Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Meeting Rory Aronsky: An Author Interview by D. Wagner

I became acquainted with 27-year-old writer and polymath Rory L. Aronsky in March of 2011. I found him by clicking the Next Blog button up at the top of the screen there and I happened upon his blog, Scraps of Literacy. Most of the time, the Next Blog button yields little of interest (to me)... but in this case, I struck gold. Now, initially, this "struck gold" comment might strike you as odd... Rory's blog is about as different from this blog as possible, so why would I be drawn so strongly to it -- strongly enough to want to interview him here? Let me explain...

Rory is a man of many deep interests - I don't think I'd call them "obsessions", per se, but he's a man who sinks deeply into things that interest him. People I know "in real life" may delve this deeply into one or two areas of interest... Rory has a whole collection of them, and reading his blog is like taking a spin on the Wheel of Fortune... I never know which trail he will wander down on any given day.

Writing comes easily to Rory. In a way, he reminds me of a gentleman in a tuxedo and a top hat, waltzing down city streets, every night a different street, his walking cane clicking on the sidewalk with every other step, taking in the sights, sharing tidbits of information about things he sees, chatting warmly. The antithesis of me and this blog, in other words. Mellow, warm, comfortable... his blog has a calming effect on me, so I check it frequently. He updates it just about every day.

Rory claims to be a private person, but you'd never know that from his blog. I feel like I know him, his parents and his sister Meridith quite well, just from the quiet, wandering, down-home posts he makes. Sometimes he does nothing more than detail what he did during the day -- and strangely enough, I eat it up like candy.

He is the co-author of the book What If They Lived?, which I reviewed here last year, and is doing the research on his latest book, tentatively titled "Mayday! Mayday! The Making of the Airport Movies." I recently sent Rory some questions about his books, his interests and his life in general. Go grab a snack, settle in, and take a stroll with Rory...


1) You're a man of many fascinations. I suppose the best one to start with would be your deep love for Disneyland/Disneyworld. Could you tell us a bit about how this fascination started for you? 

I was born in Plantation, Florida in 1984. There are pink flamingos in the state, and they can stand on one leg.

I started reading when I was 2.

I fairly grew up at the Southern restaurant Po Folks, first sitting in a high chair, then reaching the age in which I could eat country fried steak from there, and did, taking advantage often of their all-you-can-eat country fried steak special.

We lived in Casselberry for many years, where there was a basketball hoop next to our driveway, a huge tree in the front yard that I considered building a treehouse in but only succeeded in falling out of it once, a tangerine tree next to the left side of the house that died one winter, and every time the radio announced that the space shuttle was lifting off, we ran to the backyard to watch. It took off so close to our area that we could see the American flag on the left wing, and “U.S.A.” on the right. When it re-entered the atmosphere, the sonic boom was so loud that the dishes shook in the kitchen cabinets. My elementary school had a huge playground with a yellow tunnel that was always good for seeing how many kids could jam themselves into it. And the library there was a rotunda, with the indoor entrance to each grade level building next to a tall bookcase, and the checkout desk down a few carpeted steps in the middle circle. It was basically a wheel-and-spoke pattern.

We went to The Bubble Room restaurant in Captiva for birthdays and just to go once in a while besides birthdays. It had a lot of fun memorabilia from the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, with bubbles floating all around. It’s still there. And there was Old Town in Kissimmee, where I loved to watch the taffy-pulling machine when I was a toddler, and always watched in amazement the candle makers in that particular store dipping a mold into many colors and carving designs into it that revealed rainbows every time.

It’s a wonder that I didn’t turn into a writer by all this alone. But I was born into a household that had Mickey and Minnie-shaped wall mirrors, a Mickey telephone we actually used for a time, and other memorabilia as well. In Casselberry, we were situated so close to Walt Disney World that we went every weekend and sometimes during the week just for dinner. Monorail pilots knew us by name, and performers in the parades stopped by on their route to say hello. I remember sitting in a rented stroller at the Magic Kingdom, watching stage shows in Tomorrowland and at the castle, and certain secondhand cigarette smoke reminds me of those days, because back then, people could smoke wherever they wanted in the parks.

-- If you had to pick a single favorite aspect of all things Disney, what would it be?

I love how Walt Disney World seems to exist in between fantasy and reality, taking in each as it sees fit, which influenced me to live and write the same way. It offers the opportunity to submerse yourself completely in imagination. What exists there cannot be found at any other Disney park. Each park is unique. For example, in later years, after we had moved from Casselberry to South Florida, we visited Walt Disney World occasionally, and I loved riding the Tomorrowland Transit Authority, watching the crowds below and the scenery above, thinking, and also loving this one curve where, before you arrived in a tunnel where there was a model of the EPCOT Walt Disney hoped for, you could see Cinderella Castle right from where you were sitting. Here you were in Tomorrowland and there was something totally unrelated to it. I loved that mix.

The Disney purists argue that each land at the Magic Kingdom and the other parks that make up Walt Disney World should be untouched by any other lands, and that’s true for, say, Frontierland and Fantasyland. It would be uncomfortably weird to see Disney princesses walking past Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. But seeing the castle from the Tomorrowland Transit Authority is acceptable because you can’t see the castle from that height anywhere else in the park. You can only look at it from different vantage points, or look up at it before you walk through it.

-- Do you have a least favorite Disney-related aspect and/or experience? 

Before Stitch’s Great Escape in Tomorrowland, there was ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter in the same space, which involved teleportation technology presented by X-S Tech (“excess technology”), an unscrupulous corporation headed by a subtly greedy chairman, L.C. Clench (Jeffrey Jones in full makeup). First was a demonstration involving the botched teleportation of a cute, fuzzy alien named Skippy, and then a bigger demonstration in the main room with a huge teleportation tube in the middle, with the seats in the round, shoulder restraints included. Clench wants to be teleported to Earth to demonstrate that the technology works and there are no safety risks, and to answer any questions we might have. But the two technicians, Spinlok and Dr. Femus (Kevin Pollak and Kathy Najimy, also in full makeup), bicker over if the demonstration should proceed, Dr. Femus (Najimy) worrying about safety. The demonstration proceeds. Spinlok (Pollak) insists that the teleportation signal is Clench’s, though it turns out to be a nasty alien teleported to Earth. The alien breaks out of the tube and flies around the room, spitting (warm water from a tube at the back of the seat) and breathing heavily on the back of your neck (warm air also from a tube), and growling and roaring a lot. Oh, and it was nearly all in the dark! How much fun is that?!

I went on this with a few friends during my school’s 8th grade end-of-the-year trip (four hours from Pembroke Pines to Orlando, and four hours back), and it scared me horribly. I was utterly shaken and pale when I exited. I never went on it again. But in retrospect, it truly represented what Tomorrowland is supposed to be. There should be futuristic attractions that play with the mind and expand the imagination, and this one did. Stitch’s Great Escape, at least from watching it on YouTube, doesn’t have the same effect. It’s just playing off the popularity of a Disney movie, which is understandable, but it dilutes the imaginative power of Tomorrowland.

2) Another obvious fascination for you is the history of Las Vegas. Could you elaborate a bit on why you find Las Vegas so fascinating?

In 11th grade, when I heard that an acquaintance was moving to Las Vegas, I thought it was a desolate gambling outpost.

When my family and I first visited in 2007, parking in the lot of America’s Best Value Inn on Tropicana Avenue, located behind part of the Strip, I got out of our rented SUV and was worried because Las Vegas felt so abandoned. I might have been correct in my assessment.

But when we arrived on the Strip, having a late dinner at the Carnegie Deli at Mirage, and visiting New York-New York, I began to like this city. I liked how it simply gave people whatever they wanted. If they wanted to tackle a few buffets in four or five days, they could. If they wanted to gamble for 12 hours at a shot, they could. If they wanted to visit as many strip clubs as they could from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m., they could. Las Vegas doesn’t seem to be afraid of human nature. It profits from it. I just wanted to walk through a few casinos, to see what they were like, and I did.

We’ve visited a few times since, and it’s become where I want to live, where my family and I hope to move to in the next few months, or, rather, nearby Henderson, which is always welcoming, no matter how busy it gets. You could walk the Galleria at Sunset mall there on a weekend, crowds all around you, and you’d still feel at ease. Living in Henderson, we’ll always have access to Las Vegas, but we don’t have to be bombarded by it all the time. It wouldn’t be such a bad thing, but I don’t want its effect to be lost on me.

When we stayed at America’s Best Value Inn, there was a basketball hoop next to the pool area that my sister Meridith and I used, and the back end of the MGM Grand was right across the street, Hooters Casino Hotel was next to us, the Luxor pyramid was diagonal from us, Tropicana was next to Hooters, and if you stood closer to the hoop, you could see part of the façade of New York-New York. Essentially, Meridith and I were shooting hoops in the shadow of the MGM Grand! Try finding that experience anywhere else!

To me, Las Vegas is a hedonistic paradise, mirroring exactly how I like to live, and it’s one of the few cities that will be whatever you want it to be. It’s adaptable to any desires. Whatever you want, it’s there somewhere.

3) The very first post I read on your blog was about a trip to a Presidential Library. Do you have a deep interest in American History in general, or just in the US Presidents? Where does your love for the President come from - patriotism or something deeper? 

My passion for history is genetic. My father taught high school in New York in the ‘70s, and wanted to eventually be a history teacher, but then he moved to Florida, and Southern Bell, the phone company, became his career for 19 years, after which he decided to go back into teaching. He knows facts and dates like I do, but I dwell in it a lot more than he does. When we talk politics, we sometimes discuss past presidents as if I also lived in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. I know about them that well.

I’m mainly interested in the US Presidents, but I think that spreads out to all history, really. You think of Abraham Lincoln, and you also think of the Civil War. You think of FDR, and you think of the Depression and World War II. Presidential history gives you the presidents, and so much else.

My love for presidential history comes from wanting to know what power is like from the inside. How does it affect men and women? Who creates policies from the White House? How involved is the president? What are their methods? How do they relax? What are those moments like in the Situation Room where it’s imperative that they make a decision? I think about Obama’s order to the SEALs to raid the bin Laden compound, and I hope there’s a book written about that some day. There’s bits and pieces known, but I hope, and I think, there’s a reporter considering exactly this topic for a book, because everything in a presidency gets ink, no matter how inconsequential to the life of an administration.

I’m also interested in the Supreme Court and certain lower courts, which is also genetic. My maternal grandfather, who I knew briefly when I was a baby, was a careful, considerate, and caring lawyer. I’ve no desire to be a lawyer, but I am interested in the law, and the personalities behind the law, especially in the Supreme Court. Last year, I read Joan Biskupic’s biography of Justice Antonin Scalia, and I’m currently in the middle of her biography of former justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

I also follow what’s going on at the Supreme Court, and listen to audio of the arguments. I tried to follow the Court from the beginning of its latest term, and succeeded for about a month, listening to the audio of each argument and reading what each case was about, but I let it get away from me. Too many cases have followed that make it impossible to catch up now. I still listen to the cases that interest me, though. That’s probably the best way to go about it and leave the arc of a term to reporters and other Court watchers.

I think it’s also the isolation in both branches of the government that fascinates me. The justices work amongst themselves. There are protocols, and traditions, just like there are with the presidency, but they’re all they have in that workspace. Cloistered might be the word. I’m an easily sociable person when the opportunity is there, but I mostly live privately. So that’s probably another reason why the presidency and the Supreme Court interest me so much. The president is a public figure, but even surrounded by advisors, he’s still working alone. He gives the orders.

-- Also, do you plan on making good on your goal to visit all of the Presidential Libraries? 

I will absolutely make good on visiting all the presidential libraries in the nation. I’ve been to Nixon’s once, and Reagan’s many times, once for the museum and the Air Force One pavilion, and the other times for the view from the South Lawn replica and for the Country Café there that my family and I like, especially for the freshly-made potato chips.

Visiting the rest of the presidential libraries is my only major goal in life, since I still read voraciously, and I write all the time, and something will eventually emerge again to hopefully be published. No need to establish lifetime goals there.

I have to wait about a year or two after my family and I move to Henderson, because I need to earn enough money at a full-time job there first before I can even begin to think about traveling. Once I feel secure enough, I’m going. Missouri (Truman), Arkansas (Clinton), Texas (LBJ, H.W. Bush, and eventually W. Bush), New York (FDR), Kansas (Eisenhower), and on and on. I’ve also found smaller presidential libraries not run by the National Archives, including the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum in Staunton, Virginia. So I’ve got to add those on too. And New Mexico. I want to travel throughout there. That’s been simmering since I was 9 and 10, starting to really write, and I read writing books by Natalie Goldberg, who lives in Taos, New Mexico. It stuck in my mind and then exploded last September when I read The Secret of Everything by Barbara O’Neal, which is centered on a fictional town in New Mexico called Las Ladronas. I learned from a New Mexico resident’s blog that Las Ladronas is just like Santa Fe and Taos, so I’m even more psyched to go!

4) Your love for movies certainly must have been a motivating factor in writing your first book,  What If They Lived? In this book, you researched the lives of many Hollywood stars that died "early" (for lack of a better word), and after giving a brief history of their careers, you postulated on where their careers may have gone, had they lived. Were there any stars in the book that the books' coauthor (Phil Hall) covered that you wish you had gotten to write on instead?

Phil sent me the list of actors and actresses he wanted in the book, and told me to pick whoever I wanted to write about. I did, and he took the rest. I bought many books for my research, and one was about an actress named Carole Landis. The book I bought about her was badly written, atrociously edited, and while I picked my set of actors and actresses because some aspect of them interested me, I became less and less interested in Carole Landis, and the book sealed it for me. I asked Phil to take her away from me, and he did. What you see in that book is everything I wanted to write.

5) It seems your love for movie history has combined with your love for books to lead to your latest project, the book Mayday! Mayday! The Making of the Airport Movies. Can you tell us what it is about the Airport series that intrigued you enough to want to write a book on it?

This is another case of something in childhood leading to something bigger. When I was a tyke, living in Casselberry, my parents took me to Orlando International Airport to watch the planes take off and land. At 11 years old, I spent hours upon hours on a dial-up Internet connection, looking at photos of crashed planes, wondering what had caused the disasters, and reading as much as I could find on various airplanes, the Boeing 747 and Concorde becoming my favorites.

There was one cold winter night in Coral Springs, Florida in which Dad and I went to a Blockbuster, and I found Airplane! and Airport, neither of which I had seen before, and owing to my fast-budding interest in aviation which eventually turned me into an enthusiast, I had to see them.

That experienced turned into a VHS tape of Airplane! and a VHS box set of the Airport movies. I wore out that box set throughout my teens. George Kennedy’s Joe Patroni, featured in all four movies, inspired me to seriously consider a career in aviation. I wanted to have the same passion he had for aviation, and at that time, I did. I thought about being a pilot, then an aircraft mechanic, then a mechanic for Air Force One, then either an FAA or NTSB investigator. Then in 2004, my family got me the DVD set of those movies for my birthday. Last year, I decided that I’d be happiest reading and writing, moreso than aviation, with money coming in from another job. I hope to make money from my books, but I’ve also got to live day to day.

George Kennedy is the cause of this book. His memoir, Trust Me, was published last November, and in it, he wrote that for The Concorde: Airport ’79, Universal rented one for $40,000 an hour, and he was even permitted to taxi it at Le Bourget Airport in Paris. I read that and thought, “This has to become a book of its own!” My motivation for this book stems from that DVD set. Universal provided no audio commentaries and no documentaries. Only trailers. I want what they didn’t give me, and I’m going to get it myself. So far, I’ve interviewed a few actors from the series, as well as production crew, and I have countless more interviews to conduct.

6) You claim a goal of yours is to be published again by the time you are 30 years old. Is there something symbolic about that age, other than the fact that it is a nice, round number? Does 30 represent a pivotal point in your life, or does it just happen to fall a certain number of years from another significant life event already past?

Pivotal, yes. I’ll be far out of the way of being a teenager, and my drifting 20s will be gone. I know that I want to write for the rest of my life, but I have to focus. I have to have a plan. I have to sit down and write these books. After Mayday! Mayday!, I have at least seven more nonfiction books I want to write. I don’t need to be motivated to write these books, since it’s what I want to do, but having a goal of being published by the time I’m 30 makes me move faster than I used to when I was thinking of writing books when I was in my late teens. Even at 27, time is starting to go faster. I’ll be 28 on March 21, which gives me two more years to achieve my goal. Next thing I know, it’ll be Christmas again, and before I can even think about it, I’ll be 35, then 40, and so on. I want to start my next decade on the greatest high I know and keep to that standard for the rest of my life.

7) Do you have any Fiction cooking inside you, waiting to be spilled out onto paper?

Surprisingly, I do. I thought I’d only be a nonfiction writer since I love to wander throughout history, picking up what I need and carrying it with me until I figure out where to place it. But a few years ago, I came up with an idea for a modern-day adaptation of a classic novel that I want to try. I still have to read the novel, but I like what it represents. And two months ago, I had a dream involving time travel that I think will become a novel. It fits, because when I was little, I told my mom I wanted to build a time machine. That obviously never happened, but this is the one way I can do it. My method for time travel in this possible novel is significantly scaled back from a DeLorean or a TARDIS, and I love that I get to read a slew of time travel novels in order to figure out how I’m going to write my own.

8) Would it be possible for you to come up with a list of your 5 Favorite Films and/or 5 Favorite Books of all time? Or are there so many that such a list would be impossible?

I have a list of 5 favorite movies, but it’s going to have to be 7, because it’s 7. These are my seven favorite movies of all time, as ranked: Mary Poppins, The Remains of the Day, The Jungle Book (1967), The Swimmer (1968), The Fabulous Baker Boys, 84 Charing Cross Road, and My Blueberry Nights. I wrote a blog entry about why these are my all-time favorite movies, here: CLICK HERE

That list is easy, because I don’t watch as many movies as I used to, certainly not like I did when I wrote reviews for 10 years. It’s tougher with books because I’m discovering new favorites every few months. 

My concrete list of favorites, those that will never change, include The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck, This Book Will Save Your Life by A.M. Homes, Travels with My Aunt by Graham Greene, Subways are for Sleeping by Edmund G. Love, The Music of Your Life by John Rowell, The Complete Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby, Harlan Ellison’s Watching by Harlan Ellison, and Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow.

Newer titles that are starting to settle in and become concrete are The Secret of Everything by Barbara O’Neal, Angelina’s Bachelors by Brian O’Reilly, Greyhound by Steffan Piper, The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones, and Taft 2012 by Jason Heller. I also love anything by Neil Simon and Charles Bukowski, and I proudly own the two beautifully-made volumes of Stephen Sondheim’s collected lyrics.


For more from Rory Aronsky, see his blog Scraps of Literacy.


Anonymous said...

Enjoyable interview. I wish the "Livin' Your Dream" gene was transferable, as Mr. Aronsky certain contains one, especially at his age.

David, my list of "Books to Read," is becoming unmanageable. Between your site, and a few other sources, I may have to quit my day job.

Thanks for an fun post.

Beth A.

David Wagner said...

Beth: I guess I should review a few books that are awful, so you can have some titles that won't make it to your list! :D

Rory for President!