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'Guests' Is A Story Of Mystery, Manners And Dramatic Love


We have a new novel just out. It's called "The Paying Guests" by novelist Sarah Waters. She's written a number of historical novels. This one is set in the immediate post-World War I period in London. It's the '20s. Almost all the people in the book are women learning to live in hard times. The book is part romance, part mystery and manners. And it features a dramatic love affair between two women. Sarah Waters is in Seattle at KUOW on a book tour. And she joins us now. Welcome to the program.

SARAH WATERS: Thank you. Thank you. It's lovely to be here.

WERTHEIMER: So could you perhaps tell us who the paying guests are in the book, and maybe tell us what paying guests are?

WATERS: Well, paying guest is a phrase and a concept that pops up quite a lot in British '20s fiction. You know, this was a world that had been through many changes, and not least of which was that the middle classes and the upper middle classes had sort of lost income in this period.

And so lots of them had been obliged to open up their homes to, basically, lodgers. The euphemistic term was a paying guest. So it was a genteel way of making a bit of extra cash.

In this novel, the paying guests are Leonard and Lilian Barber. They're a lower middle class couple who move in, really, as lodgers within a house that belongs to Frances Ray and her mother. And in come Leonard and Lilian Barber to sort of shake things up. And the novel is very much about the entangling of their two lives.

WERTHEIMER: You write about how much in each other's pockets these people are living. The Ray's are very aware of the physical presence of strangers in their house. They write about noises, about footsteps, about listening for them to come and go. It's very claustrophobic. And feels very sort of, you know, like a bunch of women locked in a room together. Are we sort of watching social change take place on a very tiny stage?

WATERS: Yes, we are. And that's part of the thing, I think, appeals to me about writing about houses. You know, they're often a microcosm of larger social changes.

WERTHEIMER: It's a novel about class, but I guess the central story is the love story between the two women - although the women are well aware that their families and friends might not approve, might not understand.

This is not a novel about people who feel that they are different, and they're being crushed by society. They fall in love. And you describe the moment when they suddenly realize that there is a considerable attraction between them. And you use a very interesting sort of a domestic illustration, I must say. I thought it was really interesting, charming - a cooking thing, right? You know what I'm talking about?

WATERS: That's right.


WATERS: I do know what you're talking about. I can probably recall it. It's Francis that says that - they're smiling at each other, and then suddenly there's a shift between them - a sort of small but significant shift. And she can think of nothing to compare it with - some small domestic thing. And she talks about when you're stirring a white sauce in the pan and suddenly there's that moment when the white sauce thickens in the pan.

And, yes, I was very pleased to find that image. Both because, you know, it's exactly those subtle shifts that happen in life that can send us in, you know, in rather thrilling new directions. And also because France's life at this point is a very domestic one and lots of her imagery is necessarily domestic. And of course, you know, most women's lives over the years have been pretty domestic which is why I wanted to tell this particular story.

WERTHEIMER: Did you have to do a lot of research about what life might have been like for gay people in the '20s in London?

WATERS: Yes. I mean, I've been interested in lesbian and gay history for a long time. Before I ever started writing fiction, I had done a PhD thesis looking partly at lesbian and gay life since the late 19th century onward.

So I have quite a good grounding in it. And, I mean, just to touch on something you said before, I've never wanted to write about characters dealing with homophobia, exactly. I think - we can sometimes look at the past and think, oh, it must've been terrible for these gay people. You know, it was nothing but hardship. It was nothing but oppression.

And of course there have been serious problems for people trying to love and live together - of the same sex - people, I mean. At times, you know, that have been unfriendly toward the idea of homosexuality. The '20s is a really interesting time because I think that was beginning to change in the UK. People were beginning to talk more openly about homosexuality. Even someone like Daphne du Maurier, for example. We know from biographies of her now that she and her two sisters all had significant lesbian relationships in their lives.

But for "The Paying Guests," I felt like I could draw on the histories we know that are there and then imagine a particular story for Frances and Lily, you know, with their particular issues.

WERTHEIMER: Now there is a murder at the center of the book. And there is also a courtroom drama. We haven't talked very much about it because I sort of feel maybe we shouldn't give too much away. I noticed that you credit the authors of a number of true crime books when you thank the people who helped you with this book. Was there an inspiration for this book - a true crime event in England?

WATERS: There was, indeed, actually. A lower middle class woman, Edith Thompson, who was unhappily married, having an affair with a younger man, Freddie Bywaters, to whom she sent lots of letters over a period of months detailing her unhappiness and her kind of sexual confidence and her love for him. And also, criminally, or very stupidly, flirting with the idea of murdering her husband, Percy. Eventually, there was a scuffle on the street. Freddie stabbed her husband to death, and the police put them both on trial.

So I mean, what - you know, this case gripped the nation, and it really kind of gripped me really for all its inherent drama. And I began to think, well, you know, what would happen here if the lover was a female? And that's all it took really for - to spark off the story.

So "The Paying Guests" isn't in any sense a retelling of Edith Thompson's story, but the dynamics of her story were definitely my starting point for this book.

WERTHEIMER: So what do you think - I mean, how should we identify this book? Is it a love story? Is it a crime novel? Is it a lesbian novel? Is it all of those?

WATERS: I think it's all of those. And I'm very happy to let it be different things, you know, because one thing I was very certain about when I was writing this book - there is a crime at the center.

I don't if we can even really call it a murder, but there's definitely an incident at the heart of this novel that has catastrophic results for the people involved in it. So "The Paying Guests," for me, I wanted it to be lifelike in the sense that Frances and Lilian for the - you know, the first third or more of the book think they're in one kind of story, we think maybe they're in one kind of story, until suddenly things are knocked off balance.

And, yes, then the novel does plunge into a sort of crime story territory with its court room scenes and things. It plunges into melodrama in a sense, but, you know, lives are knocked into melodrama sometimes I think.

WERTHEIMER: Sarah Water's newest book is called "The Paying Guests." Sarah Waters, thank you very much.

WATERS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.