The Story of Jennie Dixianna

The Story of Jennie Dixianna

The Circus in Winter Writing

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.

a photograph by Edward J. Kelty

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.”

Lillian Lietzel, circus celebrity, doing the One-Armed Plange

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

Photo by Kelly McMasters of the Ball State Daily News

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.