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Print is not Dead | An Interview with A. L. Resser

May 15, 2012

I had the privilege to interview A. L. Resser – word lover, writer, reader, proofreader, researcher, designer, occasional drawer and believer that print is not dead. In this interview, A. L. Resser explains how Atlantic City got its start and the ghosts that lurk there, plus her journey into the life of Poe and a little (un)known secret into her family history. To view available books click here.

The Pine Cone Gentleman – You wrote two books in the past three years, “Ghost Stories of Atlantic City” and “Angel of the Odd, Edgar Allan Poe’s Last Days in Philadelphia.” What did you enjoy most about writing these books?

A. L. Resser – I love getting lost in the history. When I started researching Poe’s time in Philly, I was surprised by all the different versions of his biography. Some texts paint him as an alcoholic, a drug addict, and severely depressed, while other narratives feature a man with a propensity for practical jokes and falling in love. Almost nothing is certain about his life, but I enjoyed playing detective to piece together all the facts and fiction that have made their way into his legacy.

For the Atlantic City book, I found that once you start digging around in the history of a ghost story, you never know what you’re going to find. For example, one of the well-known ghost stories in Atlantic City involves a dancing apparition at the end of Garden Pier. It turns out that 1920s silent film star and heartthrob Rudolph Valentino gave dance lessons at the pier, and, more interestingly, was a self-professed medium who collected pages and pages of poems communicated to him from the spirit world.

Another fascinating story is the séance that Harry Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle conducted at the Ambassador Hotel in the 1920s. This event made national headlines at the time, and the crux of the scandal rested on whether the ghost of Houdini’s mother had made contact with them.

TPCG – Where do you draw your inspiration from?
ALR – One of my favorite books when I was young was about the Jersey Devil (whom, incidentally, I’m supposedly related to), and once my family opened a Halloween attraction in an abandoned house that was really haunted, I guess my fate was sealed. I’ve also been told I’m descended from coffin makers. Now, inspiration mainly comes from poking around in the margins of history and discovering weird, neglected stories, but I suppose I’m carrying on the family legacy at the same time.

TPCG – What made you pick Poe for your first book?
ALR – For the bicentennial of Poe’s birthday (2009), ideas for a Poe-centric tour of Philadelphia were being tossed around, and I wrote the book to accompany the tour.

TPCG – What was the most surprising story or fact you discovered while digging into Atlantic City’s history?
ALR – Atlantic City’s history is like a movie: entertaining, tragic, heartbreaking, not to mention all the gangsters, celebrities, and criminals. You have Nucky Johnson (of current Boardwalk Empire fame), Al Capone,  Skinny D’Amato, Frank Sinatra, and the list goes on and on. I was surprised to learn that the resort started as a health retreat, built in the middle of a mosquito-infested island that had only seven inhabitants. Once the investors were on board, a national PR campaign was launched extolling the healing properties of Atlantic City’s air.

TPCG – Poe is such an elusive character. What was the most challenging part of piecing together the days he was in Philadelphia?
ALR – The most challenging part of studying Poe’s time in Philly was trying to lay out all the information without interpreting or drawing conclusions. For instance, his very last days in Philly have wreaked havoc with historians. By his own and others’ accounts, he was in the grips of melancholia, sick and completely out of it. One friend claimed he tried to commit suicide at Fairmount Waterworks, and he evidently spent the night at Moyamensing Prison in South Philly. At one point, he claimed his sickness was over Virginia (taken to mean his wife, who had recently died [although he was on his way to Virginia, the state, as well]), but later said it was the cholera epidemic ravaging the city, and still later claimed it was an attack of delirium tremens. By placing his own letters and the writings of his acquaintances, John Sartain and George Lippard, next to one another, you can start painting a picture, and you can be tempted to complete it, but you’ll still have many gaps that will most likely always remain a mystery.

TPCG – What is your favorite fact or tale about Poe?
ALR – We all know the common image of Poe — the tormented soul with the warped imagination – almost like a character out of one of his horror stories. But I also like to think about him as a writer trying to make a living, wandering around, going to work, going home to his family, and so on, right here in Philly.

TPCG – Do you think Philadelphia had a large influence on Poe’s writings?
ALR – Philly was the center of the publishing world in the mid-1800s, and Poe lived here for six years. Whether it was being in the center of all that creative energy, or the city itself, it was his most productive time and he wrote many of his most famous works here: “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Black Cat,” “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” to name only a few. Whether he completed “The Raven” here is disputed, but some people point to his friend Henry Beck Hirst, who owned a pet raven and a bird shop that Poe frequented, as inspiration for the poem.

TPCG – Anything you’d like to promote or add?
ALR – Buy art, read books and always take ghost tours.

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