Saturday, July 7, 2007

Inspiration from a Unique Setting

Hailey Lind (Guest Blogger)
Sisters Carolyn & Julie

Writing our third book, Brush with Death (published July 3), proved to be easier for us than writing the first two (Feint of Art and Shooting Gallery). It’s good to know that experience helps the process! We got the idea for the book one summer when Carolyn was visiting Julie in Oakland, California.

Oakland’s a bit of an ugly stepsister to San Francisco, but in truth it’s a beautiful city in its own right: poised right across the bay and rimmed by mountains, it is a shining example of Art Deco architecture and a lively port that date back to the days before the Bay Bridge was built, when Oakland served as the East Bay’s major city. We had driven past the Chapel of the Chimes Columbarium for years, en route to other places, and finally stopped to check it out.

The Columbarium’s original architect, Julia Morgan, stood four feet eleven inches tall but was by all accounts a real dynamo. According to legend, she came from a well-to-do Berkeley family, and lobbied for years to gain admittance to Paris’s lofty Ecole des Beaux Arts, which in her day did not accept women. But after winning several national architecture awards in France, she was finally allowed in.

Morgan went on to design buildings all over San Francisco and the East Bay, though her most famous is Hearst Castle, on the central coast of California. If you haven’t been, it’s well worth a special trip. Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst spared no expense to create an ornate, over-the-top wonder in the hills overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Whatever Julia Morgan couldn’t find locally she imported from Europe – and we’re not just talking dining room tables or armoires, but entire rooms (walls, fireplaces, and ceilings) from old European estates. She designed the castle around these features, mimicking and embellishing them to create a seamless architecture. It’s really quite stunning.

In the 1920s Morgan turned her attention to converting a tram terminal at the end of Oakland’s Piedmont Avenue into a columbarium. She used leftovers from Hearst castle and incorporated items specifically purchased for the columbarium to create a labyrinthine, mosaic-encrusted, mural-coated eternal resting place. It is almost impossible not to get lost when wandering the corridors – some of which are dead ends (no pun intended) while others lead further into the building.

What writer could wander those convoluted halls and not think of murder and mystery? When Carolyn and I were walking through, we immediately thought: Annie Kincaid would love this place! And out came the ever-present notepad. The rooms have great names: Chapel of Serendipity and Slumber; Gregorian Hall; the Garden of Repose. The ceilings are made of beautiful glass tiles, above which is a crawl space. Some ceilings are skylights that slide open to let in fresh air and sun. Canaries chirp in cages, fountains tinkle, sunlight gleams through elaborate stained glass. We were enthralled.

Next door is a cemetery that is not connected to the Columbarium but is historic and amazing in its own right. Designed by Fredrick Law Olmstead, the man who designed Central Park in New York City, the cemetery’s steep hills offer some of the best views to be found of Oakland, Berkeley, the bay, San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge. The higher on the hill one goes, the grander and more expensive are the tombs. Some are so large and impressive they seem more like public monuments than private family markers. Some of the illustrious residents include the Ghirardellis, of San Francisco chocolate fame, as well as Julia Morgan herself, though her name is inscribed in a simple granite block, eschewing the fancy buildings and stained glass.

In Brush with Death this setting inspired all kinds of possibilities, and soon the ideas took shape: encountering a ghoul in the graveyard, something creepy involving the crypts, a chase through the twisting halls of the Columbarium. And it had to be at night, of course. The scenes unfolded in our minds like a movie: Annie trying to scale a long bank of niches but falling to the ground; Annie getting locked in a small toilet (we didn’t go so far as to ask someone to lock us in – that would have seemed weird – but we did shut the door while we plotted Annie’s escape), Annie encountering Michael and getting lost. We also sat at the summit of the cemetery and marveled at the view, as Annie does in the novel with the fictional accountant, Manny.

Brush with Death brings back characters from the first two novels – Annie’s assistant, Mary; Brian, Annie’s devoted but over-the-top friend; Evangeline, from Shooting Gallery; Pete – of course! – and Samantha. Inspector Annette Crawford makes an appearance during a picnic-gone-awry, when Annie’s friends find themselves in the middle of a Goth Naval Battle (this being San Francisco, after all). Annie makes a new friend, and a few new foes, and her on-again, off-again flirtation with Frank heats up even while Michael keeps dropping in to tease and tempt her. And, naturally, Grandfather is a constant presence, giving Annie advice and complicating her life yet again.

It was fun to draw our inspiration for Brush with Death from a real setting. Luckily, the events coordinator at the Chapel of the Chimes, Allison Rodman, was excited about the book and gave us special access to the building. She even invited us to have our Brush with Death release party there –if you happen to be in town, join us! It will be held on Friday the 13th (how appropriate!) of July, at the Chapel of the Chimes on Piedmont Avenue, Oakland, from 7-10 p.m. Details are on our website, We hope you can join us for a celebration in a fascinating, beautiful, real-life setting!

1 comment:

Julia Buckley said...

The book sounds terrific! Thanks for blogging about it.