The Enduring Fairmont Hotel

October 31, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

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photo by Michael Forester

Last week, my great pal from my KABC/LA radio days, cookbook writer Diane Worthington, author of the classics The Cuisine of California, The California Cook, and her recent Seriously Simple series, was in San Francisco to meet with her editors at Chronicle Books, and to catch up with her good friends at the gorgeous Fairmont Hotel, atop Nob Hill.

She kindly asked me to tag along, knowing my long-standing love affair with the Fairmont, the setting for much of my forthcoming historical novel A Race to Splendor, due out from Sourcebooks Landmark in April, 2011, on the 105th anniversary of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and firestorm.

Inspired by the early professional life of Julia Morgan, California’s first licensed female architect,  this is the tale of a race against time to rebuild two luxury hotels (the Fairmont and a fictional hostelry) after the 1906 disaster destroyed 400 city blocks and left 250,000 homeless.

Morgan’s fictional protegee, Amelia Hunter Bradshaw and client J.D. Thayer will sacrifice anything to see the city they love rise from the ashes.  In the process, they find themselves transformed from fierce rivals to unwilling partners who fight political corruption, endure back-breaking hardship, and ultimately can’t help but lose their hearts.

As many times as I’ve visited this awe-inspiring hotel during my childhood and in the years when I was researching the historical novel, chills go down my spine whenever I walk into the magnificent lobby, seen here from the Mason Street entrance, and hear the clang of the California Street cable car that was running when Julia Morgan returned to San Francisco in 1904 from her architecture studies in Paris, just two years before the cataclysmic temblor.

Morgan was only thirty-four-years-old when she received the commission to rebuild the Fairmont’s burnt-out hulk after  the 3000 degree fire raced through its beaux arts facade.

Flash forward to the year 2000.  I witnessed the most recent transformation by the historic preservation architects Page & Turnbull of the gaudy (but lovable) red upholstered Fairmont of my youth to the golden confection you see in these pictures I took last week.

Like dogged detectives, these historic preservationists uncovered evidence of what the hotel looked like before fifties interior designer, Dorothy Draper, gave it her “Hollywood” treatment,as you see below–a style that endured half a century.

To celebrate the Millennium, the hotel was restored to a near-perfect replica of the work wrought by Miss Morgan between 1906-07 under impossible conditions.

It is that incredible story that forms the spine of A Race to Splendor and what a treat to be hosted in a place I know and love so well by Diane’s friend, Michelle Heston, the Fairmont’s Regional Director of Public Relations for the Western US & Hawaii.

Thanks to her and the hospitable staff, a stunning array of delectable offerings as part of their Afternoon Tea service was set before us in the Laurel Court Restaurant–one of whose domes had been unexpectedly discovered by a sleuth for Page & Turnbull when he crawled between the floors in the early days of the most recent renovation. Ms. Draper had lowered the ceiling, and over the decades, the beautiful dome had been forgotten.

Last week during our delightful afternoon, Halloween was upon us, and the staff had produced a variety of carved pumpkins for a contest that asked guests to vote for their favorite creation.

The hotel was jammed with fans in town to root for the Texas Rangers who are playing our beloved San Francisco Giants in the current World Series.

In fact,  as you see here, I whipped out my iPhone as one guest was headed to the game and then booked on a private jet that would take her back for Game 3,4, and 5 in Texas

Needless to say, our group raised our porcelain teacups and saluted the Giants, as well as my heroine, Julia Morgan, the creator of such beauty that has endured….

Booksellers, Historical Fiction, & “Hand-Selling”

October 4, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

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I remember walking into the (now) 83-year-old independent Tecolote Bookshop in Montecito, California–seen here hosting Thomas Steinbeck at a signing–to show them the galleys for the first edition of A Cottage by the Sea.  My favorite member of the small sales force peered at the title and then suddenly clutched the Advanced Reader’s Copy to her bosom and said with a sigh, “Oooooh, a cottage by the sea…every woman’s fantasy!”

I was extremely gratified to hear this as I was in a fierce battle with the book’s original publisher about the title.  “They” wanted to change it, and I loved it and wanted to keep it.

I immediately sent an emergency fax (that’s how long ago this was) to the editor, recounting exactly what I’ve told you.

I knew this anecdote would have some weight because the scuttlebutt was that Tecolote was one of the up-market independent booksellers out West that the New York Times Sunday Book Review called to measure sales for its bestsellers’ list.  I have no idea if that is true, but it was an accolade from an important store and, bless the hardworking staff there, it carried enough clout with the editors and marketers in New York to retain the book’s title!

Every since that time, I have done my best to support and get to know the booksellers at both independent bookshops, like my local Habitat Books seen here, as well as the chain bookstore staffs in my area.

Historical novels, whether made of paper or downloaded onto  an electronic reading device, are successful in great part due to this “hand-selling,” and I’ve been grateful for the fifteen years that A Cottage by the Sea has been in print in its various editions that booksellers have apparently given it a personal boost and created that “buzz” that can really make a difference in sales.

Just this morning I was walking with a friend down our main thoroughfare where the tourists stroll as soon as they step off the ferry from San Francisco, and lo and behold, there was the beautiful edition (and new cover) of Cottage–out since June of this year from Sourcebooks Landmark–up-front-and-center in the window of the store!  I’ve met the owner, but hadn’t had a chance to go in and try to twist her arm to stock the book, to say nothing of begging her to put it in the window.

I handed my dog-walking pal my iPhone and said, “Quick! Take a snap, will you?  I want to prove to the world how the independents are truly independent!”  The owner chose to feature the book with no prompting from the author or publisher.

Books are sold by hand by these wonderful people who own bookstores…one book at a time. And now that the new edition of  Wicked Company, about a group of women playwrights whose works were produced to great success at London’s Covent Garden and Drury Lane theaters, is about to debut this month, I guess I should get busy, go into Habitat Books to show them the new cover, and introduce myself again….

I’ve done that recently at a local gift shop, It’s Out of Hand, whose owner, Christine Butler, I know well. Since we live in a maritime village facing San Francisco Bay, she put Cottage near the cash register with a sign “Signed by Local Author” and sells several copies a month talking about the similarities between Cornwall, England, where Cottage is set, and the California coasts along Carmel-by-the-Sea and Big Sur.

Another lesson in “books are hand sold, one book at a time.”  Words to live by, I’d say.

Wicked Company Should be a Movie!

September 19, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

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On October 1, Wicked Company is about to have a new life as a nice, juicy trade paperback, courtesy of my publishers, Sourcebooks Landmark, but really, truly, I think one day it should be a movie on a large screen, in full color, and powered by THX sound!

I hold this opinion not merely because I’m proud of this historical novel–which I am, of course– but because, when I did the research, the images I found in the depths of the Huntington Library, or in the archives of the Theater Museum in London leapt out at me in a fashion that just begs for someone to make a film.

I mean, just look at the cast of characters:

We have King George III, Drury Lane actor-manager David Garrick and his wife, struggling women playwrights like the two Hannahs (Hannah More and Hannah Cowley who hated each other),along with numerous actress-playwrights like Kitty Clive and my fictional villainess, Mavis Piggott, plus the weedy little censor Edward Capell–not to mention the hero and heroine, based on a composite of theatrical figures of the day whose lives  I encountered when doing the years of research.

Added to this are the amazing locations of this novel:  Edinburgh, Covent Garden, Bath, Stratford, the Welsh countryside, Annapolis, Maryland, even!  Theaters on both sides of the Pond became the places I had to visit when researching and writing this book.

As I look over my own photo collection, such wonderful memories rush back.  The day I discovered this image of David Garrick about to stab his co-star in an eighteenth century play, now long forgotten, was a red-letter moment.

I even let out an audible yelp in the hallowed bowels of an archive not-to-be-mentioned when I stumbled across an example of the very tickets issued to gain entrance to the first Shakespeare Festival held in Stratford-Upon-Avon in 1769.

And then there was the day when I uncovered the fact that one of my historical figures, writer James Boswell, had turned up in the pouring rain at the Shakespeare Festival dressed as a Corsican and brandishing a tall, crooked staff in order to promote a book he was writing!  I mean, really!  Does nothing change?

These are the moments when an author is transported back in time and can see a story unfolding as if it were a film!  (From my computer to God’s ears….)

Can Readers Love a “Flawed” Hero?

September 12, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

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When I was first conjuring the characters in Wicked Company and mulling over how I would weave both fictional and historical figures into the story of an 18th c.  woman playwright fighting to get her works written and performed at London’s Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, I thought about some of the men of that era whose lives clearly could be fodder for a novelist’s imagination and well as an historian’s.

Take the 18th c. poet Robert Burns, for example, who figured in my first historical novel, Island of the Swans.  He was an astonishingly good-looking man, from all accounts and surviving pictorial representations.  He also had a reputation for loving the ladies–some of whom were not his wife–and according to the research, there was much gossip surrounding his relationship with my heroine, Jane Maxwell, the 4th Duchess of Gordon.

However, my reading of the facts was that the duchess supported his artistic endeavors, helping to get his first book of poems published in Edinburgh, but held him at arm’s length.  Thus, he was not the “hero” in the novel and  so I avoided the issue of whether readers can appreciate a lead character who actually lived on this planet, and yet could not be described as a “man of moral character.”

It is part of the territory when writing historical fiction that there is constant tension between creating a compelling story and balancing the historical facts as best we are able to determine them. Readers of novels tend to want their heroes “heroic”–unless they are lovable “anti-heroes,” which can sometimes work but is very tricky to pull off.  For me, I enjoy working through the flaws as the story’s arc shows the characters growing and changing while the novel unfolds.

However, sometimes a character is fascinating, but simply not “hero” material to my way of thinking.  For instance, in Wicked Company, Richard Sheridan of The School for Scandal and The Rivals fame was a contemporary of my composite heroine, Sophie McGann, a female character drawn from the biographies of several working women playwrights of the day.  However, Sheridan had a character flaw that I couldn’t stomach.  Yes, he was a compelling gent, not too bad looking as you see here, and of course, a prodigious talent , but in my research I concluded that he basically “borrowed”–with no credit–the famous Mrs. Malaprop character in The Rivals from one his own mother had originally created in a play that failed to pass the censor in the Lord Chamberlain’s office!  Interesting, yes.  A hero in my book, NO!

In the end, I created a fictional hero, Hunter Robertson, to go with my fictional heroine, but he, too, is noted for his lapses.  Most notable among them is a fair amount of emotional baggage carried over from his youth that prevents him, early in the novel, from seeing what is obvious to the reader:  that he and Sophie are destined for each other–a state of affairs he ultimately begins to comprehend when they both become involved in the theater in the beautiful spa city of Bath where, believe it or not, in the 18th c. there were co-ed bathing facilities! (Note the lady holding on to her hat in the upper right of the image).

But to a writer, those flaws Hunter possessed were what kept the writing interesting for me, especially when they’re rooted in conflicts and tragedies going back to a period of his childhood he wanted to forget:  a time when his mother chose which of her children to give the meager supply of food during “the starving” in the Highlands of Scotland that came in the wake of the failure of Bonnie Prince Charlie to claim the thrones of England, Scotland and Wales.

I love Hunter Robertson–flaws and all–and I think readers will too, knowing on some level that he will eventually come to terms with his difficult past, recognize Sophie for the valiant, gifted woman she is, and fall madly in love with her.  Until that happens, his role is to save her from herself (and her hot temper), as well as find his own path as a creative talent in the boisterous, turbulent London theater world.

For me, heroes are more interesting if they’re not perfect and totally “heroic,” straight out of the gate.  Perhaps this is what keeps readers interested in the mystery of how in the world Hunter and Sophie are  going to overcome the obstacles facing a “two-career couple” in the eighteenth century!

Truly, nothing much changes, despite our claim to modernity.

Outfoxing “That Little Toad!” Edward Capell, Censor

September 5, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

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There is nothing more delicious for an historical novelist than to run across a generally unknown figure in history who is a person to be thoroughly disliked, as with Edward Capell, an 18th c. play censor in the Crown of England’s Lord Chamberlain’s office.

From all accounts, he had a very high opinion of his own intellect–perhaps deservedly so, as he was considered an expert on the works of Shakespeare and was often asked to authenticate various manuscripts.  However, he held the lowest opinion imaginable of a mere woman attempting to earn her living by her pen.  Thus, any woman playwright trying to get one of her works past this disapproving bureaucrat and granted a license to be performed on a professional stage in London or elsewhere in the Kingdom faced frustration bordering on the urge-to-kill.

Edward Capell could end any writer’s career with a stroke of his pen, but he apparently took special delight in blindsiding “uppity women,” including a number of woman writers who ultimately took refuge in using male pseudonyms to try to get past his overt prejudice against them.

The “cameo” image on the left is highly flattering, for in life, he was an odd little man, with a penchant of eating foods only the color white!  He’d eat mashed potatoes or parsnips, but never orange carrots.  He’d consume white cheese, but never cheddar; white wine, but not claret.  Such was his odd phobia of foods of vibrant hues, that the lack of vitamins in his diet soon produced scrufulous skin disorders, making his appearance behind his desk at the Lord Chamberlain’s office quite a terrifying sight to behold.

Fortunately, there were a number of clever women writers who managed to get their works approved for production by one means or another, including Frances Sheridan, mother of the far more famous playwright, Richard Sheridan of  The Rivals and The School for Scandal fame.  Frances, seen here on your right, had a dreadful time running the gauntlet of the Lord Chamberlain’s office, though she managed to see her The Discovery and The Dupe produced under her own name at Drury Lane by David Garrick, the immortal actor and manager there whose fame continues to this day.

Garrick, as you will discover if you read my forth-coming Wicked Company was the best friend an 18th c. woman playwright would ever find, and chroncling his brilliant handling of the dreaded censor, Edward Capell, was one of the most delightful experiences I ever enjoyed as an historical novelist.

When my heroine, Sophie McGann, comes storming into his office shouting, “Oh, how I despise that little toad!”  having just learned that Capell has refused her latest play a license, Garrick kindly pats her on the arm and replies, “Well, my dear, we must then simply out fox him.  Now, here’s my idea…”

Wicked Companys publication date is October 1 and, hopefully, will be in the books stores a bit before that.  I hope you’ll love to “despise that little toad” Edward Capell as much as I did!

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