The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

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This is the latest novel from prize winning Sarah Waters. A taut and nail biting thriller it explores the effect that the arrival of two paying guests, Leonard and Lily Barber, have on the household of Frances Wray and her mother. it is 1922 and ,reeling from the after effects of World War One, the upper-middle class Wrays find themselves in reduced circumstances and forced to take in lodgers ‘ from the clerk class’.

The novel was published on 28th August and the Stylist magazine hosted a special book club event with Sarah Waters to discuss the book. At the outset Waters conceded that this was a very difficult book to discuss without giving away spoilers and so ,rather than a  book review  , I have decided to post a review of that evening in which she talked about her influences and her writing process.


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The event was held at the very upmarket Rosewood hotel in Holborn , central London. In fact, by coincidence, this building used to be the Pearl Assurance offices, which is where Leonard Barber goes to work each day and Waters also explained that right next door at that time was the Holborn Music Hall where Frances and her friend Christina go for a night out during the course of the story.

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Waters explained that she is interested in London’s history and enjoys walking through the city looking at buildings and landmarks. In fact, the characters she feels closest too in her books are those who walk around London on routes she takes and notice what she notices. She has always been fascinated by Champion Hill in Camberwell, where Frances and her mother live ,as it is a little island of upper-middle class gentility in a predominantly working class sea.

 She chose the early Twenties to set the novel as this was a particularly fascinating period in which society was still very much living in the shadow of WW1. There were a lot of challenges to the structure of everyday life, particularly for women. She is also interested in the ability in families not to say things to each other and to ignore or talk round difficult subjects.

In order to start thinking herself into the period she read the novelists of the day – Virginia Woolf, D H Lawrence and Aldous Huxley. These helped her to get a sense of period but all these writers chose more upper class and bohemian  characters  whilst she knew she wanted to write about ordinary peoples lives. The best window into the every day lives at this time, she found, were the celebrated murder trials of the day. In particular Notable British Trials contains court transcripts in which you can hear the commonplace voices of the time and get an idea of how regular households were arranged.

Next she came up with the house, which is almost a character in itself,and then used  the classic scenario of a stranger arriving to upset things. She read newspapers from that period as well as cookery books and fashion magazines to get a sense of the smells and the sounds of the times. The way that people negotiate personal space and how that has changed over time has always fascinated her. In The Paying Guests there are a lot of half heard conversations through walls and chance meetings on the stairs.

The first half of the book crackles with unresolved feelings . Waters explained rather self-mockingly  that she had always thought the URST ( unresolved sexual tension) of romance fiction was not a device she would employ. She then read us an extract starting at p191 in the novel in which the URST positively leapt off the page. In the second part of the novel, however, there is a change of mood when duty and guilt begin to complicate passion and Waters found herself searching for new ways to describe fear.

Waters was asked to name her top three books. Firstly she chose Anna Karenina which figures in her novel as both Lily and Frances become fascinated with the story. In Waters view this is often pigeon-holed as a difficult book when in fact it is more of a soap opera, funny and tragic at the same time. Next she recommended Virginia Woolf’s diaries. These are very witty and insightful, they were very much on her mind when writing The Paying Guests. Finally she chose Katherine Mansfield’s letters. She thought the letters were in fact better then Mansfield’s fiction which, in her view , is a little uneven. They provide an intimate look at the fascinating life of an unusual personality.

As a writer, Waters is extremely disciplined. She aims to write 1,000 words per day and she always makes herself do it. Until the run up to publication, she approaches her writing as a job and works from about 8.30 am to 4.00pm Monday to Friday. Some of that time will be writing and some will be research which can just be reading a novel from the period or a newspaper. Towards the end of a book, however, the writing becomes all consuming. At the end of this novel she found all she was doing was writing and watching episodes of Breaking Bad ! She is now on a writing break and taking the time she read, think and go to the theatre and exhibitions.

Her advice to any aspiring writers in the audience was simple………..just do it! Don’t sit around waiting for inspiration to strike, you must carve out a space for it. Whilst a first novel is often a labour of love you have to approach continuing like a job. She revealed that she always feels awful on a Monday morning and has long period of agony and frustration.

She was asked about her favourite of her own novels. She found that a very difficult question to answer . Tipping The Velvet had been very good for her and she enjoyed the TV adaptation in which she appeared as an extra. She re read it recently, the only one of her books she has re read , and found it to be ‘ a complete mess’.Perhaps her favourite is The Paying Guests because she found it more difficult to write than any of the others . In fact the first half was rewritten countless times. There were several scenes that caused particular difficulty, some were excluded altogether in the final draft and some although kept she still does not feel entirely happy with. In the original draft, she revealed, there was lots more sex but this she found slowed the narrative down. Its important to her for a novel to tell a story and her very favourite writers are ones that can create suspense and intrigue with a serious agenda……Daphne du Maurier and Patricia Highsmith came to mind.

This a was a fantastic evening. Sarah Water was an engaging and witty guest. In my own view The Paying Guests is her best novel yet full of suspense and surprises.

My thanks to Susan de Soissons and Virago for the advance copy.