Camille Di Maio is the author of the new novel The Beautiful Strangers, which takes place at the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego. Her other novels include The Way of Beauty and The Memory of Us. She lives in Virginia.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Beautiful Strangers, and for your character Kate Morgan?
A: I was in San Diego with my family for a conference. I'd been many times, but it was my first as a writer. I have always loved the Hotel del Coronado and it was my husband who suggested that it would be a great location for a book.
I already knew about the filming [at the hotel] of Some Like It Hot. But it was through research that I learned about Kate Morgan, a real-life woman who died on the steps under mysterious circumstances in 1892. She is rumored to be the ghost who haunts the hotel. So I researched what little was known of her life and combined it with the ghost stories and created her as a narrator who has a unique point of view over the comings and goings at the hotel.
Q: Your previous novel focused on Penn Station in New York, and this novel is set at the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego. What drew you to both of those buildings, and how important is setting to you in your work?
A: Setting is the key for me. For The Way of Beauty, I did not set out to write a book about a train station. I was just going to have a scene there. And as I looked up pictures of Penn Station in order to write the scene, I learned about its amazing (and tragic) history. And I knew that I had just found the foundation of my whole story.
I start with a sense of place before anything else. From that comes research, and from research comes character and plot.
Q: The novel includes both real and fictional characters. What did you see as the right balance between the two?
A: There was not enough information about the ghost to make the entire story about her. Nor did I want it to be a book about Marilyn Monroe, though I wanted her to be a character. In order to link these two fascinating, real-life stories, I created a fictional character who would have a connection to both. I hope I struck the right balance!
Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make changes along the way?
A: I write my books with a very, very vague idea of what is going to happen. I always consider myself a reader first, so I write as I go and consider what I would want to read if I were its reader. And I leave a wide, wide space for what I might discover as I research. Some of my favorite scenes throughout my books come from a historical nugget I found.
I will say - and I've had many readers tell me - that the last page of The Beautiful Strangers is my favorite. My husband is currently reading the book and I am waiting with patient anticipation for him to get to the last line. :-) (Don't read ahead!)
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I have finished writing and am currently editing my fifth book, The First Emma. This one is about a real woman in Texas in the early 1900s who took over her husband's large brewery after his murder and successfully steered it through Prohibition.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I am grateful to you and to readers for their enthusiasm for the book and I would love to keep in touch! I am most active on Instagram. See you there!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Camille Di Maio.