August 17, 2011
West Hampton resident Samantha Bruce-Benjamin is no stranger to the summer dramas of 1930s high society. Her captivating first novel, The Art of Devotion, is set on an island in the Mediterranean in the 1930s and follows a wealthy family harboring dark secrets. Her in-progress second novel, The Last Party, narrates the events of the final party hosted by a fabled Hamptons society hostess on the day of the Great Hurricane of 1938. I sat down with her for a chat.
AMY MILLER GROSS: Did you base the main character in The Last Party on anyone in particular?
SAMANTHA BRUCE-BANJAMIN: The character of Serena Lyons, the fabled society hostess and central character of The Last Party, was inspired by my love of a house in Remsenburg, on South Country Road, known as the Capt. Rogers House—which has always struck me, to quote Edith Wharton, as the “prettiest house in America.” While researching some of the history of the hamlet—the “first Hampton” as it is perceived on the East End—I came across a snippet of information about a real-life resident of Remsenburg, one Mrs. Edward Lyon, who in the 1930s used the house—an exquisite 18th century Greek Revival structure—to host a supper club every Friday evening known as the Leisure Hour Supper Club. From there… I began to think of hostesses and parties and last parties and why someone would wish to entertain people. The Serena Lyons of the novel lives a rather more exalted existence in a fictitious Georgian mansion inspired by some of the fabled mansions of the Hamptons, which I have imposed where the house in question sits, at the top of Shore Road.
AMG: What was the most interesting tidbit about the 1930s-era Hamptons that you found?
SBB: The story that tickled me the most was that of the Woolworth heiress, Jesse Woolworth Donahue, and the rumor surrounding the redbrick wall on Gin Lane, which still stands. The admittedly uncorroborated story was that she built the wall at the foot of her property—the opulent Tudor mansion, Wooldon Manor, now sadly torn down—to obstruct the view of the Southampton Bathing Corporation, which had refused her membership to the club. Apparently she built her own swimming pool, which was unheard of, and the wall to spite them, possibly providing the inspiration for her cousin Barbara Hutton’s later infamous contention that “living well is the best revenge”!
AMG: How would you say the Hamptons society you wrote about compares to the Hamptons society of today?
SBB: The society of the Hamptons of the 1930s is an existence that seems perpetually to conjure up the idea of very wealthy people attending endless parties with society damsels wafting over well-manicured lawns, cocktail in hand, or spending all day at the Maidstone before returning to their fully staffed mansions. In essence that was basically the case then and, obviously, all of these things still happen. But we live in a far more casual age: Jackets are required less and less, Emily Post is no longer required reading, monogrammed linens (sadly) aren’t the norm. If I could have one wish I’d ask for the fashions to still be in place. I don’t think there was ever an era more elegant or refined than the 1930s. I would love it if men still wore tuxedos to dinner, as a matter of course, and ladies bias-cut silk dresses. That would be bliss.
AMG: What books will you be bringing to the beach this summer?
SBB: The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst, which was just shortlisted for the Booker Prize. His previous novel, The Line of Beauty, which won the Booker, is in my opinion a masterpiece and one of the most beautiful books I’ve read in years. Beyond that I’m reading World on Fireby Amanda Foreman, about the British involvement in the American Civil War. She’s such an accessible historian. It’s as brilliantly entertaining as her previous novel, Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire, which I also loved.
AMG: Where do you write?
SBB: Mostly in Westhampton, funnily enough. It’s a very inspiring place. I love the peace and serenity of the life out here, and being so close to the sea, which is my favorite thing in the world. I wrote The Art of Devotion over the course of a summer here, outside, whenever possible, on the deck underneath a beach umbrella. I’m a summer writer, it seems, and I’m drawn to summer as a theme. The Art of Devotion was predominantly set during the summer of 1938 on a Mediterranean island, and The Last Party is set on the last day of summer: September 21, 1938. I seem to be particularly drawn to that year, too! I often struggle to find the inspiration to write in Manhattan, perhaps because there are so many distractions. I’ve been known to be so frustrated at my inability to create that I drive out in the dead of winter just to write here. It always works. Inspiration swiftly follows.
AMG: Being such a summer person, describe your perfect summer day.
SBB: Whenever I think of summer I always think of the quote by Henry James, “Summer afternoon… the two most beautiful words in the English language.” To that I would add, “summer afternoon in the Hamptons.” It’s such a privilege to spend summers here, so my idea of perfection is usually what I find every day: peace and quiet, sea, idyllic beaches, and hours and hours of uninterrupted writing outside with my little dog, Geordie Beau, at my feet. Heaven.
For the full interview with Samantha Bruce-Benjamin and Amy Miller Gross, visit insightthelines.com.
August 09, 2011
Author Ilie Ruby spent 10 years writing her debut novel, The Language of Trees. An enchanting work of fiction, the book takes place on Canandaigua Lake in Canandaigua, New York, where Ruby’s childhood summers unfolded. This year marks her second Authors Night in the Hamptons, where she will bring her recently adopted children for their first family vacation. Ruby shared with us her impressions of the Hamptons and what summers on the lake were really like.
AMY MILLER GROSS: You live near Boston—have you spent time in the Hamptons?
ILIE RUBY: I’ve had so many close calls with the Hamptons. When I was in my 20s people wanted to do the house share and there were so many summers where I almost did it and then I had to work. So my first real experience was last summer being part of Authors Night. In additionto introducing me to the wonder of the Hamptons, I had the chance to celebrate the publication of The Language of Trees in such a fabulous literary atmosphere with both readers and other authors, including my lovely friend, author Laura Day. It was also special having my daughter alongside me, adopted from Africa only a year and a half before and now well on her way to becoming a literary maven. She will be with me again this year.
AMG: What was your impression of the East End?
IR: We all fell in love with the Hamptons and are building our first summer family vacation around this year’s Authors Night. We hope to spend it in East Hampton. It will be my children’s first time staying at the beach and they couldn’t be more excited to take in the sights, the good food and the family time together. As a writer who set her first novel on Canandaigua Lake, where I spent my childhood summers, I’m a firm believer in the power of place—so I’ll be taking notes. Who knows? Perhaps I’ll set my next novel in the Hamptons!
AMG: Do you still spend time on Canandaigua Lake?
IR: We do. I grew up spending my summers there and it was the one time that all the members of my family were together in the same place for an extended period of time, so it kind of had that magical feeling for me from a young age. I’m a big believer in summer vacations, in having a place to go to that allows you to get back in touch with who you are. For families this is particularly important since our lives are governed by our children’s school schedule, and this is the only extended time we have to connect with family members.
AMG: What is life like on the lake?
IR: Every vacation spot has its own culture and you become a part of that life for just a while; sleeping late, water skiing, fishing on the docks, playing board games, gathering around the radio like we did late at night to listen to ghost stories. This became fodder for The Language of Trees. Summer places can be the place for first loves and secrets, and many of the people that I knew from Canandaigua from my summers became the inspiration for different characters in my novel.
AMG: How long did it take you to write your novel?
IR: It was almost a 10-year process from beginning to write it to seeing it on the shelves in a bookstore. It was such an incredible journey writing that book and rewriting it. My life changed so drastically through the course of that book—I sort of grew up with that book, or that book kind of grew up with me. Toward the end I got married, I adopted three children from Africa and, like, boom—we sent out the book and the book gets picked up right away.
AMG: What books will you bring to the lake or beach this summer?
IR: Alice Hoffman’s The Red Garden. I love Alice Hoffman’s work, and I savor her books and reread them over and over again. I’m also looking forward to reading Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle.
AMG: As you know Authors Night benefits East Hampton Library. What is your favorite library in the world?
IR: The Concord Library where I live right now in Concord, Massachusetts, because they have a wonderful children’s room and there’s so much to do there. As a new mom with three kids, it’s the perfect place. There are places for the kids to sit and do interactive exercises. The librarians there really care and they do so much in terms of community support and really bring in great people to speak. It’s just a beautiful building and wonderful environment.
AMG: What are you working on next?
IR: I just finished my second novel and it was just bought. It’s called The Salt God’s Daughter. It’s a modern day love story woven with Scottish folklore that deals with women’s issues of love, connectedness, motherhood and the choices that we make.
For the full interview with Ilie Ruby and Amy Miller Gross, visit insightthelines.com.
August 02, 2011
Comedian Karen Bergreen’s debut novel Following Polly stars Alice Teakle, who stalks her Harvard frenemy—the flawless and affected Polly—only to wind up as the prime suspect in her murder. We asked Bergreen, who will appear at this year’s Authors Night (August 13), who she would like to follow and what we would find by following her.
AMY MILLER GROSS: If you could follow any author at all who would it be?
KAREN BERGREEN: I would give anything to know J. K. Rowling. I would love to know what she’s like, if she’s a real person. I started reading Harry Potter with my kids. She’s a genius. The characters are amazing. Her principles come out in her books, and as far as the stories it’s like she hits every note perfectly. I’ve seen her on only one interview. She seems really nice, and I read that she gives a lot of her money to education. But she hates the media and she’s very private but boy, would I want to know what her day is like. She just seems so perfect. I want it to be what I hope it is. Like that will make me feel better about the world.
AMG: If we followed you around would we end up in the Hamptons?
KB: I spend time in the Hamptons for book signings. The Hamptons is very book-friendly. I just did something at BookHampton a couple months ago with Linda Fairstein. It was a thriller-fest kind of thing called Mayhem Weekend and it was really fun.
AMG: If we trailed you on a typical summer day what would we discover?
KB: You would find that like Alice [in Following Polly] I spend a lot of time watching television at home. I write. I’m a person that goes to the gym. I talk on the phone a lot. I’m a big baker. I run into people in my neighborhood who I know, and I stand on a street corner for a half an hour in a conversation and every other sentence I say, ‘I’ve got to go,’ but don’t because I can’t stop talking.
AMG: If we wanted to track you down at your favorite library where would we go?
KB: I love the public library on 42nd Street but I also like the new library right near me on 46th Street between Lexington and Third that looks like a café. I think that all libraries should have cafeterias in [them] and the money should go to keeping the libraries open more hours. They’ve had to shut down all these libraries and I think if you make the library more of an event, people will go to it more.
AMG: If we followed you to the beach this summer what would we see you reading?
KB: I love all those Shopaholic books. I think they’re adorable. Anything Susan Isaacs. I’m obsessed with her; I think she’s great. I would read anything Meg Wolitzer. Actually I would wait and go to the beach in October because I’m desperately awaiting the new Jeffrey Eugenides.
AMG: If we trailed you at the office what would we see you working on next?
KB: I’m working on book number three. I have another book coming out next spring that’s all done, about a mom who is overcoming postpartum depression. The way she overcomes it is by solving the murders of all the mothers in her preschool, in her kid’s preschool. The mothers are dead. But it’s comedy.
For the full interview with Karen Bergreen and Amy Miller Gross, visit insightthelines.com.
July 19, 2011
Author, trend journalist, teacher and social satirist Alix Strauss wrote the hilarious non-fiction stories Have I Got a Guy For You and Death Becomes Them, and the engaging novels The Joy of Funerals and Based Upon Availability. We recently chatted about her writing process, Authors Night, her love of hotels and (of course) the Hamptons.
AMY MILLER GROSS: You will be at Authors Night this year. Have you been before?
ALIX STRAUSS: I haven’t. And it’s always been one of those, I guess for a writer, a bucket list [item]. It’s such a wonderful evening and you really do get the best of the best, so I’m really excited to be included this year. And it’s for such a great cause.
AMG: Your novel, Based Upon Availability, takes place at The Four Seasons Hotel. Did you spend a lot of time there doing research?
AS: I did. I have a love affair with hotels. I often joke that it’s one of my longest and most successful relationships, and there’s something fantastic about The Four Seasons in Manhattan. I sat in the lobby, I did an enormous amount of people watching, found a rhythm for the hotel. I stayed in the hotel for a night or two and sort of channeled one of the characters. And as a travel writer I really wanted to bring the feel for what it’s like to spend a night there so that the hotel itself becomes another character in this collection of interwoven stories.
AMG: Do you have any favorite places to stay out East?
AS: I don’t have a favorite hotel, but they do have some inns. So I’m excited to stay at an inn, hopefully.
AMG: Can you share a memory from a Hamptons stay?
AS: When I was in my twenties I did the Hampton share, which can be a bit of a nightmare because you’re just thrown in with all these people. You know, if I wanted to join a sorority in college I guess I would have. I was never a good room-sharer with nine other people that I didn’t know. I like my own bathroom, I like to know the seat is as I left it and that nobody has puked on the floor. So I never had great Hampton-share experiences.
AMG: Do you have any fond memories of time spent in the Hamptons?
AS: I once did a reading… at BookHampton and Courtney Love was there, who really would be the ideal person to play Unlimited Lou from Based Upon Availability. There was something so surreal and so wonderful about Courtney Love coming into the bookstore during the reading and looking at the book and picking it up.
AMG: If you had to write about one thing in the Hamptons what would it be?
AS: I’m fascinated by the wealth and by the people who inhabit these homes. I have a friend who takes photographs of very prominent families, and for a summer I shadowed her a bit and met these really lovely people. There’s an amazing feeling of much. You walk into these huge kitchens and that island in the center is always covered with big bowls of Dylan’s Candy.
AMG: What books will you take to the beach this summer?
AS: Elissa Schappell's first novel is called Use Me. She’s a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and she’s just a wonderful writer. And there’s a new novel by Eleanor Henderson from HarperCollins that my editor just sent me called Ten Thousand Saints. Some of it actually takes place in the Hamptons. It’s about the music scene in the Hamptons, Manhattan and Vermont, and it takes place from the 1980s through 2006. That’s so my era. I have a passion for alternative music and for show tunes, sadly, and I just love New York/Hamptonsy kind of buzz-wordy, commercial fiction-y things like that. So I’m really looking forward to reading that.
For the full interview with Alix Strauss and Amy Miller Gross, visit insightthelines.com.
July 05, 2011
Since about the time I was 15 I’ve had anxiety over choosing a book to read. I consider books my friends for life and I want to be in love with—or at least have a crush on—the premise. As soon as I discovered that Adam Ross’s debut Mr. Peanut was about a man who may or may not have killed his wife (or a man who may or may not have wanted to kill his wife), I was smitten. With the spate of inappropriate and secretive behavior on the part of husbands lately, I’ve been extra intrigued by the private thoughts and lives of married men. Mr. Peanut did not disappoint. It is a thriller, but Ross—who will read at BookHampton (July 23) and appear at Authors Night (August 13) this summer—goes deep and is full of insights on marriage and monogamous relationships. Ladies and Gentlemen, his follow-up, is a collection of short stories and just as captivating as his debut.
AMY MILLER GROSS: You currently live in Nashville with your wife and kids, but you grew up in Manhattan. Did you visit the Hamptons growing up?
ADAM ROSS: My parents bought land in East Hampton in 1979 on Hands Creek Road. They built their house in 1981 and my first restaurant job was at Little Rock Lobster. I’ve worked everywhere from Della Femina to Brent’s General Store to Honest Diner.
AMG: Blueberry pie factors heavily into Mr. Peanut. Why?
AR: Blueberry pie is significant in Mr. Peanut because it’s actually a known fact that [the character] Marilyn made [the husband] Sheppard [pie] the night she’s murdered, and it was his favorite dessert. Blueberry pie is loaded with symbolic significance in Mr. Peanut because Sheppard was coming off of an affair, and it represented to me Marilyn’s attempt to show him she was willing to forgive him and move on and still do the things that made him happy.
AMG: Food in general plays a big role in the book. Where do you love to eat on the East End?
AR: We never get through a visit without eating on the water at East Hampton Point. Our favorite place [where] we probably eat the most in the Hamptons is Claws on Wheels. They just have the best seafood. My wife and I go in there and eat their po’ boys or their fish and chips. They make incredible clam chowder, gumbos and lobster bisque. They rock.
AMG: What are you reading these days?
AR: If I’m not reading non-fiction I always read short stories in conjunction with a novel. Right now I’m reading James Salter’s book of collected stories called Dusk. I recommend Salter’s work to anyone on the planet. He’s one of the greatest living writers in the world. I’m also reading Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which is also amazing.
AMG: You are participating in Authors Night to benefit East Hampton Library. Do you have an all-time favorite library?
AR: Well, I will say this honestly: The East Hampton Library is very dear to my heart because whenever we were out there I would spend many a forlorn summer working in the stacks there writing Mr. Peanut while my kids and wife were at the beach. The only other library that even comes close to it is the New York Public Library, where I spent a lot of time studying for exams. I went to Vassar College and so some weekends I would come in and spend time at home and study there. But East Hampton Library is pretty high up on the list just because I really wrote significant chunks of Mr. Peanut in its stack.
For the full interview with Adam Ross and Amy Miller Gross, visit insightthelines.com.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ERIC ENGLAND