The White Hotel

For her new collection of stories, Cary Holladay revisits a "writer's dream."

"It was real, but it's gone," Cary Holladay says. She's referring to a hotel painted white, the grand remnant of a bygone era: 100 rooms and four stories tall. "By the time I came along," she adds, "it was pretty dismantled but still beautiful -- a kind of country tenement, laundry on the balconies. It awoke my imagination."

Holladay, creative-writing instructor at the University of Memphis and the author of a new collection of short stories, The Quick-Change Artist (Swallow Press), is remembering Forest Lodge, which once stood outside Richmond in Glen Allen, Virginia (Holladay's girlhood home). Glen Allen: "too small to be called a town," she writes in one story, rather "a place, a crossroads."

"I kept going back to Forest Lodge as a set piece for a number of these stories," Holladay says. "That building had a soul, a personality. It was a writer's dream: a vanished Eden, flocks of peacocks, tame deer. I was curious: Who built Forest Lodge? Who lived there?"

"A reconstructed rebel" is how Holladay answers that first question and how she describes the real-life John Cussons, but he was something of a mythic figure too: an Englishman by birth, who came to America, traveled throughout the West, fought for the Confederacy, and married a widow 20 years his senior -- a woman on whose land Cussons built Forest Lodge in the 1880s. He hoped to take advantage of the nearby natural springs and turn the place into a spa. But he underestimated the hotel's proximity to a railroad switching yard, and Forest Lodge never attracted the guests Cussons counted on.

In Holliday's book, however, the hotel attracts a fair number of fictional characters, among them, Jolly Erdos, the quick-change artist (and stage magician) of the title story. Or is the true "artist" here a blind boy named Luke, a visionary who performs his own disappearing act? The year is 1928, and "The Quick-Change Artist" opens Holladay's collection of 13 stories. But it isn't the last time we're treated to Glen Allen's mysteries.

See, for example, "The Peacock": It's the 1960s, and a 100-year-old woman named Lila (John Cussons' onetime mistress and a resident of Forest Lodge) acts as Glen Allen's oracle. Or see "Heaven": It's 1918, and Lady Wisdom is the name given to a prophesying horse.

Magic and mysteries, then, but mixed into The Quick-Change Artist are hard realities: the floods that threaten Glen Allen in 1903 (in "The Broken Lake"); the integration of Glen Allen's schools in 1968, which threatens the status quo (in "Jane's Hat"); a marriage broken in "The Biggest and the Best"; a marriage breaking in "The Blue Monkey."

Linking these stories is the author's attention to time and place, nature and custom, the external life of the characters balanced against the internal. For a writer, it's a matter of observation, Holladay believes, and it's a lesson she learned from her mother:

"My father helped too, but if it hadn't been for my mother, I wouldn't have become a writer," Holladay says. "My mother wrote articles about antiques. She wrote children's stories. And after my parents' friends would visit, she'd replay the conversation they'd had, rehash it, make sense of it to herself, draw out the essence of it.

"But I've always loved the natural world as well. A writer needs to learn the names of things, look at things. Rock collections, bug collections: These too, growing up, sparked my imagination. What's the proverb? 'Where something is found, there we begin.' It's something I try to impress on my writing students at the University of Memphis. And it's something that goes for my fictional characters as well -- characters forced to look inside themselves, surprised by what they find."

What comes as no surprise is the overdue interest in Holladay's work after two collections of stories and a novel, Mercury. She was recognized late last year with an award from the National Endowment for the Arts, "The Quick-Change Artist" was short-listed for The O. Henry Prize Stories 2006, and her work is featured in New Stories from the South: The Year's Best in the 2005 and forthcoming editions. A surprise to Holladay though: the time it took for a "people-pleasing" recipe of hers to show up in last April's issue of Southern Living magazine:

"More people have probably read my recipe for 'Crock-Pot Turkey Chili' than any of my stories. But those magazine people sat on the recipe for seven years! That's some slow-cooking, all right."

Shelf Life

Birthday Greetings: To Carnival Memphis (the newest name for Memphis' Mardi Gras in the 1880s and Memphis' Cotton Carnival beginning in the 1930s) as described and illustrated in the thoroughly researched, coffee-table-sized The Party with a Purpose: 75 Years of Carnival in Memphis (published by Carnival Memphis). Former president of Memphis' Junior League, former chairman of the Memphis Arts Council, and former columnist for The Commercial Appeal Perre Magness is the author.

And best wishes to the Mid-South Fair, which is being honored with The Mid-South Fair: Celebrating 150 Years by Robert W. Dye of Bartlett. The book is part of the "Images of America" series put out by Arcadia Publishing, and the photographs here will be news to many readers -- from photos of the fair at its earliest to exhibitors, livestock displays, the midway, and visiting celebs through the years: Roy Rogers and Dale Evans; Donna Douglas, Irene Ryan, and Max Baer Jr. (of The Beverly Hillbillies); and musical headliners Johnny and June Carter Cash. See too: the side shows you can't forget ("Lobster Boy"! "Alligator Girl"!) and the rides you'll just have to remember, including early shots of the Zippin' Pippin'. 

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