A Conversation with Kevin Baker
Kevin, you're a bestselling historical fiction writer, how did writing your first graphic novel come about? How did the writing process differ?
I have to admit, I hadn't even thought of trying my hand at graphic novels-I never dreamed I'd be hip enough. But then Peter Tomassi from DC approached me about the idea some years ago, and after some back-and-forth, hashing out a plot with Peter and Karen Berger, it was a go.
I have to say, I loved the experience. It's very different from writing novels in that, among other things, you get to leave much of the hard work to the artist-the physical setting, facial expressions, etc. It's not that it's easier than novel-writing, just very different. You really have to say a lot in just a few words. On the other hand, I've always thought very visually when writing novels, so this was a joy to do.
Where did you find your inspiration for Luna Park?
was inspired by both my longtime love of Coney Island, and history in general. It was Karen Berger, I think, who first suggested I do something based on Coney, and the rest just followed. There are so many stories out there-it's a shame they're tearing the place down.
I had written about Coney Island first in my historical novel, Dreamland
(HarperCollins, 1999), but that only scratched the surface. Another inspiration was James Gray's wonderfully atmospheric, Russian gangster pic, Little Odessa,
which makes the most of the modern Coney and Brighton Beach.
Basically, it's a wonderful ruin, where so many times and stories seem to blend together. Luna Park is long gone-the last of it burned down in 1946-but it was far and away the most beautiful, almost surreal of the three, great, original amusement parks out there. It was designed by this alcoholic impresario and builder of vast follies, a man named Frederick Thompson, who felt there was a need for "manufactured fun" (what an American concept!).
As a result, he filled it with spires, minarets, half-moons, leering animal and clown heads-a whole jumbled of architectural styles that ended up looking like something out of Dr. Seuss. I would think it would be very easy to be disoriented in such a place, to not know what age or place you are in.
Luna Park is full of authentic Russian vocabulary, culture and history. How much research did you do for the book?
Not all that much, though I've walked through the area many times. Brighton Beach, especially, is one of the last, great ethnic neighborhoods left in New York, and it's a treat to go through the neighborhood and soak up the atmosphere.
Some years back, I did take a good friend out there for a bachelor party at a club called "Rasputin's," which I believe is still open. What a place! It was as if someone had taken all of Russian and American culture for the past hundred years, shaken it up in a grab bag, then let loose. The floor show was everything from a chorus line, to contortionists, to giant, pantomine figures, to singers. Then, from time to time, they'd put on some disco and everybody would get up and dance.
At your table, they would bring you a big pitcher of Coca-Cola, and a big pitcher of orange soda, and you were expected to order a bottle of vodka, or three. Then they brought out platter after platter of various Russian appetizers, most of them delicious. Then, more disco. It was hysterical. Whole families were there together, in the lobby there was an actual messenger boy, dressed up in a cap and braided jacket like somebody from an American hotel fifty years ago...
Again, it was as if all of time had come together, that same, amazing mixture of cultures that has always defined Coney Island.
Beyond that, I did look up a few, basic, Russian vocabulary words. Most of the history and culture comes from my general knowledge garnered about Russia over the years. It's funny, the country really is like the polar opposite of the United States. Instead of being isolated by two oceans, it has always been surrounded by enemies. And nothing ever works out.
"On a shore washed by desolate waves he stood and gazed, but in the distance only…I'll fix myself a humble, simple shelter where Parasha and I can live in quiet..." Luna Park opens with a quote from Aleksander Pushin's poem the Bronze Horseman. This poem, which is a favorite of Alik's, seems to comment on much of the action of the book. What is its overall significance to Luna Park?
I've always loved Pushkin's poem which is, of course, the great, tragic poem of Russian history. It's a poem about how the grandiose plans of great men crush individual people in their path. In this case, it refers to Peter the Great's building of St. Petersburg, a monumental achievement, but one that also came at a terrible cost in deaths of the workers who constructed it, and then later in the floods that regularly swept over the city. In the poem, one of these floods kills the hero's fiancee and her death drives him mad-to the point where he believes he is being chased through the streets of the city by Peter's great, bronze statue.
In the same way, Alik is constantly trying to find a way out of history, particularly Russian history. But he is constantly run down by the plans of "great men," by their wars and pretensions, until he, too, is mad.
During his time in Chechnya, I also quote another famous Russian poem, The Scythians, which is a work by Aleksandr Blok in which he tries to promote the idea of Russia as a crucial mediator between East and West. It's quoted ironically, specifically the lines in which Blok embraces the idea of Russians themselves as countless, Asian multitudes. Obviously, the presence of the Russian army in Chechnya reveals that they are not mediators at all, but scared to death of the Asian multitudes-another grand illusion of great men, up in smoke.
Luna Park reminds us of the days when Steeplechase Park, Luna Park, Dreamland, and Astroland were thriving, magical amusement parks. What do you think of the talk of revitalizing the area?
I'm against "revitalizing" the area. I thought it had reached a sort of perfect stasis, as a honky-tonk place that was generally safe, and fun on a summer's night. A place where you could do all sorts of things-swim, fish, sun; see a ballgame, ride a roller coaster, eat a hot dog...even see a burlesque show, in recent years.
The trouble is that people have always had these grandiose ideas of making Coney Island what it was in that golden age again, back when Coney invented the amusement park, and created what were undoubtedly the three most beautiful, entertaining parks ever created-Luna Park, Dreamland, and Steeplechase.
Unfortunately, that era really ended in 1911, when Dreamland burned down, and it's not coming back. It might have been nice to preserve those parks, but the last one-Steeplechase-closed in 1964, and you're never going to recreate it. People keep talking about getting Disney or some entity like that to come out and build over the place, but it's not going to happen. There's no room for that sort of parking, it takes forever to get to Coney from Manhattan, it's simply not a year-round place thanks to the weather.
Recently, the wonderfully named Mr. Sitt gobbled up much of the land and has threatened to fill the place with more condos. This is probably an attempt to extort money from the city which, to its credit, has fought him. But it's brought out all the old, overblown plans for Coney again. The place will become the new Ginza, there will be hotels, all these elaborate monorail rides...
Fuggedaboutit. A workable stasis is a hard thing for a city to achieve. Cities tend to change, or die, or end up like Venice, preserved in amber. But the best thing you could do for Coney would be to buy off Mr. Sitt, recruit a new, honky-tonk carnival like Astroland, and maybe build a little decent, middle-class housing...well back of Surf Avenue. That's as good as it's going to get.
What is your fondest memory of Coney Island? Have you ever had chow mein on a roll?
I think my fondest memory is the time I led a walking tour out there, and afterwards a friend of mine who is a singer sang me the original waltz written for the opening of Dreamland, a very nice tune called "Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland." Can you imagine? An America where they wrote romantic songs for the opening of amusement parks?
As for the chow mein on a roll...no, I've never tried it, but it's still on the menu. Whenever I'm at Nathan's I stick to the hot dog and the fries.
When describing the nightclub scene you describe vodka with orange soda. Is this really a popular drink? Have you ever had one?
Popular at Rasputin's, I guess. I haven't had orange soda, with or without vodka, since I was eight years old.
Tarot card reading proves to be important as the symbols appear throughout the book. Have you ever had your fortune told through the cards?
No, I don't believe in fortune tellers. What's the old Joni Mitchell line about visiting one? "Then she lit a candle for my love life/ And eighteen bucks went up in smoke..."
But the tarot stuff is fun. The images are complicated, and they fit into the story well. They're fun to interpret, and I think many people like a bit of a puzzle.
Danijel Zezelj's incredible art throughout LUNA PARK depicts modern day New York, the magic of Coney Island in the 1910s and the devastation of the Second Chechen War. What was it like working with him and seeing your script translated into a graphic novel?
Yes, his art really is incredible. We worked very well together, I thought. While I wrote the script first, I thought it was very important-graphic novels being such a visual medium-that he take the lead. Also, of course, he has much more experience in the field. As much as possible, I let him reshape my ideas for each page, and I think he did a brilliant job. I also thought the coloring, by Dave Stewart, was terrific.
You've lived in New York since 1980 and Danijel Zezelj lives in Brooklyn. How have your New York experiences shaped the look of the book? Did you get together often throughout the process?
Actually, I've lived in New York since 1976, and both my parents were born here, so yes, I have a long familiarity with it. I wanted to really get in the grit of the city-particularly the old city of the 1970s and '80s, that still lingers on in places like Coney Island-and I think Danijel picked up on that.
We only met at the beginning of the whole process, but I think it was remarkably friction free. Even our miscommunications were fruitful. At one point, I described an Orthodox Jewish family on Ocean Parkway, at the end of the Sabbath, and Danijel drew such a family down by the ocean, along the Coney beach. But Danijel came up with such a great image that we kept it in.
The final reveal, which we can't spoil here, is a bonafide jaw dropping, can you believe it moment. What kind of reaction to it do you expect?
Yes, I had great fun with the ending. Danijel thought it was over the top, and maybe he's right. But I am expecting to hear those jaws drop, and if so I'll be very pleased.