Edwin Light is a classical pianist who makes his debut as an author with Growing Up in the Colonial (December 2021), a memoir of his childhood lived in the Colonial Hotel in Copperhill, Tennessee. One reviewer wrote: “Edwin Light lovingly evokes the personalities that populated his childhood growing up in the family hotel in 1940s and 1950s….[A]t its heart, this memoir is a tribute to Edwin’s mother and grandmother, the lessons they taught him, and the love they shared.”
Why did you write Growing Up in the Colonial, and who did you write it for?
Friends told me over the years that the stories I had shared with them were interesting and they should be written down. After all, not everyone grows up in a hotel. And, I wanted to preserve for me and my relatives our family history.
What prompted the push to begin the project?
About ten years ago in Santa Fe, I was teaching piano to my friend, Glynn Anderson, a retired English teacher at Mt. Holyoke College in Massachusetts. I told her about my childhood experiences and she encouraged me to start writing my personal history. In a short time, we traded services: piano lessons in exchange for critiques.
Describe the Colonial Hotel and the place it holds in your heart.
The Colonial was and still is my home, even though the building is no longer standing. I fondly remember my seventeen years inside its walls: all the family gatherings at holiday times; waiting on tables in the dining room/greeting all the hotel guests who opened the world to me; a rat that disrupted a canasta party; my aunt’s suicide in the room next to mine; et cetera. The tug of home is undeniable. My mother and brother both died from Alzheimer’s disease; both begged to return to the Colonial and Copperhill, Tennessee in the last days of their lives.
Who is your favorite “character” in the memoir?
That would be my grandmother. Starting in 1913, when the Colonial was built, she prepared three meals a day for the guests and family while raising seven children, and she continued cooking meals through 1960. When her husband died in 1922, she became the proprietress of the Colonial and a single parent. When I came along in 1940, Grandma wrapped her arms around me too, and supported me in my endeavors. When she passed in 1971 near her 90th birthday, her descendants paid tribute to the matriarch who had brought comfort and joy and stability to our family for several generations.
Tell us more about the book and how it came together.
I began by scribbling a few stories. I had written, for English classes in high school and college, short compositions about my experiences and a few brief fictional pieces. Now I started thinking about writing a book for the first time. A daunting task! My friend, Glynn, whom I’ve already mentioned, nudged me onward. Over a five-year period, with many stops and starts, I penned a manuscript that skittered in many directions. That’s when I turned to several editors for help in taming my material. I knew I had content, but I also knew I needed to shape it. Three editors, all three here in New Mexico (two through SWW), gave me specific ways to deliver my story. I made numerous revisions. Thank you, editors. I learned, after the fact, that you need to establish in advance a budget for the publication of a book. Then I approached traditional publishers, but no interest was expressed with the exception of two editors who encouraged me to press on. One editor said, “Try self-publishing.” SWW guest online speaker Robin Cutler introduced me to self-publishing and to IngramSpark. I now have a contract with Ingram and through that company I connected with a book designer, Van-garde Imagery, that produced, much to my satisfaction, the cover of Growing Up.
Is there a scene or a story in your book that you’d love to see play out in a movie?
This story begins the week after my mother’s short honeymoon with her third husband, a boarder in our hotel. I was a high school senior at the time and I lived in the room adjacent to theirs with only a thin plasterboard wall between us. Mother and Bernard woke me up every night with the two of them arguing. Insecure Bernard (Grandma and I thought him to be unstable) insisted that mother, the Colonial’s manager, stop talking with the other men who lived in the hotel. Each night the tension mounted a little more until I heard mother say, “Bernard, where did you get a gun!” Bernard replied, “Now you’ll do what I tell you to do.” I panicked and couldn’t move. While begging Bernard to put the gun away, Mother must have been walking towards the door, because I heard her door open and close. I exhaled. She’d escaped his rage. The next day Bernard left the hotel without a gun, and soon after his brother placed him in a sanatorium. The marriage lasted less than two weeks.
What was your favorite part of putting this project together, and what was the most challenging?
I enjoyed writing the comical scenes, because I love making people laugh. Maintaining the chronology of the story often challenged me, even with family written records and tape recordings at hand. What’s the order in which things happened? And I couldn’t always remember the details of a scene. Sometimes though, after reflection, I returned to the situation as though standing in that space all over again. That was spooky.
KL Wagoner (writing as Cate Macabe) is the author of This New Mountain: a memoir of AJ Jackson, private investigator, repossessor, and grandmother. Kathy posts to a speculative fiction blog at klwagoner.com and writes about memoir at ThisNewMountain.com.