British author Sarah Waters, known for such bestselling, award-winning novels as Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet, was at the Ottawa International Writers Festival on Oct 26 to talk about her latest novel, The Paying Guests.
The novel centres on the love affair between Frances and Lilian, which transgresses the conventions of class, perceived morality of the day and marital vows. In this edited interview with Xtra, Waters discusses doing housework in the 1920s, street harassment and how to write a good sex scene.
Xtra: In all your novels you create a world so fully realized it’s hard for a reader to leave it. What is it like for you to leave the 1920s and your characters and reenter the modern world?
Sarah Waters: It can be a bit strange sometimes because I do like to get completely engrossed in the world. That’s the way to bring it to life, really; you have to get right in there with your characters, and then it can be odd at the end of the day to come back to the modern world. But above all, it’s a craft and it’s my job, so I’m very disciplined as a writer, and I think that helps to give boundaries. I’ve been doing it for a long time, and I’ve got into the habit of being able to switch off at the end of the day.
This book provides great detail about the characters’ day-to-day lives. What was your reaction when you discovered in your research how much time housework took in the 1920s?
Yeah, that was amazing. Houses were full of stuff and especially a house like Frances’s, which was essentially a Victorian/Edwardian house which would need all this work. Houses were dustier because of things like coal fires. They were damper, so beds had to be stripped. I read a lot of household manuals. This was a time when middle-class homes were losing servants, so there were newspaper articles about how to run your home. Myself, I’m a very sketchy housewife, and I definitely would not have met Frances’s mother’s standards.
Frances self-identifies as a lesbian, whereas Lilian’s love for Frances doesn’t seem to have anything to do with gender. Do you think of Lilian as bisexual or pansexual?
I don’t really know. For me, Frances was definitely what I would think of as a lesbian, somebody like me who’s happy with their sexuality and knows what it is. For Lilian, this is a brand-new thing. It’s not something she bargained for, and I don’t think she quite knows what it means, and I don’t think I quite know what it means for her either. I like leaving it undecided, because some people I know have only had one relationship with a member of the same sex and it seems genuinely to be about that person rather than [sexual orientation].
Frances didn’t stand for it when a man was paying Lilian unwanted attention. Do you think street harassment has changed much in the past 100 years?
We probably don’t think of women in Victorian, Edwardian and later on experiencing street harassment, but they did. When Victorian women began to go about the streets unchaperoned, there were newspaper articles about “male pests” bothering them. Unfortunately, it has always been a feature of urban life for women. I don’t think much has changed. It’s a terribly debilitating experience for women in the sense that it drains energy. I think Frances makes that point herself, that women and men aren’t allowed to negotiate public space with the same freedom. Whether you’re ignoring it or countering it, it’s a drain on your energy and time.
Readers and critics love making fun of bad sex scenes, but you seem to have a particular talent for writing sex scenes that are beautiful, exciting and believable. What’s your secret?
I’m glad you think that because there are so many pitfalls for a writer when writing about sex. It’s very easy to write a bad sex scene. I just want to write honestly about sex, which means for me often the sex isn’t perfect. We see sex depicted all the time on telly and so on, and it tends to be rather perfect. Sex in life isn’t like that at all, but that’s what makes real sex more interesting. There are all sorts of things going on in your head and it’s clumsy and it’s untidy. Part of [writing a good sex scene] is trying to do justice to that, and part of it is being right there with my characters, which I try to do for all the experiences in the novel. I wanted to write very viscerally about all those experiences to do justice to their physical and emotional impact. Sex is part of that, trying to capture the wonder and the untidiness.