Friday, July 27, 2012

Recreating the ' sinister Seventies adolescent world'

To shamelessly name drop here, Lev Grossman, the book critic for Time magazine, wrote that MY FRIEND DAHMER is "like Proust’s madeleine to anybody who was alive in the 1970′s." I freely admit my study of Proust, as a largely disinterested college student, is far in the rearview mirror and I had to Google "Proust's madeleine" to refresh myself on this particular literary device.

"Madeleine" is a technique developed by Proust. The author writes in such a way that his descriptive prose triggers similar memories in the reader, and, the theory goes, an emotional response based on those similar memories. In other words, reading MFD transports a reader (who remembers the Seventies) right back to that era, and invokes all the stress and sleaze and kitschy weirdness of that era. I wasn't trying to be highfalutin' about it, but Grossman is very perceptive here– that's no surprise, he is after all Lev Grossman!– and that is exactly what I was trying to do. This book is, after all, a period piece. We are all of us a product of our time and place. And so was Dahmer. I thought it was crucial to the story to detail what that time and place were like, because they were so very different than the current day. These are events that happened 34-40 years ago, after all. It's gratifying that so many reviewers have lauded my detailed portrayal of the era. It would be a very different book if I hadn't concentrated on that.

The kitschy monstrosity of a sign dates from my era. I was thrilled to find a pic of it. 

No way I could conjure up something like that on my own!

Which brings me to the Mall.

The Summit Mall on the suburban outskirts of Akron is the setting of one of the book's major, and most bizarre, scenes: Dahmer's Command Performance. Me and my friends paid Jeff to perform his strange antics in front of horrified shoppers in our local mall.

The Summit Mall opened in 1965, built by the infamous Edward DeBartolo, one of the pioneers of shopping malls. It was constructed on the very suburban edge of Akron, which at that time, was the southeast corner of Bath, our sleepy hometown. It was a godsend to the local teenage population, who suffered from the stultifying boredom of life in a small town. We Seventies kids were the first generation of mallrats. I myself spent endless hours here, flipping through the vinyl at Disc Records, or the blacklight posters at Spencer Gifts, searching (mostly in vain) for interesting books on comix at Waldenbooks, or simply following a fetching teenage butt as it wiggled throughout the mall. It wasn't a famous mall. It wasn't one of the biggest, or one of the most architecturally flamboyant. It was just a mall, no different than 100 others. But it was, sad to say, the center of my teenage life.

The Harvest House, opened onto the Mall. Dahmer famously knocked over diners'
water glasses here during the Command Performance.

So I was keen to recreate this place as accurately as I could. And that proved to be a problem. The mall is still there, but it has been remodeled many times and no longer resembles the mall of my youth. I needed to recreate that mall. Here's how I did it.

I'm a huge proponent of photo reference. I don't copy from photos when I draw, but I do pull details from them, building a setting with signature features almost the same way I draw a character's face. I collected a trove of reference photos for MFD, as I do with all my books, divided by chapter into separate files. I spent years steadily collecting the reference I knew I'd need. The Summit Mall proved to be tricky. Who, after all, takes pictures, of an inside of a nondescript mall in suburban Ohio? Keep in mind, this is long before the digital photography revolution. 

Taking pictures in the Seventies was a much more lengthy and expensive process. You had to take the photos, which you couldn't view after you shot them, so you had no idea if they were decent or even in focus. To shot inside, you'd have to use a large flash. And then have the film developed and prints made, unless you were a photo bug and your own home darkroom.  Average cameras were cheap crap back then, too, and didn't work well indoors, especially in large spaces. I exhausted all my sources looking for reference, the Akron library and the photo files at the Akron newspaper, and only managed to come up with a few precious visual clues. They proved to be just enough.

This is a floor plan from 1970. This was crucial, as it listed all the stores. Virtually all are long gone, so once I had those names I worked them into the scene. Store logos were surprisingly easy to find, since most advertised in the Akron paper and I had a pile of those from 1978. 

The above photo, from 1977, was the only decent one I found of the period Summit Mall. But it offered enough visual evidence to jumpstart my own memory banks. Look at the pic. Today's malls are soft, cozy places. The colors are muted, greenery is abundant, plump chairs and sofas offer respite for weary shoppers, and the lighting is soft and intricately designed. Compare that to the above photo. A mall in 1977 was all hard surfaces, shiny tile and metal storefronts and white ceiling tile. Lighting was fluorescent and harsh. Even the benches were hard and uncomfortable! No rest for you, consumer! Keep buying! I remember how shoppers clomped up and down the tile mall in their hard shoes and how voices reverberated off the cold surfaces. Muzak, not the actual tunes but dreadful "elevator music" versions, blared from tinny speakers. At the Hammond Organ store and salesman hauled an organ out into the mall and tempted shoppers with Barry Manilow tunes. A mall was a very noisy place.

Here's something I regret not working into this scene. Booklein was a newsstand in the center of the mall. Just look at this kitschy marvel! It was supposed to look like (I think) a shipping crate. The knotty pine, the Helvetica type, wonderful. Booklein, for those of you who don't know what newsstands were, sold magazines and paperbacks and out-of-town newspapers. Before the internet, a good newsstand was the internet. I was a pop-culture vacuum and spent a lot of time in newsstands, and this one in particular. I remember being in there one day, face buried in a National Lampoon or Creme, and suddenly Dahmer peered over one of the bookshelves and bleated loudly at me! 

So the Summit Mall, as I depict it,  is visually accurate, right down to the sign out front, the benches, the stores, even the kiosk that displayed a map of the mall so shoppers could find their way about.  Obsessive? Yeah, indisputably. But concentrating on recreating my teenage world was how I made this book, a dark and troubling tale, fun for me to produce. Even if the reader doesn't recognize that accuracy, I think he picks up on the layers of detail that I work into every scene. The result is a much, richer, complex work.

1 comment:

  1. My dad (and before that my uncle) owned Helter Skelter, the head shop at the mall. So I spent a LOT of time there while he worked on weekends. Bought a lot of comic books and Kiss magazines at that Booklein.