Today we're excited to talk with Holly Weiss, author of Crestmont.
FQ: You obviously love the real Crestmont Inn. Would you tell our readers a few things about the Inn that makes it so special to you.
First of all, I’d like to thank Feathered Quill for giving me the opportunity to do this interview. I’m honored to be here.
I’m glad you asked about the inn first, because I wrote it as a central character in Crestmont, a caretaker and an agent of grace. The inn functions as a refuge for many characters in Crestmont and has been a comfort in my own life. A strong sense of family abides outside the novel as well, evidenced by the three generations of the Warner/Woods families that ran the inn for eighty years and by the number of families who continue to flock to the Crestmont year after year.
Foresight and attention to the needs of guests who walk through the Crestmont Inn’s doors are hallmarks of its innkeepers. This was evident from the research I did about William Warner, who built the inn in 1899 up through the current owners, the Mulfords. To illustrate, I had a book signing in Eagles Mere in August. Not only did the Mulfords host an open house for me, but they arranged for a musical family who was staying at the inn to play Celtic music on the porch. Creative people who produce seemingly effortless special touches draw guests back time after time.
Finally, the Crestmont Inn is a survivor. The “big house” had to be torn down in 1981, but the Crestmont still exists in a different form. The laundry house was converted to a gorgeous dining room and reception hall. Luxury suites evolved from a hot, cramped dormitory. What clinched the concept of the book for me was the story about the Mennonites purchasing the wood from the old Crestmont, hacking it off the building and loading it onto their trucks to build barns and so forth. I saw the “big house” living on in different forms. The image brought tears to my eyes when I heard it and when I wrote the scene in the epilogue.
FQ: How did the current owners react when you told them you were writing a book about their inn? Did they provide any insight into the Inn's history to help with your research?
They were very enthusiastic, however, I think they initially thought I was out of my mind. After all, I had stayed at their inn only one night and came to them with this idea of writing a book about the inn during the 1920s. Their support has been incredible throughout the project. We talked for about an hour that first afternoon and they gave me a book complete with floor plans, photographs of the former owners, and a written history of the Crestmont “the way it used to be.” They put me in touch with people who worked at the old Crestmont. Each time I visited, mementos from the old inn, such as a brochure from 1904, postcards from the 1920s era, old stationery, had thoughtfully been placed in my guest room. Their own stories about “difficult and unusual guests” found their way into the novel. The scene where Margaret Woods pulls the burning tablecloth out of the fireplace actually happened in 2003, not 1927. Anything I needed along the way, they gladly gave. The image of the porch filigree which I used on the cover of “Crestmont” was from their photo shoot of 2008.
May I mention an aside that I found fascinating? Heretofore, the Mulfords were not acquainted with the family that owned the inn during the 1920s where I set “Crestmont.” I happened to call them one day and they whispered into the phone that descendants from the original Warner/Woods family were sitting on the front porch thumbing through my novel. They passed the phone outside and I had the opportunity to speak with the family. An ironic coincidence!
FQ: Gracie was a very likeable character. Is she based on a particular person? On the other hand, Bessie is a person you love to hate. Was she a fun character to write?
Drawing a character from one’s own life carries with it the danger of assuming self- absorption when the writer is asked to articulate the character’s basis. Without becoming overly personal, I’ll simply say that Gracie begins the novel in a somewhat broken emotional place similar to where I found myself twenty years ago. I’m glad you liked Gracie. Reviewers have called her everything from “refreshingly naïve” to “weak and timid.” I stand by her characterization. What is important to me in real life or fiction is not where a person starts but how she stretches herself. A quote from Dag Hammarskjold essentially says what happens to you doesn’t count, but rather what you make of it. Long before self-help books were on the shelf, Gracie struggled to find herself — and flourished. I’d rather you read her journey than to tell you mine.
Bessie was challenging, but enjoyable to write. She says and does everything your mother warns you not to do. Nine-year-old Eleanor is the first in Crestmont to recognize that Bessie had hurtful things in her life and that her abrasive conduct is a defense mechanism. Inventing Bessie’s “lingo” was a blast. Whenever my husband would read a section where Bessie said, “Slammin’ Jack,” he’d ask me, bewildered, where that expression came from. I would just shake my head and say “Out of Bessie’s mouth!”
FQ: There is a strong theme of family in Crestmont both in ties that get stronger (Gracie and the Woods) and those that get weaker (Madeleine and Mrs. Cunningham). How important is family both to you and to the story?
I wanted family to be key in the concept of the book, but not in the traditional sense. My father always said, “If you don’t have family, you don’t have anything.” I agree with him completely, but one thing I wanted to show in Crestmont is that family can also be found outside of one’s biological family. The novel is dedicated to my parents, who are both gone now. Writing Margaret’s grief over her father’s death was therapeutic for me because my mother died during the writing of the novel. I decided to write my grandfather, Warren Sloan, into the novel, because that would have made her happy. He invented the automatic pinsetter for bowling alleys (although he sold it shortly after) and gave me the perfect way to round out PT’s earlier life with Sloan as his mentor. Neither Gracie nor PT has family to speak of, but find it at the Crestmont.
I also decided to include my husband‘s poetry – he is the “Paper bag Poet” whose poems prompt a yearning for love in Gracie. He actually wrote one of the poems to me while we were courting. How could I leave that out?
FQ: Tell us how you went about researching the Inn.
I took eight writing “retreats” at the current day Crestmont Inn over the four years I wrote. Spending time in the setting of the novel was a great inspiration (the dorm where Gracie lived has been converted into the present day inn.) My husband bought me a Sears Catalogue from the 1920s which helped me research everyday items people used during the period. The Eagles Mere Museum provided a wealth of information about the great hotel era of the early 20th century. I observed the current innkeepers as they went about the daily business and challenges of running an inn. I was fortunate to meet people who used to work at the old Crestmont and townspeople, many of whom said, “Oh, you’re writing about the old Crestmont? You should talk to so and so.” So I did. These people whirled around in my mind as I wrote and I pushed the publication because I wanted Crestmont to be available for them to read while they were still on this earth. I was very sad to hear that the woman who gave me her pink applesauce recipe (which I wrote into Mrs. Cunningham’s kitchen), died one month before Crestmont was released.
FQ: Music plays an important role in Crestmont. What made you decide to incorporate the real Rosa Ponselle, the opera singer into the story?
I was trained in opera and sang professionally for years. I love listening to Rosa Ponselle, an American soprano who toured the country doing concerts. After studying her biography, it was evident that she might have conceivably exchanged a concert at the Crestmont for a two-week stay there. (That was the Crestmont’s policy.)
During the time I was writing Crestmont, I was grieving over having to give up my own singing career because of post-polio syndrome. Incorporating music, especially singing, into the novel helped me work through that. Now I can say with hindsight that “one voice led to another.” Writing is now my means of creative expression, but music will always be an integral part of me. Miss Ponselle and I have something in common. She retired from the opera stage at a fairly young age as well.
FQ: Stopping at the Crestmont Inn changed Gracie's life. Have you ever thought how different her life would have been if she hadn't stopped?
My immediate response is that Gracie didn’t have the voice to sing on the vaudeville stage, although that was her dream. Had she pursued that goal, her sense of inadequacy and woundedness would have been exacerbated by the futility of auditioning successfully. Mrs. Woods comments on a book Gracie is reading, Sister Carrie. “Running from home to be a famous actress wasn’t exactly what Carrie expected.”
More importantly, my intention in writing Crestmont was to show that Gracie, as an emotionally fractured person, could grow in ways that made her a healthier, more whole individual. She was a very isolated, albeit determined young woman. Her time at the Crestmont Inn forced her to forge relationships that brought out the best in her — her generosity and graciousness. Caring for Mrs. Cunningham made her grow up. Had Gracie not found the Crestmont, I believe she would have been more empty and lonely than she had been before she found it.
By the way, stopping at The Crestmont Inn changed my life as well. The idea to write Crestmont was born one hour after we walked in the door.