Recently, I interviewed Cathy Day via email about fictionalized Midwest histories and the intersection of fiction and nonfiction for the Where We're At section of Ninth Letter (spring/summer 10). Cathy is the author of Comeback Season and The Circus in Winter . Her short story, “YOUR BOOK: A Novel in Stories,” appeared in Ninth Letter (vol. 6, no. 2, fall/winter 2009-10).
Here is an excerpt from The Weird Room: An Interview with Cathy Day.
9L: Both The Circus in Winter and “YOUR BOOK: A novel in stories” mix fiction and nonfiction to varying degrees. What is your attraction to blurring the line between these two genres?
CATHY DAY: As a young writer, I was taught to write stories that were aesthetically “real,” to create what John Gardner called the vivid and continuous fictional dream. This method alone, I was taught, constituted story making. Then I read The Things They Carried. I felt profoundly astonished, similar to the shock I felt at sixteen, sitting in a darkened theater when Ferris Bueller broke the fourth wall and spoke directly into the camera, or the first time I saw Rene Magritte’s meticulously real painting of an apple that stated, “This is not an apple.” These meta-gestures give the impression that readers are glimpsing behind the curtain, that they’re seeing something more true than the “made up” art before them—perhaps that they are seeing the characters or artists themselves. What keeps many readers turning pages is this question: I wonder if this really happened. Instead of resenting the question, I use it purposefully.
For me, fiction and nonfiction aren’t categories. They’re two poles on the spectrum called narrative, and somewhere in the middle of that spectrum is this weird room where fiction and nonfiction hang out and talk to each other. I like that room.
I read somewhere that Stuart Dybek doesn’t worry about whether he’s writing poetry or fiction when he begins. He just writes and eventually he figures out what the piece wants or needs to be. I work in a similar way, I think, not worrying at first if something is fiction or nonfiction. Actually, both YOUR BOOK and The Circus in Winter began as nonfiction. YOUR BOOK started as a letter, or rather a Facebook message. One day, a young writer with a book coming out asked everyone in his hive, “What kind of cover attracts a potential book buyer’s attention?” Whoa Nelly, did I have things to say about that topic. I started telling him my Theory of Five Pops (also known as branding), using fictional scenarios to illustrate this idea, and very soon, I realized that I wasn’t writing a letter anymore, or even an essay called “Book Marketing in the 21st century,” but a fictional story.
The Circus in Winter also began as an essay. The base time plot chronicled my journey back to Peru, Indiana to do research. These “Cathy Investigates” scenes alternated with “Circus History” passages. Almost immediately, I ended up in that weird room where research and imagination combine. I lost interest in the outer frame and started making up stories, creating an interior life and back story for people in those photographs and newspaper clippings.
See, the Weird Room has two doors marked nonfiction and fiction. You might enter through one door, but you don’t necessarily have to leave by it. To write The Circus in Winter, I needed to leave via the fiction door, but I wanted to acknowledge the project’s nonfictionality, so I incorporated “fake” documents and archival photographs in order to bring the reader into the weird room, too. But here’s the irony. Twelve years after I discarded that outer frame, the true story of me going back to my hometown, my editor said, “What this book needs is a last story about your stand-in character Jenny Perdido going back to her hometown.” She was right, and I wrote that journey back into the book in the last story, “Circus People.”
Stay tuned for another excerpt from the interview next week!