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My Interview with Elizabeth Massie
Elizabeth Massie, author of the chilling novella, Playback: Light and Shadow agreed to answer some questions for me. With her permission, I share her answers with you.
Did you write Playback: Light and Shadow specifically as a prequel for the movie Playback? Or was your novella the inspiration for the movie?
The movie, Playback, was already written and filmed when I was approached by Random House to create a prequel that would serve as a teaser and lead in to the film. The producers sent me a screener, and then I spent time talking to them about the story and what they might do with sequels. This was to make sure I didn’t introduce anything in my story that might run counter to their concepts. The film is set in contemporary times but had a link to the past, and so I decided to jump back 100 years and see what might have gone on prior to the movie’s terrifying events.
The electrocution of Topsy the elephant was a horrible event, though a chilling beginning to your story. Before you wrote this book, were you aware of her electrocution? How did it make you feel when you first discovered this had happened and that the ASPCA, even though they protested her hanging, said absolutely nothing about her electrocution?
For the last 15 or so years, I’ve been fascinated with the history of Coney Island, especially the amusement parks that came and went during the later years of the 19th century and early years of the 20th century, and I’ve done quite a bit of research. I’ve done quite a bit of research during that time. What a fun, bizarre, frightening, lively, dangerous, and thrilling place Coney Island must have been. People flocked to the area for the rides, games, dance halls, circuses, plays, shows, and sea bathing. I knew all about Topsy’s demise at the rear of Luna Park, and I’d seen the grainy, yet disturbing footage a number of times. The magazine Wired carried an article about the film, bringing in more details. Keep in mind that animal welfare wasn’t necessarily a big issue during the time period, though books such as Black Beauty, which came out in 1877 and Beautiful Joe, which was published in 1893, helped raise awareness of the plight of “lower” sentient creatures. The ASPCA, which had its beginnings in 1866, most likely believed that electrocution, which was supposedly relatively swift, was a more humane way to kill an elephant than hanging, which could take longer and create more suffering.
Thomas Edison is portrayed as weak, insecure, and paranoid. He is also shown to have been a cruel man who wanted success no matter what he had to do for it. The horrible things he did aren't talked about in history books, or at least they weren't when I went to school. Yet this information is readily available over the Internet. Even the film footage of Topsy's electrocution can be found. Do you believe it is time that the true nature of this self-centered inventor is taught in schools? Why or why not?
I would think most of the leaders, inventors, scientists, doctors, etc. had their dark, or less stellar, moments. Or even darker, lesser-known sides that counter their bright public personas. I knew about some of Edison’s less-than-admirable activities, but then for the purpose of the story, got into his head and ramped it up. Of course, I would never know what he was actually thinking or why he did what he did, but my story gave one explanation. As to teaching the darker side of some of our American heroes, I don’t see why that would be necessary when kids are little. Information in many cases should be age-appropriate. In high school, sure. Share it, discuss it, and learn from it.
Did Louis Le Prince, the one who first invented the movie camera, actually have a son named Andrew?
Louis Le Prince had a son named Adolphe. I created the fictional grandson, Andrew, to be one of the two main characters in Playback: Light and Shadow.
In the book, Edison has nightmares about the electrocutions, all justified in his mind, to prove how dangerous AC electricity is. Did you did find written proof of these nightmares from his notebooks? Or were they added to show the possibility that he did go through some kind of torment? Or was it a bit of foreshadowing for a possible fate for him?
I created the nightmares, imagining that a man who was so driven and so success-oriented might well have a subconscious sense of guilt for what he was doing. And yes, it was intended to create some foreshadowing for the reader.
Which part of the story do you think is more chilling – the effect that Louis Le Prince's movie camera has on those it films or all of the horrible things done by Thomas Edison?
I find the misuse of power chilling in all its variations. I played with this in my story, giving Edison an insatiable, insecurity-driven need to hold onto his power and his reputation as the most-revered inventor in the country and in showing some of the residue that might create in his psyche.
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