I have always been fascinated by hotels – the smaller and quirkier the better. I love their ability to be distant and impersonal one minute, friendly and inquisitive the next. I attribute this fascination to the fact that I’m an only child. I was always far more enthusiastic at the mention of a childhood holiday that wasn’t self-catering: it was great to be able to ‘people-watch’ others not related to me, when having my breakfast!
As an adult, my nosiness travelled with me as I travelled more – and was exacerbated when I began to write fiction. Communal settings are fodder to fire the imagination – and I soon realised a hotel would be a marvellously economic setting for a novel. It offered multiple possibilities for drama. You have the cast of the permanent staff and their competitiveness and niggles within the workplace community. They’re the backdrop to the transient population of guests who come their way – sometimes only once for one night – others, repeat visitors for the same two weeks every year. The guests arrive with expectations and baggage that doesn’t always come on wheels – tense and difficult or ridiculously happy – neither state likely to remain for the duration of their stay. Make it a smaller, family-run hotel – particularly in Italy – and you have an extended family who can spot the guest type a mile off!
When I began writing an early draft of Sweet Lemons, the one thing I was certain about was that the action would centre on and derive from my fictitious ‘Hotel Panoramico’ community. I moved my hotel to a small town in Sicily where I had spent many holidays, eventually re-locating there for an extended period myself and where, no longer considered a tourist, I developed a real feel for the social nuances and town snobberies. Add in a local Opera Festival, and you have the makings of a half-decent plot!
When authors talk about ‘drafts’ of novels or ‘re-writing’ material, I suspect non-writers glaze over, thinking it’s something like spell-checking a report they’ve done for work, or ‘cutting out’ a dud paragraph. They have no concept of the journey a first draft makes to its final published version. Early Sweet Lemons was a great, rambling behemoth of a book – nay, a social and historical document of Sicily in the 21st century with a built-in tutorial on the opera Tosca!
But when it came to paring the story back to its essence, I tried not to jettison too much of the social and cultural ‘colour’. Instead, several sub-plots were lost – and therefore, minor characters – who probably had no right to feature at all. A further de-construction of the manuscript was necessary – to forensically extract any foreshadowing or references to the characters or events that were no more!
Writing and re-writing a first novel takes time, and in the time-lag, life also changed. When I first began it, people and society were quite understanding when people dealing with tough personal events like bereavement, divorce or failed relationships, left work or took a year off to travel. But in the band of time post-recession and pre-pandemic, I had begun to observe there was little sympathy for this kind of weakness. Women in particular, were encouraged to ‘make no rash decisions’ – (post-bereavement) – or to ‘front it out’ – (post-divorce, when working alongside the ex) and I thought – I have to present the opposite viewpoint in my characterisation! Sometimes, when your life is de-railed, the most sensible thing – the strongest and wisest thing to do – is to run away. Whether for five weeks like the characters in Sweet Lemons, or however long it takes to make friends again with the unburdened version of yourself.
Sweet Lemons probably would never have seen the light of day, if it hadn’t been for the 2020 Covid 19 lockdown. Trying to fill the long, anxious days – days in which my input into the care of my then 93-year-old parents in a local nursing home had been ripped out of my hands as I was no longer able to check on them in person – I had to do something. Writing-wise, I was working on a different novel at the time, but I was making very heavy weather of it, consumed with worry that my parents would catch Covid and die. I decided to re-direct my nervous energies into something physical and clear out, paint and re-organise the bedroom I use as an office. In the process, I found my early drafts of ‘Sweet Lemons.’ Whether it was the deprivation of mobility or any hope of a holiday that filled me with nostalgia for sun and my Sicilian friends, I took down the hardcopy and began reading.
The theme was happier, the setting unburdened by infectious disease and the writing reflected these lighter times. I decided to give it another whirl.
Many months later, I had a re-written version that I was happy to let go of. I prepared only two submissions – each with different requirements and sent them off. When Paula Campbell of Poolbeg Press contacted me for the full manuscript very quickly after receiving the material, I was impressed with her speed of turnaround and felt encouraged. Thankfully, she liked what she read, and in July 2021 I signed a three-book deal with Poolbeg.
After a protracted gestation, Sweet Lemons came into the world in September 2021 in eBook format and is now also available in paperback through Amazon.
As I work away on my second title, my parents are still alive. They have survived two nursing home outbreaks of Covid, four lockdowns of thirteen months in total without seeing me, and are now both 95.
I guess that’s where I get my resilience from.
(c) Fidelma Kelly
About Sweet Lemons:
Four Strangers. Five weeks. Love lost and found in Sicily’s Hotel Panoramico.
Hotel Panoramico has the best view in Sicily. Or so the locals say. It’s where Isabelle flees for time out, when her long-term partner ups and marries someone else.
Italian conductor Rico accepts a last-minute Tosca contract at the local festival but is unhappy to find himself billeted in a seaside hotel in high season.
Recent music graduate Didi accompanies her widowed mother on an extended holiday – a decision she fears might give a whole new meaning to the term long-haul.
Local Sicilian Salvatore faces into another chaotic summer as the undervalued and overworked receptionist at the hotel.
As the thermometer continues to rise throughout July and August, so too do passions in the hothouse environment of the Panoramico. Soon, these four strangers are drawn together as their lives – past and present – become entwined.
One thing is sure: by the time the guests check out, things will never be the same again.
Order your copy online here.