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Interview: April 11, 2013

PALISADES PARK, the highly anticipated new novel from bestselling author Alan Brennert, is a fictional account of the Stopka family in the very real world of the 1930s Palisades Amusement Park in New Jersey. This family of dreamers lives through some of the most defining moments of United States history --- the Great Depression, Pearl Harbor, World War II --- to realize that the American dream is what you make of it, all the while being drawn back together and to Palisades Park. Brennert spoke with’s Amy Gwiazdowski about researching the renowned amusement park and his personal ties to it, the challenges of being a modern writer penning historical fiction, how his experience in media has impacted his writing, and the ever-catchy “Palisades Park” jingle. Palisades Amusement Park was a real park located in New Jersey that was open until 1971. It finished up its days as one of the most popular amusement parks of its time. Your book takes readers back to that place, and you feel as if you’re walking through the gates each time a character enters the park. What made you want to bring Palisades Amusement Park to life for readers?

Alan Brennert: I suppose I wanted to recreate something I had loved as a child, but I wanted to do more than that, to highlight the people who made the park what it was. As a writer I’m attracted to the “story behind the story” --- the ordinary people at Kalaupapa who lived in Father Damien’s shadow; the immigrants who toiled to make the 1920s and ’30s “Hawai’i’s Glamour Days” --- and in researching this novel I got to see a side of Palisades Park I never knew as a child. It pleases me that readers will get to know the people who made Palisades such a beloved place: Irving Rosenthal, Gladys Shelley, Bunty Hill, Arthur Holden, Minette Dobson, and more.

BRC: As a child, you grew up near Palisades Amusement Park. Obviously, it has become a source of inspiration for you, with several people --- owners of the park, specifically --- becoming fictional characters in the book. What’s your favorite memory of it?

AB: The night when I was seven years old and my Aunt Eleanor --- I was staying with her and my Uncle Nick while my mom was in the hospital --- took me to Palisades and I fell in love with a stuffed dog almost bigger than I was, a prize at one of the concessions. I think it must have been the “cat rack,” where you toss a ball and try to knock over stuffed cats. Well, it took a lot of knocked-over cats to win a prize that big, and we must have stayed at that booth for an hour as I threw ball after ball and my aunt put down dime after dime onto the counter for each throw.  Finally, I won it and was elated. My family could never afford a house of our own so I was never able to have a dog --- except for Ruff, who I named after the dog in the Dennis the Menace comic strip. I loved that stuffed dog, and I love Aunt Eleanor for spending all that time and money so I could win it.

BRC: The tragic events of Pearl Harbor take a toll on the Stopka family, both at the start of the war and years later. The character of Eddie Stopka was stationed for a short period in Hawaii during World War II and never forgets his time there. In your previous books, HONOLULU and MOLOKA’I, Hawaii also played a large role. What made you want to bring Hawaii to New Jersey in this story?

AB: I knew from the start I wanted Eddie to open a tiki restaurant, and the best way of inspiring that was to have him fall in love with Hawai’i. Also, there’s a little bit of me in every character in PALISADES PARK: I loved swimming in the Palisades pool and climbing the Palisades like Toni; I wrote and drew my own comic books, like Jack, and was just as useless at team sports. And like Eddie, I fell in love with Hawai’i on first sight and, like him, found a way to bring Hawai’i back with me to my life on the mainland, by recreating it through my novels.

BRC: PALISADES PARK encompasses some larger themes --- WWII, race riots, and the Korean War --- but manages to feel grounded by its characters, who give the story a personal touch. How do you put yourself in an historical frame of mind to write about this time period?

AB: By talking with people who lived through the period when possible, which was more feasible with this book than my others. But mainly through reading --- lots and lots of reading about both the period and the subject. Looking through old newspapers --- particularly local papers like The Palisadian and the trade magazine The Billboard --- really gives me a sense of the rhythms of daily life, the way people spoke and wrote, the mores of the time, and more concretely what brands of toothpaste they used, the price of a gallon of milk, and so on. Occasionally films helped by capturing a moment in time visually, such as Peejay Ringens’ bicycle jump, which truly was eye-popping.

BRC: So much happens to the Stopka family, but through it all, they retain their hopefulness and, in many ways, stay true to their dreams. Did you intend for that to happen, or did it change over the course of writing the book?

AB: It was always my intention that only Toni would achieve her exact childhood dream, while the other members of her family would find that life offers them other dreams to pursue. It would’ve seemed ridiculous otherwise. Very few people in this world walk a straight line from a childhood ambition to an adult career that fulfills it (I confess I’m one of the exceptions, like Toni); it’s more often a circuitous path, as we grow, acquire new interests, or have circumstances close off one dream (as happens to Jack) but open a door onto another.   

BRC: It must be asked: Was there a female high-diver at Palisades Amusement Park akin to your character, Toni Stopka? If so, did you ever get the chance to see her perform?

AB: There was no regularly booked female high-diver like Toni, but women divers like Bee Kyle did appear there (and Bee’s appearance in the novel exactly coincides with her actual performance at Palisades). I never had the chance to see any of them, though some of Peejay Ringens and Arthur Holden’s dives have been preserved and I was able to watch them online.

BRC: What do you want people to take away after reading PALISADES PARK?

AB: A sense of what it was that made Palisades Park special, what makes so many of these icons of our youth special and why they should be preserved. There were some who, after Hurricane Sandy, wondered whether it was worth it to spend all that money rebuilding Seaside Heights (which I also visited often as a child; that photo of the broken roller coaster jutting out of the sea was heartbreaking to me). To which I wholeheartedly reply: Hell yes it is! These are the places that shaped us, that helped shape our popular culture, and by seeing how one of them, Palisades, was lost to us, I hope readers will realize how essential it is to preserve this landscape of our dreams.

BRC: Can you sing the jingle for PALISADES PARK that ran on radio stations for years?

AB: I can sing it, but trust me, you wouldn’t want me to. It’s been many, many years since I sang solo at a Christmas concert in fourth grade, and the years have not been kind to my voice. I did play the jingle, as well as Freddy Cannon’s “Palisades Park,” frequently during the writing of the book, to get me in the mood. And I was very pleased when Susan Luse and Carol Horn, the nieces and heirs of composer Gladys Shelley, gave me permission to use it in the novel.

BRC: Every writer has a different approach to creating his or her fictional worlds and characters. What is your writing process?

AB: Eddie and Adele were anomalous in that they sprang nearly full-blown from my imagination. Usually with a historical novel, my inspiration for the characters come out of the history itself: Rachel in MOLOKA’I, for example, began to take shape for me while I was reading oral histories of Hawaiians who lived in Honolulu around the turn of the last century. I read about one merchant seaman who brought his family gifts he purchased at each port of call, and that morphed into Rachel’s doll collection (and the beginnings of Henry Kalama as a character as well). My philosophy is: Start with something true, then find other bits of truth to add to it, so that the character is anchored in reality. Then I start embroidering fictional details. Even Eddie and Adele have their roots in reality --- Fort Lee really was a film Mecca at the start of the 20th century, and kids did leave abusive families and hop freight trains bound for anywhere else.

BRC: What inspires you as a writer? Are there specific times and/or places that spark your imagination more than others?

AB: A story that’s never been told before, at least in fiction. When I first read how the children of Hansen’s disease patients were taken away from them --- against their parents’ will --- to prevent them from coming down with the disease, I thought: My God, why has no one ever told this story before? It’s not often a writer comes across one of these, but I found it in MOLOKA’I and now, I think, in PALISADES PARK.

BRC: With a B.A. in English and graduate work in film school at UCLA, words are no stranger to you. How did you come to be a writer? How did your work as a television writer and producer play into your fiction writing?

AB: I can’t remember a time I didn’t want to be writer. At the age of 10, I pounded out a crude retelling on my toy typewriter of Return to Oz,”an animated TV special I’d seen the night before. My dad had been a freelance aviation writer in the 1940s, but by the time I came along, he’d stopped writing and I had no idea he’d been a writer until I became interested in it myself. So clearly I had a genetic gift from him, for which I’m grateful --- and because he’d been a writer, I was never discouraged from pursuing it; my parents were totally supportive. I sold my first short story to a science fiction anthology when I was 18, wrote stories to help support myself through college, and broke into television when I was 24.

I started out as a prose writer and it’s my first love, but I do think I’m a far better novelist today for having worked in television, film and theater. Dramatic media force you to learn structure, pacing and concise dialogue, and I believe my experiences as a dramatist have informed my prose writing. As she worked on trimming PALISADES, my editor, Hope Dellon, paid me a high compliment: “You’re a hard man to cut.” That’s because once I know what the shape of a book has to be (and sometimes Hope does have to whack me upside the head before I see it), I apply the skills I learned in the editing room as a producer --- “That joke fell flat, cut it”; “Drop this scene, it isn’t working”; “God, this dialogue drags on forever, let’s trim it” --- on the text of the story. 

BRC: An author’s bookshelf is always something of fascination. Who are some of the authors who inspire you? Are there any books you have read recently that you would like to recommend?

AB: My bookshelves contain books that have inspired me at different stages of my life: SILAS MARNERand LESMISERABLES, the first schoolbooks to imprint on me as a hatchling writer; the heartbreakingly beautiful FLOWERS FOR ALGERNONby Daniel Keyes; Ray Bradbury’s THE OCTOBER COUNTRY(and almost everything else he wrote); Robert Anderson’s poignant play “Silent Night Lonely Night;” Fitzgerald’s THE GREAT GATSBY;OURSELVES, a lovely coming-of-age storyby Jonathan Strong; Nathaniel West’s searing MISS LONELYHEARTSand DAY OF THE LOCUST; THE TENENTS OF MOONBLOOMby Edward Lewis Wallant; PATTERNSby Rod Serling (and, of course, THE TWILIGHT ZONE); Larry McMurtry’s THE DESERT ROSE, among other books; and Harriet Doerr’s CONSIDER THIS, SEÑORA, which indirectly inspired me to write MOLOKA’I.

If there’s a commonality to the above list, it’s the humane sensibility of the authors, and my most recently read book qualifies: my friend Robert Crais’s novel, SUSPECTI always enjoy his character-centered mysteries, but in this one, he tells the story of two LAPD K-9 team members, Scott and Maggie, both suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (Maggie was an explosives dog in Afghanistan); the chapters told, in a remarkably non-anthropomorphic way, from Maggie’s point of view, blew me away as a writer and as an animal lover brought tears to my eyes.

BRC: Can you tell us anything about your next project? What can readers expect?

AB: I have several ideas but haven’t decided on any one of them, and in any event my editor will have something to say about that too. I like challenging myself with different subjects and modes of storytelling, so though I may not be able to tell you what’s next, odds are there will be something about it different from any of the preceding books.