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A weekly look at creativity, arts, and culture in southwest Michigan, hosted by Zinta Aistars.Fridays in Morning Edition at 7:50am and at 4:20pm during All Things Considered.

Art Beat: The Ladies Of Pagodaville

Outdoor portrait of author Ellen Bennett
Katherine Mumma

When Ellen Bennett discovered an abandoned, broken down hotel while visiting friends in St. Augustine, Florida, she got an idea.

The Cleveland-born writer, who now lives in West Michigan, wanted to bring the hotel back to life. She did it on the written page.

A conversation with Ellen Bennett

Bennett puts aspects of her own life into the characters of her new book series, Pagodaville and The Ladies of Pagodaville.

“Definitely more coming,” Bennett says about the series. “Definitely a follow-up to flesh out all the new characters and give them a life of their own. And I want to bring more social events into the books.”

Image of the cover of Ellen Bennett's novel "The Ladies of Pagodaville" showing a painting of a palm tree in the foreground and a beach beyond.
Credit Smiling Dog Publications, LLC
Smiling Dog Publications, LLC

They are set in the 1980's. Bennett's main character, Lorna Hughes, is frustrated with her career in law, and life in general, in Cleveland. When she comes across a dilapidated hotel called the Pagodaville in a small town in Florida, she decides it's a chance to reinvent herself. She wants to bring the hotel back to life and start a collective of lesbian artists, writers, and musicians, where they can pursue their art and live relatively rent-free and supportive each other.

Bennett says she discovered lesbian literature when she moved to Boston in 1978. She found a bookstore in nearby Somerville dedicated to the genre, and it expanded her interest in authors writing about lesbian main characters.

“When I moved to Boston, I saw women walking down the street holding hands, and I thought, 'Whoa, where have I been,'” Bennett says. “I was born and raised in the Cleveland suburbs, went to school at Ohio University down there in the foothills of Appalachia, and the gay lifestyle at Ohio University was very closeted at that time. But when I moved to Boston, it was, 'Oh my God, this is real!'”

Inspired by the books and an openly gay lifestyle she found in the big city, Bennett began working on her own books. And she eventually started a small press with her partner called Smiling Dog Publications, LLC, to publish them.

As the Pagodaville storyline unfolds, Lorna Hughes renovates the old hotel, but in the process unearths human remains on the grounds, discovering Mafia ties and a mystery to solve. She builds her community as she solves that mystery, opening her heart to a new love in the process. In the second book in the series, artists and creative thinkers are drawn to the hotel and establish their own place within it.

Although book events had to be canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bennett is preparing a theatre script based on the books for performances sometime in 2021.

Listen to WMUK's Art Beat every Friday at 7:50 a.m. and 4:20 p.m.

Zinta Aistars is our resident book expert. She started interviewing authors and artists for our Arts & More program in 2011.
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