Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Cowardice and Courage with Sarah Waters

“Cowardice and courage,” in Sarah Waters’ own words, is what interested her when writing her latest novel, The Paying Guests. Set in 1920s London, England, the novel follows the fortunes of the widowed Mrs. Wray and her daughter Frances, whose comfortable lives have been shaken by the aftermath of the Great War. Their reduced circumstances oblige them to take in lodgers (the titular “paying guests,” a contradiction in terms which, as the author quipped, is an example of a great British euphemism) to maintain the home that is both Frances’ birthright and burden.


Speaking to a sizable gathering at Knox Presbyterian Church on Sunday night, the award-winning author was reunited with CBC’s Sandra Abma who previously interviewed Waters five years ago after the release of the best-selling The Little Stranger. Clearly a fan of Waters’ back catalogue, Abma’s easy rapport with the author and audience made for a warm, welcoming atmosphere while her attempts to quash spoilers were met with rippling laughter from the crowd. This proved difficult at times for a book that Abma described as “maybe not a thriller, but thrilling” from an author known for “gripping tales, page turners” that are meticulously researched. Following this glowing introduction, Waters shared with the audience an early passage from her novel which not only provided a glimpse of Frances’ character but hinted at some of the broader themes of the text. A fluid, engaging reader, Waters brought to life the imagery present on the page, making listeners eager for the next chapter and the next.


Afterward, in conversation with Abma, Waters discussed her interest in the 1920s, a time period of which she previously had had only superficial knowledge (that of flappers, jazz, and the like) and which was bookended by her understanding of the Victorian era and the 1940s, time periods visited in her earlier novels. She discovered a world very much in flux, one still reeling from the end of the First World War, visible in the former soldiers begging on the streets and a broader absence of men, killed at the Front. It was, as Waters described it, a “world newly unsafe” and drew parallels with the anxieties present in contemporary life. Yet, as “unhappy” or “tired” of a time it was, the 1920s also brought with it a new informality, evident foremost in clothing and changes to hemlines, as well as a new modernity, from the widespread electrification of households to the rapid adoption of the automobile. Against such a backdrop, too, was a renegotiation of gender roles as men and women adjusted to some of the freedoms gained by women during the war. All of this proved compelling for Waters.


As Waters immersed herself in the research, it became evident that she had no wish to write about high society. Rather it was the suburbs that interested her, as well as issues of class, freedom, and people who on the surface seemed ordinary but would be “capable of great passion.” While drawing on newspapers, novels, maps, and material history still present on walks around London, Waters’ found her greatest inspiration in collections of British criminal trials, specifically the 1922 Edith Thompson murder trial, in which Mrs. Thompson conspired with her lover to murder her husband. The trial at the time attracted significant public interest, in large part, Waters theorized, because it highlighted anxieties around the shifting role of women at the time. Describing this and other trials as reading “like crime fiction,” Waters revealed that not only did such documents help shape her novel’s plot, they also proved an incredibly valuable resource for domestic details and the anecdote she shared about a pair of false teeth was met with resounding laughter from the crowd.


As most of Waters’ novels, with the exception of The Little Stranger, feature lesbian characters, the author also talked at length about writing historical fiction that sheds a light on the gay experience. She wondered aloud whether she is “recovering lost histories” or, as one of her more memorable reviewers wrote, providing a “queer retrofitting of a classic car,” which provoked more laughter from the audience. She noted that in her work she has never been particularly interested in writing about homophobia but rather how people lived with their sexuality and sexual desires. Later, when addressing her reputation for including rather salacious scenes in her novels, she laughingly deflected the charge but conceded that “desire is a wonderful narrative engine.”


Widely known for her historical fiction, much of the conversation during Q&A focused on Waters’ research and writing process. The Paying Guests, she shared, was a challenging book to write, especially compared to The Little Stranger which she found to be mostly straightforward once she had the ending clear in her mind. Her newest novel in comparison required endless rewriting, the results of which she actually stacked up and measured – an eye-watering 34 inches of discarded drafts. The difficulty, she revealed, was getting the tone just right. When asked if she might write a novel in the contemporary world, she said that as she evolves as a writer and becomes more interested in the craft of writing, she is becoming more open to the idea of setting a novel in the present and seeing what might emerge. Based on the audience reception, no doubt her next novel will also be snapped up, regardless of the time period in which it is set.