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Ottawa Uncovered.

Ottawa Writers Festival’s Mad Lesbian

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Lex Magazine Ottawa blog. Ottawa Uncovered.

Ottawa Writers Festival’s Mad Lesbian

Michelle

When I mention that I had the pleasure of meeting the inimitable Sarah Waters at the most recent Ottawa Writers Festival, I'm generally met with blank stares and the inevitable questions concerning who she is and what she writes. When I answer that she's a Welsh writer of (predominantly) lesbian historical fiction, more often than not the response is a stifled giggle and a knee-jerk dismissal of the genre as legitimate literature. Just about anyone who has ever read any lesbian fiction can tell you that not all of it is the greatest, but lesbihonest, every genre has its masters and amateurs. Sarah Waters, having won the Betty Trask and Somerset Maugham Awards, and having been shortlisted for the Man Booker and Orange Prizes on several occasions, is quickly solidifying herself as one of those masters. Her novels are so brilliantly crafted that they transcend the boundaries between lesbian historical fiction, historical fiction, and just regular old fiction.

The thing about a Sarah Waters novel is that you don't have to be gay to enjoy it. As she herself says, the sexuality of her characters is “both incidental and absolutely crucial.” In each of her previous novels, with the exception of The Little Stranger (her only 'straight' book to date), the main characters have been lesbians challenged by nearly insurmountable circumstances. In Waters' own terms, the stories that happen to her characters “could only happen that way because they're lesbians ... but their sexuality is kind of incidental as well because the novels are never just about that. I want to write about lesbians but I don't want it to be an issue, if that makes sense.” What Waters says does make sense because the characters' sexuality isn't the main focus of the story. Sexuality propels the story absolutely; it drives the plot in a very specific direction but it never overshadows anything else that is happening either. Gay or straight, any one of Waters' novels is incredibly engaging, entertaining and enjoyable.

"As she herself says, the sexuality of her characters is 'both incidental and absolutely crucial.'"

I first heard of Sarah Waters around ten years ago when I caught the BBC adaptation of her debut novel, Tipping the Velvet, on television. As a young lesbian at the time, I was tired of the same old story and was starving for something that I could actually identify with. When I saw Tipping the Velvet, I was drawn in by the beauty of the story and the strength of the protagonist. When I learned that it was based on a novel by an author called Sarah Waters, I immediately had to devour everything she had written up to that point, including an old article that she had written about Queen Christina of Sweden, which made her laugh and quip that it was from “a billion years ago” when I told her. I have read everything that she has published since then as well. Waters’ latest novel, The Paying Guests, was released this past September and is quite possibly her most enthralling and gut-wrenching book to date (and with each of her previous novels having been nominated for multiple awards, that’s no small feat). As part of a promotional tour for The Paying Guests, Waters returned to Ottawa for the first time in five years in order to appear at the Ottawa Writers Festival. 

Waters’ appearance at the Writers Fest began with her giving the audience a brief introduction to The Paying Guests followed by a beautiful and captivating reading of the first few pages of the novel. Audience members were clearly riveted not only by the narrative itself but by Waters' ability to bring life to her words as she spoke. Following the reading, CBC's Sandra Abma conducted an absorbing and hilarious one-on-one interview with Waters, allowing the author to discuss everything from the novel to her writing process and everything in between. Based on the interview, Waters is clearly proud of her work and the acclaim that she has received for it, but she remained modest and thankful for her readers’ enthusiasm. The grace and elegance with which she responded to Abma’s questions was incredibly endearing and if there were strangers to Sarah Waters in the crowd, they were almost assuredly fans by the time it was all over. 

Judging by the size of the line-up for the book signing that followed the interview, most of the audience appeared to already be fans. By the time Waters was seated at the table set up for the signing, a lengthy line-up had already formed stretching all the way from the signing area to the stage. I myself was in that line-up, books in hand, waiting for the chance to meet my favourite author. I didn’t just want her to sign my books though, I also had an ulterior motive. Although Lex was fortunate enough to have attended Writers Fest, we had been unable to secure an interview with Sarah Waters beforehand, and I wanted one last chance to get one. When it was my turn to have my books signed, I oh-so-casually asked her if she'd be available for a little chat when she was done the signing. Unfortunately she was unavailable for an interview while she was in town, but after only a slight pause and a cock of the head, Waters asked for my email address and offered to try and set something up at a later time. Sure enough, by the next afternoon Waters' publicist had contacted me and a telephone interview was scheduled for later that week. 

“Sometimes when you're choosing between things, you've only got bad choices but you still have to make a choice. Every option is sort of awful, but you've still got to choose one.”

When I spoke with Sarah Waters that Thursday, she was wonderfully warm and inviting and very willing to answer questions about her new book. Briefly and without giving too much away, The Paying Guests, set in 1920s England, is a novel about crime and passion and what happens when those things become intertwined. In fact, during our conversation, Waters summed the novel up quite perfectly with a reference to Dr. Who, whom she quoted as having said “something along the lines of 'Sometimes all you have are bad decisions.'” Waters further emphasized her point by adding that “sometimes when you're choosing between things, you've only got bad choices but you still have to make a choice. Every option is sort of awful, but you've still got to choose one.” Looking back on it now, The Paying Guests is very much a novel about choice and the impact that one “foolish moment, a moment of error ... a moment of stupidity” can have on so many people's lives.

There are so many moments in the novel that can lead the reader to wonder how the characters can continue to make foolish choice after foolish choice. Taking a step back, however, it becomes clear how incredibly limited their options really are. There's an almost claustrophobic quality to the novel, created by the endless bad choices that these characters face and the way that they are backed into such tight corners when presented with those choices. Waters admits that she takes a “devilish kind of pleasure” in writing this sort of narrative, despite the fact that The Paying Guests has been her most taxing novel to write so far.

According to Waters, the difficulty that she found in writing The Paying Guests was not so much the fact that she was largely unfamiliar with the time period, though it “certainly lengthened the writing process,” but in the pacing. As far as getting the pacing just right Waters says, “ I hadn't anticipated how slowly I would have to take things given that Lilian is married and straight, and I just couldn't have her and Frances rushing into an affair. I had to take things fairly leisurely which was kind of a challenge.” The slow pacing of the novel adds to the pleasure of the payoff when Frances and Lilian finally do come together; it also adds to the realism of the conflict. One of the worst things in a novel or a movie (*ahem*Bloomington*ahem*) is when the relationship comes out of nowhere because as a result the conflict comes out of nowhere as well. In a well crafted story, Waters agrees that when it comes to “things like conflict, you have to earn it.” The fact that Sarah Waters is so very conscious of not wanting to rush things or to cheapen the reader’s experience is a major part of what makes her such an excellent story-teller. Part of that comes from being a reader herself and wanting to write what she would like to read. Waters makes note of the fact that the amount of research she does adds a significant amount of time to the writing process. The Paying Guests “took me a four years to write,” she tells me, “it has to be something that I feel passionate about staying with, so it has to be something that I would probably read myself.” 

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The passion that Waters feels for her craft is shown in every word of The Paying Guests; the amount of time and effort she put into her research and how she used it to carefully construct each sentence resonates on every page. There was a moment as I was reading the novel that I suddenly realized how immersed I had become in her prose; I started making all these small connections that were at once incredibly subtle, and yet were somehow essential to the atmosphere of the novel. For example, in the beginning, Frances Wray, the protagonist, is fastidious in her housekeeping and keeps everything in her life very tightly controlled and organized. As the story continues and Frances' life begins to unravel, so too does her housework. Waters was not unaware of this connection. “In a larger way,” she says, “what interested me at the very beginning was the messiness of this particular kind of [crime]. This kind of [crime] that just happens by accident. A foolish moment, a moment of error as opposed to a planned crime.”

Over the course of her research, Waters spent a lot of time reading novels of the period and true crime stories of a similar nature to The Paying Guests, focusing particularly on crimes that  involve those moments of stupidity, those “awful, crazy, tragic thing[s] ... that just wreck everybody's lives.” Keeping in mind how messy these nasty crimes truly are, Waters says she does her best to stay away from the type of novel where the crimes are “incredibly bloodless and incredibly neat and tidy and often times to a ridiculous degree.” Waters admits that she “wanted to do justice to the much messier kind of crime that was happening in real life.” At the same time, however, Waters indicates that she is very aware of this rash of lesbian crime that was popular in the nineties with movies like Fun, Heavenly Creatures and Sister My Sister (though each was based on a true story) and didn't want The Paying Guests to be just “another story about mad lesbians” who commit a crime. What her novel becomes then, is this wonderful marriage between a crime story and a story about two women in love, or as Waters says, “a love story complicated by crime.” 

"What her novel becomes then, is this wonderful marriage between a crime story and a story about two women in love."

There was a time early on in Waters’ career when she was first trying to have Tipping The Velvet published that she wondered if she “could find [her] way into the lesbian literary world.” If her previous novels had helped her ease her way into the realm of lesbian literature, her latest book will launch her to the forefront. The Paying Guests is easily one of the most compelling, complicated and emotional novels of 2014; it will pull on your heartstrings and fill you with rage. There will be times when you won't be able to put the book down and when you do, you'll be afraid to pick it back up again for fear of what will happen to the characters.

Sarah Waters' novels have touched me in ways that few others have; they get my heart soaring and my blood boiling. I fall in love with the story, the characters and the prose with every read and reread. Waters' witty sense of humour made for easy conversation, but it is the honesty and the passion with which she spoke about her work that truly resonates.

Written by Michelle. Photographed by Steffi