Dispatches | August 03, 2010

In the second of our summer interview series, TMR intern Lisa Hartman got in touch with the novelist and short story writer Todd James Pierce.  He is the author of the novel A Woman of Stone and the short-story collection Newsworld, which won the 2006 Drue Heinz Literature Prize. His recent work has appeared in the Gettysburg Review, the Georgia Review, Indiana Review, North American Review and Shenandoah. He lives in the northern part of Santa Barbara County, California, in a little town where the movie Sideways was filmed. Bonus Hunter: Confessions of an Online Gambler appeared in (TMR 31.3 Fall 2008).

Currently, Pierce is working on his non-fiction book, The Artifical Matterhorn and was glad to give us the inside look into his upcoming work.

INTERVIEWER: How long have you been working on your unpublished non-fiction book, “The Artificial Matterhorn?” What kind of research actually went into creating this project?

PIERCE: I’ve been working on it now for five years. Well, five years and a bit. In terms of research, I’ve completed a tremendous amount of research for the book. I spent a good deal of 2005-2007 in the air, traveling to the locations where these parks once stood and talking to the people who designed and built them. I know that I’ve conducted over 150 interviews for the book, most in person. And actually, I think the number now is closer to 175. But there’s something incredibly cool about spending a day with a person who is 80 or 90 or (in two cases) 97 and talking about his or her life experiences. Some of the Disney people, sure, have been previously interviewed about their work in outdoor amusements. But aside from them, most of these people have never been interviewed.  So, from this perspective, I find the work rewarding, as I feel that I’m preserving something that would not otherwise be preserved.

INTERVIEWER: Theme parks have shown up before in your fiction. What draws you to this topic?

PIERCE: Two answers:
(1) My grandmother, whom I was very close to, worked in theme park operations for most of her life, up until the time she was 80.  She started at Knott’s Berry Farm (here, in California) and then later worked for Disney.  Even after she retired, she used to attend the “alumni” meeting each month at the park.

(2) I’m interested in the idea of themed space and our cultural attachment to entertainment.  (You can probably see that in my last book, Newsworld.) The concept of themed space, in its barest form, is to create an artificial environment, landscape and architecture that is divorced from its surrounding geography.  The particular type of themed space that was developed in the 1950s were these parks that allowed visitors to spend time in cinematic environments. The early theme parks resemble movie sets–the western set, the jungle set, the space port, etc.  And so, back in the 1950s, the allure of the theme park was obvious: visitors wanted to spend time inside of an environment that resembled a movie or a TV show.  It’s really the start of interactivity, the point at which the audience is allowed to participate in the film.  From there, cinematic themed space expanded into restaurants and shopping malls, eventually into planned communities.  In most American cities now, there are many places that resemble, to some extent, the type of environment found on a movie set.

I’m a professor.  And I think most of the people I work with are disturbed by the artificiality of theme parks. I’m fascinated by it.

But also, I’m not writing a cultural studies book.  I’m writing a narrative history–the story of the men and women who designed and built these parks, their elaborate struggles, the lawsuits, the crimes, the ambition, the greed. You know, the story is about the people more than anything else.

INTERVIEWER: How does “The Artificial Matterhorn” differ from your previously published work?

PIERCE: Most everything I’ve published up until this point has been fiction.  At least in terms of book.  This story is nonfiction.  I’m using the writing stance of a novelist to create narration and construct scenes.  But I’ve spent years now, talking with dozens and dozens of individuals, visiting archives, reviewing oral histories, reading every book and magazine article on the subject, so that hopefully I get the details right.

Look for Pierce’s The Artificial Matterhorn coming soon!

Lisa Hartman is a summer intern at The Missouri Review