Alex Austin’s fiction has been published in numerous literary magazines, including Caffeine, Bachy, Beyond Baroque, UCLA’s Westwinds and Cal Arts Black Clock. He is the author of the critically acclaimed novel The Perfume Factory, a coming-of-age novel set on the Jersey Shore, which was published in 2006.
Shelagh: Please tell everyone a little about yourself, Alex.
Alex: I was born in New Jersey and grew up on the Jersey Shore. I moved to California in the 1970s, graduated from UCLA, and settled permanently in the Los Angeles area. I’ve been a writer and editor for numerous magazines. Most of my time and energy over the last 20 years has gone into novels and plays. In 2000, My play The Amazing Brenda Strider won a Backstage West Critic’s Pick and The Maddy Award for Playwriting. In 2002, my play Mimosa was the featured play in Wordsmiths Playwrights Festival, presented by the City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department. Mimosa is published by Playscripts Inc. My newest play Dupe has had several productions, including one starring Ray Wise (currently the Devil on Reaper) and is currently in the running for a spot in Playfest at the Orlando Shakespeare Theater. The Perfume Factory, a coming-of-age novel set on the Jersey Shore, was published in early 2006. It was a Kirkus Recommended and received a 2008 Writer’s Digest’s Honorable Mention in Mainstream Fiction. The Red Album of Asbury Park, sequel to The Perfume Factory, was published by Virtual Bookworm in November 2009, and has received numerous excellent reviews.
Shelagh: When did you begin writing and in what genre(s)?
Alex: In my twenties, I read Vonnegut’s Mother’s Night and was hooked. I read everything Vonnegut wrote. I’d scribbled a few things before that, but now I saw a form of writing that I wanted to emulate: black, ironic and satirical, but still humane. So I started writing satire and parody, skewering what I thought needed to be skewered.
Shelagh: When you started writing, what goals did you want to accomplish? Is there a message you want readers to grasp?
Alex: When I started writing, my goals were to satirize the military-industrial complex, corporate values, politics and organized religion, the usual suspects. Other targets were the inanities of human behavior, particularly self-righteousness. The biggest goal was to get published. The message was go left.
Shelagh: Briefly tell us about your latest book. Is it part of a series or stand-alone?
Alex: The Red Album of Asbury Park Remixed is the Sequel to The Perfume Factory in which Sam Nesbitt, 17, tries to escape a dead-end town and a sadistic father. The Red Album jumps forward to the late Sixties and Asbury Park, a once high-flying resort that is now rent with drugs, crime and racial tension. Against that backdrop (from which Springsteen emerged)Sam returns from war and its horrors. He’s a guitarist with plenty of talent and he wants to make something of himself. In his review of the book, Ken Wohlrob wrote, “He [Sam] has the goods as a guitarist and harbors dreams of that hit album that will get him the hell out of New Jersey. Except the music is too much of an escape. It’s a pipe dream that bursts whenever confronted by all the obstacles surrounding Sam. Instead of bringing glory, Sam’s efforts become an endless series of letdowns—bad gigs, continuous debt, medical mishaps, band breakups, missed opportunities—that far outweigh those nights where everything goes right. If he’s not a hero, he’s the only guy in town who hasn’t given up even if he’s the only one who knows it’s worthless to even try.” That’s a great synopsis of the book. I couldn’t write a better one.
Shelagh: How do you develop characters and setting?
Alex: With all major characters, I fill out a form that takes them from the cradle to the grave. So I know them quite well as they enter the story. As the story unfolds, they will no doubt change in response to other characters and events, but at least I know who is changing. With some minor characters, I’m content with two-dimensions. Setting is extremely important to me. In The Perfume Factory, I wanted the main character and setting to be inextricable. Sam was his town. Port Beach was the fictional counterpart of Union Beach, the town I grew up in and which I knew to the degree that Sam had to know. The memories of youth are indelible and I drew from those memories to create the setting. The Red Album was different. I had spent a couple of years in Asbury, but I did not know the place intimately. A big part of the story was this once fabled resort coming apart as a new brand of rock music was rising. So I wanted the reader to see Asbury and to know its history. I wanted the Giant Swan boat in there, the dark rides, Tillie, the Palace Amusements, the Casino. There was something of myth in all that stuff. I had toyed with the idea of creating a fictional counterpart to Asbury so that I could have some leeway with the descriptions, but once I settled on it really being Asbury Park, I had to get it right. Living in California that meant endless research, talking to people Back East, and eventually going back to Asbury to walk the boardwalk, look for old haunts, record what was left and imagine what was gone.
Shelagh: Who is the most unusual/most likeable character?
Alex: In The Red Album, the most unusual is Tillie, a face on a wall. In the novel I describe him as, “The painted man with the doffed bowler had a queer haircut, something like Alfalfa of the Little Rascals, or as if he’d cut his hair to make it look like a mustache. His eyes were bright, his nose was broad and his smile went from ear to ear, filled to capacity with one set of long fat teeth. His lips were fiery red and delicate. He wore a high collar, the kind men had worn a half-century ago. He was a spooky fuck, and he was looking at me.” In the book, Tillie springs to life. Likeable would be Sam’s ex girlfriend Julie, who loves Sam and understands where be wants to be, but ultimately cannot go along for the ride.
Shelagh: Do you have a specific writing style or preferred POV?
Alex: I wrote the two novels in the first person and did not allow the narrator to distance himself chronologically from the time or circumstances of his character. In The Perfume Factory, Sam thinks as a seventeen year old. In The Red Album Sam thinks as a 22-24 year old. There are first person novels in which the narrator will view his younger self through an older self. That technique is a common convention of first person stories, but it’s not my style.
Shelagh: How does your environment/upbringing color your writing?
Alex: Someone said that all friction is autobiographical to a greater or lesser degree. I concur….
Shelagh: Share the best review (or a portion) that you’ve ever had.
Alex: “I have just finished reading a great little novel, The Perfume Factory by Alex Austin. It is a dark and gritty coming-of-age story set in the 60’s…. His young characters are fascinating. Their naïve invincibility, their teenage wants and fears bring them to life.” —Laura Rae Amos, Blogcritics
“It is simply an amazing work of fiction… a smart look inside the topsy-turvy world of the rock and roll lifestyle and the futility, hope, danger, love and mystery of survival in general. The Red Album Of Asbury Park Remixed is a book you won’t be able to put down.”—John Pfeiffer, Aquarian Magazine
Shelagh: What are your current projects?
Alex: I’m currently working a contemporary novel set in Los Angeles. I’m switching to the third person for this one. The main character is a middle-aged writer/teacher trying futilely to bring closure to a tragedy for which he was responsible, and suddenly confronted with events that force him to see the tragedy in a totally different light.
Shelagh: Where can folks learn more about your books and events?
Alex: For the month of February, Librarything.com is having an ongoing in depth discussion with me about my work. The URL for the discussion is http://www.librarything.com/topic/82398 I also post info on Goodreads and Facebook. The books are available everywhere online. The Red Album of Asbury Park Remixed is the only version of the book that I want read. If it doesn’t say “Remixed” on the cover, don’t get it.