NAW Interview with Alan Brennert

Alan BrenneAlan Brennertrt was born in Englewood, New Jersey. Since 1973, he has lived in Southern California, where he received a B.A. in English from California State University at Long Beach and did graduate work in screenwriting at UCLA Film School.
In addition to novels, he has written short stories, teleplays, screenplays, and the libretto of a stage musical, Weird Romance, with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by David Spencer. His new novel, Palisades Park, is a return to his roots.  A historical and family saga set at the legendary Palisades Amusement Park in New Jersey, Alan calls it “a love letter to a cherished part of my childhood.”

NAW-Tell us about your book,Palisades Park. How did you get the idea for it?What made you write about Palisades Amusement Park, do you have some childhood connection with the place?

Yes, I grew up within a mile of Palisades Amusement Park, and like my protagonist Toni Stopka I waded as a toddler into “the world’s largest outdoor salt water pool” and would gaze up at the tall diving boards, wishing I could dive off them someday.  I’m still a regular swimmer today, though I did not, like Toni, dream of becoming a professional high diver.  But she’s not the only member of her family with eccentric dreams.  I wanted to tell a quirky family saga with the park as background, and“carnies”—the performers and concessionaires who work at the park—are nothing if not quirky and colorful.  It’s a subculture that still exists today, but one that’s rarely been used effectively as a backdrop for fiction, so I found that prospect very appealing.

NAW- Tell us about the research you did for the book. How do you research your books considering they need to be accurate historically?

For Palisades Park I was fortunate enough to interview people who actually worked at, or had a family connection to, the park.  I also relied heavily on local newspapers of the period and most especially the “Palisades Notes” column in The Billboard, which was the amusement industry’s bible (I spent many many days at UCLA looking through microfilm records).  In Palisades the only fictional characters are the Stopkas and their immediate family.  Everyone else is a real person—Irving Rosenthal, Gladys Shelley, Bunty Hill, Arthur Holden, Minette Dobson, et al—and I did my best to capture their voices and spirits as people.  I’ve since heard from friends and relatives of theirs that I succeeded in this, which for me is one of the most gratifying parts of being a historical novelist.

For my other novels I relied heavily on oral histories, biographies, the Hawai’i State Archives, newspapers on microfilm, and of course visiting the settings first hand when I’m able to.  My main character in Molokaiis fictional, but everything that happens to her as a Hansen’s disease patient really happened to Hansen’s patients: that was the armature of truth upon which I superimposed a fictional character.  I’m a bit obsessive about getting even the background details correct, from stores along King Street in Honolulu in 1917 to the price of a pound of beef in New Jersey in 1943.  To me that’s the difference between writing a historical and a period piece.  In my books the story bends to conform with the history, never the other way around.

NAW- Tell us about your other writings?

Moloka’i is the story of Rachel Kalama, a Native Hawaiian girl growing up in Honolulu in the 1890s, who contracts Hansen’s disease—leprosy—and is forcibly taken from her family and banished, along with thousands of other Hansen’s sufferers, at the leprosy settlement of Kalaupapa on the island of Moloka’i.  It may sound like a depressing subject for a novel, and I don’t shy from portraying the darkness inherent in it; but the story of the people of Kalaupapa is actually one of transcendence over circumstance, of a people who were taken from their lives and families and were expected to die—but chose life, even in the face of death.  If you had told me back in 2003, when it was published, that it would become my most popular novel, with over half a million copies in print after eleven years, I would never have believed it.

Honolulu is the first-person “memoir” of Jin, a young woman from Korea in the 1900s, who escapes the oppression a woman lives under in her own country at that time to become a “picture bride”—one of the many Asian women (also from China and Japan) who agreed to marry a man in Hawai’i they’ve only seen in photos…which turn out to be old, misleading, or both.  Honolulu was selected as one of the best books of 2009 by The Washington Post, but I’m equally proud of the fact that it’s recently been published in translation in South Korea, where it has received very positive views.

As a writer I suppose I’m attracted to characters living in other cultures and other times because I’m fascinated with the ways we’re all different and, more importantly, the ways in which we’re all alike.

NAW- Who are your favourite writers? Are there any who have influenced your writings?

A shortlist of the novels, short story collections, and plays that have influenced me as a writer:

Flowers for Algernon, Daniel Keyes

Les Miserables, Victor Hugo

Ourselves and Tyke and Five Stories by Jonathan Strong

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

The October Country and I Sing the Body Electric, Ray Bradbury

Miss Lonelyhearts and Day of the Locust by Nathanael West

Silent Night, Lonely Night, Robert Anderson

A Separate Peace, John Knowles

Portrait of Jennie, Robert Nathan

The Tenants of Moonbloom, Edward Lewis Wallant

More recent authors I enjoy include Lisa See and Arthur Golden (Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Memoirs of a Geisha both had a strong influence on Honolulu), Harriet Doerr (whose Consider This, Señora inspired me to write Moloka’i), Larry McMurtry, Michael Chabon, and Natsuo Kirino(whose book The Goddess Chronicle is both wonderful and weird).

Paradise Park book cover

NAW- How do you write, do you formulate the entire plot beforehand or let the book decide its course? Take us through your writing process?

I have a general “arc” of the story in mind before I start writing—I generally know the beginning and end, with a rough idea of the middle.  I plot it out chapter by chapter (with 3”x5” index cards tacked onto a large cork board, a holdover from my days writing television), but not too tightly and not too far ahead—I like to leave room for improvisation.  Usually I’m still doing research as I’m writing, and often I find something in the historical/factual record that surprises me, and I figure that if surprises me it will surprise a reader, so the story takes twists and turns it would not have had I plotted it out in minute detail from the start.

NAW- How important are character names for you? How do you decide names for the characters in your books?

Sometimes they’re taken from history: my protagonist in Honolulu is given the name “Regret” at birth because many Korean girls at that time were given names reflecting their parents’ feelings on having a girl instead of a boy.  Regret (or Regrettable) was an actual name of the era, along with Anger, Sorrow, and Pity.  Can you imagine what it would be like to grow up cursed with a name like that?   The whole character, the whole story, started with that name.

Sometimes I choose names for their metaphoric effect—Rachel in Moloka’i had to have a Biblical name because Hawaiian law at that time decreed that all children have Christian names. In the Bible Rachel was Job’s wife, and since I knew the character was going to endure Job-like trials, I named her Rachel. And sometimes I choose them for personal reasons: Sister Mary Catherine Voorhees was named after some close friends of my parents, Ralph and Bertha Voorhies, who were a surrogate aunt and uncle to me, and Eddie in Palisades Park was named after my real uncle, Edgar Wittmer.

NAW- Tell us about your life. How did you end up becoming a writer?

Actually I can’t recall a time I didn’t want to be a writer. I was born in New Jersey in 1954.  My dad was a sheet metal operator for the Alcoa Company in Edgewater, my mom an apartment rentals manager, but under the byline H.E. Brennert my father also wrote nonfiction pieces for aviation magazines like Skyways and American Helicopter.  He was a good writer, with a clean, lucid style.The funny thing is, he’d stopped writing by the time I came along, so I had no awareness of him as a writer—yet that was what I wanted to be ever since I was ten years old and I banged out a synopsis of the animated special Dorothy’s Return to Oz, which I’d seen the night before,on my toy typewriter. Obviously I received a genetic gift for writing from my dad, and since he had been a writer neither he nor my mother ever discouraged me—never said, “Oh, you can’t make a living doing that”—and never failed to buy me whatever weird comic book or science fiction magazine I wanted to read.  I had great, supportive parents; a writer couldn’t have asked for better ones.  And when I began selling short stories in the 1970s, they were thrilled and proud.

I moved to California in 1973, graduated with a B.A. in English from Cal State Long Beach, and attended UCLA Film School for three quarters until I sold my first television script.  I wrote for such series as L.A. Law, China Beach, Simon & Simon, and the 1980s revival of The Twilight Zone, as well as pilots, TV-movies, and screenplays.At the same time I wrote a handful of Twilight Zone-like fantasy novels, but Moloka’i was my first historical novel and its success turned my book career in a whole new direction.

NAW- What are you reading right now?

Where the Mountains are Thieves by my friend David Marion Wilkinson, whose brilliant historical novel Not Between Brothers I had the privilege of adapting as a four-hour miniseries for NBC (which, alas, never got made; that frustration actually launched me into the book that would become Moloka’i).

NAW- What are your upcoming projects?

I’m making notes for a new historical novel while waiting to hear whether a film version of my fantasy novel Time and Chance will be “greenlit” for production, in which case I will shift into being a screenwriter again for a while.

 

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