This summer, Madison-based writer Christina Clancy will release her second book, "Shoulder Season," that's based on a young woman from East Troy who, after losing her parents, gets a job as a "Bunny" at the Lake Geneva Playboy Club Hotel.
The book is fictional, but the resort really did open in the small Wisconsin town in 1968, and employed gaggles of "Bunnies" (cocktail servers clad in corsets, bunny tails and bunny ears) until it changed ownership in 1982. Today it is the Lake Geneva Grand Resort & Spa, owned by the Marcus Corporation.
Clancy's husband, John, spent his summers as a kid in East Troy, so she was already familiar with the area and the tight-knit community. Once she found out about the Playboy Resort and "Bunny culture," she was a-blaze with inspiration and and she penned her second novel "Shoulder Season," which comes out in July 2021.
Her first book, "The Second Home," was published just last year and a chunk of the book takes place in Milwaukee.
Clancy's work has appeared in the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Sun Magazine and in various literary journals. She holds a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and was a professor at Beloit College.
OnMilwaukee: What inspired you to write a book about a Playboy Bunny?
Christina Clancy: When a journalist fails to mention the most interesting part of a story, they say they buried the lede. Well, that’s how I felt many years ago when I stayed at the Grand Geneva Resort and stumbled upon a small curio cabinet off to the side of the lobby that featured some old Playboy photos and Bunny paraphernalia. Wait a minute, there was a Playboy Resort… in Wisconsin? I couldn’t figure out why the most interesting, glamorous and unlikely aspect of the building’s history wasn’t showcased more prominently.
When I started out writing this book, I wasn’t very interested in Bunny culture, and honestly, my view of Playboy wasn’t all that positive. I’m a writer of place (this wouldn’t surprise anyone who’s read "The Second Home"), so I was more curious about the ways in which Playboy sex and glamour changed the culture of nearby farming communities—especially East Troy, where my husband’s family is from, and where we spend our summers. I wondered what it must have been like to live there in the seventies and early eighties, when the resort and Alpine Valley Music Amphitheater were in full swing. Many people from small towns grow up feeling like they’ve been cut off from the world, but at that time, they must have felt like the world had come to them.
All these ideas were kicking around in my head until one day I chatted with a group of women who were having lunch at 2894 Café on the square in East Troy. They asked what I would write next, and when I said I didn’t know, they told me they wished more books were written about people their age (they were in their 60s). I started to think about how even the most fleeting experiences of our youth can define us. What could be more defining for a woman than to have been a former Bunny?
How did you research the "Bunnies" and the club?
I said that I wasn’t initially interested in Bunny culture, but that all changed when I started talking to Pam Ellis, who’d worked at the resort for four years—that’s quite a record considering how physically demanding the work was. I found her when I read an article in the Lake Geneva news about a Bunny reunion. Pam loved to wax nostalgic about her experiences at the resort. It was through her that I learned about the Bunny Mother, the 12-foot fence surrounding the dorm, the room captains who monitored every move the Bunnies made and the physical demands of the job. I was most surprised to learn that Hefner marketed the place as a “family resort.” These Bunnies were expected to live up to the expectations of Playboy Magazine readers, while also being wholesome and friendly. Can you imagine?
I spoke with other Bunnies, too. I also interviewed a former front desk worker, lots of former patrons, the golf pro, a former executive with Playboy, you name it. I loved how people lit up when I mentioned the resort. I also loved talking to my friends in East Troy. I’m so jealous that they got to grow up there, with all the lakes, camps, farms, the square and the rich sense of community. I know people will think of this as a Playboy novel, but really, for me, this is a novel about this very special small town that (the main character) Sherri overlooks, only to appreciate much later in her life.
When did you start writing the book, long long did it take and where did you write most of it?
I was offered a two-book contract when I sold The Second Home, so I only had about a year and a half to write Shoulder Season. I know some authors hate writing to deadline, but I was so much more productive because I was accountable to my wonderful editor. I still can’t believe I finished on time. Even though I had to write relatively quickly, it doesn’t feel rushed. I’m really proud of this book and what it says about living with the mistakes we make.
Will you have a book release when the book is out? If so, will it be online or in person?
A lot of writers are introverts—not me! I couldn’t wait for readings and book signings when my debut came out. It was heartbreaking to have my tour and events canceled one at a time as the pandemic raged. My book launched as the riots were happening, and there was a social media blackout the very day The Second Home came out, so I couldn’t even promote it. I am really hoping that I can have live events for the launch of Shoulder Season. Everyone needs to mask up and get their vaccines. Let’s do this!
Are you working on another book? Will all of your books have a connection to Wisconsin?
My new book is in the infant stage. It’s also set in Lake Geneva, but in 1927. I used to worry about becoming pegged as a regional writer, but what’s wrong with that? Wisconsin has a fascinating history. That said, I can’t promise I’ll always write about this area. You just have to follow ideas that have juice, wherever they happen.
Where would you direct people to pre-order?
I had no idea about the power of pre-orders until I became an author. The more people pre-order your book, the more the bookstores will order, and the more the publisher will print. So, if you want a book to do well, you can really do the author a solid by pre-ordering the book. And now is the best time ever to support an independent bookstore. They’ve struggled to stay open and adjust the way they do business during the pandemic. Fortunately, Wisconsin has amazing bookstores, from Boswell Book Co. in Milwaukee to InkLink Books in East Troy. Then there’s Books & Co in Oconomowoc, Mystery to Me in Madison, Arcadia in Spring Green … I could go on. But honestly, booksellers work so hard, and it feels so good to walk out of a bookstore with a book in your hand.
What else would you like readers to know about you professionally and personally?
Just that writing Shoulder Season has given me a renewed appreciation for the power of stories to help us have more complicated and nuanced understandings of people—where they come from and the decisions they make (good and bad). Writing this book has taught me a lot about reserving judgement. Almost all the women I interviewed said that they had the time of their lives working at the Playboy resort.
Also, I live in Madison now, but I’ll always be a Milwaukeean at heart.
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.