I visited the real town of Hot Springs, Arkansas in the summer of 2005 with my friend Murry Newbern, who’d gotten divorced in New York and moved with her sons back to her hometown of Little Rock.
I had never been to Arkansas before, but my brother, who’d been a major horse-racing fan, was a devotee of Hot Springs. He always said it was his favorite place in the world — I remember him calling me from there, euphoric, late one night long ago — and urged me to go there, convinced I’d love it.
And I did love it, maybe because the whole place felt to me infused with the spirit of my brother, who’d died in 2003 and who I still missed terribly. I understood instantly what had attracted him so powerfully. It’s a place that’s down-to-earth, yet has a good measure of style; it’s old-fashioned, but with a nice sharp edge. There’s lots of natural beauty, and also lots of human juice.
Lying in a century-old sitz bath at the Buckstaff Bath House, I came up with the idea for the entity now known as Ho Springs. It was called more prosaicly Hot Springs then (more on the name change later), and all the places and characters you see here — LaTonya and Cora and Juliette and George and Taryn — arrived pretty much full-blown in my mind in that hour in the tub. I still can recall how excited I felt, buzzing with inspiration.
The idea felt even more right a little later, when, as Murry and I were walking down the main drag of town, the skies opened and the rain began pouring down. We ran across the street to the nearest inviting shelter, an old gazebo on the edge of the national park.
There inside, as if descended from heaven, was a young man playing a banjo and singing an amazing song. Murry and I stood vibrating as he sang: I really felt like he carried some spiritual message, from the ghost of my gambling brother, maybe, telling me I was on the right path.
In my original concept of Hot Springs, he became a character called Banjo Boy who would open each episode — I’d conceived it as a TV series — with a different soulful song. I wrote a detailed treatment of the characters and the show, basically what you see here in the Visitors’ Guide and the character descriptions, and sent it to my agent, who loved it and sent it along to her counterparts at CAA in Los Angeles.
And that’s the last I ever heard of it. Most New York writers who have nominal Hollywood agents know what I’m talking about. If Steven Spielberg, say, calls them up and says he wants to option your book, they get in touch with you. Otherwise, they basically have no idea who you are.
Time passed. Then, last fall, my book How Not To Act Old, which I’d started as a blog, became a New York Times bestseller and actually did get optioned as a TV series by Steven Spielberg. Around the same time, I finished a more serious novel, The White Lie, that I’d been working on for several years.
I wanted to start another novel, but I felt despairing — and still do — about the conventional novel’s possibilities in the big wide world. Novels have become kind of like pastoral poetry, or lute music: admired by an elite dusty few, but basically bound for the museum. I wished that writing a novel could be more like writing a blog: Immediate, energetic, with no barrier between your creation and the audience. In some ways, I thought, I was a better writer when I wrote online. I had more energy, more confidence; felt less self conscious and better able to let my voice and ideas just fly.
So why not, I thought, write a novel online? Not just a regular novel published digitally instead of on paper, but a novel that would incorporate the best aspects of web publishing. Short installments and quick updates. The ability to go deep into tangential aspects of the story without worrying about space. Visuals. Linking.
I very quickly pegged my old Hot Springs idea as perfect for translation to the web. I’d find a musician to “play” Banjo Boy, put up videos. My intern Danielle Miksza, burning with creativity, could write the teenage daughter’s secret diary. Any why not incorporate contributions from other writers too?
Alive with this idea, my last challenge was to come up with a new name. Hotsprings.com and all variations were taken by tourist sites. And then, driving to pick up my son, it came to me: Ho Springs. hosprings.com was surely available. I couldn’t drive home fast enough to check. With that name, I knew I was on my way.
Next: Putting together the site.