Noelle is an efficient and friendly hotel cleaner. Or so she’d have you think. The trouble is that she can’t help taking little ‘souvenirs’ as she cleans. Nothing of value, just tokens of happy, normal lives: a lipstick, a hair clip, some tweezers. And by the time the guest has noticed, she’s long gone. As she starts at her 21st hotel, she’s determined to beat her record of one month in a five star hotel before suspicion falls on her. But then she meets her new colleagues. These women are women with lives full of happiness and worry, pain and joy. The kind of lives Noelle has never known how to live. They make her wonder what it might be like to have real friends, people to stick around for… We had the honour of chatting with Senta Rich on her incredibly funny and heartwarming book, Hotel 21.
This is such a great book! Can you share with us the inspiration behind Hotel 21?
Thank you so much for liking the book. Yes, the inspiration for Noelle came to me while staying in a small hotel in Lisbon when I accidentally annoyed the cleaner by not leaving my room until lunchtime. When I finally did leave, she was waiting outside with her arms folded and gave me a dirty look. I realised she had been waiting all morning to clean my room. I felt terrible. If I had been more switched on that day, I would have stepped outside my room for 10 minutes and let her clean it. When I returned later, my hairbrush was missing. Although I don’t think the cleaner took it now (I probably lost it in transit), at the time I was convinced and intrigued that she had taken it as a kind of ‘revenge lift’ to get back at me. What power, I thought. It was a great inconvenience not to have my hairbrush. It was also the perfect thing to take because it’s not something I would complain about. I mean, who takes a second hand hairbrush? I was instantly excited by this woman. Who was she? Had she done this before? Is this something she does regularly and if so, why? This idea of a hotel cleaner who takes things from hotel rooms stayed in my head and I kept thinking about her. Two days later I wrote the first 4000 words of Hotel 21.
Did you chat with any hotel cleaners while researching for this book? How did you make sure you didn’t sound like you were accusing them of thievery?
I did talk to cleaners, yes, but not about stealing. Hotel cleaners are hugely professional and would never take anything from a hotel room. In fact, they don’t even like touching guest items unless they absolutely have to i.e. to clean a surface or pick something up off the floor. My questions were only about life as a hotel cleaner. In Hotel 21, Noelle is a woman who ‘takes things’ as a way to gain some control in her life. She does not consider herself a thief. And she is in no way the norm in terms of hotel cleaners. After reading Hotel 21, no one has to worry about having things taken from their hotel rooms, they really don’t! In fact, quite the opposite, I hope. One reader told me how they were reading Hotel 21 while away in Africa for work and how they became much more aware of their hotel cleaner than they normally would be. They started to leave a tip a day and got talking to them and ended up becoming friends. That really warms my heart.
Noelle has worked in 20 hotels before and the book keeps referencing these past experiences (and honestly we would love to read novellas of those stories). How did you keep track of them when writing the book? Did you do separate moodboards for them?
I did have to keep track of all her hotels and the amount of time she spent in each one and where they all were. I had to make sure everything made sense and that the dates added up but I also had to know exactly how Noelle had arrived at Hotel 21 and what her emotional journey and lessons along the way had been. I had a chart/calendar with all those details on it including the last item she took at each hotel and any other relevant stories relating to each hotel.
Noelle also keeps track of all the items that she has stolen and explains why she picks those. Was it easy to come up with the list?
In the same way I kept track of Noelle’s diary of hotels, I also wrote her notebook including each hotel, the time she spent there and the list of items she took. Some of these lists are long, too long to be included in the book. I needed to do this to make that notebook real. The last item she takes is the most important as it’s the one that brings a complaint.
And actually, other than guessing the importance of those items, Noelle also needs to read people very well in order to adapt to all the different hotels. You did an amazing job in writing about the dynamics between people. What’s your trick to understanding humans so well? And do you think people should present different versions of themselves whenever they are in a new environment?
I don’t have a trick to understanding humans. I wish I did!! I’m a writer and, like most writers, I pay a lot of attention to people and how they behave. It fascinates me and I love how everyone in the world has their own unique story and psychology. I also have a natural curiosity and interest in psychology which comes from my mum, who is a psychotherapist, and my stepdad, who was a Jungian analyst. I learnt from listening to them how no one’s story is ever too strange or too unusual and how everyone, without exception, has a shadow side, a dark side that they unaware of. And that that’s okay – it’s all part of being human. So with Noelle, for me, there was instantly normality in her peculiarity. If we understand someone’s psychology, it’s easier to understand their behaviour. What interested and excited me the most about Noelle was not just why she was the way she was, but whether or not she would be able to escape her lonely and nomadic life to live the life she really deserves. Noelle deserves to be happy, she really does. She’s a survivor and she’s hugely resilient. What she needs is a place in the world and to belong somewhere. When she gets to Hotel 21, it’s the start of her journey. Even now when I think of Noelle I feel very emotional. I think she’s very brave.
And I think people present different versions of themselves all the time, although probably unconsciously. We have our work self, our social self, our dealing with authority self, our talking to our parents/family self. We bring forth different parts of our personality to deal with different situations. Noelle is in survival mode all the time and has been since childhood. In order to maintain the life she’s created for herself, a place she feels safe, she needs to employ different Noelle’s in different situations and it’s something she’s learned through trial and error. Noelle does this more consciously, that’s all. The bigger problem for Noelle is not which Noelle to be and when, but who is the real Noelle?
As Hotel 21 unfolds, we start to learn about Noelle’s past. We can’t help but feel sorry for her but ultimately she still stole from guests. How did you find the right balance for readers to love Noelle even if she made repeated mistakes?
Although Noelle takes things, she’s not your bog standard thief. She doesn’t take for monetary gain or because she particularly wants something. She takes because she’s in survival mode – this is her behaviour pattern created to deal with trauma. I think for that reason we feel for her and we forgive her. I do anyway. If you went to Noelle’s shabby bedsit in London, you would find a beautiful wooden trunk overflowing with all the items she’s ever taken. This is evidence of her life – that her system is working; that she’s surviving. And she cares about the items she takes, almost like they’re religious relics, and remembers where she took them from and how it felt. And, in some ways, we all have our trunks; our systems and behaviour patterns we put in place to make life a little less chaotic.
And finally, any tips for those who don’t want to get their items stolen from hotels?
Not at all. You can 100% trust your hotel cleaner. But if you ever notice a pair of tweezers missing, maybe say nothing.