Room for thought

Room for thought

Monica Ali in Prospect Magazine UK:

Imagine it. You are a writer of fiction. You may have a deadline, perhaps you’re at the beginning of a book and seeking total immersion, or in the middle and can’t see how to get to the end, or at any point at all in the story, but what you really need is to leave your life and responsibilities and just get down to it. You need a “Do Not Disturb” sign hanging on your door, someone else to clean up, change the sheets, and provide food and drink at any time you happen to take a break. You need to check into a hotel. I’ve done it myself. Then there is only you and the blank page. Which may or may not be a good thing. At least you are alone and will find out. Legend has it that Douglas Adams was once locked in a hotel room for a couple of weeks by and with his editor and commanded to write. Adams, when asked how it had worked said only, “I sat at the desk and typed and he sat in the armchair and glowered.”

Writers have had a long and deep association with hotels. New York’s Algonquin and Chelsea hotels, the Savoy in London, Venice’s Hotel des Bains, the Hotel Ambos Mundos in Havana, and the Bangkok Mandarin Oriental and Raffles in Singapore are just a few of the places in which literary history has been created. And, as witnessed by Joseph O’Neill’s 2008 novel Netherland (both written and partly set in the Chelsea Hotel in New York) and my new novel, In the Kitchen, which tells the story of Gabriel Lightfoot, executive head chef at the fictional Imperial Hotel in London, the hotel continues to exert a fascination for authors, not only as facilitator of the creative endeavour but also as a subject of that creativity.

I spent a year researching In the Kitchen. Most of this time was spent reading a mountain of non-fiction books about the restaurant and hotel trades, and delving firsthand into those worlds. I spent time in five large London hotels, on the understanding that I would not identify them. I talked to everyone from managers to receptionists, but mainly I hung out in the kitchens chatting to staff and absorbing the atmosphere.

As one of my characters observes, hotel kitchens resemble UN assemblies: a rich source of diverse stories. They are also places that function under intense pressure, creating an ideal crucible for dramatic confrontation. To a certain extent, the same things could be said of any commercial kitchen, but once I had entered the hotel world I knew no other kitchen would do. The setting provided more scope to bring in a wider range of characters and to examine ideas, tensions and conflicts in a larger part of society. Indeed, I had so much material that for a while it was difficult to know where to begin.

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