From Chapter Twenty-One: I asked for people, and I got people all right—hundreds of them—most of them seated around glossy black lacquered tables in stylish, matching chairs covered in white curlicues. The deck’s been carefully painted with black and white squares that extend to the edge, where pewter, silver, and black chess pieces the height of a picket fence line the perimeter, all of them connected by links of thick silver chain. The backdrop of this rather bizarre dinner party is the magnificence of the Harbor Bridge and the Sydney Opera House, the multiple white chevrons of its roof appearing to erupt from the harbor like a graceful leviathan from another time.
Maybe you can’t tell this from looking at this image, but the deck of the yacht in the Tea Party doesn’t exist in the real world. The individual components obviously exist–Sydney Harbor, the Opera House, the tables and chairs, the chess pieces–but I’m the one who took the pieces and arranged them together into an image that was as close to what I saw in my mind as I could make it with my limited graphic design skills. Why do I create these storyboards? For one thing, it’s fun. For another, it makes it a lot easier to immerse my imagination in the setting if I really believe that I’m seeing it. It also helps cut down on the continuity errors. For instance, if I can’t remember that I mentioned black chairs in Chapter Twenty-One, I might later describe them as blue. With a storyboard, I can just pull up the picture if I’m not sure what color the chairs are supposed to be.
“Welcome to the Dahl House. In age order, there’s my brother, Clark “Gabe” Gable, and my three sisters: Marlene “Dee” Dietrich, Marilyn Monroe, Jean Harlow, and me, Alice Faye. For reasons no one has ever been able to explain to my satisfaction, we’ve all always gone by our middle names, which left it difficult to figure out when our mom was angry with us when we were little.”
The nickname “Munny” comes along about fifteen days later, which is also when Alice, Dee, and Munny are presented as triplets, or “the Baby Dolls.” Although I can’t say for sure how I came up with the idea to name the Dahls after film icons, I suspect the explanation is something like this: An acquaintance of mine had named her daughter “Harlowe” (with an E); I really liked the name, and when I changed Kelly” to “Harlowe,” it almost certainly got me to thinking about Jean Harlow. Maybe I looked her up and found that she’d co-starred with Clark Gable multiple times, so I decided to give the two girls a brother. At that point, I would’ve certainly noticed the film star theme. I do remember looking up iconic film stars, specifically searching for one with the first name “Alice” so that I could make the family work.
Do you remember the exchange in the movie Shakespeare In Love between the producer and the financial backer as the production teeters on the brink of disaster?
Philip Henslowe: Mr. Fennyman, allow me to explain about the theatre business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.
Hugh Fennyman: So what do we do?
Philip Henslowe: Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.
Hugh Fennyman: How?
Philip Henslowe: I don’t know. It’s a mystery.
That’s pretty much how writing a novel works, too. Just when I start to panic, convinced that none of the disparate parts I’ve created will fit together into any kind of cohesive tale, it all turns out well. I don’t know. It’s a mystery.
I suppose there are a few personality traits here and there that Alice Faye and I share. But I actually found myself pouring a lot of my own personality quirks into Alice’s sister, Marlene Dietrich “Dee” Dahl. Alice Faye is more of a “watch and wait” kind of person; she knows that something is a little “off” about the things Rabbit says and does, but it takes her a long time before she confronts him. And while Alice often thinks amusing things, and she appreciates the jokes and antics of her friends and family, she’s not really leaving a trail of zingers in her wake. Dee, on the other hand, is of a much more proactive disposition; she’s more vocal than Alice, certainly more skeptical, and definitely not afraid to voice her opinion about anything. In the novel, she’s been acquainted with Rabbit for less than a day before her frustration boils over, but even when she’s angry she’s very, very funny:
Dee jumps from her chair, going from jovial to furious in an instant. “Wait, and you had to ask him if Faye’s in danger? If?” She paces the living room, shooting a deadly glare at Rabbit when she passes him. “Okay, first of all, I’m just going to admit that I didn’t know Japan had a Mafia, but I also didn’t know they got a Disney World—”
“Tokyo Disneyland,” says Gabe.
“Whatever! If someone gets an invitation from the Mafia, I’d say there’s potential for a bit of danger, wouldn’t you?” She stops and turns around. “I mean, am I the only one here who saw Goodfellas?”
“Who cares for you?” said Alice, (she had grown to her full size by this time.) “You’re nothing but a pack of cards!” At this the whole pack rose up into the air, and came flying down upon her: she gave a little scream, half of fright and half of anger, and tried to beat them off.
Many readers have asked about the scene in the book where Alice explains to Rabbit about how she came to be a finalist at the International Poker Tour just four months after learning how to play. Oddly enough, that plot point was based partly on my own experience. Many years before I wrote Alice, a girlfriend invited me to a home poker tournament. I knew absolutely nothing about Texas Hold’Em, so my friend’s husband dragged a framed poster of all the winning hands out of the basement and propped it against the wall next to my chair. Not surprisingly, I busted out (i.e. lost all my chips) after only playing two hands. I guess you could say that I’m a little bit of a competitive person; for the next couple of months, I threw myself into an accelerated crash-course of Texas Hold’Em. When my friend invited me back to play in another tournament at her house, I accepted—much more knowledgeable, of course! I ended up walking away with second place and close to $400 in prize money. Fun fact: I haven’t played a single hand of poker (or any other card game) since.
While Alice in Wonderland is very heavily based on my own two-week trip to Australia in 2012 with a girlfriend of mine, I didn’t go there for the purpose of doing research for a novel. I already had the idea for Alice before I ever went on the trip. Many of the scenes in the novel (such as struggling to acclimate to driving on the “wrong” side of the road) were a result of the road trip from Surfer’s Paradise to Sydney, I didn’t come up with the idea of Australia as “Wonderland” until after I returned home.”
I’ve lived many places in the world—Italy, Puerto Rico, among others—and I have to say that Australia is unlike anywhere else I’ve been. I didn’t notice it as much when I was in the touristy hotel in Surfer’s Paradise. The trip down the rabbit hole doesn’t start until you’re behind the steering wheel of a car—the right-hand side of the car, I should add. Five-hundred miles trying to undo thirty-five years of motor memory and driving experience is like trying to do calculus for three days straight. Then there was the flora. It looked like someone had taken the trees and given them a touch of Dr. Seuss. They were recognizably trees, and yet they were just different enough to make you go, “Huh?” And don’t even get me started on the animals. Lets just say that it’s no coincidence that the platypus evolved in Australia. I witnessed a sunrise in Coff’s Harbor that felt—I don’t know—ancient, like a dinosaur was going to wander by any second.
Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is the story of a girl who travels to a magical land that is familiar to her and yet completely strange. It was a perfect fit! You can read more about the trip Down Under in my blog “Straight Down the Rabbit Hole: Elle’s Top 10-ish Australia Travel Tips.”
You hear that? A “cling reflex.” No. Just…no. Christ, I think I’m going to faint just typing this answer. I’ve never been so afraid of taking a piss in my life as I was when I was in the Land Down Under. You get used to lifting the lid from a safe distance, as well as hovering your ass over the toilet seat. In the plus column, my quads were like steel cables by the time I came home.
I don’t know anyone who’s been bitten by the ass-eating toilet spider, but according to Wikipedia, the venom is rarely fatal for healthy adults. Does that mean that the ass-eating toilet spider slaughters children and the infirm with impunity? I don’t know, and probably don’t want to know. Ignorance is bliss, as it turns out.
True! You can read about how Lapin “Rabbit” Montgomery appears to have walked right off the pages of the book about a month after it was published in my blog “Straight Down the Rabbit Hole: When Life Is Stranger (and Hotter) Than Fiction.” The photo (used with permission) is an old college friend who I hadn’t seen in twenty years who I reconnected with in a very strange and serendipitous fashion after Alice in Wonderland came out. He graciously gave me permission to use his photo for promotional montages absolutely gratis.