Like his protagonist, David Perry, Pretty Flamingo author Perry Martin has a background as a recording and touring musician within and beyond his native Australia. That included a 15-month tour of his own in Vietnam, entertaining the troops. Like David Perry, he also re-settled in Orange County, CA. Beyond that, his life and the fictional experiences in Pretty Flamingo take much different paths.
I spoke with Perry about his background and inspiration for this intriguing, gripping novel about the power, devastating impact, and ultimate liberation of resurrected memories. What began as a simple discussion about the book turned into a conversation that offers plenty of insight for writers of fiction, memoir and essay — not to mention a behind-the-scenes look at his fantastic opening novel, now available on Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, Scribd.com (download), bookstores nationwide, and all online book and e-book sellers. You can also view a wonderfully produced preview trailer of the book on YouTube.
1) First of all, Perry, music plays an important part in David Perry’s growing-up years in Pretty Flamingo, obviously with some autobiographical moments in there. Could you talk about your long background in music?
I started at a very young age and was lucky enough to have some “brushes with greatness” during the course of my musical career. I’ve worked with such people as Sheb Wooley of Rawhide fame, (the TV show that helped launch Clint Eastwood’s career), country legend Lefty Frizzell, pop/rock bands The Bee Gees, Ambrosia and Little River Band and, more recently, country greats Hal Ketchum and Lonestar.
Between 1968 and 1969, I had a 15-month stint in Vietnam with country showband The Donnie James Show – which is where I came into contact with Sheb Wooley, Left Frizzell and his daughter, Leta. We went places no other band had ever gone in Vietnam and, because of that, we became so popular AFRTS gave us our own weekly TV show, Nashville Vietnam.
From 1970 to 1971, I toured Southeast Asia with my father as part of a three-piece music and comedy cabaret act. We traveled to Japan, Okinawa, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Taiwan and the Philippines. My father and I eventually settled in Hong Kong where I embarked on my own music career, which spawned three albums of original material.
I left Hong Kong in 1983 for the U.S.A. and have lived here ever since. Between 1990 and 1997 I was with the band Two-Way Street. We were the opening act for B.J. Thomas, Ambrosia and Little River Band, among others. More recently, I have been part of the country band Marshalltown and have had the pleasure of being the opening act for Hal Ketchum and Lonestar.
2) And your writing background?
I remember wanting to be a writer when I was kid, long before I developed an interest in music. I wrote stories that I would pass around to friends and family and I seem to recall starting a novel when I was about 12 years old. Lord knows what happened to it. I think what happened was that I started noticing the attention musicians got from people – particularly girls – and that swayed me in the direction of music!
I think writing has been lying dormant in me, all these years, waiting for the right time to surface. I still had the urge to create artistically. I believe that’s when I resurrected my dream of becoming a writer.
3) How do you feel your skills as a musician and songwriter lend to your storytelling capabilities as a novelist?
As a musician, if you want to be good, there’s a certain discipline. You have to be willing to practice, practice, practice and you have to honestly compare yourself to those musicians you respect and admire. That helped me develop my skill as a writer. I basically used the same approach. I read books by top authors and studied how they wrote, much the same way as I used to study how my guitar heroes played guitar, and then I would compare what I wrote to the authors whose work I admired and also most closely matched the kind of storytelling I wanted to achieve. I also studied books on writing, character development, etc which kind of parallels the music books I used to study.
As a songwriter I always tried to write songs that would affect the audience emotionally. It was also important to engage and interest them quickly. You have a lot less time to do that in a song than you do in a book, but it’s a similar thing. Grab the reader within the first paragraph, if possible. And, most important, affect the reader emotionally just as I’d tried to do with my songs.
4) Could you tell us about some of your other experiences that either made their way into Pretty Flamingo or informed them?
Well, the first thing I should confess to is that, although I consider myself an Aussie at heart – and certainly have that persona – I was originally born in England and then moved to Australia at a very young age. As far as experiences go, there were a slew of incidents during my time with the country band in Vietnam that could be the subject of a whole book! For instance, the motorcycle accident that the central character of Pretty Flamingo, David Perry, has when he’s in Vietnam. That was based on actual personal experience. I was in Saigon and I’d had a few too many beers and had no business riding home on that bike. Many of the streets had large, wooden-framed, barbed-wire barricades that were positioned at presumably strategic points. I managed to run my bike into one of them, flew over the handlebars and hit the road – hard. I gashed my head pretty badly and it required several stitches above my left eyebrow.
There were also numerous occasions where the country band went to places no other band had been to. We played for a Green Beret unit based very close to the Cambodian border. Halfway through the show, we were rushed into a bunker because the base was being mortared. The pedal steel player and I became the heroes of the evening as we grabbed a couple of cases of Pabst Blue Ribbon on our way to the bunker. We sat out the attack, which was successfully fended off, of course after all, we’re talking Green Berets! and then went back to the club to finish off the show.
It was experiences like that, I think, made me grow up pretty fast, By the time I arrived back in Australia, I was a pretty mature sixteen-year old. I portrayed David Perry that way in the book because, later on, he has to make some very adult decisions.
5) What are the elements of the Manfred Mann song “Pretty Flamingo” that worked for you as the theme to this book?
Well, for one thing, just the song in general evokes so many memories for me – both good and bad – that it seemed a natural choice. It made it easy to write around because it was a part of my life at a time where events occurred that had a profound impact on me. It reminded me of some very good friends and a family I cared very much about; they weren’t my family but they treated me that way. That’s why I wrote them into the book. For me, it’s also a very visual song. Every time I hear the line, “crimson dress that clings to tight” I can see this gorgeous girl walking up the street that everyone on the block called “Flamingo”.
6) Without giving away the entire plot, you have written a story about an Australian now living in California who has a recall experience about something so shattering that he’s blocked it out for 35 years. What is it about sudden recall experiences that you find so intriguing and captivating that you’d wrap an entire story around it?
Wow, that’s a great question. First, like many people I know, I love a good mystery. So, the idea that there is something buried in someone’s past that has been subconsciously affecting his decisions throughout his life was intriguing to me. You could call it a “hidden influence”. A movie that comes to mind is Conspiracy Theory, where the central character keeps buying the same book over and over again and has no idea why he’s doing it. We eventually find out why when he finally remembers what happened. It started me thinking along those lines. How much of our lives might be influenced by forgotten events? How many things are we doing or not doing because of something like that?
7) Once David has the shattering wake-up experience of déjà vu, you proceed to unravel the recall experience slowly … and then launch us into an incredible series of events for any two teenagers. What narrative issues did you work out before settling on this slow roll-out of the life-shattering event — as well as the decision to weave before-and-now chapters as you do?
I wanted to create conflict, mystery and suspense. Some of the conflict comes from within as well as without and I wanted to show David wrestling with his own doubts and fears which were his personal, internal antagonists – as well as the other antagonists he encounters along the way. I found that rolling it out slowly, initially, helped create the mystery throughout the book. Each time you discover the answer to one thing there are still other questions still not answered and, as I’ve been told by numerous people, this is what kept them turning the pages – which was what I wanted to do.
The decision to weave before-and-now chapters was also part of the whole idea of creating a mystery. We see how, even the first few glimpses of previously forgotten memories, start to affect the main character. We watch him undergo a gradual transformation while, at the same time, we are able to go back and gradually discover how it was that he became the person he was at the start of the book.
8) In this book, you’ve got a full package on the human condition — mad teen love, more complicated mature adult love, a compelling mystery, exotic adventure, music, an unspeakable crime, and more. What do you feel are the important factors — or were the deciding factors in Pretty Flamingo — of writing such a story to maintain its believability?
Nobody in this book is perfect – because, let’s face it, nobody is. That’s what makes us human. My characters have their flaws, and they don’t always make the right decisions but, except for the villains, they are basically good (as I believe most people are) and they try their best to do the right thing, at least from their point of view. I purposely didn’t gift my characters with eloquence, excellent vocabularies or the best social graces, because that’s not the kind of people they were – especially the Aussies. They are a down-to-earth, tell-it-like-it-is bunch of people and I think that makes them likeable and believable.
9) What about the characters of David Perry and Lisa Morgan made them both ideal for this “perfect storm” of a tale?
Well, without giving anything away, I think I can say that they had some things in common although they arrived at those things in different ways. They both had experiences that forced them into a maturity beyond their years. They also had some idea of themselves as spiritual beings, something more than just flesh and blood. That, for me, was the element that would eventually create the unbreakable bond between them.
10) David Perry and Lisa Morgan are compelling in entirely different ways. They’re also decidedly Australian, with a bit of swagger and persona that has been intriguing to American audiences for the past 25-30 years. As an Aussie who has lived in the U.S. for quite a long time, what do you feel it is about the Australian persona that draws us to seek it out in our movie and fiction characters?
I think there is a “no worries,” laid-back feel to the Aussies that is very attractive. There’s also a refreshing honesty to them that I think we like. They are some of the friendliest, down-to-earth people you’ll ever meet.. There’s definitely a lack of political correctness, by and large, and I think it reminds Americans of how things used to be in this country. To this day it’s still a bit “wild and wooly” in Australia and there’s that rebel streak that kind of says “take me or leave me, I don’t give a s–t!” That’s the kind of attitude Americans used to have and it helped them kick the Brits out back in 1776 and grow to become the greatest nation on earth. I think we’ve lost that here, to some degree, and the Aussies kind of remind us of what it was like to be that way.
11) What redeeming qualities or statements do you feel the characters and story of Pretty Flamingo make about love, forgiveness, redemption and the power of memory?
Overall, I think that the book demonstrates that the vast majority of us are good people and that the power of love can overcome anything. It’s as important to forgive ourselves as it is to be forgiven, for we sometimes hold ourselves accountable when there is no longer any need. Also, to know that nothing is truly forgotten – it may be buried, hidden or otherwise blocked out, but it is still there. For you “not to remember” something implies that there must be “something there” to be forgotten.
12) What are your future writing plans?
I am actually working on another book right now, Savannah. It’s a little different than Pretty Flamingo although there are some similarities inasmuch as there is once again a mystery aspect to it and the protagonist has had a troubled past. It’s a story about childhood friendship, integrity and redemption. There’s a spiritual aspect to it that’s quite interesting, too. I’ve pulled a lot more from my experiences as a musician for this book and I’ve tried to give the reader some insight as to what it’s like to be a struggling musician.