Jamie Brenner always begins writing with a story in mind, not a place — until she visited Sag Harbor five years ago and, more specifically, The American Hotel.
“Not to get too New Age,” the New Yorker said with a laugh, but it was something in the walls. It was a feeling. It was the water taxi operator seated next to a celebrity at the bar, sharing stories over drinks. It was the regulars schmoozing by the fireplace, or the ladies wearing floppy summer hats sipping cocktails on the patio.
It was a community, Brenner said, and she promised herself she would find a story for this place — a novel that would become “Drawing Home,” launching Saturday, May 11, inside the very place that inspired it.
“I always stay at The American Hotel in Room 8, or the Cooper Room, and that’s where I did a lot of my writing,” Brenner recalled. “It really was great, I wish I could do it all over again. If I could have moved in, I would have. To me, there’s nothing better than waking up and going downstairs really early in the morning to that breakfast room, and sitting among the trees they have in there, and just the silence of the notepad.
“It was really special,” she said. “Certain places give more than others when you’re trying to write about them, and this place gave a lot.”
The novel’s meet-cute unfolds there, an unlikely friendship born between a socially awkward teenager, Penny, and a wealthy octogenarian artist, Henry, who teaches her how to draw and, soon after, leaves her his sprawling waterfront estate, as well as his entire life’s work — to the outrage of his longtime friend and agent, Bea.
War, ultimately, ensues.
While Henry is an amalgamation of artists — though modeled most after Donald Judd — his surprising Last Will and Testament was inspired by a move made by New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham, a fixture in high society and street fashion for 40 years, until his death in 2016.
Instead of leaving his enormous photo archive to a museum, one of his patrons or even the New York Times itself, he gave it to a bartender in Boston, a treasure valued at $1 million.
“I just found this really fascinating,” Brenner said. “I wanted to explore, ‘What is our legacy? What’s important in life at the end?’ and that was how I started creating Henry, and also the story of what he did with his life’s work.”
The research and writing process began two weeks after the Sag Harbor Cinema fire in December 2016. The smell of char still lingered on Main Street, and the significant event made its way into the pages of “Drawing Home,” as have a few familiar faces around town, including American Hotel owner Ted Conklin, Harbor Books founder Taylor Rose Berry and Ken Deeg, owner and operator of Sag Harbor Launch water taxi.
“I’ve literally never met Ted in person. He’s like this mythical figure to me, like Oz,” Brenner said. “Taylor told me a bunch of people had been reading it and trying to figure out who people were in it. She laughed because, in the book, I have the guy on the water taxi married to the bookstore owner. So she was joking to Ken Deeg — who has a wife and a baby — like, ‘Ken, we’re married now!’ Everyone’s been so cool.”
While it was tempting to hole up inside The American Hotel — for both the author and her characters — Brenner forced them into the village at large, fleshing out the story as a classic beach read, she said. Escapism at its finest.
“I want to write books that take people away. My favorite experiences as a reader are those moments,” she said. “I grew up spending my summers at the Jersey Shore, and while all the other kids were swimming or doing what normal people do, I sat in a beach chair and just read all day — these epic books, like Jackie Collins and Judith Krantz and Sidney Sheldon.”
They told grand sagas of women going out into the world and finding themselves — a theme that made the young girl think, but one she didn’t fully embrace for decades. Growing up on the Main Line in Philadelphia, she pushed aside her dream of being a writer and settled for book publishing, where she could surround herself with the creatives she so admired.
“I started to realize this isn’t magic,” she said. “I watched writers be late with their manuscripts. I saw writers having to do huge revisions. I saw how much publicists do and editors do, and I realized it was just work, like a lot of other jobs. That gave me the courage to try to do it myself — to give myself permission to try. I always wanted to, but I truly did not think this was a realistic to spend my time on.
“I wish so much that my younger self could have known this,” she continued, “because I feel like I wasted a lot of time setting my own limitations on myself. I didn’t start writing until I was 40, and it was those books I read as a girl that gave me a hint that, ‘You know what? Maybe there is something out there.’”
And she found it.
“Drawing Home” by Jamie Brenner will have a book launch party on Saturday, May 11, from 3 to 5 p.m. at The American Hotel, located at 49 Main Street in Sag Harbor. For more information, visit jamiebrenner.com.