When Julius DeAngelus set out to write his first novel, he chose a place he knew: Atlantic City, where he was born and raised. It’s a story of family, friendship and love, not just between the characters, but with the city itself.Dancing on Seaside, which set in 1970s pre-casino town, is due out next summer. I talked to DeAngelus about his book, his blog, and being born and raised in Atlantic City.
JAM: What was the inspiration for your blog?
JA: The original purpose was to let people know about my novel, Dancing on Seaside, but as it developed, it became not so much the story of a writer trying to get published as it was about the city that the story is set in. Some of my favorite pieces are fall under the category “Things That Made Atlantic City Cool.” This is where I can bring to light something about the city’s quirky history that many might not know, about and I hope to do it in a funny and informative way.
JAM: Tell us about the book.
JA: Dancing on Seaside is a story about two friends: Jamie Shepherd, who visits AC every year with his family, and Nicky Martre, a streetwise kid who lives in the rundown neighborhood known as the Inlet. The summer of 1977 will prove to be unlike any other for both boys, but especially for Jamie.
He never imagined that this would be the summer they finally got cornered by the local bullies. He never could have imagined that he and Nicky would have gotten into a fistfight and he certainly never would have thought that this summer he would fall in love with his other friend from the neighborhood, Benita Canizares.
Parts of the story are loosely based on my own experiences living in the Inlet, and anybody who knows anything about Atlantic City during this time will easily see why it is such a terrific backdrop for my tale. I am a big fan of Boardwalk Empire, but I thought it would be more appropriate to set my story in a time when things were not so great in our “Lady by the Sea”, when things were actually quite desperate. Dancing on Seaside is a story about growing up and the people and places that we must sometimes let go of to get there. At its heart, though, it is a story about love – for family, best friends and even for a city.
JAM: You wrote a post with an excerpt from the book where Randall is surprised that Hope was born and raised in Atlantic City. I hear this a lot when talking to non-locals – they don’t believe anyone actually lives in Atlantic City. Why do you think that’s so?
JA: I was born in Atlantic City and still get the odd look when I say it. To me, it has always seemed to exist in some kind of bubble. Atlantic City has always been a vacation spot. I think that the town relied so heavily on its identity as a place to escape to that it became a destination of almost mythical proportions in many people’s minds. The idea that you might raise your children there was not the image in most people’s minds. How could you raise a family in a town that has a diving horse, a water skiing dog, boxing cats, people jumping into the ocean from hot air balloons and (for about 30 years) the hottest music scene on the east coast? I look at it this way: people have certainly been conceived there, but to be born and raised there is a unique gift.
JAM: There are about a zillion Best Boardwalk lists out there, and you disagreed with Atlantic City being named number 1 by National Geographic Traveler. Why?
JA: I go “downthashore” every summer and almost always make a point of going back home. The last few times I just could not shake the sense of vacancy that surrounds everything. Sure, shops still hang onto the boards but there’s no life there anymore. Atlantic City has always relied on the outrageous and the absurd and, believe me, I like my boardwalks a little cheesy. I haven’t met a crappy souvenir shop that I couldn’t spend at least an hour in, wandering the aisles and picking up cheap plastic gifts. But the boards in AC have become simply trashy…and there is a difference between that and what we used to have, which was unique with a splash of seedy. I actually cringed when I saw rolling chairs with ads for all nude reviews on them. There are just some things you don’t do.
JAM: What do you think lies ahead for Atlantic City?
JA: I think the casino venture is done. Philly has casinos now, and that doesn’t bode well for a town that has put its future in the hands of the casino industry.
I think that a welcome change would be for the town to actually reinvent itself, back to the basics. Maybe Atlantic City’s fate is to become a place to enjoy the actual beach and the waves with the family. I wouldn’t mind seeing her take a much deserved rest. I once made the analogy to Marilyn Monroe, and I think it’s appropriate. As long as people can make a buck off of her they will try, no matter what it does to her, until she’s used up.
Maybe all these desperate pleas for attention will have finally tired her out and she’ll find herself…her real self, not this overly-painted party girl.
This same question is pondered by two characters near the end of Dancing on Seaside and the answer, though cloudy and set in a time just before the casinos came, is that this city has been stretching for the brass ring since its birth. Usually, like a phoenix, it rises after crashing.
For me, and as Hope says to her son in my novel, “I’m just glad to have had her at all.”