Susannah Appelbaum, author of the popular YA fantasy trilogy The Poisons of Caux, will be on hand at the Inquiring Minds bookstore in New Paltz this Sunday, April 3 at 4 p.m. to read from, discuss and sign copies of her brand-new novel, Divah (Sky Pony Press). She grew up here in the 1970s, the daughter of SUNY-New Paltz Philosophy professor David Appelbaum. Susannah attended a bilingual high school in Paris, then got her BFA in Film Production at New York University. She came back here again in 2000 to raise a family. In the interim, she worked in Manhattan as a magazine editor, and for a couple of years during that time, had the good fortune to live in the much-storied Carlyle Hotel.
You’ve heard of that place: an elegant Art Deco building on East 76th Street, just a block from Central Park, where rich and fashionable people used to stay (and a few, like Mick Jagger, still do). It served as John F. Kennedy’s “New York White House,” where Marilyn Monroe allegedly sneaked in for trysts via an underground tunnel network. Legendary pianist/singer Bobby Short performed regularly at the Café Carlyle for 36 years, and Woody Allen has stopped in weekly for nearly as long to play clarinet.
“It has lots of history, and also a lot of ghosts – metaphorically if not literally. It sort of soaks into the air,” says Appelbaum. “I wanted to write about it, and the easiest thing was to twist it into fantasy and the paranormal…. Can you imagine anything better to put underneath it than the gates of Hell?”
Yes, in Divah the Carlyle is the setting for an epic battle between a 17-year-old contemporary girl and the Queen of the Damned – last seen among the living in the guise of Marie Antoinette – with a little help from a hunky angel named Luc. The teenager, named Itzy Nash, moves in with a disagreeable aunt, starts to notice odd goings-on in the hotel that turn out to be the work of demons and, says Appelbaum, “As usual in YA fiction, she ends up having to save the world!”
The public relations campaign for the new book is touting it as “Eloise meets Rosemary’s Baby,” though Appelbaum notes that Divah is intended for tweens and teens: an older demographic of readers than Kay Thompson’s 1950s Eloise series. But it does feature a snarky, upscale, Upper East Side sort of humor; Evian water and Hermès scarves turn out to be handy components of a demon-hunter’s kit, for instance.
“All I ever wanted to do is write for that age group,” says Appelbaum, whose first foray into fantasy authorship was writing “a really bad ripoff of The Wizard of Oz at age 6.” She cites The Hobbit, The Chronicles of Narnia and the Jane Marple mysteries by Agatha Christie as early literary influences. It was the latter that provoked her fascination with poisons, potions and herbs that provided the unifying theme of the three volumes of The Poisons of Caux: The Hollow Bettle, The Tasters’ Guild and The Shepherd of Weeds. Christie was “so good at killing everybody with arsenic and cyanide,” Appelbaum says. But she also recalls being repeatedly warned by her parents not to eat wild plants: “Playing outside will do that to a kid.”
While the Caux books earned her a devoted following (including quite a few adult readers), it remains to be seen whether Divah will be a one-off or not. “They’re hoping it could be a series,” she says of her publishers. But Appelbaum has another project back-burnered, of which she will divulge nothing except to say that it’s a novel for adults. Her attempts at producing books that aren’t fantasy tend to go awry, she says: “As soon as I write something realistic, a dragon will pop into the scene.”
Published on March 15, Divah is now available for purchase; show up at Inquiring Minds at 6 Church Street this Sunday afternoon if you’d like your copy autographed. “I feel really loyal to New Paltz — and to Inquiring Minds, which launched all three Caux books,” says Appelbaum. Also, a launch party for Divah will take place at the Mohonk Mountain House on April 16. For more info about the reading and discussion, visit www.inquiringbooks.com. For more on the new novel, visit www.divahnovel.com.