One of the advantages of living just outside a major city like Washington, DC, is that lots of great authors come through town. If Politics and Prose were around the corner, I’d be there often because they get lots of authors I’m moderately interested in, but driving all across DC requires more than moderate interest. It requires an author to be among my very favorites. It requires an author to be someone like Sarah Waters.
Waters was at Politics and Prose to promote her new book, The Paying Guests, which I thought was quite good, although not a favorite. I’ve liked it more and more as I’ve reflected on it, and hearing her discuss it made me even more appreciative of the characters.
Her visit was set up as an interview with Sarah Blake, author of The Postmistress. I have mixed feelings about this set-up. I can see its value in that it keeps the author from having to prepare remarks that could seemed canned after a while. But the last author event I went to (Jhumpa Lahiri) involved an interviewer who gave away multiple plot points to an audience of readers who had only bought the book that night. Blake was much more cautious about what she revealed. At one point her question got kind of long as she waxed eloquent about how great Waters’s books are, but for the most part, it was a good conversation, and there was plenty of time for audience questions.
The Paying Guests was apparently a challenge for Waters to write because she knew less about the period than she did for her previous books. Much of the literature of the time focuses on the upper classes, and she decided she wanted to write about ordinary people. A couple of well-known murder trials from the period gave her the idea of what the story could be. But as she worked on the book, she got stymied about what kind of book it was. Her agent thought it seemed like a crime novel complicated by love, and she realized from that comment that what she wanted was a love story complicated by crime. That latter insight helps me wrap my mind around the ending a bit better. I’m much more of a crime novel reader than a love story reader, so I was looking for a crime novel ending.
Perhaps my favorite moment from the talk was when she mentioned that she started with the end in mind when she wrote The Little Stranger. This is perhaps my favorite of her books, mostly because of the ending. That final paragraph is breath-taking. It sends a chill down my spine to even think of it. I had gone back and forth about whether to bring The Little Stranger or Fingersmith to the signing, so that comment made me especially glad I’d decided on The Little Stranger. (Politics and Prose does not require those attending a signing to buy a book, so I usually bring my favorite book by that author and buy something else if I don’t want or already have the book being promoted.)
When I brought my book to the table I told her how I love it, especially the ending. She seemed pleased to hear it and remarked that she’s gotten lots of complaints from readers who are confused about what was going on. When I told her that I’ve suggested people reread the last paragraph, she said that’s basically what she does too. That was a pretty awesome fangirl moment for me! (Really, the last paragraph unlocks the book. It doesn’t settle every question, but it answers the main one.)
The whole event was a delight. I only wish all my favorites could come to DC. Lucky for me, next month brings Marilynne Robinson. And Stephen King. Marlon James and Colm Toibin might be worth the cross-town trip too. And Stephen Pinker could be pretty interesting. Well, there goes my October!