Wednesday, January 23, 2019

At The Poisoned Pen with Lyndsay Faye!

I'd never read any of Lyndsay Faye's books, but that didn't keep Denis and me from slogging through crosstown rush hour traffic on a rainy Thursday evening to see her at The Poisoned Pen. By the time the event was over, I was more determined than ever to read the two of her books that I now own: The Paragon Hotel and Jane Steele.

The waiting time flew by because one of my Poisoned Pen pals was there, too. She's another Kathy, and I think we could be locked in a room together for a week and still find things to talk about afterward.

Barbara Peters (foreground left) interviewing Lyndsay Faye

Barbara: Thank you all for coming out on a very rainy evening to welcome back Lyndsay Faye. [audience cheers and applause] Lyndsay's The Paragon Hotel is our January historical mystery pick for a variety of reasons, and since we can never spend an hour talking about just the book's plot, I thought we would talk about some of the wonderful features of this book. Let's start with the cover, Lyndsay. I gather this wasn't the first cover for the book?

Lyndsay: It was not the first cover for this book! I love it. It's so pretty, right? One of the nicest comments about it was made by my editor who said how nice it would look next to Jane Steele.

Lyndsay Faye talking about her book cover
What initially happened with it-- and I hardly ever throw a fit about book covers but I did about this one-- was that they came back to me with a cover that had random African American people from 1940 on it who weren't even in the book... and this book is set in 1921. [audience laughter] So I threw a small fit.

Barbara: Good for you!

Lyndsay: I said absolutely not. These random people aren't even in the book, and I don't know what you're doing. I would like a different cover. And I think this one is gorgeous.

Barbara: It really is. Covers not only have to look beautiful in the bookstore, but they also have to look beautiful if you're looking at them on various websites. The other thing that I wanted to say is that it's very crisp. You can actually read it.

Lyndsay: It is very crisp, and I am so proud to say that this cover was the front page of BookPage this last week. I was very excited about that because it's never happened to me before. And it was realllllllllllllly... nerdy!

Barbara: That's all right. You can be an author nerd and a cover nerd. One of the things I thought was so interesting in reading various articles was your decision to write in the lingo of the times. It sounded like a fascinating thing to talk about.

Lyndsay: I'm so glad that you bring this up because you know how I think. A lot of authors talk about how the setting is also a character, so, for example, you have Holmes and Watson, but you also have London as a character. In my books, I think that English is this weird, not really mentioned character. Because all of my books have to deal with what do you sound like and how do you sound to other people.

Lyndsay Faye
With this particular book, I was determined to get 1921 slang right. It was so interesting because if you were to try to look up flapper slang, flapper slang is generally going to be something from 1926, 1927... Even the iconic "bee's knees" happened in 1923 so I couldn't use any of it. When I went to research it, it was very difficult for me to find the proper slang until I found a collection of all of Ernest Hemingway's war correspondence.

Hemingway was an ambulance driver during World War I. He wrote back to his family with unadulterated panache and plenty of slang. So I went through all of his war correspondence and made notes about the words he was using. For example, in 1921 you wouldn't say you want to do something, you would say that you admire to do it. I would never have known that if I hadn't come across Hemingway's letters. It was so fantastic because not only was I enjoying reading his letters, I was also learning about the slang. Those letters were a treasure trove.

Barbara: Glossary?

Lyndsay: You can actually figure out everything in this book without a glossary.

Barbara: Is it because you're an actress and you have all this experience in the theater that language is so important to you? In addition to being an author, that is.

Lyndsay: It was a really fun career for about ten years. The reason that I'm not an actor anymore-- I'll quote my friend Gary-- "Join the theater. Be an actor. And make literally hundreds of dollars!" And that is exactly what happens. [sympathetic laughter from audience] So I was very poor, and I was always working in restaurants at the same time. That got old eventually.

Lyndsay Faye
I think this is the right time to tell this story. My restaurant got knocked down by bulldozers so I had a six-month unemployment break. I told myself that I'd always wanted to finish this book I was writing, so I should just finish it. I had unemployment for six months, I should just do it.

So I did. And I sold it to Simon and Schuster. And it was really crazy! I never dreamed something like that would happen. But as an actor, I remember thinking that there was this book I wanted to read-- but it didn't exist. I decided to put up or shut up. If I wanted to read this book, I would have to write it.

As an actor, I do pay very close attention to the voice and the characters, and I do pay very very close attention to the slang. I'm trained to know how to do certain slang dialects. Probably about a dozen of them. Acting was such good training. I was never trained as a writer, but as an actor, I was trained as a storyteller. At the end of the day, I think that was very valuable.

Barbara: I thought as I was reading Jane Steele, and I certainly thought as I was reading this book that this is Lyndsay actually in character and writing from being in the character rather than writing from the outside as an author. There's an authenticity that comes from that. The way you tell the story has so much to do with the impact your story has on us. Did this story that takes place in Portland, Oregon in the 1920s and deals with the Ku Klux Klan really begin with a situation in your own life?

Lyndsay Faye
Lyndsay: It did. As all of you can tell, I am a Caucasian person, so that's not a surprise. I was born in San Jose, California. Very multicultural. My godmother is African American. My father had lost his job, and we had to move to a small town outside of Portland, Oregon. When I was about six years old, I remember asking my mother, "What happened to all the tan people?" because I didn't understand. My mother said, "I don't know, sweetheart. Honestly, I have no idea."

But the one that really stuck with me was when I attended Vacation Bible School. My parents were trying to fix the financial situation, and they thought that sending all of us to Vacation Bible School would give them the time they needed to do this.

I sat down in a church pew next to this little boy who was probably about six years old, too. Now, when I'm out in the sun, I get really really dark because on my mother's side of the family there is a trace of Native American blood-- specifically the Ute tribe-- and when I was born you couldn't distinguish between the pupil and the iris of my eyes. I looked like a devil baby. The little boy sitting next to me in the church pew looks at me and says, "Ewwww, I don't want to sit next to a Japanese girl!" This was just wrong on so many levels, but it's funny, too. One of all, I am not Japanese. Two of all, if I were Japanese, this would really suck. This is really not a cool place! And three of all, how dare you?!?

So part of the reason that I was driven to write this book is that-- even as a white person-- I still experienced racism in the Pacific Northwest. And that's batshit crazy.

Lyndsay Faye (R)
Barbara: I have to say that it was illuminating because we tend to think of the Klan and so much of what went on as being a Southern issue. Oregon hadn't really come across my radar as a place where racism was so rampant.

Lyndsay: Oregon is the only state to have written into their constitution that no black people and no mulatto people were allowed to live there. So it was illegal for people of color to live in Oregon. Their constitution was written in 1856, and they didn't change it until 1926-- so that it was no longer illegal for black people to live there. Here are some more deeply disturbing dates.

In 1870, black people were given the right to vote. Oregon was one of only five states-- the rest were southern states-- to refuse to ratify that amendment to the Constitution. They "quickly" saw the error of their ways and changed that in 1959. The year that the antiquated language in Oregon's constitution was removed was 2003. So... we're not really batting a thousand from Oregon regarding race and race relations.

Barbara: Did they treat the Native American population the same way?

Lyndsay: Yes. Absolutely. There was just terrible behavior toward any person of color. It didn't matter what color.

Barbara: So the Paragon Hotel is actually named for a real hotel...

Lyndsay: Yep!

Barbara: ... in Portland where people of color could stay.

Available Now!
Lyndsay: I really wanted to call the book by the hotel's real name, which was the Golden West Hotel, but if you put The Golden West Hotel on a book cover it looks as though you're writing a Western. Anything at all in this book that deals with the hotel is based on the Golden West Hotel. The Golden West Hotel was the only place for people of color to stay in Portland, Oregon because the book takes place five years before it was even legal for people of color to live there.

The Golden West Hotel was gorgeous. It had five different businesses on the ground floor. It had a candy store. It had a barber shop. It had a spa. It had all these things, including a speakeasy down in the basement. All the jazz singers, all the Pullman porters working the trains, black activists... any person who wasn't white... this was the only place they could stay in the entire city.

I just fell in love with the hotel and the whole idea of it. Writing a book about it was a privilege and an honor. I mean... what kind of balls, you know? It's illegal for us to live here, but we're going to open a hotel! They were amazing. The only reason why it's still not operating as a hotel is the Great Depression, but the building is still there. It's a community center.

Barbara: Nothing really began to shift until after World War II when we began to move toward desegregation. I was really surprised. My husband's great-grandfather, Julius Rosenwald, founded the Rosenwald Schools for black children in the South. His genius as a philanthropist was that, instead of just giving them money, he gave them seed money, and they had to come together as a community to use this seed money to build the schools. They were flourishing, and the educational value was terrific, but it took me years before I asked my husband, "If they were so great, why did they all close?" In 1956 when Brown vs the Board of Education desegregated the schools, you could no more have schools exclusively for blacks than you could have schools exclusively for whites.

Lyndsay Faye
You have a woman in your book, and what do we call her throughout the book...?

Lyndsay: Nobody!

Barbara: And she comes from Harlem in New York City...

Lyndsay: Yes, she does. I lived for nine years in Harlem, so I enjoyed setting part of the book there.

Nobody-- Alice James-- grew up with the Mafia, and she's trying to hide in plain sight. She's one of these people who grew up in a very dangerous situation, and she's just trying to slide into the wallpaper. Not be noticed. That skill winds up being very effective and very valuable when she's trying to escape from New York.

It was really interesting to write about her. I think a lot of us can relate to this sort of feeling: she decides that she's very frightened of many of the people around her but-- I can be anybody, so I am Nobody. I will be any person that I need to be just to get out of this.

Barbara: I liked how the porter took care of her on the train and that the reason why she wound up at the Paragon Hotel was that that was the only place he could take her. He certainly couldn't show up at any other hotel in town. I have to admit that I have a nostalgia for long train rides.

Lyndsay: I love trains! My editor knows this and always sets up the beginning of my book tours with a train ride to put me in the perfect mood.

One example of art at La Posada
Barbara: One night while Rob and I were eating at the Turquoise Room at La Posada in Winslow, I realized that the train that stops there is on its way to Chicago. Rob and I have to make several trips to and from Chicago now because we sold our press to a publisher there. I think it would be perfect to fly to Chicago and then come back on the train to Winslow!

Lyndsay: I agree!

After a short digression into how both women still dress up to travel by plane (even though everyone else seems to be in pajamas and yoga pants), we move along to Lyndsay's excitement.

Lyndsay: I've already apologized to Barbara for arriving in this state of total nonsense-- and not dressed-- because I had a really exciting day yesterday and an exciting day getting here. I'm super apologetic about it. You haven't heard the story yet, Barbara, have you?

Barbara: No, I haven't.

Lyndsay: Yesterday I was in Houston in a beautiful hotel called the Hotel ZaZa. I love it because I'm right there in the museum district. Right before I left to get on the plane, I had this perfume bottle-- one of the only fancy things I allow myself is perfume, I love really expensive perfume and I allow myself to get it once a year-- a bottle of 1876. The perfume bottle didn't break by the way. I love this perfume. I put it on, but I had moisturizer on my hands because I'd just gotten out of the shower. I dropped the perfume bottle. The perfume bottle landed on the glass sink in the precise spot for the sink to literally explode. I am not kidding. It exploded. I was bleeding from six places. I had to sign a medical waiver. So that's why I'm not dressed very well right now-- and I'm so sorry!

Barbara Peters (L) interviewing Lyndsay Faye
Barbara: How absolutely awful!

Lyndsay: Most of the bandaging is on my midriff and feet. My poor publicist was losing her mind. It was so bad for her, but I thought it was really interesting. [audience chuckles of disbelief]

They moved me into the most ridiculously luxurious suite at the Hotel ZaZa and asked me, "What do you want?" Literally. This was after the event at Murder By the Book; I was still bleeding, and I said, "I am kind of hungry." They put this menu in front of my face and said, "Anything." I looked at the menu. "A lobster roll would be delicious." They sent me a pile of lobster rolls! This mound of lobsters! 

Fan: What happened to the perfume?

Lyndsay: Nothing. It's in my bag!

[Audience cheers, applause, and laughter]

Barbara: So you can write a book called The Perfume Bomb with some authority...

Lyndsay: Yes, I can! But I do apologize to all of you for not wearing a cute dress! I was going to; it just didn't work out.

Barbara: No apology needed. It's a great story. Back to the book. I thought it was wonderful how, in a very few opening pages, very economically, you told us all about this person, move her across the country, and then put her in the place that you wanted to explore. Do you feel, this many books in, that that sort of thing comes more easily than way back when you were writing your first book?

Lyndsay: Thank you so much for asking that. Absolutely not! This is the hardest book I've ever written. I was pounding my head against the wall the entire time I was writing it. It was terrible.

Lyndsay Faye
Barbara: Was Jane Steele easier?

Lyndsay: Yes, absolutely, because Jane Steele is like some sort of weird fan fiction, and I was only researching one era. With this book, I had to research 1921 Portland, and then Harlem because I am really meticulous. I felt as though I were researching two books.

I had about 20,000 words written when I realized that I did not have a nuanced story. I've never thrown out a first draft before, and I chucked this one. I cried for days. I was on this writer's residency at Key West when I threw out that draft. They gave me a room for a month just to stay there and write. I felt so ugly and disappointed with myself. I was supposed to be there to write and all I had done was throw my writing away after only a week. 

My husband, Gabriel-- he's so sweet!-- said, "Look. That did happen to you, and it sucks. But how long would it have taken you at home with all of the distractions of our regular life to chuck that because you knew it wasn't working?" I told him, "You are so smart!"

Barbara: That was nice. Is that where you found the Hemingway letters or had you gone there because of the letters?

Lyndsay: No, I just happened to find them while I was there.

Barbara: So it all worked out.

Lyndsay: It all worked out brilliantly.

Lyndsay Faye (R)
Barbara: Would it have been as easy for you to realize the first draft wasn't working if it had been your first novel?

Lyndsay: Dust and Shadow? I love talking about my first novel. It's just about how crazy I am about Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. How much I love them as people. This is the book I wanted to read that didn't exist, so I wrote it.

Barbara: Let me ask you one last question. You did write if I remember correctly three books about a character, but now you seem to like writing individual stories. Are you more interested in writing standalones now?

Lyndsay: The reason why I stopped writing Timothy Wilde novels [The Gods of Gotham, Seven for a Secret, The Fatal Flame] is because they sold like turd sandwiches, so I was told I couldn't anymore. I didn't stop them on purpose, I stopped because no one was buying them. I was told to try something else, so I did. After I wrote Jane Steele, I tried going back to Timothy Wilde and had about 20,000 words done when they said that they needed me to write another book from another female perspective. "We need you to write another girl book."

Barbara: I wasn't taking a position one way or the other. I love series, and I like reading standalones. I don't think of them necessarily as standalones because you don't know when you write a book that there's not going to be more to say.

Lyndsay: As far as these standalones go, I am very happy to report that Jane Steele is being optioned into a film! That would be fun! [Sounds of appreciation from the audience]

After a short Q&A, it was time to adjourn to the signing line. I have a few books already lined up on my reading calendar, but I do know one thing: as soon as I can, I will be reading one of Lyndsay Faye's books!

I'll leave you with one last thought:

Have you entered my giveaway for an autographed copy of The Paragon Hotel? Time's running out!


  1. Sounds like another great night at the PP, Cathy. I always think authors are so much more human and accessible when you get to know them a little. And it's interesting to know about real places that inspire them.

    1. I agree. Normally when you see author events as scenes on TV programs, etc. the author stands at a podium and reads from the book he's written and there may be a question or two at the end. The only part of the author normally seen during the reading is the top of the head. It all seemed so boring. That's what I was expecting the first time I went to an event at The Poisoned Pen, and this sit-down interview is so much more informative and relaxing. As if you're just sitting in a room with friends. Barbara Peters is a gem!

  2. That was marvelous, Cathy! I'm very interested in reading The Paragon Hotel and though I didn't know about all the history of Oregon, I knew some of it. Oregon is still a very curious place or it was when we lived there from 1994-1997. Quite a divide in sorts of people for many reasons (which I won't go into here). And we're from the South, so we know about 'divides'.

    OK, our mystery group read and discussed THE GODS OF GOTHAM several years ago and liked it very much. I also read DUST AND SHADOWS last year (think it was last year) and liked it very much as well. I have read JANE STEELE as yet. And I also would like to read the other two series books. Whew! Have a good time with your reading!

    1. I've been in Oregon twice. Once when I was ten years old. The second time in 2003 when I went to Portland specifically to spend money at Powell's. I hadn't done much reading about it either, so all this came as quite a shock. As for reading JANE STEELE and THE PARAGON HOTEL? Must. Read. Faster!

  3. What a great report from the event! I just picked up Jane Steele from the friends of the library shelf at my library. Plus, they had the Book Page with the Paragon Hotel cover. I just looked at that too!

  4. I found out about this post from Jenclair, above. I am now reading my first Lyndsay Faye book, The Paragon Hotel, and enjoying it! I have Jane Steele on the list to read shortly. Thanks!

    1. You're very welcome. Thanks for stopping by to let me know!

  5. Can't wait to open the first page of The Paragon Hotel. I knew somewhat about the racism, but not as much as the author just explained.
    But in addition to my reading it, told a friend who moved to Portland a few years ago, and she is now interested in the book. I will send it to her when I'm finished.
    I've never read about Portland before, and certainly not about the city in the 1920s. So, an educational book, as well as fun.
    The writer is very interesting. Hope she goes on to write a lot more.


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