When she was 15 years old, digging around where she shouldn’t have been, Anna Stothard found an old box of her mother’s love letters. The letters, which weren’t from her father, were all signed “Douglas” or simply “D."
Stothard read those letters over and over, puzzling over who could have written them. Eventually, after recognizing a few unusual phrases about aliens and Galactic bureaucracy, Stothard realized the letters were from Douglas Adams. Yes, that Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and, coincidentally, one of Stothard’s favorite authors. Flash forward 15 years later and Stothard has used this moment as the kernel for The Pink Hotel, a coming of age story very different from her own.
The story of the Orange Prize long-listed novel is this: The unnamed, moody 17-year-old narrator arrives in Los Angeles from London, knowing almost nothing about her recently deceased mother other than her name and an address. (The mother had abandoned her daughter when she was three, leaving her to be raised by her distant, bitter father in London.) Arriving after the funeral, the girl crashes a surreal, drug-fueled wake at the hotel owned by her mother. The girl sneaks into her mother’s bedroom and steals a pair of her mom’s stilettos, a few over-sized dresses, and a suitcase filled with photos and love letters.
Instead of exploring her own mother’s secrets, Stothard wanted her novel to explore a deeper truth about mother-daughter relationships. “I look very much like my mother and some of our mannerisms are the same,” Stothard says. “Yet we’re very different people and I was fascinated by how I would have been, how my identity would have ended up, if I hadn’t had her there to analyze and react against.”
The Pink Hotel follows the waif-like narrator as she uses the letters and other clues to track down her mother’s ex-husbands and boyfriends. As she begins to understand her mother, the girl grows closer and closer to her mother’s love interests. Soon, the similarities between the girl and the mother she never knew start to emerge in unpredictable, potentially dangerous ways.
Despite a few notable similarities—both the novelist and her protagonist are British women who lived in Los Angeles at a young age—Stothard is quick to point out that she’s very different from her narrator. “I must have known that the idea [for the novel] came from finding love letters to my mother. But I don’t think I thought about it while writing.”
Still, Stothard has faced inevitable comparisons. “Sometimes people have read it and assumed that I am [the narrator] more than I am. That hasn’t worried me, but it has worried them,” Stothard says. “They assume that I went around trying to sleep with my mother’s boyfriends.
“Which I didn’t,” she drily adds.
The girl observes Los Angeles itself with suspicion—much like Stothard did after she moved to L.A. as an American Film Institute screenwriting fellow. “I expected to hate L.A.,” Stothard says. “The idea of a pool party makes me blush. But I actually ended up thinking it was an incredibly elemental, strangely violent, spectacular city. I decided to stay.”
Stothard’s anonymous protagonist creeps along the edges of the city and sometimes seems to disappear into the crowd. The narrator’s precise observations of L.A. have the kind of fresh details only an outsider can render: “The Armenian boys would watch and comment with their eyes on the amalgamation of the skinny models with fake breasts, the male actors who wore different fedora hats every day, the retired Armenians, the Thai cooks wearing white overalls, the film students wearing tortoise-shell Ray Bans.”
Stothard gained this unique perspective by doing something quite unusual, at least by L.A. standards—she never drove. “It was eavesdropping paradise if you’re taking the busses and the trains, and even walking,” Stothard says. “You see crazy interesting people, a whole side of L.A. that no one even looks at. Although, while walking people really think you’re properly insane or a prostitute. They will actually assume you’re a streetwalker if you’re a young girl not in a car.”
Though Stothard says her Hollywood days are behind her, Anna Paquin’s production company has purchased the film rights to The Pink Hotel. Paquin’s True Blood co-star Stephen Moyer will make his directorial debut with the adaptation. Stothard’s excited to see what Paquin and Moyer do with the novel, but she’s not collaborating on the screenplay. “I’ve given it to her in its entirety to do with what she wants,” Stothard says. “I quite like the idea of seeing it through someone else’s eyes. That interests me more than me going over it again.”
The journey from Douglas Adams’s secret letters to The Pink Hotel has taken years, yet Stothard’s own progression as a novelist has been impressive. With this just her second novel, Stothard already feels like a professional who’s gained a hold on her craft. Let the unnamed narrator remain anonymous; it is Anna Stothard’s name which should be remembered.
Richard Z. Santos is currently writing his first novel. His reviews and stories have appeared in Nimrod, The Rumpus, The San Antonio Express News, and many others.