Since I published this essay about Cole Porter and growing up “different,” I’ve been getting a lot of emails from people saying “I’ve never had the words to describe this feeling. Thank you.”
One email in particular has been on my mind. The subject line was “An ExMid from Peru Indiana thanks you.”
It’s from a fellow Peruvian who lives “out East” now. She still visits friends and family in Peru, but says that some members of her family seem uneasy with her at times. Sometimes they’ll say, “You’ve spent too much time in [City Far Away].
“I cannot help but feel like I don’t belong there anymore when I visit.”
Oh boy, do I know that feeling.
She goes on to say:
“I guess what I am asking you is how did you break the mold on what people in Indiana perceived you to be with who you really are to yourself? Did you find a way to do it that did not result in the ‘too good for us’ label that inevitably follows such a declaration? Indiana will always have a place in my heart and Peru a place in my soul but reading your words about both places made me feel like you understood my plight. I want to thank you for that. Indiana and particularly Peru is where I grew older but I grew up elsewhere. Cole Porter knew this struggle. Of that I am sure.”
Truthfully, a lot of my blogging energy went into this blog, maintained by my department at Ball State. If you read the post I’ve linked to, you’ll see the stats, etc.
Lately, my blog posts have been about administrating in higher education and my personal life rather than teaching and writing. I guess that’s what happens as time passes–the things that occupy space in your brain change.
I’ll be happy if you continue reading, despite these changes. Thank you.
Spoke about Literary Citizenship at the Antioch Writer’s Workshop “Paths to Publishing” event. Reunited with Erin Flanagan and met Kirby Gann and Steve Saus.
The night I came back from Yellow Springs, my dog was hit by a car. He lived. We rejoiced.
Went to Seattle with my husband for AWP 2014. Loved Seattle. For some reason, I felt compelled to blog about my marriage while we were there. I put them on Tumblr rather than here. I don’t know why. “Traveling as a Couple,” “AWP Spouses.” And this one, too.
I wrote about my fear of and desire to be looked at on my Tumblr blog. (I wasn’t sure if these personal stories were appropriate for the Big Thing. I guess I felt safer posting them in this little corner of the internet where you might not see it.)
Reunited with an old high school friend and started trading work. Thanks to a new set of eyes, I got excited about my novel again. Worked on it a lot over Christmas Break and have applied for a sabbatical so that I can get that baby out the door.
I started writing this post feeling like “Man, I don’t feel like I accomplished much this year,” but now I see that I was as busy as ever in 2014.
Thanks, as always, for reading. Have a great year!
It’s July 5th, P.T. Barnum’s birthday, the 10-year anniversary of the publication of my first book, The Circus in Winter.
I. Circus back then
In 2004, I was teaching at The College of New Jersey. I was 35 years old.
That was the summer my sister got married. The first time I saw the book on a bookstore shelf was on June 17. We were on our way to her wedding rehearsal, which was near a Borders. I asked my dad to stop so I could go inside and see if the book was on the shelf yet. It was! I took a picture.
I wondered why my pub date was July 5th if the book was available in a bookstore on June 17?
My agent called me on July 5 to say congratulations and asked “What are you doing right now?” and the answer was that I was shucking corn.
That was a fantastic summer, full of happiness and starred book reviews and wedding receptions and a book tour.
I didn’t realize at the time how special that summer was, that sometimes a book pops and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s been hard to write my third book with this knowledge in the back of my mind. Here’s something I said to Bryan Furness when he asked me how a writer gets past moments like that.
In late July 2004, during my town’s annual circus festival, I did a signing in my hometown historical museum and many, many people came. Ex-boyfriends. Former teachers. Former circus people. Former babysitters. Childhood friends. It was completely overwhelming in a good way. I sat next to the skull of the elephant that killed my great-great uncle, the artifact that started my writing journey.
The next morning, I got to ride in a convertible in my hometown’s annual circus parade and wave at people. My brother and sister walked alongside the car and threw candy at the crowds lining the streets. The sign on the side of the car said: Guest “Author” Cathy Day.
Ah, the unnecessary quotation marks of the Midwest!
In my life thus far, these are the four greatest moments (in chronological order):
Returning to my hometown as a published author and riding in the parade
The morning a few months later when I was solving the New York Times Magazine acrostic and realized that the answer was a quotation from Circus.
The day I got married.
The day in 2010 when I returned to Peru with a group of students from Ball State who had adapted Circus into a musical. They performed in a circus tent on the same ground where the real circus had performed a hundred years earlier. I wrote about that day here.
II. Circus today
I’m incredibly fortunate that people are still reading The Circus in Winter. It was selected as the 2014 Common Reader at Hanover College. The other day, I got an email from a young woman who had just finished it.
I am attending Hanover College in the fall and I was required to read The Circus In Winter. I just finished reading it. While I was reading I didn’t know how I felt about the book. I kind of liked it and I kind of didn’t until the very end when Jenny talks about hometowns and how no matter what you can always go back. Just those very last paragraphs really got to me and it helped me appreciate the book so much more. Besides that I love the little bits of the book that actually happened. I understand some details were changed and so were names but it’s amazing for me to think something exciting has happened in Indiana.
Back in 2004, I sent a postcard to every county library in the state of Indiana asking them to add Circus to their collection. Someone asked me why I’d done that. Why focus on getting the word out about the book in Indiana rather than New York or Los Angeles? The answer is contained in that email.
III. Circus tomorrow
I’m visiting Hanover College on Aug 25 and 26th.
In September, I’ll be in Connecticut for two events with Ben Clark, who wrote the music for Circus. We’ve actually never done an event together where we trace the evolution of a story into song. I’ll let you know more about those events as details are finalized, but one of them will be at the Mark Twain House and Museum. Very excited about that!
Will you do me a favor today? Will you like the Facebook page for The Circus in Winter? If things go well with the musical, I hope that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt will reprint Circus, and those likes might help me make my case.
I’m writing this on the porch of my house in Muncie, Indiana. If you’d told me 10 years ago that I’d be back home in Indiana or that I’d be blogging or that there’d be something called “Facebook” or that there would no longer be a thing called “Borders” or that my book would be a musical, I wouldn’t have believed you.
Thank you very much. Today I’m filled with so much gratitude for the blessings this book has brought me.
The other bit of good news is that Hunter Foster will be coming on as book writer. Please note:
The book is the libretto, the narrative structure that keeps the musical from being nothing more than a disjointed medley of songs.
Hunter Foster is an actor and librettist. He’s also the brother of Sutton Foster, Tony-award winning actress who teaches each year at Ball State and who has been a huge supporter of this project.
Goodspeed is known as a launching pad for many Broadway and off-Broadway musicals. You can see the list here.
If you live on the East Coast, or even if you’re just a fan, I hope you’ll take advantage of the opportunity to see the fully produced show, full-size elephant puppet and all.
This is what it looked like when the show was produced at Ball State in Fall 2011.
The show is moving forward thanks to the ceaseless efforts of lots of people, namely Beth Turcotte, Ben Clark, and the folks at Center Ring Theatrical, which includes two Ball State grads.
You know what’s funny? All those years ago, my then-agent went to lunch with editor Ann Patty, and when he pitched Circus to her, she said, “I’m from Indiana, actually.” How lucky I am that this book has been helped on its way by so many people from my homestate.
I’m reminded of what Kurt Vonnegut wrote: “I don’t know what it is about Hoosiers, but wherever you go there is always a Hoosier doing something very important there.”
1. Sutton Foster will be there. Not performing. Just watching. But still…Sutton freaking Foster, people.
2. My parents will be there. They are cute.
3. My sister will be there. She is cute.
4. The President of Ball State University, Jo Ann Gora will be there. Note that I put my family before President Gora but after Sutton Foster…please don’t read too much into this. I need to keep my job and my family relations intact.
5. Thanks to Goodspeed Musicals in Connecticut and to the hard work of Beth Turcotte, Ben Clark, producer Sean Cercone and others, the book (the story, the script) is better. The plot is different from the version you might already be familiar with. There’s a new character!
6. There’s some new music, new songs by Ben Clark. So yay! new material by Ben! (You’ve probably seen him on teeeee-veeee…)
7. I hear the whole band will be there, too! Yay Joe Young on the mandolin! Yay Nick Rapley on percussion! Will Sean Muzzi be there, too? (He just got a gig playing for the Glenn Miller Orchestra!)
8. It’s a concert reading. And the next morning, they’re taking off for NEW YORK CITY to perform in front of a select group of investor-type folks. So we need to send them off with a bang, like in a pep rally sort of way!
9. WHERE IS IT? It’s taking place at 8 PM, 4/25 at the Cornerstone Center for the Arts, 520 E. Main St., in downtown Muncie, which also happens to be a block from my house, so yay! I can stumble home happily afterwards.
10. It’s free and open to the public, so tell all your friends!
On Thursday, July 19 at 7 PM, I’ll be at the new Indy Reads Books reading a story called “The Girl with Big Hair.” Here’s why you should come.
Because I had some rockin’ hair in 1987. Admit it.
Because you’ve probably never read this story. It was published in The Gettysburg Review in 1999. The story concerns Jenny and Ethan Perdido, characters in The Circus in Winter, but because it’s not set in Lima, Indiana, the editor and I decided it didn’t quite fit into the book manuscript.
Because it’s about my internship at Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine. In 1990, I went to New York with a bunch of other Midwestern college kids. We lived in a Chelsea brownstone and did internships by day and roamed the city by night—and got college credit! It was glorious.
Because one of the other kids in this program was this guy from Wabash College named Eric Kroczek, who I clicked with immediately but pretty much blew off.
Because when I sat down in 1995 to write a story about my Interview experience, I remembered blowing Eric off and put him in the story. I changed his name to “Nate.”
Because when Comeback Season was published in 2008, I was interviewed on WFYI’s Art of the Matter, and Eric Kroczek/”Nate” was living in Indianapolis, driving to the grocery store, and he heard me on Art of the Matter. When he got home, he emailed me and we clicked again and a year and a half later, we got married—17 years after we met in New York City.
[This is where it all comes together.] Because that interview that Eric was listening to was conducted by Travis DiNicola, Executive Director of Indy Reads, who made Indy Reads Books a reality.
Because if it wasn’t for Travis, I might not be happily married.
Because, to thank Travis, I’m bringing wonderful things to give away to people who come to the reading with books to donate., including a vintage issue of Interview magazine that is featured prominently in the story I will be reading.
Because the best reason to come to the reading is that you’ll be supporting a new bookstore in downtown Indy as well as a nonprofit that brings literacy to adults in Indianapolis. That’s something you can feel pretty great about.
And if all of that is not enough to convince you to come to this reading, I offer this: my parents will be there, and they are really, really cute.
Thursday, July 19 at 7:00 PM at 911 Mass Ave., Indianapolis.
Bring books to donate! There will be a drawing! Win things!
[Follow the title links to hear the songs!] Supposedly, Cole Porter wrote this hilariously maudlin song on a dare: his friend Monty Wooley gave him the worst title he could think of and challenged him to make a song out of it. This was the result. It’s a “story song,” told by Miss Otis’ maid or butler (depending on the gender of the singer), and the plot is reminiscent of William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” I’ve linked to a particularly amusing rendition of the song performed live by Fred Astaire. Continue reading →
2.) Take a good look at this short story. If you’ve read the book, then you know that Mrs. Bridge the novel is comprised of 117 titled vignettes. But “Mrs Bridge” the short story pre-dates the novel. “Beau Monde” the short story contains 12 of the eventual novel’s vignettes (in this order: 61, 39, 37, 60, 91, 99, 84, 86, 18, 102, 41, plus one titled “Equality” not found in the novel).
3.) Pretend for a moment that you are Evan S. Connell. You wrote the short story “Beau Monde” because you wanted to satirize the small-minded racial and class politics of your hometown. And you did that. Quite successfully. It’s just out in this new magazine called The Paris Review. But now what? Maybe you’re not quite done with this Mrs. Bridge. What about her husband? How did they meet? What would happen if this very American couple went on a European tour? What of her children? How will she respond when they grow up and challenge her worldview? And what about her best friend, Grace Barron? You open up the pleats. You write more vignettes. Most fit on a single piece of typing paper. They’re more than scenes, but less than chapters. They’re what Mark Oppenheimer in The Believer calls “chapterlets.” In fifty years or so, people might call them “flash fictions.” Each vignette is a building block, a movable unit, a piece of paper. You lay them out on the floor, tape them to the walls, trying to figure out how they go together.
This is exactly what I wanted to do when I finished the book: tear out the pages and lay them on the floor, tape them to the walls. I wanted them to be tangible, detachable things. So, I used post-it notes to create a thumbnail sketch of each vignette. This really didn’t take that long because I’d just read the book. A few hours. Continue reading →
The Circus in Winter will be going to the American College Theatre Festival in January!
Come see our Benefit Performance on January 2nd in University Theatre! If you missed it this fall, here is your chance to see it now! It’s amazing.
The Circus in Winter
By the students of the Virginia B. Ball Center for Creative Inquiry Inspired by the novel by Cathy Day Directed by Beth Turcotte Musical Direction by Ben Clark and Alex Kocoshis Choreography by Erin Spahr
January 2 at 7:00pm
Tickets: $10-all proceeds will go toward the students traveling to the American College Theatre Festival
Based on the novel by Cathy Day and adapted for the stage by Beth Turcotte and students from the Virginia B. Ball Center for Creative Inquiry, The Circus in Winter is the story of the passion beneath the big top. Join Wallace Porter, a stable owner from Indiana, as he falls in love and searches for his life’s work, a journey that culminates in the purchase of his own circus. Filled with fantastic characters, heart-rending moments of love an loss, and extraordinary new music, The Circus in Winter is a feast for the eyes, ears, and heart.
For more information, please contact the University Theatre Box Office at 765-285-8749 or email@example.com.
Tickets will go on sale on December 12th! Box Office Hours are as follows: December 12-16 from 1-5pm, December 19-22 from 1pm-5pm, December 23 from 9am-Noon, December 28-29 from 1-5pm, December 30 from 9am-Noon and January 2 from 5-7pm.
The first thing I did upon meeting Jennie Dixianna was kill her. I’ve regretted the decision ever since.
Over time, she became many things–acrobat, femme fatale, incest survivor, superwoman–but she was ephemeral and vague when she first popped into my head in Fall of 1991. Exactly twenty years ago. She made her very dramatic entrance in one of the very first stories I wrote for the big thing (I didn’t dare even think of it as a “book” in those days) which I then called Circus People but which my wonderful editor Ann Patty wisely rechristened The Circus in Winter.
That story was “Winnesaw,” the flood story, in which Jennie is introduced, flits around for awhile, and then [spoiler alert!] drowns while drunk, which is a really stupid way to kill a character.
So let me tell you how she was born.
I got the name “Jennie Dixianna” from this photograph of the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus.
If you look closely, you can see on the banner line that she’s “America’s Doll Lady,” a euphemism for dwarf, someone who possesses some form of Restricted Growth. The real Jennie Dixianna, whoever she really was, is sitting next to the fat lady in this picture.
Another inspiration for Jennie was the real-life acrobat Lillian Lietzel. Her famous act, the One-Armed Plange, involved repeated turns on a hanging swivel and loop, revolutions which required her to dislocate her shoulder with each turn. This is where I got the idea for Jennie’s act, “The Spin of Death.”
You need to know this: When I first created Jennie, I was living is Tuscaloosa, Alabama, attending graduate school in creative writing. The first night of my first-ever fiction workshop, one of my mentors, Allen Wier, read to us from the introduction of Carl Carmer’s Stars Fell on Alabama, and the last sentence haunted me: “So I have chosen to write of Alabama not as a state which is part of a nation, but as a strange country in which I once lived and from which I have now returned.”
Replace “Alabama” with “Indiana,” and that’s exactly how I felt about my homestate in 1991, the year I left (for what I thought was for good) to embark on my journey to become a writer.
A year or so after writing “Winnesaw,” I tried to work my way backwards from the flood. Why would a man from small-town Indiana buy a circus? The answer to that question is contained in the story “Wallace Porter.”
So: I needed to connect the dots. I’d already written “Winnesaw” so I knew that Wallace and Jennie were going to become lovers, and, now that Irene was dead, Wallace was free to hook up with Jennie. But how would such a pairing happen?
If you’ve read the story “Jennie Dixianna,” I want you to imagine it sans all the backstory. That’s how the first draft of that story read. I showed it to Thomas Rabbitt, who became my thesis director, and I’ve never forgotten what he said after reading it.
“Cathy, your stories are like Victorian dollhouses. You’ve got all the period details right, the set dressing, the costumes, but I never feel like I’m inside that house. I’m watching your characters go through the motions, deliver their lines, but I’m not emotionally invested in them. I don’t feel like they are real people. They’re like these little dolls that you’re picking up and moving from room to room.”
He pointed specifically at the Jennie Dixianna story to illustrate this point.
It was 1995. I’d been working on these stories for four years. I was so devastated after Tom said this that I briefly considered jumping off the third floor balcony of Manley Hall. But I knew he was right.
Some time after this conference, I was watching Inside the Actor’s Studio with James Lipton. I don’t remember who he was interviewing, but s/he said something about the difference between “delivering your lines” and “becoming your character.” S/he said that in order to make the audience believe a character is “real,” you can and should draw from some aspect of your personal experience. It’s Method Acting 101, I suppose, but I found it enormously illuminating.
So I started figuring out what the hell was going on inside this Jennie Dixianna chick, what made her tick.
Eureka moment: Jennie thinks she wields a great deal of power over men. When in my life did I ever feel that way? Because, wow, at that point in my life, my twenties, I felt completely bewildered by the opposite sex. But then, I remembered, I thought I was pretty hot shit when I was seventeen (just ask my parents), and so I channeled that and gave it to Jennie Dixianna.
Eureka moment: Then I started thinking, Who is this woman? How did she get that name, Dixianna? Why do some women sleep with all the wrong men? Why do they let such chaos into their lives? Why do they accept the slightest compliments as payment in full emotionally? When is promiscuity about power and when is it just really, really sad?
(These are very good questions for a young woman to ask herself in her twenties. Hoo boy.)
Eureka moment: Aha! Jennie is the victim of incest! Trust me, I get a lot of strangely-worded questions about this, all of them trying to find a way to ask me if this happened to me. The answer is no. Sure, I’ve got some Daddy Issues, but not that one. This aspect of Jennie is inspired by another Famous, Mysterious Dead Girl: Laura Palmer. I saw David Lynch’s Fire Walk with Me in Paris during the summer of 1992, and was rocked to my core by the scene when Laura figures out who “Bob” really is.
Eureka moment: On p. 282 of Stars Fell in Alabama, in the chapter on “Mountain Superstitions,” I found this:
“To stop a flow of blood, read a certain passage in the Bible. This verse is known to only a few people. When there is a bad case of bleeding the name and age of the unfortunate person is carried to the one having this power. He or she will retire to a room with the Bible. After reading the verse and chanting a few magic words, the conjurer will claim that the flow has stopped.”
So that’s how Jennie Dixianna’s character came together over the course of about five or six years.
When I talk to readers of my book, they always tell me that Jennie is their favorite character, and so I wasn’t surprised when I learned that she’d play a major role in the adaptation despite the fact that she only appears in three stories in the book. She’s been played now by Maren Ritter, Jaclyn Hennell, Ella Raymond, Erin Oechsel,Jessica Biernacki Jensen, and now Sutton Foster.
Each of these women has played Jennie in a slightly different way, each one so beautiful and strong and sad, and I hope that they have learned something of themselves by playing her as much as I did by writing about her.
There’s a scene at the end of the show where Wallace Porter is flanked by the two women he loved: Irene Jones Porter and Jennie Dixianna. One is dressed all in white, the other in gaudy reds and blues and greens. The good girl and the bad girl, so to speak, and I killed them both!
Why did I kill Jennie? That’s the question that’s been haunting me all week.
Maybe I couldn’t imagine a future for Jennie because I couldn’t imagine my own future at that point in my life. Twenty years after she first popped into my head, I sat there in the darkened theater looking at Jennie Dixianna, looking at my twenty-year old psyche dramatized on stage. I held my husband’s hand, surrounded by friends and family, back home again in Indiana, thinking how strange and wonderful it is to be an artist, how worthwhile it is to keep trying to get something right so that your work can matter to someone else someday.