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A Conversation with Kage Baker about The Hotel Under the Sand

Kage Baker is already well-known among adult readers for her science fiction series The Company, but her new children's book The Hotel Under the Sand is bound to win her plenty of new readers among the younger set.

The Hotel Under the Sand is the story of nine year-old Emma, who, after a fierce storm, finds herself alone in wilderness of the Dunes: an area deserted since the mysterious disappearance of a resort called the Grand Wenlocke. After befriending a ghostly bellboy named Winston, Emma finds that neither she nor the resort are as lost as they seem.

Baker recently answered a few questions about The Hotel Under the Sand and whether more books for children are in her future. 

 Hotel What sparked The Hotel Under the Sand? Had you wanted to write a book for kids for awhile?

Baker: No...What happened was that we had a really bad year in my family and my eight-year-old niece had to endure some personal tragedies. I wrote her the story in chapters, mailed out weekly, in fancy fonts and with stickers and all... just hoping to help her through that time, because she was being so brave. God knows it helped me. She had more or less lived with us from the time she was born until she was four, and used to play on the beach and in the Dunes, which are quite real. So it was set in the Dunes. And she liked pirates, so there had to be a pirate in the story, and she used to have a little dog, which also went in the story. And once on the beach all these little cobalt blue jellyfish washed up inexplicably, and we found out they were called By-The-Wind-Sailors, which she thought was funny, so that became the name of the pirate ship. And she loved, and still does love, all things Victorian, so the Grand Wenlocke had to be a Victorian hotel. So it's a very personally-tailored book in that sense. And then I thought I'd see if it would fly with a publisher, so the book's revenues might go toward her college fund. What adjustments did you have to make to your writing? It seems like the same trademark Baker humor is in full swing here, but perhaps toned down a little?

Baker: Oh, very, because I was writing for a child after all. And writing to try and help a child through some bad times. It's harder than writing for adults because you have an obligation to tell children the truth, but gently, and if you can do it with humor they'll appreciate it. Whereas if you just dodge the issues and candy-coat everything and stick shiny rainbows and unicorns on it's not going to help at all. The child will catch your evasion and resent it. The child has looked into Hell and knows life ain't all shiny rainbows and unicorns, thank you very much. The child has some questions about life that shiny rainbows aren't going to answer. Adults don't always act as they should. Bad things happen. Why? When you lose everything you have and everything you know, what do you do next? You have to give them the straight dope, but then again, if your tone is too dark, your answers aren't constructive. What was the most fun about writing this book?

Baker: There was a certain freedom of invention, shall we say. Here's a ghost! Here's a pirate! Here's a hotel full of mythological characters! Here's a treasure hunt! Here's a trunk full of Victorian dress-up clothes! Here's a sea battle with cannons! Here's a library full of great old books! Here's a mysterious invention! Here's a tropical island! Can I tie all this stuff Emma loves into a coherent narrative? Let's see! The first draft was very much written off the top of my head. It's been somewhat resculpted since to make it a bit more acceptable to editors, but I had a great time going out the gate. And slipping in a few concepts to be pondered was fun. Winston the Bellboy has a perfect Horatio Alger Boy's Own outlook, whereas Mrs. Beet the Cook is sort of a fat old anarchist at heart, and I enjoyed contrasting their approaches to life. Apollonian versus Dionysian. Will kids run off to google Mr. Eleutherios or the Green Lion? I hope so. Tell readers a little bit about the Grand Wenlocke. It's such a cool idea.

Baker: Well, the Dunes are a vast tract of sand along the Central California coast. Cecil B. DeMille filmed the silent version of The Ten Commandments there, Valentino's The Son of the Sheik was filmed there, part of Jack Sparrow's personal Hell in POTC3 was filmed there. But long before that, at the turn of the last century, (1903 I think) some real estate developers bought up that stretch of coastline and laid out, and sold, lots for a town to be called LaGrande. And there was nothing there but huge sand dunes. I mean, like the Sahara. No water, no roads. The only way to get there was to drive twenty miles along the beach. But the developers built a grand hotel and a steamer pier and got a train station built with a rail spur to the beach. And then.... it all went grossly pear shaped. Nobody built houses because you couldn't, could you, with no solid ground? And people's Stanley Steamers and Model Ts would get stuck in the sand and buried, and to this day whenever there's a bad winter storm the Dunes shift and people find these ancient rusted cars... but the deathblow to LaGrande was when a bad storm blew the sand out from under the grand hotel and it tilted over sideways and had to be abandoned. And when I was telling Emma this story when she was a baby, I'd explain that some people say that it was gradually dismantled and looted for materials by the Dunites (an artists' colony who squatted in the Dunes during the Depression), which was incidentally what did happen, but that some people say it just slid under the relentless sands in a single night and is still down there... somewhere. And so The Hotel Under the Sand just followed naturally, because what child wouldn't want to find a fabulous old Victorian/Edwardian hotel frozen in time? Any particular influences on the story? I immediately think of Japanese anime and manga, to be honest. Miyazaki doesn't seem like much of a reach.

Baker: Not anime or manga, to be frank... Miyazaki is the exception though. I love his work, it's wonderfully imaginative and you really care about his characters. He never sets up heroes who are heroes simply because they can kick and punch harder than anyone else. He has a moral compass. More direct influences were Edward Eager's and E. Nesbit's books, all of which in one way or another feature intelligent kids having magical adventures. And of course the Oz books, and Hugh Lofting's and Lewis Carroll's books... I'm a classicist, I guess. Where will you be doing readings for the book? Have you read to kids before?

Baker: If all goes as planned I'll be reading in the Bay area of Northern California this autumn. And, yes, I have read to kids many times. I was the oldest surviving child in my large family and did a lot of babysitting. I could diaper an infant when I was five. And I did a lot of storytelling while baby-minding and, once I learned to read, did a lot of reading aloud. I also road-tested the Hotel story in verbal form to the children of friends. They gave it a thumbs-up. If real actual children like your children's story, you feel brave enough to see what an editor thinks. Do you plan to write more with this character, or for kids?

Baker: That's in the lap of the gods. Maybe not a sequel-- the story is wrapped up pretty conclusively, and I've been quite taken aback by how vehemently nasty people can be about series books-- but I'd like to write other kids' books. I have an idea for what is essentially a picture book with a storyline, but here we are in the midst of our own Depression and illustrations cost a lot, don't they? But maybe there's a story in what became of Great-Great-Granduncle Wenlocke's gold watch, which was clearly a magical artifact and went missing....


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