In her new novel, Based Upon Availability, Alix Strauss captures the intangible romanticism as well as ennui of hotel life. Below, my interview with the author.
JD: Based Upon Availability is such an "ensemble piece" of a novel. Could you tell us about how the structure came to you, and what your writing process was like?
AS: I love working with a number of characters and then getting different points of view and perspectives on those scenes. I also adore playing with the concept of how our lives are interwoven, why we meet the people we do and how those meetings can affect us for the rest of our lives. In terms of structure, I knew I needed a place that would house all the characters in Based Upon Availability, and I knew a swanky, signature hotel like Manhattan’s Four Seasons was really the perfect location. I like the transient feeling, the vastness of the property, the understanding that hundreds of people pass through the doors of the hotel every day, but only a few of them leave an impression. And I wanted the hotel to capture these women at their best and worst while they exposed and revealed their deepest secrets and their most vulnerable moments.
I usually start with a line of dialogue, or a situation, or an inciting incident. Or a scene will keep playing in my head, and won't stop until I’ve written it, shaped it, and brought it to life on paper. Often I’ll have a beginning and ending, and rely on my characters to carry me through the middle. Once several stories are finished, I’m able to create the larger puzzle I’ve been working on by inserting other scenes into a specific story in order to introduce other characters.
JD: I found Morgan's habit of sneaking into the rooms of random hotel guests truly fascinating. Although your book is very female-centric, it reminded me of a great scene of hotel sneakery in uber-masculine David Mamet's film, House of Games. What is your personal experience with hotels ...and with sneakiness?
AS: I loved House of Games. It’s a terrific film, and just reading your question made me think of the Lindsay Crouse character who steals the pen and pocketknife…. And the fact that she’s a shrink makes her behavior even more messed up and horrific.
I’ve had a long love affair with hotels. I often joke they’re one of my more successful relationships. They’re sexy and offer a strange kind of anonymity, a retreat from real life. I love the idea that you can be anyone from anywhere and that once you've checked out, the rooms are stripped down, wiped clean and all traces of you are erased, as if you'd never been there. That was an intriguing concept to work with. I also wanted to answer the age-old question; ‘what happens behind closed doors.’ And I wanted to bring in my experiences as a travel writer to the page. On a positive note, I’ve never snooped in someone’s room, but I am guilty of breaking down and eating the uber pricy bags of chips and candy.
JD: The authorities have been alerted! What would you say is your greatest challenge as a novelist, and how does your work as a journalist help and/or hinder you in your fiction writing?
AS: Letting people know they can still fall in love with fiction even if the story doesn’t have a happy ending or has slightly dark-ish themes. I feel as if I’m constantly fighting the chick-lit battle. Not every girl gets the guy. Hell, not every girl wants the guy. My characters are so much deeper and complex than that. They’re filled with need and desire and want. I expect a lot out of my readers the same way I expect a lot out of my characters. I want the same goals for both groups; I want them to go through something, and to come out differently having finished the novel. Carrie Fisher once said something like this about her novel, Postcards From the Edge: No one wants to see a mother and daughter who get along well in the beginning and get along even better in the end. I want readers to go on a journey with my characters—even if that trip is bumpy. I can promise it will always be honest, rich with texture, a little naughty, funny and real. I want to offer people a succulent and filling buffet rather then just one type of chicken. That can be dull, tasteless, and a little dry.
JD: What was your approach to revision with this book?
AS: My biggest breakthrough with Based Upon Availability came when I decided to run it backwards. Originally, like with Joy of Funerals, my first collection of stories, you met all the characters on their own, in their own stories. Then in the novella, you met them again, in a different light, through Nina, the main character’s eyes. My plan with Based Upon Availability was to do a similar format. After two years of it feeling not quite right, I realized I needed the reader to meet Morgan, the main character who’s the assistant general manager of the Four Seasons, and let her introduce you to all the women who pass through the doors of the hotel, and who you’ll meet later on. Then when you meet them in the confines of their own hotel room, it has a greater impact on the reader, plus you’re prepared better for what lays ahead. Readers also get a kick out of solving the puzzle a bit and trying to figure out which characters will cross paths and how their stories will unfold later, and how it will all be pulled together in the end.
JD: What are you reading and writing these days?
ASL: I’m beyond excited to read Bret Easton Ellis' long-awaited sequel to Less Than Zero, and Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man. And as soon as the book tour slows down I’ll start on my next novel.
Until next week, I leave you with the question: what is your experience with writing in hotels?
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