Roberta Isleib's Backstory for FAIRWAY TO HEAVEN

by Roberta A. Isleib, Ph.D.

Around the time I was groping for the story of my fourth golf lover’s mystery, FAIRWAY TO HEAVEN, I attended a meeting in Pinehurst, North Carolina. I was whining, as writers sometimes do, about finding the right topic and setting for my next book. My ever-practical husband suggested that I jot down some notes about Pinehurst. It is, after all, the golf capital of America, site of many historic tournaments, and elegant beyond our usual vacation dreams.

In 1892, architect Frederick Law Omstead (of Central Park fame) was commissioned to design Pinehurst. The commissioner, James Tufts, had determined the area to be a “health-improving climate.” The climate is still marvelous and the town is too, if you can find it. We circled the roundabout outside the community until we were dizzy, finally veering onto the road that leads to town.

As we drove, I scribbled descriptors: quaint, charming, stately—just the kind of perfection that could provide a wonderful foil for murder. You will not find K-mart, WalMart, Jiffy Lube, Seven-Eleven, even a grocery store, on the main streets of Pinehurst. (All that is tucked away backstage and out of town, accessible to the natives and subject to strict zoning regulations.)

You will find red brick buildings with green shutters, pine trees, live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, white rocking chairs on porches, elegant gift shops, and the best chocolate milkshake in the world. Aside from those charms, the town’s prominent features are historic buildings: the Carolina Inn, the Holly Inn, the village chapel, the Sandhill Women’s Exchange—and a brand new spa. And just up the road lies Pinehurst No.2, the finest and most storied golf course in America—finer even than Pebble Beach, its proponents argue. For who wouldn’t prefer lawn bowlers dressed in all white (Pinehurst) to the gaudy crashing of the Pacific on the rocks below the fairways (Pebble Beach)? At any rate, I was in North Carolina and not California, unlikely to be making a cross-country voyage soon.

We decided to splurge on a tee time at the number two course—these fairways hosted Payne Stewart’s glorious 1999 US Open win before his death in a mysterious and tragic plane crash several months later. If I did set FAIRWAY TO HEAVEN in Pinehurst, my characters, including LPGA golfer Cassie Burdette, would be playing this golf course—obviously I needed to be familiar with the facilities. But the health-improving weather turned foul: temperatures in the fifties and sheets of rain. So in the flexible manner of any decent mystery writer, I scheduled appointments at the spa. Surely as the maid of honor at a Pinehurst society wedding—the scenario that was beginning to take shape in my imagination—Cassie would be sampling the spa treatments.

Once home in front of the computer, I realized I needed more details to capture the flavor of the town. My husband discouraged a second trip. So I subscribed to the local paper, The Pilot, for half a year while I pounded out the first draft. The special features of the village grew sharper in my mind—instead of kudos for achievements, the editors award golf scores: birdies are offered for noteworthy community service, bogeys and double bogeys for poor zoning decisions or no-shows by public figures. Entire pages are dedicated to the interests of the village—bridge, golf, and equestrian activities, including steeplechase horse races and the popular steeplechase tailgate party and hat contest. Wedding announcements are taken very seriously, peppered with detailed descriptions of the bridal parties’ clothing, family lineage, and “courtesies”—otherwise know in the north as bridal showers.

As reported in The Pilot, some residents believe the unspoiled beauty of Pinehurst is falling victim to a press for development, spawned by retiring baby boomers. This conflict was conveniently mirrored in the news—the most controversial developer was cast as another Saddam Hussein, the wooded parcel leading into town was defended as Pinehurst’s “Seventeen-Mile Drive.” (For those of you unfamiliar with Pebble Beach in Monterey, you access the famous seaside golf course by a winding highway lined with stunning coastal views.) Excellent fodder for a mystery writer…

I shaped these bits and pieces into FAIRWAY TO HEAVEN, in which Cassie Burdette is playing in a three-tour tournament with her estranged father and her on-again, off-again boyfriend. Her friend’s wedding preparations weave in and out of the rounds of golf, and Pinehurst poses, stately and perfect, behind it all. As Cassie observes in the lobby of the Holly Inn, the Pinehurst resort feels like another world—one that will remain long after we are gone:

“I sprawled in an upholstered wing chair by the fire. The flames crackled higher, warming the dark paneling from molasses to honey and illuminating the quotation inscribed over the fireplace: ‘Time goes you say? Ah no! Time stays, we go.’ Harry Austin Dobson.”

Clinical psychologist Roberta Isleib (http://www.robertaisleib.com) is the author of four Cassie Burdette mysteries.

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