I’ve always been fascinated by shabby old hotels, places that existed in the days before renovation, norms, so-called conveniences, and mass tourism. And when ensconced in one of those throwbacks to another era, I do enjoy imagining long gone guests and forgotten dramas. One sagging old Nevada hotel where I stayed conjured up boomtown days and silver mines; several old inns here in France took me back to a time when itinerant artists, craftsmen, and mercenaries wandered the roads. I’ve known hotels in bleak communist countries where impersonal rooms might or might not have been bugged, worker’s hotels in Turkey where men told sad stories and brewed me fern tea. But my stay in such places was, sadly, only temporary.
Then, one day twenty-six years ago everything changed. An acquaintance called me at the radio in the west of France where I was working at the time and asked if I could help him out. He, a photographer living in a distant city, needed to find picturesque villages in this area. Could I show him around? Indeed, I could. I knew the region quite well, for I was then searching for a house to buy.
Together we drove over back roads lined with high hedges, shadowed by ancient oaks, and passing, every few kilometers, through modest villages. In one, on a silent main square, I caught sight of a shabby old hotel with crumbling rendering and peeling paint. It was the sort of inn that had known its heyday back in the 1930s, when people, satisfied by less, spent holidays in sleepy places, indulging in nothing more strenuous than fishing in the local river, strolling along dusty lanes, and eating well in the hotel dining room. I was fascinated by this neglected and unloved building. I longed to slip inside, explore, listen to the walls whisper, but that was impossible since it had been closed for many years. We drove on.
The next morning, I resumed my quest for a house to buy. Imagine my surprise when I walked into a notary’s office and saw a photo of that same hotel. It was for sale and very inexpensive—no one was much interested in purchasing an old wreck. No one but me…
Without a second thought, I bought it—how could I resist? Yes, it took quite a bit of restoration—definitely not renovation—and the addition of plumbing and new electrical wiring, but it’s where I still live. It’s a lovely place indeed, four or five hundred years old, with uneven beamed ceilings, and cracked quarry tiled floors. As a special treat, set into the former dining room’s walls, there are ten large landscape paintings dating from 1914. And I can guarantee that this old place quite definitely tells me tales.
Thus, inspired by my hotel environment, the Mizpah Saloon became the setting for my new romance, A Room in Blake’s Folly. The Mizpah is very much like that Nevada silver boomtown hotel I mentioned earlier, and it’s very lovely and authentic—although some hotels in the Far West could be very dire places back in the 1800s, as Westley Cranston, a main character in A Room in Blake’s Folly, explains:
You can’t put potential investors up in the usual hotels—those are lice-infested, with one towel, one sheet for all comers, and wall separations made out of strips of old paper—so towns have to build hotels like the Blake’s Folly Emerald. It’s a grand place, too, with authentic cast-iron pilasters, a paneled dining room, and a raised stage for an orchestra.
It’s in the Mizpah Saloon that, in 1889, Westley falls in love with Sookie Lacey, a former prostitute, now a dance hall girl. But romance rarely follows a straight path. Times change, loyalties end, life goes on, and new relationships form. And because we are all nosy folk who want to know more, we listen to the walls speak.