Jul 29, 2014
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'Boardwalk Empire' Author Speaks at Seaview

Nelson Johnson, author of the book "Boardwalk Empire," spoke in Galloway on Saturday.

'Boardwalk Empire' Author Speaks at Seaview

The Murphy Writing Seminars'  Winter Prose and Poetry Getaway is now in its 19th year, but this was the first year it was held at in Galloway and in conjunction with . 

Fittingly, with the workshop's move from Cape May to Atlantic County, one of the county's foremost historians, Nelson Johnson, of Boardwalk Empire fame, spoke on Saturday evening.

He was introduced by former Press of Atlantic City reporter Thomas Peele, who had consulted with Johnson when Peele was a reporter in Atlantic City and Johnson a lawyer. Peele praised Johnson's work on the book, Boardwalk Empire, which inspired the HBO show of the same name.

"There was a painstaking amount of research in this 20-year passion project, in bringing this story and history alive for us," said Peel. "I can't imagine 20 years of that level of research, and then having the wherewithal and the humanity, to take a couple chapters about the plight of African Americans in Atlantic City and turning it into the next book, The North Side."

Johnson, a lifelong resident of Hammonton, began his discussion by recounting the people he met when trying to "capture the essence of Atlantic City." He spoke of rampant corruption and dysfunctionality.

"It was really, really a strange environment," he said.

Curious, he became interested in the history of the city, and headed to the Atlantic City library. After reading approximately 25 books, all of which told only a part of the story, he decided he wanted to write a more complete history of Atlantic City.

"The corruption in Atlantic City...it was organic," he said. "You had to give the visitor what they wanted during the season, or they wouldn't come back, and the city wouldn't flourish...in order to provide that kind of entertainment, the law had to be bent."

During Prohibition, Johnson said, the real Atlantic City flourished.

"Atlantic City just ignored the law," he said.

He went on to discuss the history of Atlantic City from its beginnings with a PowerPoint timeline complete with photographs.

"I think I was able to pull together the pieces in a way that had never been done before," he said.

He, of course, spoke about the most infamous character from the HBO series Enoch "Nucky" Johnson, played by Steve Buscemi.

"If you crossed Nucky Johnson and you had a bar, no one came in for a drink...he could destroy you economically and he didn't even have to lift a finger," Johnson said.

Following his discussion of Atlantic City's history, he discussed the path his book took from local history to HBO. When the book was finished, he knew that chapters five and six of his book, which were about Nucky Johnson, should be turned into a screenplay. 

After consulting with other writers, he started making trips to Los Angeles to pitch his idea to directors and producers at what he called "pitch fests." 

"I had a lot of people that were very interested, but none of them had any money," said Johnson.

Fortunately, after giving out some copies of his book, which were then shared with the right people, HBO got a hold of it, and the rest is history.

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