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An Interview With Author Alan Rolnick About His New Book Landmark Status

Dec 6, 2007
Landmark Status is a wonderfully funny book. Alan Rolnick uses Miami as the backdrop, and real estate as the weapon, to take the reader on a madcap journey that I can guarantee you will enjoy. When I put the put the book down and wrote the review, I just knew I wanted to talk to this guy. Anyone that can create the outlandish characters and amazingly funny scenes that I encountered in Landmark Status, has to be a pretty interesting person to chat with. Alan agreed to an interview.

Can you tell us a little about yourself?

I grew up in Newburgh, New York, a little city on the Hudson River. It was a beautiful place, old, proud and mostly unaware it had been rendered obsolete, cut loose from history's moorings and set adrift by changing times. As a kid, I played in an abandoned brewery, took bus trips to Yankee Stadium and collected autographs from Hector Lopez and Moose Skowron (we never could get close enough to Mickey and Yogi). One time, a big kid sat on my hand for the entire bus ride, leaving corduroy-striped welts that lasted a week, but it really wasn't his fault I couldn't throw strikes.

In my teens, Beatlemania struck. My brother Paul and I decided to be rock stars, saving for guitars with car wash money, playing battles of the bands on the firemen's picnic circuit. Paul was an outstanding guitarist and singer, destined to become an award-winning producer in New York. I wasn't, but joined him there after graduating from Johns Hopkins with a major in Frisbee. Together, we made brilliant recordings that few heard, earned fifty bucks opening for Buffy St. Marie at Philharmonic Hall, and fortuitously took the equipment home instead of leaving it for next weekend's gig at the Mercer Arts Center (which collapsed later that night).

Taking up journalism to put myself through my career, I became the guy at the New York Times who used computers to rank college and pro football teams. In 1983, the human pollsters awarded the Miami Hurricanes the National Championship, but my computer preferred Auburn. I'd been to Miami, fallen in love with the place, and decided it was time to go to law school (as my family had urged since I was six, usually with comments like, "he talks so much, he's gonna be a lawyer"). The idea of living where balmy breezes caress you on the way out the door in December was particularly appealing.

Atoning for my computer's mistake, I learned torts in locked classrooms and pulled all-nighters on the Law Review, winning induction into the Society of Wig and Robe (which, fortunately, required wearing neither). After twenty years of schooling, they put me on the day shift, working at one of Miami's top legal sweatshops, representing robber barons in complex cases in federal court. Years later, I switched sides and began representing Davids against Goliaths in class actions.

Eventually, I decided it was time to throw a rope around the places I'd met and the people I'd been, and set out to write the kind of story I liked to read.

What is it with attorneys, are you all closet authors? In the past year I have read at least a dozen books by people in the profession, oh and they have all been very good. I have come to the conclusion that every lawyer must have a book in them.

Jeez, are there that many? Seriously, though, lawyers have to write to eat, and they're trained to turn "fact patterns" into stories. Many of those stories are stranger than fiction, and they do make you yearn to come up with your own. Storytelling is crucial in litigation, where winning requires framing compelling themes, keeping witnesses in character, and distilling every legal argument to the pithiest possible paragraph. One classmate used to say he aimed for hearing the imagined words, "so, f___ you," after every sentence of written argument. The unifying experience of all law students is fatigue, so I'm not surprised he's forgotten he said it.

Where did the idea for Landmark Status come from?

Miami's a frontier town, where outsiders easily become insiders, bellying up to the bar, tipping back a mojito and quickly learning there's no secret handshake. I'd never been in such a place, and my legal training had dropped me off in its inner sanctum. There, I worked and tangled with kaleidoscopically colorful movers and shakers who were busy with Miami's principal business, buying and selling the same dirt over and over again. I also got involved in litigating some of Miami's more infamous Ponzi schemes. Having become a fan of Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiaasen and Dave Barry, I wanted to do my part to honor this unique, subtropical nuthouse. It just had to involve a mad scramble for a piece of property, set against a backdrop of investment fraud. And it had to have a lawyer in the middle, doing real lawyering, citing real cases.

How long did it take you to bring this project to fruition?

Five years. It just seems longer.

I was very impressed with Landmark Status, I love the dark humor. Are you happy with the way it turned out?

First of all, thank you for the kind words. It's always hard to know if the material is working! And yes, I'm very happy with the way the book turned out. Dark humor seems to grow wild here, a place so bright and beautiful it takes your breath away, even when random catastrophe is poised to strike, well, randomly. Miami is a city built by people on the run, from the cold, from persecution or personal dead ends, for whom making it to (and in) this magic city tends to foster a sort of self-absorbed sunstroke. It's a narcissistic sense of safety and triumph you can feel merely by turning your face to the sun, until reality's sudden impact shatters your daydream. This happens a lot in Landmark Status, starting with the wrecking ball in the first scene.

As the characters careen around Miami, where most folks are from somewhere else and ethnic politics dominates, they also collide with more serious questions about the American Creed and what's happened to it in our fractious times. Everyone's immigrant story gets told, but Delia, and to a lesser extent, Benjy and Raj, are the only ones thinking about what it all means. I really didn't set out to explore Miami's own origin story, how it came to be, who built it, and who came here when or why. But, as it unfolded, the story became a little more like "Hawaii" and a little less like "Hawaii Five-O" (tire-squealing car chase through Opa-locka notwithstanding). Looking back, I think giving the historical perspective makes it a richer story. It also means I don't have to do it again.

Most authors style their characters after real people, so how much Benjy comes from Alan?

Benjy's a lot more mellow than I am, for one thing. I'd like to think we share the almost unspoken inner sense of right and wrong that propels him, even though he makes light of it. I'm proud of him for that, because swimming against the tide he's in isn't easy. He also tends to withhold judgment a lot longer than I would, and suffers fools much more gladly than I do. He hates to lose, though, and will do what's necessary to win, and we're very alike in that respect. I enjoy his easygoing tolerance of the shenanigans of the connivers all around him. I have no idea where he got that. And that trust fund thing? Completely made up. All donations will be gratefully accepted.

Are we going to see more Benjy adventures in your next book?

Benjy will definitely be back. Once I figure out how to do this whole web publishing thing, clues to his whereabouts will be provided at my website (Alan Rolnick).

I remarked in my review that Landmark Status would transition nicely onto the silver screen, what are your thoughts?

It's great to hear you suggest that. From the beginning, I've thought Landmark Status would make a smashing film (with apologies to the Spanish Inquisition sketch). I see pictures when I set a scene, and I'm looking forward to rendering them in pixels as well as words. Of course, destroying all those cars costs money, so we won't be doing this one on a shoestring. Somewhere on my desk, there's a legal pad devoted to casting choices and music cues. If it were a few years ago, I'd be chasing Dustin Hoffman to play Benjy, but I hope he'll be interested in playing Benjy's father Bernard, the legendary zoning lawyer and dealmaker.

I understand that you are currently working on a film project, can you tell us a little about that?

I'm Executive Producer of the film "Canvas," which is in theaters now and will be out on DVD early next year. Produced by Sharon Lane (a force of nature, to whom I'm privileged to be married), it stars Joe Pantoliano, Marcia Gay Harden and Devon Gearhart. The film has won a number of festival awards, as well as praise for its realistic portrayal of a family struggling to cope with mental illness. Sharon fought for years to overcome studio apathy toward this indie film and first-time Director Joe Greco. We ultimately raised the money and shot it ourselves in South Florida during the legendary hurricane season of 2005, which almost blew us all out to sea. Sharon has another drama in development that also plays to her expertise in managing and working with young actors. I'm onboard for business and legal affairs, and just might Exec Produce this one, too. I'm angling for a comedy after that.

You obviously are a multi faceted person, lawyer, movie maker, and now author. What do you do with all your 'spare' time?

I honestly don't have much spare time. I'm usually fighting to carve some out to keep up with our overbooked son, Max, who's busy with school, piano lessons, soccer and baseball.

Alan, I want to thank you very much for taking the time to talk with me, and once again congratulations on creating a wonderful book, I hope that I see it on the NYT best seller list in the very near future.

Thanks, Simon. It was a pleasure.
About the Author
Simon Barrett is an adult educator in Calgary, Alberta. With the 11 months a year of winter, he reads a lot of books! He is also a contributing editor for Blogger News and maintains a personal blog at Simon B.
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