October 02, 2019
Adam O’Fallon Price is the author of two novels: The Grand Tour (Doubleday, 2016) and most recently The Hotel Neversink (Tin House, 2019). We recently discussed the joys and difficulties of writing a poly-vocal story, which takes place in a New England resort. The Neversink resort is at once a character, an atmosphere, and a stage that allows for a host of characters to change, stifle, murder, love, and defeat one another.
Randal O’Wain: One of my favorite aspects of The Hotel Neversink is the little moments of reflection that each character presents throughout the book. As when Jeanie thinks, “My father was not an easy man. But why should people be easy? It is a cherished lie of the modern world, of America, that everything should be good and easy, as though comfort were a moral condition.” To maintain this level of interiority without sounding overtly authorial, one, I assume, must know the characters very well. Talk to me about the process of inhabiting so many different perspectives, thoughts, and feelings. How did you go about writing and structuring this novel?
Adam O’Fallon Price: The novel began as the story about one of the main characters, Len, when he’s trying to keep the hotel open in the mid-eighties and dealing with the Polish Policeman’s League, who was running amok. This story came from a man I met when we lived in upstate New York, the husband of my wife’s boss, who had grown up in Brooklyn in the forties, and gone to Catskills resorts for thirty plus years. He’d seen the rise, heyday, and demise of the whole institution, and was a wealth of these incredible stories. So after I wrote that one, and maybe a couple of others, it became clear that the hotel itself was a mainspring that could power so many different stories and voices. And in a weird way, I think occupying this space suggested different characters and different character perspectives. The hotel as seen by a young girl would be radically different from the hotel as seen by the hotel detective. I think always having the hotel there as a shared, immutable feature of life, gave me something solid and objective against which I could imagine all these different subjective experiences. I think the hotel gave me a way in to character perspectives that I would not have otherwise had, or had as easily.
Randal O’Wain: Did you have a favorite character that you wanted to spend more time with than others but could not without losing balance among the many different narrative voices?
Adam O’Fallon Price: This might not be quite what you’re asking, but I had to cut several characters’ stories for the sake of the book’s overall shape and integrity. For instance, there was a long chapter about Sander, the bartender, who retires when the hotel closes and goes down to Florida to live with his daughter. In this story, Sander’s car breaks down at South of the Border, on the NC/SC border, and he’s forced to try to observe Shabbat in this somewhat hellish and inimical place. I loved his character, and this story, but it just felt too tangential to the main plot and to the novel’s reality. There were several like this. More directly to your question, there were two characters who, it became clear through drafting and revision, were the main characters of the book: Leonard and Alice. They’re the yin and yang of the book, the clear protagonist and antagonist—Leonard, who wants to save and preserve his heritage, and Alice, who wants to destroy it. I could have written an entire book about both of them, especially Alice, who emerged as a multifaceted, complex character. She kept surprising me, the different iterations of her that shapeshifted over the course of several decades’ worth of story time.
Randal O’Wain: I’m drawn to Hannah’s story. In this particular chapter, which was excerpted in Harper’s, you’ve delved into the emotional core of two women both of whom are lonely and trapped despite the wealth surrounding Mrs. Gerson and the Hannah’s responsibility to her child. Did you find it difficult to fully inhabit each woman’s interiority so that it read with authenticity and complexity?
Adam O’Fallon Price: I think, again, the narrative sturdiness of the hotel enabled me to get into their perspectives. In a way, this is an obvious point, because characters don’t come to life in a vacuum, and so the particulars of the milieu/setting/time/etc. naturally shape your understanding of them. But I think the hotel is an especially good stage on which to observe people and human behavior. In the case of Hannah, it’s not only a workplace, but a workplace that constantly confronts her with how little she has, the direness of her personal situation with a sick child, and that offers her endless opportunities to steal. In the case of Mrs. Gerson, hotels are such liminally, sexually charged places, it seemed to afford her this space to reimagine herself and the power dynamics of her personal life. Their weird connection, the way they take advantage of each other (especially in terms of Mrs. Gerson’s sexual abuse of Hannah), the way they wind up impinging on each other’s lives, is not something I think I would have had the imaginative bandwidth to explore if it weren’t for the physical and metaphorical space that the hotel provides.
Randal O’Wain: We’ve talked a lot about the people that pass through The Hotel Neversink, but not so much about the main character of the novel: the hotel itself. How did the vision for this hotel come about?
Adam O’Fallon Price: When I started writing the book, we were living in upstate New York and I was doing my post-MFA teaching at Cornell. We’d spent a little time in the Catskills, and I’d become interested in the area and its history. As I mentioned earlier, my wife’s boss’s husband–I randomly discovered at a party–was this incredible repository of historical information and stories about these hotels, especially Grossinger’s and The Concord. Grossinger’s was still standing—defunct, but not torn down yet, and adjacent to the hotel’s still-operational golf course—so we went on a pilgrimage, broke in (sounds sexier than it was, really it was just going around back when a security guard wasn’t watching and walking through one of the broken windows), took pictures, and explored. It was in ruins, but a lot of the original decor and design was still intact, including some incredible art deco touches like these carved wooden chandeliers. You could just sense what an amazing place it had been, so full of life and millions of stories over the decades. It really fired the engine of my imagination, and gave the sense of a project to the handful of stories I’d been writing based on my friend’s anecdotes. Grossinger’s became the model for the hotel, and I read a couple of books, including Jenny Grossinger’s memoir. A lot of the family history stuff is taken from the Grossinger’s story, including the patriarch’s incredibly tenacious path from Poland to NYC to Liberty. Though my book is a lot darker than this story, which was mostly a happy, triumphant one, free of any murder!
Adam O’Fallon Price’s short fiction has been published in Harper’s Magazine, The Paris Review, VICE, and many other places. His essays and reviews appear in venues such as Electric Literature, the Paris Review Daily, Ploughshares, and The Millions, where he is a staff writer. His first novel, The Grand Tour, was published in 2016. He lives in Carrboro, NC.