#JustContemporary Feature: Interview with Tara Altebrando

Today I’m lucky enough to have Tara Altebrando on for an interview!  She’s the author of Dreamland Social Club {my review went up earlier today, sorry I’m not able to link you because I’m currently on a road trip}.  I loved the book though and highly recommend it.  Make sure you check out the info about Just Contemporary HERE as well!

Thanks so much for being on for contemporary month!  I loved Dreamland Social Club and so much of it was that fabulous setting.  I’ve never been but my dream since I was little has been to visit NYC and Coney Island would be part of that, of course.  What inspired you to have your book set on Coney Island and to have it such an integral part of the story?

Once I learned about the amazing history of Coney Island, specifically
the crazy old amusement parks, with premature baby displays and rides
that simulated trips to the moon and re-creations of tenement fires
and entire “cities” populated by midgets, I knew I had to work it into
a story somehow. I was especially intrigued by the idea of contrasting
that glorious time in Coney’s history with the current state of Coney,
which is, well, not so glorious in a lot of ways. Right now Coney,
while undergoing some redevelopment, is pretty run down.

How much of the history of Coney Island, in the book, was real?

All of the details regarding amusement parks are real—all of the old
attractions and rides mentioned. The fictional stuff has more to do
with how my characters interacted with history. Like, in the book,
Jane’s grandfather is known as Preemie because he was one of the
babies put on display in an incubator at the Dreamland amusement park.
He didn’t really exist, but the preemies did.

In the book are a few different old videos from the early 1900’s, like
Orphans on the beach, the electrocuted elephant, just to name a
couple, are those real videos?  If so have you watched them, and did
they have a profound effect on you like they did Jane?

Those videos are real, yes. The electrocuted elephant video is pretty
readily found on Youtube, but Orphans in the Surf is harder to find.
In fact, when I’ve looked for it more recently, it’s not there, though
I swear I watched it at one point when I first started writing the
book. I wouldn’t say they had a profound effect on me but it is
certainly strange and interesting to think about what people decided
was worth filming, when film technology was so new. Edison made a
bunch of films having to do with re-creations of the Boer Wars. What
was his fascination? I can’t even imagine. The elephant video is
pretty sad and jarring the first time you see it. I think I watched it
so many times, in order to try to describe it detail in the book, that
I became a little bit desensitized.

Were any of the characters based on real people?

Not really. Though there were a two famous women in the history of
sideshows—Betty Green and Minnie Woolsey—who made their careers as
‘Koo Koo the Bird Girl’ and ‘Stork Woman,’ claiming to be part bird,
so that inspired the character of Jane’s grandmother, Birdie Cusack.

Are any of the situations in the book based on real experiences you
may have had?

The swim that Jane eventually takes in the waters of Coney—and the
magical feeling she has—is based on the first time I swam at Coney,
which was when I was about twenty-eight. I can’t really explain it but
there was something powerful about getting in the water there, almost
as if the water itself held history.

The cover of Dreamland Social Club is gorgeous.  It’s bright and I
think really did a fabulous job in capturing the whole ‘feel’ of the
story.  Did you have any input when it came to the cover?

I had no say whatsoever! But I loved it instantly. It was actually the
first time I saw a book cover design for one of my novels and didn’t

What is your best memory of Coney Island?

My husband proposed to me on the Wonder Wheel. Before I said yes, I
saw the ring and said, “Don’t drop it.”

If I were to go to Coney Island today what is one place I MUST go?

You should ride the Wonder Wheel for sure. The view is really unlike
any in the world. And also visit the sideshow because it’s there that
Coney’s truly unique history is being celebrated.

In the book Jane remembers playing games with her mother that were
based on different rides and such that were on Coney Island back in
the day.  Did you play games like that as a child?  Do you remember a
favorite game or ‘play pretend’ from when you were a child?

I have very vivid memories of playing a game of shipwreck, using
ottomans and arm chairs as boats. Not necessarily with my mom, but
with a friend. And I only really remembered it when I was trying to
think about what kinds of things a girl would remember doing with her
mother if her mother had died when she was only seven. I am not sure
when I got the idea to tie all the childhood games Jane’s mother made
up to old Coney attractions but it felt like a great way to portray
her deep love of Coney.

Are you more like Marcus, kind of nonchalant about things and not very
shy, or more like Jane who’s afraid of asking the wrong questions and
really quite shy?

I would say that I split the difference. I’m generally pretty outgoing
but have a terrible fear of people not liking me. So I’ll go ahead and
ask the wrong question, then fret about it afterwards for days.

Are you a Looky Lou?

I don’t think so! I’m definitely a tireless observer of human behavior
but I don’t think I do it in a way that is malicious. I hate
rubbernecking! But it’s true that I’ve gone down to the Polar Bear
swim on Coney to watch and didn’t get in the water. It was like ten
degrees out! So, you decide!

What is the best part of being you? (Love this part of the book!)

Oh, I’m so fortunate, so this is hard. The best part of being me is
probably that my path seems to have intersected with the paths of
countless amazing people, who continue to make life really fun and
challenging and fulfilling.

Thanks so much for being on Tara!

Find out more on her website!

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  1. I think this is the best interview I’ve ever read! Great questions, awesome answers, and it’s made me desperately want to read the book. Coney Island really seems to be a character itself within the book. I know CI has a ton of history, but I didn’t realize just how much that was. It all sounds so intriguing and a little disturbing (not even gonna look up that elephant) and all very interesting. Thanks for sharing Tara :)

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