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Mr B's welcomes to the stage..Sarah Waters!

Tuesday 9th Sep 2014

Danielle Culling

Mr B's welcomes to the stage..Sarah Waters!

Working at a Mr B's event is always thrilling, but when it is one of your own favourite authors appearing it feels almost like you should be paying for the privilege, especially when they turn out to be such a delight as Sarah Waters. The night began with The Bookshop Band serenading the packed out church to a new song inspired by The Paying Guests, setting the scene with a reading from the novel that made the lyrics connect and hairs stand on end. 

The band then handed over to our esteemed chair for the night, Suzi Feay, and as literary editor of the Independent on Sunday for 11 years we couldn’t really ask for better! 

Sarah took to the stage and started to fill us in on her writing process, an interesting insight to all of us who day dream about penning our great novel. She described her relationship to each book as being intensely personal while she is writing, until she gradually feels that she can pass it on to a select few close friends and her partner. This will then turn into a sudden shift of wanting it out there in the world, luckily for us!
The Paying Guests was different to her previous novels, usually beginning with the plot, here she changed things around being much more character driven. Sarah confessed to flicking through her writing diary and spotting the entry ‘don’t EVER start a novel again where you don’t know where it is going!’ One aspect of the novel was great fun to work on however; loving suspense herself it was a treat working out how to conjure this up for the reader, just as she enjoyed working out how to scare us all with The Little Stranger.

The 1920’s is a new period to be visited by Sarah, and she found it a veritable gold mine to write about, being a bridge between the previous time settings in past novels. I could have listened to her talk all evening about her research, as she explained what a hinge period the 20’s were, the first decade becoming modern in a way that would be recognisable to us now. With massive changes in women’s lives after gaining the right to vote and freeing their bodies as the binds of corsets were cast off. It was a very different experience for men, when they were originally setting off for war there was a great feeling of confidence. Contrast this to the feeling coming back and the realities of moving on in life led to dissatisfaction between the sexes, a very gendered moment in history.

To really get into the lives of those at the time Sarah used a wealth of resources, from newspapers to novels. What stood out immediately was the Edith Thompson murder trial in 1922, which she read into extensively, becoming fascinated as to how the dynamic of a case like this would change if the perpetrators were two women instead of a man and woman. With the strongly held beliefs about female relationships at the time she realised it would render one of the women ‘invisible’ as such, a twist that would prove a great plot devise.  Modern technology proved its worth when it came to the finer but equally important details such as the clothes. These play a much more important role in The Paying Guests than they have in Sarah’s previous novels and being able to pull up exact images of the garments she was writing about meant a new layer of description could be added. Clothes also added to the dynamics of society with fashion becoming more affordable, the working classes could dress just like the middle and – GASP – how would anybody be able to tell where you ‘belonged’ then?!

The setting of the novel was one that came easily, with Sarah living near the area of London featured, regularly dreaming up what a great background it would be to a tale, comparing the location decision to that of choosing a character’s name ‘you just know when it is right’. London has always been a firm favourite of hers due to the layers of history you can access so easily treading the pavements, as her favourite protagonists are most likely to do. A great recommendation was given called 'Lost London' for anybody who wanted to investigate this further in-between the pages of a beautiful book.

Wandering the city this time we find Frances, the story being told from her perspective, a spirited and bold girl who has her courage tested throughout. (Sarah’s partner was not a fan of Frances for some time, finding her a martyr, and it took many reworking’s before her character finally clicked into place). Facing difficulties that were a common occurrence of the time, Frances has lost her brother in the war effort, no income making its way into the home and all of their hired help have had to be let go of. The only way forward is to bring in lodgers, and this is where her real journey begins.

The Paying Guests focuses on exactly what constitutes braveness and cowardness; it has the grand passion of Anna Karenina but in the mundane settings of the back lanes of London. Sarah explained she always wanted this book to be a love story with a crime feature to it, not vice versa, and it certainly provides just that.

No doubt set to be another huge success and transferred to the screen as her previous work has done, an audience member asked just how involved she is with these adaptations. Happily, she told us, she is not involved at all, having usually moved on to another novel by then. Handing it over to be cut down to a screen play requires ruthless behaviour that she could not carry out, so she likes to see what she considers a translation of her story come out the other side. With 3 cameos all in all she still gets a slice of the action!
Once the audience questions were satisfied a queue quickly formed to snaffle up first editions of The Paying Guests which Sarah kindly signed until everybody went home clutching their prized copy, I can guarantee there will have been some sleepy heads the next morning after many utterance of 'just one more page'!

You can get copies of The Paying Guests and all of Sarah’s back list through the 24 hour branch of Mr B's, they are all linked below, along with Sarah’s recommendation of Lost London.
The Paying Guests
The Little Stranger

The Night Watch

Fingersmith
Affinity
Tipping the Velvet

Lost London

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