestling and his admiration for the subject of his new book. AndretheGiant

Comics and wrestling seem like a natural fit to me.  When, as an adult, you tell someone you’re interested in comics you have to be prepared to defend that.  I think there can be a lot of misconceptions about what comics are and what comics can be, like that they’re only for kids or perhaps a generation of older men still living in their parents’ basements.  As a comic artist (and reader) I know this just is not the case.  Comics is a medium capable of an infinite range of expressions—an art form.  I believe that pro-wrestling is an art form too.

Surely then, if pro-wrestling is an art form, it has had no greater master than Andre the Giant.  Andre had a condition known as acromegaly, which caused him to grow too large for his own good.  When he was told he wouldn’t live past the age of forty, he decided to live the life he had to the fullest.  Andre had a leg up in the pro-wrestling business, because he was a huge man who was naturally foreboding. But he didn’t rest on that.  He knew how to work a crowd the way great comedians and MCs do.  He knew how to play both a “babyface” (good guy) and “heel” (bad guy) to perfection.  He also worked constantly for many many years to develop his craft. 

In pro-wrestling when two wrestlers are developing a match they say they are telling a story in the ring.  So, in addition to all the storylines that go into a pro-wrestling television show, the two athletes in the ring are telling a story.  It’s a sequential story that has the qualities we look for in the greatest works of literature.  The hero sets out on a quest and is tested and beaten down and eventually he rises to the occasion to defeat and overcome his detractors.  Each story is different and can be a drama, tragedy or comedy.  Each wrestler has his own unique style and way to depict his character.  Is it that different from using a brush and ink (and Photoshop) to tell this type of story on the comic page? 

I think of Andre’s story as a tragic one.  He was disabled for a large part of his life and he died at only forty six years old.  He was mostly portrayed on TV and spoken of as a kind man with gentle heart.  But Andre was only human.  He had all the flaws and personal idiosyncrasies that we all have.  He was imperfect at times.  He spent a lot of time in pain.  I think he felt disconnected to this world that he didn’t quite fit in.  Every aspect of his life had to be special fitted for him, from his clothes to his cutlery to his cars.

Towards the end of Andre’s career he was in a lot of pain. People said he probably should have retired and he could have, financially, but instead he persevered.  I think this is what I admire most about him.  I think those moments when he was in the ring creating stories were extremely important to him and really made him happy.  I hope one day when I’m nearing the end I continue to persevere and create the way Andre did. 


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Guest Blogger: Michael Connelly

The Gods of GuiltDefense attorney Mickey Haller returns with a haunting case in the gripping new thriller from best-selling author Michael Connelly.

In my new novel, The Gods of Guilt, the Lincoln lawyer Mickey Haller likens the practice of law to juggling chain saws: It can be dangerous, especially if you catch it by the wrong end. I think writing a novel is the same way. There are many pitfalls. You have to be careful and steady with your juggling. Still, every book is a challenge in its own way, and those challenges are set by the juggler himself. So there is no use complaining about it. If you want to take the easy route, then juggle marshmallows.
When I wrote The Gods of Guilt, I think I went with chainsaws. I gave myself a challenge that probably nobody would notice but myself. I just wanted to see if I could pull it off.

First of all, I wanted the book to function as an entertaining legal thriller with lots of intrigue, courtroom drama, and subterfuge. I wanted a few surprises too, including the death of a secondary character that the reader wouldn’t see coming. None of that was really secret in terms of the structure of the book. They were needed ingredients and difficult enough to juggle and keep in the air. The secret agenda I added was with regard to two of the main characters. While functioning as a fast-moving thriller, the book’s true center revolves around the relationship between Mickey Haller and his 16-year-old daughter, Hayley. I wanted that strained relationship to be the engine that drives Mickey’s choices and desires through the book. The book is, after all, called The Gods of Guilt. I wanted Mickey to be operating from a standpoint of seeking redemption in his daughter’s eyes, and if he succeeded, then he would save the relationship that means so much to him and ease the guilt that weighs him down as the story begins.

But here’s the catch—or, I should say, the challenge. I did not want Mickey and Hayley to have a single exchange of dialogue in the book, let alone meet face-to-face. I thought this was necessary, at least in the first half of the book, to underscore how deep the rift was between this father and daughter and how difficult it would be to bridge the gap. I wanted Mickey’s efforts to reach out and to explain his actions to be unrequited. I wanted his phone calls to go unanswered, his texts unreturned. When the centerpiece trial got underway, I wanted Mickey to turn from the defense table to look for his daughter in the public gallery, only to see she was not there.

I hope you pay attention to this as you read my novel. I know there is one scene where Mickey watches his daughter from afar, and another off the page where Hayley visits without Mickey really knowing it—you’ll understand what that means if you read the book. You’ll then be able to decide if the challenge was successfully met, and if it was the right choice. Can the father-daughter relationship be the true center of the book if the two principles never talk to one another on the page? You be the judge.

— Michael Connelly

Q&A with Rainbow Rowell, author of "Eleanor & Park"

Eleanor & ParkEleanor & Park, Rainbow Rowell’s YA debut, is the story of two star-crossed misfits—smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try. Eleanor & Park is already a favorite among best-selling authors; Gayle Forman calls it “A sexy, smart romance” and John Green said “Eleanor & Park reminded me not just what it’s like to be young and in love with a girl, but also what it’s like to be young and in love with a book.”

What inspired you to write a misfits-in-love story like Eleanor & Park

I have always, always wanted to write a first love story. I feel like, when you’re 16, you have the greatest-ever capacity for romantic love. You fall in love with every cell of your body. But, at the same time, at that age, you have so little to offer the person you love. You don’t belong to yourself quite yet—you still have school and your parents, you don’t even have your own space…

And you also know that what you’re feeling probably won’t last. First love usually doesn’t. There’s a built-in tragedy to falling (truly) in love when you’re 16. It’s like every 16-year-old in love is either Romeo or Juliet. That is what I wanted to write about.

Eleanor & Park covers a lot of ground, from difficult family situations to the way music can open up a new world. But most of all, it’s about first love. Is that what you set out to write about?

My motivation was to make people actually feel love, to give them a realistic view of it. If they’re young and never been in love, for them to know – yes, this is how it feels. And if they’re older and they have, to feel it as a sense memory.

Eleanor and Park don’t necessarily look like conventional YA main characters – Eleanor is bullied because of her weight, and Park is smaller and the only Asian kid in the neighborhood. What was your thought process behind creating them that way?

Well, they’re not conventional in that they don’t look like the models that usually end up on teen magazine and book covers. But who does look like that? Nobody I’ve ever been attracted to.

I think the whole idea of conventional beauty and attractiveness is a lie. You can say that Ryan Gosling is handsome, or that Natalie Portman is beautiful. But does it matter? When you look at the person you love, you see that person in a way no one else can. Attraction is what happens between you. 

Eleanor and Park were both attractive to me; when I was writing this book, I was half in love with both of them.

Your first book, Attachments, was an adult novel -- why switch to young adult now?

I didn't do it consciously. This was just the story I wanted to tell next -- the only story in my head, at the time -- and I didn't even realize that Eleanor & Park would be YA, at first. But once I started working through that with my editor, it felt like a good fit. I've always read a lot of YA, and I'm drawn to movies and TV shows about teenagers. (Freaks and Geeks is my all-time favorite.) I think maybe I'm still trying to process everything I felt/saw/survived from 13 to 20.

What can you tell us about your upcoming book Fangirl?

It’s about a girl who doesn’t think she’s good at life—but she’s really good at being a fan. She feels more comfortable in fandom. She’s been writing fan fiction about the same two characters—Simon and Baz—since she was 12, and she’s gotten kind of famous in that world. 

The book is about her first year of college. She’s got a mean roommate (with a too-friendly boyfriend). Her twin sister’s ignoring her, her dad’s a mess, her writing professor is pushing her too hard…She keeps having to rise to the occasion, but all she really wants to do is stay in her room and write more Simon/Baz.

Also, she falls in love. (Because, in my books, somebody always falls in love.)


10 Best Kindle Books of October, 2012

Best-of-month top banner

Our editors' picks this month include mothers and sons, terrorists on the run, novels ranging from heartwarming to bone-chilling, and more great choices for every reader as the days get shorter and crisper.

Introducing our selections for the Best Books of October:


 The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe

The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe


Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis by Timothy Egan

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher--The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis by Timothy Egan

The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden by Mark Bowden

The Finish--The Killing of Osama Bin Laden by Mark Bowden

The Round House by Louise Erdrich

The Round House by Louise Erdrich


Live by Night by Dennis Lehane

Live by Night by Dennis Lehane


The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg

The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg


The News from Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story by Joan Wickersham

The News from Spain--Seven Variations on a Love Story by Joan Wickersham

Muck City: Winning and Losing in Football's Forgotten Town by Bryan Mealer

Muck City--Winning and Losing in Football's Forgotten Town by Bryan Mealer


Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe

  Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe


May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Holmes

May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Holmes

Guest Blogger: Robin Sloan, author of "Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore"

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour BookstoreSo I think this is the place to finally write down the story I've told in person a hundred times--about the origins of my new novel, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, and the unexpected inspirations that led me to it.

I got my first Kindle in late 2008. At the time, my writing was almost 100% for the web. I loved the way ideas could spread and mutate there...but I was increasingly aware of the tradeoffs, too. My browser had a minimum of twenty tabs open at any given time. Very few things ever received my full attention --and so, I reasoned, very few of my words ever got anyone else's.

When I got my first Kindle that winter, the thing that really struck me was the screen. It didn't look like a computer. It was matte and dun-colored, like paper; it didn't glow at all, not one bit; and--most strikingly--there were no scrollbars, no tabs, no toolbars. In short: no distractions. When I looked at text on this screen, it seemed to exist in a realm apart from the web, a realm with different rules. It required and received a different quality of attention.

Suddenly, I wanted to put text of my own on that screen. So, the Kindle itself was my first inspiration.

One of the wonderful things about the web is the culture of sharing your struggles. Very often, when someone has wrestled with some problem or some process--making a soufflé! reprogramming the router!--they'll write up what they learned and post it, knowing that others will find it and perhaps save themselves some trouble.

Well, back in 2009, after the screenwriter John August released a short story in the Kindle Store, he wrote up a Kindle publishing tutorial to go with it. That tutorial was my second inspiration, because it convinced me I could, in fact, put some words on that screen myself. As soon as I finished August's tutorial, I opened a blank text file and started to build my own e-book.

I spent all my spare moments in the first few months of 2009 writing a short story and, at the same time, coding it up for the Kindle. I would rewrite a section, tweak the formatting, reload it on my Kindle... then make more tweaks and reload it again. And again. And again. Finally, in June, it was done. There were even a couple of illustrations. When I published it in the Kindle Store, I wasn't sure what to expect, but regardless, I was happy. It was satisfying to see the story --called Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore--on my own Kindle's little screen.

As it turned out, Penumbra found an audience. It was a story with one foot in the world of books and old secrets, and the other in the world of technology and new possibilities... and it turns out there are a lot of readers standing in pretty much the same place these days. The story struck a nerve. I heard from people who were excited about the premise. So I kept writing.

Today, a little over three years later, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is a full-length novel from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, available in both physical and electronic editions. I love the physical book deeply -- the jacket glows in the dark! -- but I will always have a special fondness for the e-book, too. Because that's where this story began.

Now. The truth is, when it comes to the web's culture of sharing, I haven't held up my end of the bargain; I haven't posted my own tutorial yet. For now, this post will have to suffice. And when some new writer goes searching for Kindle tips, maybe she'll find this -- and at least she'll know it's possible to go from a blank text file to a full-length novel that glows in the dark.

--Robin Sloan

October's Kindle Books for $3.99 or Less

For great books at a low price, browse this month's 100 Kindle books for $3.99 or less, a diverse offering available all month. These deals expire on October 31, 2012. Here's a selection of our favorites from October's great collection:


Literature & Fiction 

When It Happens to You: A Novel in Stories by Molly Ringwald, $3.99

When It Happens to You--A Novel in Stories by Molly Ringwald

General Nonfiction 

All New Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew, $2.99

  All New Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew

Kids & Teens 

The Secret Zoo by Bryan Chick, $1.99

  The Secret Zoo by Bryan Chick

Mysteries & Thrillers

77 Days in September by Ray Gorham, $1.99

  77 Days in September by Ray Gorham


Wild Montana Sky (The Montana Sky Series) by Debra Holland, $1.99

  Wild Montana Sky (The Montana Sky Series) by Debra Holland

Science Fiction & Fantasy 

American Gods: The Tenth Anniversary Edition (Enhanced Edition) by Neil Gaiman, $3.99

American Gods--The Tenth Anniversary Edition (Enhanced Edition) by Neil Gaiman

Biography & Memoir 

The Master of Disguise: My Secret Life in the CIA by Antonio J. Mendez, $0.99

The Master of Disguise--My Secret Life in the CIA by Antonio J. Mendez

Guest Blogger: Dennis Lehane, on "Live by Night"

Live by NightThis is a guest post from Dennis Lehane about the inspiration for his "gangster novel," Live by Night.

I split my time between Boston and Tampa–St. Petersburg because my wife and snow don’t get along. One Sunday morning last year, I went to meet a friend in the Ybor City section of Tampa and arrived early. I killed time by walking around aimlessly and in a bad mood because I wanted to write a gangster novel and I couldn’t figure out how.

Back when I was eight or so, I spent several Saturday evenings watching the Jimmy Cagney Double Feature on Channel 38 in Boston with my uncle, and it set the hook in me. The problem, however, with writing a gangster story—at least for me—is that Boston was relatively quiet during the Prohibition era. I have zero idea why this was—we’re on the eastern seaboard, we’re pretty close to Canada, we’ve got a bit of history when it comes to gangsters doing gangster stuff, but for some reason, Boston spent a lot of the Roaring Twenties meowing. The other issue that gave me pause was that, as a genre, the gangster story has been done a lot. Or at least part of it has—the whiskey part. Whiskey came in from Canada and so when you think of all the great gangster novels or movies, or nowwith Boardwalk Empire—gangster TV, you’re usually thinking of the whiskey trade and the cities that came to embody its illegal import—such as Chicago, Detroit, Kansas City, New York, Atlantic City.

The illegal rum trade, however, was not something I’d seen explored in much depth. Rum came into the U.S. in a few ways—often it came in from the Leeward or Windward Islands or Jamaica, and reached American soil somewhere between Key West and Miami. Or, just as often, it came from Cuba and crossed the Florida Straits to Miami. But once the authorities got hip to that, a lot of loads got lost. So what was the enterprising bootlegger to do?

Ship the rum to Tampa.

With the exception of one touristy section of Sacred, I’ve never written about Tampa–St. Pete. Part of the reason is because I’m an urban writer. I write about cities. Old cities with old architecture and long memories. Part of St. Petersburg’s appeal for me, as a person, is that it’s not old and it’s not crowded. Traffic flows, parking spaces are easy to come by, all the buildings have central air conditioning. But as a writer, I’m fascinated by industrial things and crumbling things that have a history. They don’t wait for things to crumble in Florida; as soon as the paint begins to peel; they knock the building down and build a Hooters over the grave.

Except in Ybor City. Ybor is sometimes referred to (though never by locals) as Tampa’s Latin Quarter. Tampa is right across the Bay from St. Pete. During college, I misspent a few nights in Ybor because that’s where all the cool Indy clubs were. From the first time I saw it, I thought, Baby New Orleans. It’s a neighborhood of beaux-arts buildings and wrought iron terraces, stately oaks that drip Spanish moss, faded red brick walls and casitas, and small shotgun shacks where the cigar factory workers lived back when cigar manufacturing was the city’s main industry. What struck me about Ybor as I walked through it that quiet Sunday morning was how nothing had changed. Remove the Priuses and the SUVs from the streets and replace them with Model Ts and Hudson Super Sixes and you would immediately be transported to 1925.

Speaking of 1925, Ybor is where rum entered the U.S. from Cuba. How did they get it in? Well, first they bribed everyone they could. And then they built tunnels. At sea level. (A fact that I still can’t wrap my head around.) Every now and then, to this day, someone knocks down a building on the edge of Ybor and finds remnants of a tunnel. They’d run the booze or molasses in through the tunnels, distill it, if need be, in the rooms behind the restaurants, drugstores, or barbershops, then truck it across the state to Jacksonville and run it up the eastern seaboard.

Here, I thought, on that quiet Sunday morning in Ybor, is the story and the city I was looking for. Here is my gangster novel.

--Dennis Lehane