Emmy Award-winning screenwriter, author, and New Jersey native Alan Brennert discusses his latest novel, Palisades Park, about a family of dreamers whose lives are shaped by the history of a legendary amusement park.
Zola: Having been to Palisades Park as a child, did many of your own memories end up in the book?
Alan Brennert: Not so much specific incidents, more the sights, sounds, and smells that I associated with the park. There are aspects of Toni’s life that are taken from my own experiences, including her love of the Palisades swimming pool and of climbing the Palisades while living in Edgewater. For that matter, there’s a little of me in all the Stopkas: the scene in which Jack’s drawing of the Trylon and Perisphere from the 1939 World’s Fair is chosen for his class booklet on the fair is based on my own drawing of the Unisphere from the 1964 fair, which became the cover of the booklet we made in, I think, fourth grade.
Zola: Do you remember how you felt when the park shut down?
AB: We’d moved out of the area by then so the park wasn’t the eternal presence to me that it had been. I felt sad, but it didn’t really hit home to me until my return visits to Cliffside Park and seeing those two high-rises standing where “my” park had once stood. To this day I can’t pass those towers without flinching a little.
Zola: New Jersey takes flack from other states, especially in light of MTV’s The Jersey Shore. But the Stopkas represent the importance of family, social progression, resilience, and true passion. Is that how you see New Jersey?
AB: That’s the New Jersey I grew up in, not the steroid-filled, trash-talking narcissism you see on the late and unlamented Jersey Shore. Sure, there are people in New Jersey who may talk and act like that, but most of that is just (to put this in Jersey Shore terminology) reality-show bullshit.
Zola: Both Eddie’s and Adele’s parents had dreams for them. What were your parents’ dreams for you as a child? Did you know from a young age you wanted to be a writer?
AB: I can’t remember a time I didn’t want to be writer. I wrote a (very short) play in sixth grade, as well as a few creepy horror stories that had my classmates dub me “Edgar Alan Brennert.” My dad had been a freelance aviation writer in the 1940s, but by the time I came along he’d stopped writing and I honestly had no idea he’d been a writer until I became interested in it myself. So clearly he passed on his gift of writing to me, for which I’m grateful—and because he’d been a writer, I was never discouraged from pursuing it, my parents were nothing but encouraging. They bought me any weird comic book I wanted to read without hesitation. They were the best, most supportive parents I could have wanted, and I wish they were still here to read Palisades Park. But they did see enough of my success as a writer to be proud of me and the career I’d forged, and I’m grateful for that.
Zola: You’ve written screenplays in the past and won an Emmy for your work on L.A. Law. What’s the biggest difference between writing characters for television and film versus novels?
AB: In books you have much more room to explore character, and no episodic format to which you have to adhere. This is not to say that television can’t produce extraordinary characters over the course of a series like, say, Mad Men or The Sopranos. And there’s an immediacy to film and TV that’s very powerful, of course. But as a novelist you have tools a screenwriter doesn’t: you can evoke more than just two senses, sight and sound—you can evoke the smell of concession stand french fries, the heat of a raging fire, the fear and adrenaline rush of racing for your life away from a fire…You have so much more freedom to explore what’s inside a character’s head, which is what I’ve always been primarily interested in as a writer.
Zola: Your last two novels were set in Hawaii, and while this book takes place in New Jersey, Hawaii finds its way in as well. What continues to draw you back to Hawaii in your writing?
AB: All I can say is, it’s the place that I feel happiest and most content. Palisades Amusement Park comes in a close second, though.
Zola: You dedicate the book to a “big stuffed dog named Ruff”—what’s the story there?
AB: It’s also dedicated to my Aunt Eleanor and Uncle Nick, and in 1961, when I was seven, I stayed with them while my mother was in the hospital with pericarditis. One night Aunt Eleanor took me to Palisades and I fell in love with a stuffed dog that was almost bigger than I was, a prize at one of the concessions. It looked exactly like Dennis the Menace’s dog Ruff in the comic strip—white, wooly, with a shaggy muzzle. The concession was 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 I was elated. My family could never afford a house of our own so I was never able to have a dog—except for Ruff. I loved that stuffed dog, and I love Aunt Eleanor for spending all that time and money so I could win it.
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.