Beginning our series of interviews with authors who have set books in Coronado, we speak to bestselling historical fiction novelist Camille Di Maio, author of The Memory of Us, Before The Rain Falls, The Way of Beauty, The First Emma and, her Coronado-set story, The Beautiful Strangers.
Camille is a Romance Writers of America Honor Roll inductee and her books have won The Beverly Hills Book Award, the Golden Quill and made the finalist list of the Holt Medallion Literary Award several times over. She is also a former award-winning realtor and mother of four who loves farmers’ markets and Broadway tunes!
Here she talks about how the Hotel Del Coronado bewitched her and what it was like having a real-life ghost as one of the story’s narrators…
Tell us the story of your book in a nutshell…
The Beautiful Strangers is a story of love, family, and dreams mixed in with a real-life ghost and movie star.
When did the idea to set the story at the Hotel Del Coronado first come to you and how did it evolve?
I’ve been to Coronado several times, but in 2016 I went to San Diego for the Romance Writers of America conference. My husband and I spent an afternoon at the Del and he turned to me and said, “Why don’t you write a book set here since you love it so much?” I almost always start with setting for my books. So as soon as I decided upon the Del, I dug into the history. There are SO many fascinating things that happened there. But I was most intrigued by the woman (Kate Morgan) who died on the steps in the late 1800s and reportedly haunts the hotel. And also by Marilyn Monroe and the filming of Some Like It Hot. So my dilemma was – how would I connect these stories?
The voices of your two narrators perfectly conjure the different eras you feature, what form did your research take and did you use any ‘tricks’ to help you switch between the voices?
The Kate Morgan of the 19th century lived in a more formal time and she grew up wealthy so I think watching a lot of Downton Abbey and reading books like Jane Eyre (a favorite of mine) gave me a natural insight into that kind of speech. The Kate Morgan character of 1958 lives in an era that had a bubble-gum feel to it so I did research a few turns of phrase for authenticity, but I have to say that I most enjoyed writing the more formal language!
Was it fun imagining how a ghost might feel as she learns about her new powers?
Yes! And that is definitely not what I set out to do. The story of Kate Morgan the ghost was only ever going to be limited to the prologue. But I had a strange thing happen after I’d written it – for the first time in my writing life, I had that indescribable sense of feeling my character talking to me, urging me to write more and to explore her story. In the end, it was exactly right for this story. It allowed me to create a mother/son bond that transcended death and also to have her as a witness to other amazing things that happened at the hotel over time – visits from L. Frank Baum, Desi and Lucy Arnez, Prince Albert, Thomas Edison, etc. She becomes a bit of a biographer of the hotel. I thoroughly enjoyed writing her and I think she might be my favorite character across all my books.
If you had the opportunity to travel back in time to either of the years featured in the book – 1892 or 1958 – which would you choose and why?
Oh, goodness, I think I’m a creature of conveniences, so I would have appreciated the advances that came over the years – cars, medical advances, television, etc. I’d like to glimpse 1892, but live in 1958 if given a choice.
What is it about the legend of Marilyn that most appeals to you?
Though I read up on her life in general, I focused on who she was at the timing of Some Like It Hot. Her marriage was in trouble, she was largely controlled by her acting coaches, she couldn’t remember lines, was late for everything and drank heavily. It was a sad look into the state of her being. But I also saw that there was this little girl inside. And by befriending my fictional character – who was just at the beginning of her dreams – I could explore that interior life of Marilyn Monroe as I imagined it to be.
Do you have a favorite Marilyn quote?
I don’t know if this is a favorite but this one really matches the theme of the book: “Dreaming about being an actress is more exciting than being one.” My fictional Kate comes to Coronado with Hollywood-shaped dreams but quickly learns that real joy lies in more substantial things.
Can you recall your first viewing of Some Like It Hot?
I can’t remember the exact first time I saw it, but I just loved it! I was floored by the talent of Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon to play those roles. It was funny, dramatic, and romantic. My favorite scene is when Tony Curtis – masquerading as Shell Oil, Jr. – uses reverse psychology to try to seduce Marilyn Monroe. Brilliant scene.
In the book you seem to have a soft spot for Jack Lemmon, would you have chosen a date with him over Tony Curtis?
Oh, I would have been more than happy to go on a date with Tony Curtis! But my fondness for Jack Lemmon in this story comes from accounts I read about his kindness, humor and good-naturedness. Though my scenes are fictional, I did try to write personalities accurately.
Do you have a favorite line or sentiment in The Beautiful Strangers?
It’s a bit of a theme that runs between the characters Kate and Sean, but I really like their discussions about the mica in the sand. Unique to Coronado (at least as far as I’ve seen), those gold-like flecks that make the beach sparkle naturally. Sean tells her that he is happy being ordinary sand – not everyone can be the shining star. I relate to that. Despite the conveniences mentioned above, I do value simplicity and smallness. I’m happy to let other people shine.
What has been the best compliment you have received about the book?
The greatest compliment to me comes when readers tell me that they want to go read more about those characters, or watch Some Like It Hot or visit the Hotel Del. That tells me I’ve done my job – I’ve engaged the reader and had them thinking about that world I created long after they’ve finished the book.
Can you recall your first visit to the Hotel Del Coronado and first impressions of the hotel?
My first visit was after my husband and I got married in 1997. It was my first time in Southern California after having lived in Colorado, Texas, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. It was everything I imagined that area to be – sunny weather, palm trees, beaches. It really is heaven on earth. And the Hotel Del Coronado is like the crown jewel. (In fact, Coronado means “crown” and the crown-like chandeliers in their Crown Room were designed by Wizard of Oz writer L. Frank Baum!)
Beyond the Hotel Del Coronado, what are your favorite spots and eateries on Coronado Island?
Bookworm that I am, I love the library on Coronado! And there are so many amazing places to eat. I love the fish tacos on the beach by the Del, we have enjoyed great breakfasts at Clayton’s Coffee Shop, and I enjoy the quality of dining at Brigantine.
It’s been wonderful chatting with you Camille and we look forward to having you back on our shores very soon!
You can visit Camille’s website at: https://www.camilledimaio.com/