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Q&A: Lesbians on the Staircase – An Interview with Sarah Waters

English novelist Sarah Waters was in New Zealand this week as a guest of the Christchurch WORD literary festival, and promoting her latest novel The Paying Guests.

You’ve said of your latest book: “I’ve never really written a love story before.” Can you expand on that? Are your previous novels more sort of romps than romances, do you mean?

No, I didn’t mean that. Tipping the Velvet is certainly a bit of a romp, but I wouldn’t use that term for any of the others. What I meant was that, even though most of my earlier novels have love and desire as motivating elements of the narrative, none of them is a love story in the sense of following a single relationship sort of from start to finish, perhaps through a series of obstacles or trials. But that’s what The Paying Guests does. The very dramatic things that happen in it are interesting (I hope) in their own right, but what I was really fascinated by was the effect they had on Frances’s and Lilian’s relationship – the pressure they would put on it. I wanted the reader to care enough about Frances and Lilian to hope that their love would succeed, yet understand why it might buckle.

It’s kind of inspired by the 1922 true-crime of Thompson and Baywater. Can you identify just say one or two dynamics of that tryst which were behind the writing of your book?

Yes indeed. The Thompson and Bywaters case (in which Edith Thompson’s male lover, Freddie Bywaters, murdered her husband, with the result that both lovers were hanged, even though Edith herself had technically played no part in the killing) was the sort of horribly tragic one with which we can all, I think, identify just a little bit: a muddle of passion and fatal misjudgement, which made extraordinary figures out of three otherwise rather ordinary people. I was drawn to the idea of life being knocked into chaos like that, by a single nightmarish error. And I was struck by the heterosexuality of the triangle – the husband, wife and male lover. How, I wondered, would such a scenario play out if the lover was female instead of male? The answer, it seemed to me, was: very interestingly indeed.

I gather that the staircase features heavily in The Paying Guests. Strange to think of the importance of staircases in fiction; it’s there in The End of the Affair by Graham Greene, for example, as somewhere that sex and longing takes place, and characters in Brideshead Revisited are forever swooping up and down the stairs. What kind of moods and events are associated with the staircase in Paying Guests?

The novel is about the sharing of spaces, the crossing of thresholds – at first with awkwardness, as Frances and her mother open their home to strangers; then with excitement, as Frances and Lilian embark on their illicit affair; finally with danger and dreadful fear. So lots of the significant action in the novel takes place in liminal zones like the hall, the landing and, yes, the staircase. Staircases are scary when you’re a child, aren’t they? And in haunted houses, ghosts often appear on staircases. They’re a place, I suppose, where we make ourselves vulnerable – a place with no door, that can’t be defended.

The thing about the two novels I just mentioned is that no one in the so-called lower classes ever even appears on the staircase, or anywhere really. It’s almost like there’s a secret society of servant girls. Does your book sort of explore a secret history of women?

Well, of course, in larger houses servants would have had their own staircases – drab and narrow and not at all like the ones out front. And no, you don’t tend to get that backstairs life portrayed in classic fiction – or if you do, it’s in the form (as in Brideshead) of loyal old nannies, semi-comical ‘family treasures’. This is frustrating, but also tantalising: just what were those invisible maidservant getting up to? We have a sort of duty to imagine it. So, yes, much of my fiction has been motivated by a desire to bring those occluded stories to life. It’s partly a class thing, partly a gender thing. Even middle-class women’s stories are rather hidden from us, because so much of them took place in the domestic sphere, behind the closed door of historical record. I want, as it were, to get inside the knicker drawer.

The setting is between the wars, but of course the characters are only aware that there’s been a war – no one can see into the future. How does the post-war mood of the times affect the characters in The Paying Guests?

Actually, there seems to have been quite a general gloomy understanding, in this period, that a second war was not far away. Politically, the Great War had just left so much unresolved, on such a massive scale: the world felt horribly unstable and full of conflict (rather like our own world, it often seemed to me as I was writing the novel). For Frances, that’s rather enervating: she can’t bear to see yet another piece of bad news in the paper; she would rather darn a stocking, which at least she feels she can do well. But once she has fallen in love with Lilian, her attitude changes: the two of them have a chance, she believes, to live a decent, honest life, and a responsibility to do it – a responsibility to live ‘truly’, in a world full of ‘sham’. I could see this combination of impulses everywhere in this period: disillusionment and exhaustion all mixed up with a sort of hectic excitement about the possibility of change.

Can you choose and share a sentence from a sex scene in the book which gives you particular joy?

‘I’m all over wet,’ Lilian says, in amazement, during an encounter in a darkened scullery. I’m very fond of that. 

The most scorned novel in recent years is 50 Shades. I wonder if a lot of the reaction was down to snobbery. It sold incredibly well so readers obviously responded to it; have you had a read and if so, what do you make of it?

Yes, I read Fifty Shades: my partner and I read it on holiday in Greece a few years ago. And perhaps you are right about the snobbery: I think I would have felt a bit embarrassed getting hold of it in London, but buying it from a beach shop, along with some ouzo and a pack of ‘Cats of Greece’ playing cards, felt absolutely fine. What to say about it, though? The sexual politics are dismaying, and the prose style is a bit ghastly, and as for all the hanky panky – I was more distressed by the fact that she cleans her teeth with his toothbrush. Yuk!

English authors Helen Macdonald and Nick Davies were touring NZ this year when the British election result was announced. They felt sick as dogs. Were you sickened too?

I was more stunned than sickened: it had seemed, in the weeks and days leading up to the election, as though the result would be really energising – perhaps not an outright win for Labour, but certainly a fascinating jockeying for coalition power-sharing. But the Tory win was a closing-down of all that – really, it was just like a shutter coming rattling down. A portcullis. I just couldn’t believe it. I felt furious with the Tories, but furious with voters too. I sort of lost interest for a while. Like Frances, above, I just wanted to go off and darn a sock or something.

New Zealand author Anna Smaill has been longlisted for the Booker. You’ve gone from the longlist to the shortlist with three of your books. Do you remember the wait? Is it excruciating? Do you have any advice for Anna before next Tuesday’s announcement?

It is a bit excruciating, yes. It’s one of those situations – actually, a bit like an election – where in the run-up to the event there are two possible, very different futures ahead of you; then the announcement is made, and suddenly there’s only one. The other one has just evaporated, just like that. You think, ‘Oh. Ok, then.’ And you go back to doing what you were doing before, but feeling a bit sheepish. Sorry, that isn’t advice, is it? My advice to any writer in this situation would be: enjoy being in the long list, it’s a brilliant achievement! If you get on the short list, enjoy that too. And if you don’t – well, at least you don’t have to deal with the glare of attention that goes with it, which can be horribly draining.

Patricia Highsmith’s famous lesbian novel Carol is republished later this year. Have you ever read that, or any of Highsmith? I’ve always thought of her as one of the most misogynist novelists I’ve ever read – she’s always bumping off women characters, and rewarding their murderers. Fantastic writer though.

I’m a huge Highsmith fan. I love Carol (or The Price of Salt, as us older card-carrying lesbians refer to it), but I particularly adore The Talented Mr Ripley. If I could have written a classic novel, it would be either du Maurier’s Rebecca or The Talented Mr Ripley. Yes, Highsmith was a complicated character. (The US author Glen David Gold was once menaced by her ghost at a writers’ retreat – you should ask him about it.) Would I call her a misogynist? I don’t know. Ripley doesn’t ever kill women, does he? – not that that’s the only form misogyny can take… By the way, The Talented Mr Ripley has a great staircase scene. I went back and looked at it, while I was writing The Paying Guests. I had remembered it lasting ages, but Highsmith was such an economical writer – it really only lasts for a page or two.

The hotel rooms of New Zealand for an author on tour: are they a special hell?

Certainly not: my hotel room here in Christchurch (at the Orari B&B, if you’re interested) has been delightful. But hotel-room living does get you down after a while. One of my favourite novels is Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black, about a stage medium who travels around the UK doing shows. There’s lots of comedy about the awful hotels she finds herself in – the relentless chintzy decor, only chamomile tea bags left, etc. I can only think that Mantel, like me, must have done just a bit too much author touring…


The Paying Guests is out now through Hachette New Zealand RRP$27.99

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