The year is 1921, the start of Prohibition. Mafia runaway Alice “Nobody” James has escaped trouble in Harlem by traveling cross-country by train while bleeding from a bullet wound. Max, a black porter, intervenes and checks the white Alice into the Paragon Hotel in Portland, Oregon. The hotel is an exclusively African-American sanctuary in a segregated city under siege by the Ku Klux Klan. There, Alice meets a host of compatriots who soon become like family as they bond together to search for one of their own, a biracial boy they fear may have fallen into the hands of the Klan.
With her sixth novel, stage actress-turned-novelist Faye, known for her Edgar-nominated Jane Eyre spoof Jane Steele, offers a surprising historical mystery that addresses America’s sexism, racism and anti-immigrant white power movements.
“I always write about something that’s pissing me off right now,” Faye says by phone from her New York home. “I find parallels to what was happening a very long time ago, because I don’t think anybody would be particularly interested if I just stood on a soapbox and said, ‘Racism is bad.’ But if I can set stories in other time periods, it’s sort of like Shakespeare setting Macbeth out of town: ‘Don’t get confused, this is not about you—this is those Scottish guys!’”
Alice’s escape to Portland allows Faye to write about a piece of history that she has long hoped to ponder in fiction. Born in San Jose, California, Faye moved with her family to Longview, Washington, a small town close to Portland, when she was 6 and remained there for 12 years. The move from her racially diverse San Jose birthplace to the predominantly white Longview revealed to Faye a dark section of American history—the Pacific Northwest’s deeply racist roots. The original Oregon settlers envisioned a utopia free from crime, poverty—and any nonwhite persons. Prior to statehood, any blacks who refused to leave the territory were sentenced to flogging every six months. In 1870, Oregon refused to ratify the 15th Amendment, which guaranteed voting rights to people of color, and didn’t correct this error until 1959. For black people, Oregon was hell with only a few havens. One of these was Portland’s Golden West Hotel, upon which the Paragon Hotel is based.
Along with exploring present-day social and cultural upheavals through a historical lens, The Paragon Hotel also allowed Faye to re-create the spoken language of 1921, both in Harlem and Portland. Faye proudly admits to having a passion for historical accuracy.
“That’s why this is a love letter. It’s very much not just a quest for identity but a quest to actually love that identity.”
“Slang is very, very much a part of my research process,” she says. “If you’re just looking through the boilerplate slang of the 1920s, you’re going to be finding a lot of words that didn’t really come into vogue until 1925, -6, -7. That was really the height of the flapper era, and I was not interested in those words; I was only interested in how you spoke in 1921.”
Lacking a lexicon embedded in the arts and music of the pre-flapper era, Faye struggled until she stumbled upon an unlikely helping hand from someone who also knew how to sling the slang. “I was at a loss for quite some time,” she says, “until I attended a writer’s residency for a month down in Key West, Florida. There is tons of stuff from Hemingway down there for obvious reasons, and I found a huge volume with all of his [World War I] war correspondence.” She explains that a large percentage of the slang in The Paragon Hotel comes straight out of Hemingway’s 1918 letters.
Faye also credits her own years on stage with giving her the ear to recognize slang and use it effectively in her fiction. “I’ve never taken a creative writing class,” she says. “I was trained as an actor and worked as a professional stage actor for 10 years, and I was also trained as a singer, and there’s a real lilt in the ’20s stuff. I think that the rhythm of it is almost as important as some of the words. Even where they’re talking about very serious things, there’s this glib overtone to where they’re even replacing words with almost nonsense words. It’s fascinating.”
To voice the Portland perspective, Faye created Blossom Fontaine, the Paragon’s residential club chanteuse, whose sultry, outgoing stage personality belies the inner turmoil and discomfort she and many of her friends feel about America’s history of racism and sexism.
“In the case of Blossom, whose life has been defined by what society says, the question of who she is has been so important her whole life that when she meets Nobody, who has been taking advantage of hiding in plain sight, it’s such an asset to her,” Faye says. “Nobody lived in such a dangerous environment that she didn’t spend a lot of time really sitting down and defining herself. Blossom, on the other hand, has been so assertive and determined about who she is and so locked into a system. You’ve got two women who are coming at it from completely different directions. That’s why this is a love letter. It’s very much not just a quest for identity but a quest to actually love that identity.”
Will we see a sequel to The Paragon Hotel?
“I would love to say yes, but I never really know. So far, this is a standalone, but I wouldn’t rule it out,” Faye replies. “However, at the moment, what I’m working on is turning Hamlet into a modern-day crime novel. The working title? The King of Infinite Space. I’m very excited about it.”
Author photo by Anna Ty.