Pamela Todd – The Blind Faith Hotel:
Coming of Age on the Prairie
I was on an airplane flying back to Philly from Austin when I read The Blind Faith Hotel (Margaret K. McElderry Books, Simon and Schuster, 2008) by Pamela Todd, a coming of age story that’s obviously for young adults–given where I found it in the bookstore and its cover illustration of a teenage girl.
As I looked over at the well-coiffed woman sitting next to me doing Sudoku, I hoped she didn’t peek over at what I was reading and think me juvenile or slow. After all, I’m clearly out of the author’s age-demographic.
And yet, if she’d asked, I’d explain that while The Blind Faith Hotel is a book for young adults, there is something infinitely ageless in its themes: a move, a disruption in what’s comfortable, the feeling of foundation cracking, a family in chaos, the need to assimilate.
To be more specific, The Blind Faith Hotel is about a 14-year-old named Zoe who feels like her world is shattered when her fisherman father ships out to Alaska and her mother then moves Zoe and her siblings from their home in Washington State to a run-down farmhouse in the Midwest. There, Zoe finds herself lost in change. After a brush with the law, she winds up in a work program at a local prairie preserve, where she acquires a newfound appreciation for nature, meets a wild boy and, well, you’ll have to read the rest for yourself.
I was not only surprised by how well I connected to Zoe’s experience, but how much I enjoyed reading about her journey. Because, truth be told I might not have picked up the book for any other reason except that the author, in the spirit of full disclosure, is my friend.
Pamela Todd and I have known each other for years—since she worked for me almost a decade ago, writing scripts for computer-based training programs about employee benefits.
What she does today is a far cry from our days together in corporate America. Although she still writes copy, this time for a Web design firm outside of Chicago (close to where she lives with her husband, a rotation of four children [two in college and summer residents only], and her Golden Retriever Benton), she is also a successful author and novelist two times over.
Most recently, The Blind Faith Hotel not only won the 2009 National Green Earth Book Award for its encouraging nudge towards environmentalism as well as a grant from the Illinois Arts Council, but the thumbs-up of my 11-year-old stepdaughter (not an easy sell, trust) and all of her friends. (Pam’s first book,The Pig and the Shrink [Delacorte, 1999], is about a young boy who tries to turn his overweight friend into a science fair project only to find his friend has his own ideas about how to live.)
Pam also speaks at conferences and events, has been a visiting artist for the well-respected Ragdale Foundation (a retreat just 30 miles north of the city), participates in a book group with several other well-known writers, and leads writing workshops. That includes one on journal writing in a women’s prison—which makes sense if you think of her as she’d like: As a true conservationist—not only in her approach to respecting the environment, but the human spirit as well. We talk about it greater depth, among other things, during our interview.
WRR: Tell me in your own words what THE BLIND FAITH HOTEL about?
It’s really about relationships and how to maintain them faced with difficulties. It’s about who you are, who others are, and learning to forgive and move past some of the hard things. In fact, if there’s any one thing I’d like readers to leave with, it’s the idea that people are flawed and still worth loving—that we have to love each other not in spite of our flaws, but with them. We need to embrace other people’s mixedness.
WRR: What inspired you to write it?
If you read the book, you’ll see something of how I feel about the natural world. My connection to nature has always been one that sustains and connects me to the other things in my life.
WRR: How so? Can you give me an example?
Sure. I remember when I was 13, we moved out of the city and to the suburbs, where I felt really disconnected. My sister went to college, my parents worked and commuted, and I literally relied on the ground and the earth for comfort.
WRR: In all the years I’ve known you, Pam, I’ve never known how passionate you really were about nature and the environment. Tell me more about that and how you came to include the prairie in your story.
When my kids were little, I used to take them camping. At first, we went with my nephew, who was 18 at the time and a big outdoorsman (he later became a fisherman in Alaska). For years, we’d take these camping trips—to Yellowstone, Jackson Hole, and some Canadian parks. Then, I started to go with just the kids. And it was amazing. We went everywhere – from the southwest like Colorado and Utah, to the northeast in Nova Scotia and Maine, and then back to the Northwest, which is my favorite part of the world.
WRR: It makes sense, then, that’s where Zoe and her family lived before moving to the Midwest.
Yes. I also have a close friend who is a restoration ecologist. She managed a prairie in a suburb of Chicago (Downers Grove) and I met her when my first son was born. We spent lots of time together when the kids were growing up and I learned a lot about the prairie from her.
WRR: I remember you talking about writing the Blind Faith Hotel years ago, but didn’t it start out as a book about a rat?
(Laughs.) Yes. There was the rat’s funeral. Sometimes, you just resonate with certain symbols and events for whatever reason they won’t let go of you.
WRR: What was the deal with the rat again? Refresh my memory. Please.
When my third daughter was in pre-school, her teacher had a class full of pets and one of them was a rat, which turned into cute little baby rats and the kids just loved them. When it came time for the kids to go on vacation for the holidays, the rats needed someplace to go. My daughter asked if we could adopt one. So we did. And it lived with us in a glass aquarium in her bedroom.
WRR: Wow, you are a great mom. That would NOT have gone over well with my mother.
Yes, well the rat was so cute and she just adored it. She couldn’t understand how others would be afraid or turned off by it. Anyway, as time went on, my nephew came to stay with us and noticed that the rat had died in its aquarium. By the time I got up, I found my daughter sitting with the rat in a blanket, crying. To see her like that was both heartbreaking and touching.
WRR: So was this the inspiration for the scene where Ollie, Zoe’s younger brother, cradles the dying hawk?
Yes. When it first happened with my daughter, I thought it was so sad and awful. And then the writer part of me thought what a good story! That’s when I got this great idea for a picture book about a rat’s funeral. When I told my editor, however, she wasn’t so keen on it. So while it didn’t work out as I had thought, it did morph into this book—which is still truly about loss. I still wrote the rat’s funeral—it’s just more figurative than literal, and Zoe’s dad is the rat.
WRR: I want to talk about Zoe’s father in a bit, but first I’d like to talk about how you did your research. You get pretty detailed about the prairie. How long did it take you to learn about it?
In addition to what I’d learned from my friend, I did a good deal of research and grew a small plot of prairie plants in my backyard. I learned details about how the plants and prairies are restored. I even took a few classes on it. There’s a whole subculture of prairie restoration people who are really devoted to it.
WRR: Which you really don’t hear much about.
No, and yet 1/100th of one percent of the original prairie is what’s left in Illinois alone. You’d think there’d be a lot more. But there isn’t—it’s a rare environment, rarer than even the rain forest, and less talked about. Still, there’s a small community of people who support the work of saving it. Which is another thing about writing this book that’s really been rewarding—the ability to raise awareness for this cause. Because nurturing the prairie and the earth is also about nurturing yourself.
WRR: So in a sense, this book is also about the power of connecting with nature?
Yes. When you work with the earth, it changes you. While we sustain it, it sustains us. Preserving that is really important to me.
WRR: In that context, I’m assuming the prairie is a metaphor for Zoe?
Absolutely, although it wasn’t intentional, but I do think that’s how it works for me. In nature, I tend to find a new understanding of myself and my own philosophies.
WRR: Tell me about Zoe’s relationship with her father?
Her relationship with her father was a lot about finding her own way. He had given so much to her and had really been her hero. And, in the beginning, all you see are these heroic aspects through Zoe’s eyes. His true self—his wholeness, his darkness and lightness—is revealed as you get further into the book.
WRR: One thing I loved about him was the way he taught her how to find direction, both literally and figuratively. How did you come to give him that characteristic?
I was very excited to find the metaphor of navigation. He gave her the tools and wisdom to find her own way when she needed to.
Another big turning point in writing the book came when I was talking to a friend of mine and, in discussing relationships, she said something like, “Sometimes people can be lost and still help you find your way”. The whole idea of being lost but still having something of value to offer really helped me to forge the end of the book.
WRR: Tell me about Zoe’s relationships with the other male characters in the book since they seemed a bit tumultuous as well. I mean, we can understand the tension between mothers and daughters—and I think you did a dead-on job of presenting that (I am a daughter, after all). But none of the guys seemed all that steady. How come?
They all represented a certain side of Zoe. For example, her younger brother Ollie was so young, the only way he could express himself was through howling and crying—which was how Zoe felt, but couldn’t convey. He had that sort of raw grief and vulnerability that allowed her to care for him in a way that she wasn’t able to care for herself.
I didn’t write Hub, who led her work program, into the book until later, when I wanted a foil for the father and her whole family. This may be difficult to understand if you haven’t read the book, but Hub represented somebody who’d been deeply wounded by her family’s action and was able to forgive and to find meaning again in his life. He was able to make a contribution, even though he lost everything.
WRR: In that sense, he was heroic.
Yes. He wasn’t flawed, just because he was gruff and grumpy and stern and asked a lot of her. His whole deal was there’s no time to waste on petty issues. There’s important work to be done. He represented that maturity of viewpoint-that you work to contribute to the good of the whole community of life. Ultimately, that involves a lot of forgiveness—as he was able to forgive for the loss of his wife and child.
WRR: I must say, when it came to the relationship between Zoe and Ivy, you did a great job of capturing the excruciating longing of a teenager.
I think whenever you’re writing about an emotion, you tap into your own experience, even if it’s not the same circumstance. When you go back where and when you felt something powerful, it somehow comes out on the page.
WRR: There’s a pretty racy exchange between Zoe and Ivy in the book. She and Ivy have met in the woods and he’s coaxed her to lie back on his outstretched arms in the river. She’s afraid, but he’s trying to help her let go and relax, telling her to trust him. She’s okay.
WRR: You write, “She let her body go again, stretched her neck and arched her back. She felt the release of his hands. Her body drifted a bit, and her arms floated straight out to the side like a bird in flight. Ivy smiled and flicked his dark hair out of his eyes. He held his hands up in the air; a magician. Water splashed down on his tanned chest and she watched as it rolled down, caressing each muscle and rib. “What are you thinking,” he asked. “Nothing,” [she said]. But she heard a voice deep inside her. She was thinking this: Love will hold you up.”
Pretty deep, huh?
WRR: Well, yes. And maybe I’m naïve or just too old to remember, but do kids of that age really feel that intensely?
I like that sensuality and don’t think there’s enough left in the world. Again, it’s more sensual than sexual—just a little more subtle. And yes, everything was much more intense at 14. I think, at that age, your feelings are just more pronounced.
WRR: You really do capture that feeling of being in love so well. Even with a simple line, “He had wound his way into all her thoughts, so much so that she could barely remember what it was like to have an idea that didn’t include him.” I loved that because I can really relate to that, even now.
It is such a wonderful feeling, isn’t it? Sometimes I think people forget how that love began—when we needed that person so desperately and didn’t have access. To me, that’s the definition of being 14 or 15. That desire and angst.
WRR: You also captured the love between the siblings. The dialogue is so real, especially between the older sister Nelia and Zoe.
Well, some of this dialogue came directly out of the mouths of my children. Sometimes I hear them arguing that “Nelia is you” and “Nelia is me”. So there were some very authentic voices in my head.
WRR: You’ve got some very interesting names in this book. Where did they come from?
I tried to make names that were true to their characters, so I went to baby name books to see what the names meant. For example, Nelia means war horn. Miranda (Zoe’s best friend) means admirable.
WRR: What about Zoe? What does that mean?
WRR: Speaking of Miranda, the scene with her and Zoe in the pharmacy—where they go find something to even out Zoe’s breasts after she finds one smaller than the other–is just inspired. I was riveted. It was both funny and painful.
Yes, well, as you can see, Zoe is rightly self-conscious at that age and Miranda is very grounded and mature—she knows her limits and what she will and won’t do.
WRR:WRR: For sure!
I did some personal research to write that scene—looking in the same aisles at the same products to see if I would be self-conscious and I did wonder who was looking at me. It was easy, then, to write the emotion in.
WRR: I also really liked the exchange between Zoe and Hub where she asks him how he knows that what he’s doing even matters. And he says, “I don’t. Maybe we never do. Love and work; that’s all we’re given. No guarantees.” Do you really think that’s true?
That was really just his way of being in the world—where he found meaning. I don’t know where that even came from, but I like it. It is really a lot of what we’re given—and what we have to fall back on when we suffer loss. It’s a good thing to remember in the current economy.
WRR: Yes well, that’s only one of the many profound things you say in this book. Do young adults get them? Do these themes really resonate? What don’t we understand about this audience?
I think we underestimate their need to be talked to honestly about what life is like and their ability to adjust to it. They’re way of ahead of us in so many ways when it comes to understanding human nature. It makes me really feel good that this book, to both my delight and astonishment, also appeals to adults, according to a number of reviewers. For me, writing it was a bit of a risk, since it is longer and more complicated and character rich than a lot of other books in the young adult category. I wrote a complicated story because life is complicated. I’m thrilled to know that everybody who reads it enjoys it. And that age is irrelevant.
WRR: Definitely. What surprised you most about writing this book?
How long it took and how hard it was. It was a challenge to write something of this scope.
WRR: How long did it take you?
WRR: What would say this book tells us about you, Pamela Todd, as an author?
That there’s probably a little piece of me in all of my characters. I think that when we write fiction…
WRR:…we’re sort of working it out?
Definitely. I think we write fiction to be able to put our arms around our lives, to understand it.
WRR: Okay, okay, just one more question. So after all is said and done, what’s the message you’d like readers to leave with?
The greatest happiness you have in life comes out of love and service. At least that’s the way I feel about my own life. I need to do things that are meaningful in order to be happy. I don’t want to come off sounding arrogant. But I’m unhappy if I’m not doing something meaningful. I truly believe that the best work we can do is for the good of the whole community. It’s about supporting life.
For more information on Pam Todd, The Blind Faith Hotel, and her other work, visit Pamelatodd.com. You can also learn about the winners of the 2009 Green Earth Book Award at Newtonmarascofoundation.org.
Jill Sherer Murray is an award-winning journalist, whose work has appeared in a variety of business- and health-related media. In addition to writing feature articles, scripts, books and other marketing, corporate and creative communications for more than 18 years, she designs and facilitates corporate communication workshops and seminars for clients like Gatorade, PepsiCo, Tellerx, and Quaker Oats (to name a few). A former “Weight Loss Diary” columnist for Shape Magazine, she took six million readers (who now know how much she weighs) on her journey to get fit each month through a series of personal essays and live chats. Currently, Jill is working on her second novel and rewriting her first — again — so she can get it to her agent before he dies or retires. You can read about her writing and other pursuits (i.e., dating and marriage) in her blog “Diary of a Writer in Mid-Life Crisis,” which is featured on the Wild River Review. She lives in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, with her husband Dan, her rescue dog Winnie, too many houseguests, and a lot of chocolate and over-the-counter pain medication.