Print Friendly, PDF & Email

From the Shelf to Screen

The Big Thrill Interviews Author Alyssa Maxwell

By Susan Santangelo

Book Cover: Murder at the BreakersThe Big Thrill was delighted to sit down with author Alyssa Maxwell to discuss her acclaimed Gilded Newport series and the first book’s adaptation into a Hallmark movie with MURDER AT THE BREAKERS. The book-to-Hallmark movie is golden.

What inspired you to write the Gilded Newport mystery series?

Several things. For one, I had been writing historical romance, but since I’d always had a strong element of mystery or suspense in my stories, I realized mysteries were a better fit for me. I set my books in Newport, Rhode Island, because I’d been going there since my college days, immediately fell in love with the history and character of the place, and, after meeting my husband, I began to see Newport not as a tourist, but from the point of view of people who live there. I learned about real Newporters and the fact that, although in the summer months, Newport becomes a bustling international city, the rest of the year it’s actually a small town where everyone knows everyone and their business. At least, that’s how Newport was a few decades ago.

Finally, in considering when to set the series, I chose the Gilded Age because Newport’s mansions are probably the most famous and recognizable aspects of Newport, and the names of the people who built them are so well known that my stories would already have a familiarity with readers. After all, the first thing most people do when they arrive in Newport is tour a mansion, especially The Breakers.

Who are the primary characters?

Alyssa Maxwell
© Erin Manuel

Emma Cross is my sleuth. She’s a descendant of the first Cornelius Vanderbilt, and she’s also a Newporter—born and raised with deep roots there. This makes her able to straddle the worlds of both the wealthy and the ordinary people. In earlier books, she is a society reporter who covers all the happenings of the Newport social season, which puts her in the right places at the right times when murder strikes. There are two significant men in her life: Jesse Whyte is an old family friend who works as a detective for the Newport Police Department; Derrick Andrews is the heir of a Providence newspaper mogul. Both men compete for Emma’s attention, but both must also realize she has ambitions of her own.

Another important character in Emma’s life is Mary O’Neal—Nanny. Nanny was Emma’s governess when she was a child, and now she’s her housekeeper, friend, and surrogate grandmother. Nanny provides wisdom when Emma needs it, as well as information she gleans from her fellow servants. The servants always know everything. Rounding off Emma’s small circle of confidants is her half-brother, Brady. Although Brady is older by a few years, Emma, as the steadier of the two, often plays a mothering role to her impulsive and sometimes reckless big brother.

When you’re writing the series, do you have a vision of what your characters physically look like?

Generally, yes. I know what color hair and eyes they have, whether they’re tall or petite, heavy or thin, etc. They do appear in my imagination as fleshed-out individuals, but I don’t describe them so meticulously that the reader can’t form their own image. I think if we all lined up our ideas of each character, they would all look very different. One of the unique and wonderful things about fiction is that the reader is an active participant in the world-building. The writer provides the keywords in terms of description, and the reader’s imagination takes over to provide the fine details.

The first book in the Gilded Newport mysteries, MURDER AT THE BREAKERS, is now a Hallmark movie. How did that come about?

A lot depended on luck. I’m fortunate that the Preservation Society of Newport County, which owns many of Newport’s mansions, has embraced the series and sells the books in their gift shops. Before the pandemic, one of the executive producers on the project happened to tour The Breakers and noticed MURDER AT THE BREAKERS in the gift shop. He had been looking for a Newport project to propose to Hallmark, so he bought my book, read it, and contacted my agent shortly after. Of course, the pandemic and then the writers’ strike slowed things down a lot, but we finally received notice last September that filming would begin in October. And here we are!

How much input did you have in casting the actors?

I had no input whatsoever in casting, or anything else for that matter. This is par for the course, though, and not unexpected. When an author sells their film rights, the production company is free to use the material as they see fit. This is because they know their audience, and they know what keeps viewers watching. Writing books and writing screenplays are two very different skillsets. I like to say my creative input into the movie was in writing the book.

How faithful is the movie version to your original plot? If rewriting was required, who did that?

The screenplay was written by Keri Ferencz, and I feel the movie follows the story I wrote very closely. There is quite a lot that was not included, but that’s because they had to fit a 300-page book into an hour-and-a-half time slot. So, there are certainly scenes and characters that were omitted, but the main story remains fairly true to the basic plot.

How closely did the actors’ portrayal of your characters match the vision you had for each one?

Some are a closer match than others. But just as an author brings his or her own “voice” to their writing, I think actors also bring their personality or interpretation to a character. When I talk about voice, I don’t mean speaking voice, but, especially in a writing sense, authors each bring to their writing some special quality that’s unique to them. If that weren’t the case, all books would sound about the same, but they don’t. Likewise, actors can’t help but bring their unique personality traits to each character they play, and it’s fun for me to see how each of my characters has been interpreted.

Where was the movie filmed? And were you on the set during filming? If yes, were you allowed to provide any suggestions?

They filmed in Victoria, BC, Canada, in surroundings that look quite a bit like the real Newport. There’s a seaside scene that looks very much like it could have been along Newport’s Cliff Walk or Ocean Drive. The area is also known for its spectacular mansions. Someone recently pointed out that the house that stands in for The Breakers, called Hatley Castle, actually looks a bit like another Newport mansion, Beechbound, with its crenelated, stone tower.

No, I wasn’t there, although I wish I had been. Maybe, if they continue with the series, I’ll have a chance to fly up.

How long did the filming take?

I recently learned from an interview with star Ali Skovbye that they completed shooting in 12 days!

Will there be more Gilded Newport mysteries on the Hallmark channel?

That’s a question I can’t answer, and I don’t know if that decision has been made yet. But they certainly set it up with the potential for more. My fingers are crossed. Tightly.

Learn more about Alyssa Maxwell and the Gilded Newport mysteries here.


The Big Thrill Interviews Author Alyssa Maxwell

Susan Santangelo