Hotel Chatter: The New 'Beach Read' is set at The Four Seasons New York
Looking for a good summer read to throw in your carry-on? The premise of this new book, out on June 8, is perfect for hotel geeks: Based Upon Availability chronicles the (mostly lonely) lives of a group of New Yorkers, who are all loosely connected by their stays at the Four Seasons New York. The hotel's manager is the book's main protagonist, but we get to see each character's story told through both her eyes and their own. Author and journalist Alix Strauss has traveled extensively over the course of her career and says she has "a love affair with hotels." Here, she shares some her favorites.
HotelChatter: What are the main things you look for in a hotel room?
Alix Strauss: I really love free internet. If you're spending up to $300 or even $600 a night, the internet should absolutely be free. I love that the Andaz Hotels have the free in-room minibar. And I like forward-thinking hotels like The Liberty Hotel in Boston. I like a hotel that makes me feel pampered.
HC: What are your hotel turn offs?
AS: I hate a small room. You don't want to feel claustrophobic or—if you're a man—feel like you could pee from your bed. And the room must be clean. If you're sleeping in socks and a shower cap, that's no good.
HC: Why did you choose the Four Seasons as the setting for your book?
AS: The first time I went into the hotel I just fell in love with it. It's so luxurious, and there's a great name recognition from the staff. But it's a large hotel so there is also the chance for anonymity. You can be anyone from anywhere. I loved idea of seeing each of my characters behind closed doors.
HC: Any other favorite hotels?
AS: I recently stayed at the Flemings Hotel in London, and it was so British and so civilized. In New York, I love The Surrey, which has that old Upper East Side feel but with a Chanel-esque modern edge. And in New Orleans, I stayed at the W New Orleans French Quarter. It was very much a W but with a New Orleans flair.
HC: What is it about hotels that makes them so special?
AS: It's an escape. You get to feel high end and pretty. Like at the Four Seasons, where the tub fills in 60 seconds. I don't have that at home. I like what George Bernard Shaw said about hotels: "The great advantage of a hotel is that it is a refuge from home life."
Returning to fiction is like sitting down and having stiff drinks or strong coffee with old friends you’ve not seen in years. You miss them deeply, and are so happy to see them, and you can’t believe it’s been so long since you’ve all gotten together. I wrote my first novel, The Joy of Funerals, in 2003. This month, HarperCollins releases my new novel, Based Upon Availability. In between that time and now, I penned two nonfiction books, and so I’ve been looking forward to getting back to a place where one doesn’t need to fact-check, and I can just create the people and situations.
I’m so fascinated by human behavior and the strange, odd and outrageous things people do. And I wanted a place where all of my characters passed by each other, even bleed into each others lives that was very self contained. Based Upon Availability, centers on eight women who pass through the doors of Manhattan’s signature, ultra swanky Four Seasons Hotel—either for an hour, for several days, or number of weeks—offering sanctuary to some, solace to others, and even despair. Here, they grapple with family, sex, power, love and death as they explore the basic need for human connection while seeking to understand themselves better.
Truth be told, I have a love affair with hotels, and I secretly long to live in one.
Hotels are sexy and offer a strange kind of mystery, a retreat from real life. I love the idea that you can be anyone from anywhere and that once you’ve check 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 play with. I wanted to ask and answer the age-old question; ‘what happens behind closed doors’ while examining the walls we put up as we attempt intimacy, and inspecting the ruins when they’re knocked down.
As a travel writer, I’ve stayed in a lot of hotels—some amazing, some, sadly, not so much—and so for Based Upon Availability, I really wanted to bring some of that experience to the page. I wanted the reader to really get a feel for the inner workings of a property while showing the gritty, sometimes dirty, reality of daily life. I spent a lot of time sitting in the lobby of the Four Seasons hotel and stayed in one of the suites. I pretended to be one of the characters—Unlimited Lou, the aging rock star who’s in dire need of detoxing….in fact, she’s brought to the hotel by her publicist to dry out, having failed at the rehab centers. To give it an authentic touch I dangled an unlit cigarette from my lips, slapped on some removable tattoos, brought a bottle of vodka with me—have you seen the prices for a mini bottle of booze?—and played a lot of rock songs I thought the character would like or have written herself. Of course I remained sober for the experience—though I did walk around naked, as the character does, but of course, this may be far more info than anyone wanted to know. . . . Oh, the need to be honest.
I chose the Four Seasons because I’m a fan, mostly because it’s such a signature, classic, and high-end spot for many New Yorkers and out-of-towners, with instant name recognition. It’s also incredibly large with over 350 rooms so there’s a feeling of vastness and anonymity. Hopefully readers won’t have to get on a plane to feel as though they’ve traveled to New York and stayed at the hotel. But rather Based Upon Availability will make them feel as though they have.
I read and reviewed Alix Strauss' Based Upon Availability last week. Alix was kind enough to answer some questions I had for her about writing the book - here are her excellent responses. (Don't they make you want to read it?!)
1. Why the Four Seasons, other than that it is a quintessential luxury hotel? Do you have any connection to the Four Seasons? You hit the nail on the head – it is the quintessential luxury hotel. I’ve always been a fan of the properties and have written about many of them in the past, especially when I was just starting out as a travel and trend journalist, so I was very familiar with the brand, and the rhythm of the New York hotel. I knew I needed something people would automatically know and understand. The Four Seasons is also perfectly situated in midtown Manhattan, east 57th Street, and attracts a rather specific, higher-end clientele. There’s also a vastness the hotel exudes because it’s so large – approx. 368 rooms, so there’s a feeling that much is going on behind closed doors that we’re not privy to. And yet, there’s still a feeling of interconnection. I also loved the metaphor of the changing seasons and how these characters, or amazing women, need to change and metamorphose.
2. Before you started writing, did you map out on paper the myriad connections between these characters, or did you come across them organically? I’m a rather organic writer and very often will let my characters lead the way. I always start off 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 perfected it on paper. I usually have a beginning and ending, and rely on the 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 another character.
3. How much research did you do for this book? (OCD, phantom pregnancies, detox). I’m addicted to movies, books and shows about addiction, I find the topic fascinating. I find human behavior fascinating. So I didn’t need to do much research with Unlimited Lou, the drunk and coke-up rock star who’s sent to the hotel by her publicist to dry out. The same rings true for OCD, and then I let Anne’s rituals and fears play themselves out in the most creative way while keeping everything as realistic as possible, which is always one of my goals. But I knew virtually nothing about phantom pregnancies, and called many of my friends who’ve had children and asked them about their pregnancies, and then found a plethora of information on the Internet.
4.Morgan gets a much longer treatment than the other women. Is Morgan someone you would like to develop into a whole novel? And where is she headed at the end? Do you have hope for her future? Morgan feels rather finished to me, actually. And without giving too much away, I think readers will have a very good idea where she’s going at the end of the novel. I have high hopes for all of my characters. I want them to succeed, and yet, I know many of them may not, or their struggle will be really hard, but I’m hopeful they will all get to where they need to be, even after they’ve left the page, or the chapter has ended. I’d love for the characters in The Joy of Funerals, my first novel, and for the ladies in Based Upon Availability to all get together at some kind of literary reunion. They’ve lived inside my head for several years and after a novel is finished, I try to get them out to make room for new ones… but these gals are strong and smart, raw and honest, needy and so very real that many of them like to stay.
5.Do you believe women are fundamentally unhappy? If so, why? I think people are fundamentally unhappy. We live in a world where it can be a struggle just to get through the day. We’re all under so much pressure and have high expectations and desires. We’re filled with so much want and need. I think sometimes those needs and wants become more and more important to us, and perhaps take us over. Or perhaps the realization that we may not get them met or fulfilled is more than we can handle. And I think we have a great need to connect to others. Since we live in an instant gratification nation we may seem more connected, but in actuality, it’s a fake intimacy. I think many of us walk around a little hurt and slightly damaged and are looking for ways to feel better. -- Okay, now I need a drink.
As far back as she can remember, all writer Alix Strauss ever wanted were siblings—especially an older sister. “I think my whole world would have been different if I’d had someone there to keep a watchful eye, to be my best friend and a life-long witness,” Alix reported when TSP reached out to talk about her work. “According to my mother, when I was three or four, I asked her why I didn’t have a sister and could she please get me one so I wouldn’t be lonely. I think this became some of the themes in my work—longing, and a need for connection.”
That need for connection is certainly a theme in Alix’s new book, due June 8, called Based on Availability. Set in Manhattan’s Four Seasons Hotel, the characters are eight women who check in for various lengths of stay, as well as varying experiences.
Alix, who grew up in Manhattan, is an only child.
“In fact,” she said recently, “for a far back as you can trace in my family tree, everyone has always had more than one child, except my parents who could have had more and decided to have just me. (Insert deep sigh here.) I’ve always been secretly jealous of big families, and of my friends who have sisters. It’s the bond they share. The automatic understanding. The short hand speaking. The looks thrown across the table that only a sibling would get. Even the word itself has so much power.”
We agree, and when asked to elaborate on the power of the sisterhood, Alix responded: “I think Nina, one of my character’s from my collection of short stories, The Joy of Funerals, said it best: “I’m envious of sisters who sit so close together that they look as if they are trying to become one body, a mush of memories and history congealed like a thin strand of popcorn hung purposely on a Christmas tree.”
Though she had been a freelance writer for a few years, and had been working on a collection of short stories, what kicked Alix’s career into gear was an essay she published in the Lives column of The New York Times. Entitled The Joy of Funerals, it explained how Alix never saw her family except at funerals.
“Here, everyone is invited, everyone deserves a chance to say goodbye. And so for me, they became reunions of sort. I was introduced to relatives I’d never met, connected to people who were part of my gene pool. I was defined. I belonged.
“I love the bonding that occurs, the reuniting that happens between people, even the fights that are momentarily forgotten about, and the fixing of damaged relationships can all occur during these processions. I was extremely intrigued by the whole thing, and thought ‘what if I had a character that goes to other people’s funerals because she is so lonely and her need for connection so great that all she knows how to do is bond with strangers rather than her own small, dysfunctional family.’ And thus, my character of Nina was born.”
The Joy of Funerals, she explained, was written after Alix realized that in each of her stories, someone had always died. So she threaded together those tales and made them into a novel, in stories, and the connection worked beautifully.
We began our talk by asking her to tell us about her new book, though, and its inspiration. Here’s what she said:
“Two years before I was born, my mother had a miscarriage. I’ve never been able to let go of the thought, what if? What if I’d had a sister? And so for Based Upon Availability, my new novel, I really wanted to play the what if sister game with the main character. What if Morgan had an older sister? And what if that older sister, who she adored, died when she was little–so something irreplaceably important to her got taken away. And what if this was what shaped her? And she spent most of her life looking to fill that void–or replace it with another woman, find a stand-in, a segregate sister.”
Based Upon Availability centers around eight women who pass through the doors of Manhattan’s Four Seasons Hotel–”either for an hour, for several days, or number of weeks,” says Alix, “offering sanctuary to some, solace to others, even despair. Here, they grapple with family, sex, power, love and death as they explore the basic need for human connection while seeking to understand themselves better.
“Hotels are sexy and offer a strange kind of anonymity, a retreat from real life. As a travel writer, I’ve stayed in a lot of hotel, and so for Based Upon Availability really wanted to bring some of that to the page. I love the idea that you can be anyone from anywhere and that once you’ve check 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 play with. I wanted to asks and then answer the age-old question; ‘what happens behind closed doors’ while examining the walls we put up as we attempt intimacy, and inspecting the ruins when they’re knocked down.”
The swanky Four Seasons Hotel in Manhattan may be a hot spot for publishing power lunches, but Alix Strauss, whose new novel, Based Upon Availability (Harper), takes place there, could help make it—or at least, others like it—a regular hangout for authors and readers, as well. Since Strauss's novel was released on June 8, she has been doing readings at luxury hotels around New York. So far, Trump SoHo, the Surrey on the Upper East Side, and Fashion 26 in Chelsea have all hosted her—and she has events lined up at the Liberty Hotel in Boston and Ink48, the new Kimpton Hotel in New York, in Hell's Kitchen.
Strauss did a more conventional author tour for her first book, The Joy of Funerals (St. Martin's, 2003). Although getting on a plane to visit bookstores in 26 cities may no longer be the norm for midlist authors, Strauss, a travel writer well acquainted with luxury hotels, said she still wanted to connect with readers for Availability, which received a starred review from PW. "I believe in finding venues that are in keeping with the theme of one's work," she said.
The readings that have taken place so far have drawn hotel guests and locals. At Trump SoHo, Strauss read in the library; at Boston's Liberty, she'll read in the hotel's 2,200-sq.-ft. luxury Ebersol Suite. The hotels have ordered books and sold copies at the events.
So far, Ink48 has taken the most interest in Strauss's offer. The hotel has organized a four-night series later this month, in which Strauss will read a different section of her book every night. Guests will receive complimentary wine and cheese, and can enter to win a stay at the hotel's Hudson River Suite.
Deborah McCluskey, Ink48's general manager, said she purchased 40 copies of Availability to sell at the events, although she said the series is "not really about making money—it's to offer a different experience to our guests." Ink48 occupies an old printing factory, and its restaurant is called Print. "I thought it was the perfect fit," she said of Strauss's hotel tour.
For now, though, Strauss won't be reading at the Four Seasons. She did send the hotel a copy of her book, but says she has not heard back.