Saturday, June 11, 2016

Book Review: 1986 from Morgan Parker

Allana Harrison wanted to escape her painful, broken past and enjoy a fresh start somewhere else; anywhere else. While all of the boys in high school and college promised to deliver that dream, only one man actually pulled through.

And thus sets the stage for 1986, the newest suspense romance by popular novelist, Morgan Parker. Now a young adult, Allana finds herself on the opposite side of the world, in the prosperous and rich town of Pripyat, far away from her past and from the crime, grime and hustle of bigger cities.

She doesn't understand the language or know anybody else except her husband -- and that's just how she likes it -- until she meets Alex, another American who ends up being her only friend, the one person who reminds her of what it's like to feel desired, wanted and hungered for. 

A special Q&A with Morgan Parker:
Engchik: Why Chernobyl?
Why this region and this disaster (as opposed to the Titanic or 9/11)
Morgan Parker: Chernobyl has always fascinated me. The thought that an accident like Chernobyl could cause that much devastation has haunted me. 
Initially, it was pure interest that kept me learning more and more about the accident, the fall out, the way people had to adapt and adjust their lives. As I spoke with people who were affected by the accident, I learned that this was a very scary incident because nobody knew it was happening. 

It's not like a deadly disease where we can often say, "yeah, but, there were symptoms that the victim ignored or just didn't think about." For the people who died or are dying from this accident, they had no "symptoms" at all. 
Unless you're exposed to extreme levels of radiation, you don't know what's happening. You're breathing and living and carrying on life, just like a lot of the victims did.

As the years wore on, I would often come back to my initial research and find that something "new" was published. It often refuted something else that was previously published, something I could no longer find online. This happened a few times, and eventually the changing information seemed to become a story all on its own. 

With 1986, I tried to incorporate some of my own experience with the conflicting information with the kind of everyday life that people would have been leading in those months prior to a disaster that, sadly, doesn't get a whole lot of attention anymore...

Engchik: I felt that Allana was weak, that she gave into her body far too much and was so desperate to leave her old self behind that is did a 360 not a 180, right back to her old self. Why did she not protect herself more in this cold, strange land?
Morgan: I agree with you: Allana was weak. But there's more to it than just her weakness, I think. For me, Allana represented human change and illustrates just how impossible it is for some people to change from their "old" ways. Allana always was that girl who sought acceptance. Yes, she wanted to get away from her past. She wanted her fairytale life. And she found that opportunity in Vasy, but when things weren't going her way, she did what most of us do: she reverted to what she knew best. 

She never changed, just like most people can't change either. But in writing about Allana, I wanted people to know that it's okay to be who you are. If you're broken, that's okay. If you're unhappy with how things have turned out, that's okay. If you binge on Big Macs or make bad romance decisions, that's okay... so long as it's who you are. For Allana, it was okay, too, because it led her to Alex and she somehow managed to convince her husband to play a "positive" role in a disaster that could have been far worse than it was.

Engchik: You are a male, writing mostly in the women's voice. Why not the male perspective?
Morgan: The best person to tell this story was Allana. I deliberated sharing the POV, but Allana's struggle was real. I related to her in many ways during the writing process and never felt the story could have evolved better from anyone else's point of view, which seems counter-intuitive because in other disaster stories, like Titanic, the Allana-equivalent character was the storyteller, but Jack Dawson was the hero.

Engchik: What kind of research did you do into the cultural activities of Pripyat for this? There was a small mention of the May Day celebration on May 1 that never happened due to the April 26 explosion. What else did you discover?
Morgan: Unless you're an Eastern European, I think it's easy to forget that these folks had a rich culture. In some ways, because they lacked a lot of the freedom that we enjoy in the Western world, they had even more culture than we think. This was surprising to me in the early days of my research, something I began roughly twelve years ago. 

Engchik:  How did you discover the use of records for spy transmissions- was this a used form of relaying?
Morgan: I don't believe the use of vinyl records was used for discrete transmissions; the engraving equipment would have been costly and large (awkward to hide). However, the image of a record player waiting in an empty room for Allana struck me as spooky and I just had to incorporate it into the novel! 

Engchik: Can you compare the progress of early 1980's Pripyat to the progress of say, Naples or Miami FL - rapidly growing hubs of progress.
Morgan: A lot of cities in North America are experiencing tremendous progress these days. Detroit is a great example of a place that was essentially written off, but is now (finally) experiencing a tremendous revitalization with the inflow of capital from tech companies. What's interesting about Detroit, unlike a lot these other progressive hubs, is that the city peaked and crashed. And it crashed hard. Although a lot of cities can maintain their innovative culture, it's worth knowing that many of them don't plan properly. Pripyat (where Chernobyl was located) was an example of this.

Like Naples, Pripyat enjoyed the kind of luxuries that you couldn't find elsewhere in the region. Like Naples, Pripyat drew a particular demographic. Unlike Naples, all Pripyat had the power station. It was such an important industry that even after the entire town had been evacuate, the power station remained functional. People would take the train in from Belarus to work their shifts, then were sent back the same way. It wasn't until 2010 that the power station was fully decommissioned, highlighting just how important it was. 

I think Naples is very different than Pripyat for that reason. Same with Miami and many other cities that are thriving today. We've seen the implications of industry concentration in Detroit (manufacturing), Houston (oil), Los Angeles (entertainment), and the hundreds and thousands of cities and industries in between. 

 “Like the Titanic tragedy, we often forget about the routine human lives and individual love stories that were happening at the time,” says Parker. “1986 is similar in that if follows the forbidden love story of one particular character who finds herself in the wrong place, with the wrong person, at the wrong time in history.”

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