Cathy Day grew up in Peru, Indiana, “circus capital of the world” and is the author of two books: the award-winning The Circus in Winter (Harcourt, 2004), a fictional history of her hometown, and Comeback Season (Free Press, 2008), part memoir about life as a single woman and part sports story about the Indianapolis Colts Super Bowl season. Her fiction and nonfiction have been broadcast on NPR and appeared in a league of notable literary reviews.
Day has received many grants and fellowships including a Bush Artist Fellowship from Minnesota. Having traveled the gypsy-academia route through Minnesota, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, she now lives in Muncie, Indiana, home of the Ball Brothers and factory (Remember Grandma’s Ball jars?). Day teaches at Ball State University and writes regularly about teaching and writing at cathyday.com and specifically about linked stories at #amlinking and novels at her blog, The Big Thing.
I couldn’t shake the image for days: Caesar’s trunk groping the second story window frame of my mind like a “tongue licking the corners of a mouth.” I’d just heard Cathy Day read from her debut collection of short stories, The Circus in Winter (Harcourt, 2004) at the AWP conference in Chicago last spring. When I came back home to Minneapolis, I got the book right away and read it clear through in one long, delicious sitting.
Within the tight geographic setting of Lima, Indiana, Day carefully threads a tapestry of stories including generations of families who live and work in the Great Porter Circus and Menagerie. Story after story, time periods, characters, and tragedies layer one upon the other to create a mesmerizing and haunting portrayal of an era long past.
I’d been mulling over an interview I’d agreed to do a few months before, and now I knew just who I’d ask. Welcome as Day shares her thoughts on writing, developing “literary citizenship,” and suspending Barbie dolls from chandeliers.
Wendy Skinner (SLEET): I’ve noticed a trend in short story collections sold as “a novel in short stories.” The Circus in Winter’s subtitle reads, “Fiction” and avoids the issue of labeling the book as a collection of short stories or a novel. What are your thoughts about how readers perceive the differences and/or similarities between short story collections and novels?
Cathy Day (DAY): I think there’s spectrum of fictional form. On one end is the story collection, and on the other end is the novel. In the middle are books that go by many names: story cycle, novel-in-stories, composite novel, story sequence, linked stories, etc. They’re comprised of stand-alone pieces that we recognize and read as short stories with a beginning, middle, and end. They aren’t chapters. They’re stories that can be published and appreciated individually. But when we read the stories in the context of the whole book, linked as they are by setting, theme, characters, or geography, the stories gather cumulative meaning and the book begins to “feel like” a novel.
SLEET: So, where does The Circus in Winter lie on the novel-short story fiction spectrum?
DAY: I don’t think of The Circus in Winter as “a novel,” but rather as a story cycle. My editor wanted to call the book a novel, but I said no, because I figured all the reviews would be about whether or not it was a novel. I said, “How about short-story cycle? Or novel-in-stories?” but my publisher preferred to de-emphasize the word “story.” So I looked at my copy of The Things They Carried, which was a huge influence on me. It’s just called “fiction,” so that’s what we went with. A third of my reviews said my book was a novel, a third said it was a novel-in-stories or linked stories, and a third said it was a story collection. I think that’s really interesting. Some readers think my book “counts” as a novel, but others don't think so at all, and it probably depends on the amount of “unity” they need in order for a book to “feel like” a novel.
SLEET: Yes, your reference to Tom O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is really interesting! I read in an interview that his Vietnam experiences compelled him to make other people feel the truth of what this war was like through his writing. I understand that The Circus in Winter isn’t written from your own direct experience (or are you keeping some lion-taming, trapeze-swinging secret from us?). What approach did you take when it came to writing the stories in your book?
DAY: I’d say that the book was inspired by my desire to travel back in time and “live” during the time period when my hometown was a circus town. Each story was prompted by a photograph or artifact or old newspaper clipping or a family story passed down through the generations. For example, I own the bullhook that my great great uncle, an elephant trainer, used to defend his life against Charley the elephant in 1901. Writer Mario Vargas Llosa has said that he requires the springboard of reality to ignite his imagination, and I would say the same. But unlike O’Brien, I’m not using my own reality as the springboard, which means that my task is to “get inside” the characters, like an actor figuring out how to “play” a character. Ultimately, there’s a little bit of me inside all my characters, even the ones who lived long before I was born.
SLEET: Speaking of “a little bit of me inside all my characters,” in the last story, “Circus People,” the protagonist reflects on pursuing the nomadic life of an academic and surrounded by colleagues with similar vagabond lives as they go from one institution to another. Those choices combined with the protagonist’s mother saying, “Marry yourself first” creates a natural segue into your second book: Comeback Season: How I Learned to Play the Game of Love (Freepress, 2008). How did your first book of fiction influence or relate to your second book of memoir?
DAY: I’m really glad you recognize that segue! I think a lot of people were confused by Comeback Season, felt like I’d made an odd choice of subject matter for my second book, thought I was trying to cash in on the whole “memoir thing.” But to me, it was a natural next step. One thing I learned during the book tour for The Circus in Winter was that my best story for public readings was that last story, “Circus People,” the most autobiographical. It’s fiction, but very close to my own voice, my own experience. Also, it felt important that readers loved my other fictional characters precisely because I’d given them something of myself. Why not take that next step and stop calling my work fiction?
SLEET: After writing so much fiction, what did you learn from writing memoir?
DAY: I learned a lot from writing Comeback Season, but ultimately, I think I’m more a fiction writer than a nonfiction writer. Oscar Wilde said, “Give me a mask, and I’ll tell you the truth.” I have a lot of admiration for memoirists, but generally, I’m more comfortable standing behind the scrim of fiction.
SLEET: The Circus in Winter was part of the Midwest Gothic session at AWP. Why?
DAY: I don’t think that I’d ever thought of my work belonging to any particular kind of school or genre until Brian Kornell and Jodee Stanley organized an AWP panel on Midwest Gothic in 2012 and invited me to join them. I think they say it best here: midwestgothicstories.com. “Stories in the Midwest Gothic vein refuse to comply with the plain and ordinary expectations of the region and reveal the darkness and complexity of the Midwest.”
SLEET: What’s your understanding of the Midwest Gothic genre?
DAY: You can pretty safely divide Midwestern writers into two camps: the Nostalgic and the Gothic. Midwest Nostalgic is sentimental, popular, and escapist, while Midwest Gothic is dark, depressing, and more political. It’s very much like the ways that you can divide the Southern literary tradition into a “Song of the South” kind of nostalgia (which was very popular for a long time in this country) and the more gothic mode of a William Faulkner or a Flannery O’Connor. I became a writer in the South, taking classes on the Southern gothic tradition, but I was also reading a lot of Midwestern writers who belonged to a school called “The Revolt from the Village,” writers like Edgar Lee Masters and Sherwood Anderson who, like Faulkner and O’Connor, were writing against the idealized notions of their homelands.
SLEET: Besides a few latitudinal degrees, what makes Midwest Gothic unique?
DAY: The biggest difference I see in Midwest Gothic is the theme of “the buried life.” The South loves and accepts its freaks much more so than the Midwest does, and so I think Midwesterners are more likely to feel compelled to hide their inner life, to deny themselves that which they most want and desire. The Midwestern writers I love the most write about those moments when buried lives bubble up and assert themselves.
SLEET: Ooh, I like that last thought. Creating assertive female characters seems like a challenge for many writers. On the other hand, I’ve read stories that include what the authors might think are strong female characters, yet they rely on stereotypes: prostitutes, orphans, ex-girlfriends, and other women portrayed as psychologically disturbed. What does it mean to you to write a “strong” female character?
DAY: That's an excellent question and deserves a good answer, so here goes. My struggle to write strong female characters is inextricably related to my struggle to be a strong female character. I'm a first-generation college student. I'm from the kind of place where women live modest, domestic lives. At best, I think people expected I might marry well—meaning marry into some money, marry someone “important”—but what I really wanted was to be someone important. I've always had to push myself to aspire, to want something beyond husband-kids-house.
SLEET: How did you connect this “being” someone important to your female characters?
DAY: Back in 2001, I went to the Sewanee Writers Conference and had the opportunity to work with Tim O'Brien. We talked about an early draft of the story that became “The Lone Star Cowboy,” the one about Stella Garrison who loses one of her twin sons in a tragic accident. He said, “What does Stella want out of life other than to be a good wife and mother? Put that desire in conflict with her desire to be a good mom.” I realized that most of the female characters in my book were fairly flat. They had the same modest expectations I'd been raised with. I needed to give them something else to want, just like I'd needed to give myself something else to want. I see this a lot in the stories my female students write too.
SLEET: But how do you get your students to really understand how to avoid flat female characters?
DAY: Characters must want something, and too often, a young woman will write a story in which her main character's goal is securing affection from a male character—the marriage plot. I'll say, “What else does your character want? She wants [insert name of male character]. Give her something else to want.” And of course, what I'm also saying is, “What do YOU want, honey? I know you want to be loved. But you need to give yourself something else to want, too.” She looks up at me with this frightened expression, because she doesn't know what else to want. One student of mine threw up her hands and said, “Oh my God, my character is Bella!” and I think she was also realizing how easily we become Bellas ourselves. Loving a vampire is hard, certainly, but when you've got nothing else planned for the next 70 years of your life, why not love him? Why not give up your humanity to be with him forever? But imagine how much more interesting Twilight might be if Bella's dream was to go to Harvard or become a lawyer or write a novel. What if that dream complicated her epic love story? That story is harder to write and harder to live, and that's what a strong female character does: lives a life that is as complicated as possible.
SLEET: Hmmm, what about your second book?
DAY: Given what I've just said, you might understand why Comeback Season was so hard, such a risk, because I was writing about my desire to marry, to find love. For years, I buried my Bella, but she bubbled up and asserted herself, too.
SLEET: You have an impressive e-presence that includes a beautiful Web site, an active blog, Facebook page and Twitter account (729 followers including the Muncie Train!). What are your thoughts about the significance of your digital presence?
DAY: You think I have my act together, huh? That's great, because it wasn't so long ago that I most definitely did not.
SLEET: Do tell.
DAY: The Circus in Winter came out in 2004. I wasn't on Facebook or any other social media site. No blog. I did have a web page, but the guy who designed it stopped doing websites and so I couldn't update it. I had no platform, no idea what that even meant, and no idea that it was my job to build relationships with readers. My publisher took care of almost everything.
SLEET: That sounds like the dark ages. What happened?
DAY: By the time Comeback Season came out four years later, everything had changed, and I was woefully unprepared for it. I still wasn't using social media—which is hilariously appropriate given that the book is about my discomfort with online dating and presenting myself in a virtual environment. The publisher expected me to help promote the book, but I literally didn't know how.
SLEET: I hate the idea of “promoting” your own work!
DAY: Yes, it seemed so unfair: I already had two jobs—writing and teaching. Now, I needed to add yet another job: proprietor and publicist of my writing business, and to make matters worse, none of that online publicity work—blogging, microblogging on Twitter, building a digital presence—counted towards tenure and promotion. I resisted for a long time. I got angry. I banged my head and swore a lot.
SLEET: How did you finally deal with it?
DAY: For me, the key was that I had to not think of it as “self-promotion” or “branding” or “platform building.” Those words make me feel kind of sleazy. Instead, I started using the term “literary citizenship” to describe the activity I observed, especially in the indie publishing scene. I wasn’t “networking.” I was trying to be a good literary citizen, doing a little bit every day to expand my circles.
SLEET: How did you become a good “literary citizen?”
DAY: I published a story in Ninth Letter a few years ago, “YOUR BOOK: A Novel in Stories,” that encapsulates my take on this subject, which I call the Theory of the Five Pops: in order for someone to feel compelled to buy a book, they need to hear about it, see the cover, see someone reading it, read a review of it—the book has to “pop” up on their radar five times. If your book is reviewed in the NYTBR or People or you get a spot on Fresh Air, well, that's like 50 pops right there. That’s huge. If your publisher pays to have your book strategically placed on a table or on an end-cap at a bookstore, that's a huge bunch of pops, too. You're golden. But what if your book doesn't get the “big media” treatment? What if you don’t publish it traditionally? What do you do then? That's where social media comes in—by creating a digital presence, you give your book a chance to find its audience by creating the opportunity for more pops.
SLEET: How do you balance all this e-citizenry with teaching and writing?
DAY: I no longer watch television. :-)
SLEET: So what are you working on now?
DAY: For the last few years, I’ve been working on a new novel, tentatively titled Mrs. Cole Porter. I actually got the idea for this book back in 2002, when I was finishing up The Circus in Winter. I spent almost a year doing research, even wrote up a novel synopsis to submit along with the Circus manuscript, and then something happened: Variety announced that a little movie called De-Lovely had just been cast. The editor who acquired Circus wasn’t interested in my Cole Porter idea. Actually, nobody was. The timing was wrong. So I put the project aside for a few years and wrote a book about dating and football.
SLEET: Wow. The circus, Cole Porter, dating and football!
DAY: Never let it be said that I have a narrow set of interests.
SLEET: Who exactly is Mrs. Cole Porter and can you tell us about your research?
DAY: The novel is about the life of Linda Lee, and right now, I’m focused on who she was before she met Cole Porter. In the course of doing research for the novel, I discovered that 86 volumes of her personal scrapbooks are held at Harvard. During the summer of 2009, I spent three days looking through them. They provided me with a rare glimpse into her cultural milieu, and so I applied for some research fellowships to work on a related project: a nonfiction article about Linda’s scrapbooks.
SLEET: Treasure, pure gold. Did you get any of the fellowships?
DAY: Yes. I’m pleased and honored to have received a Beatrice, Benjamin and Richard Bader Fellowship in the Visual Arts of the Theatre from Harvard University’s Houghton Library. I spent July 2011 there, and it was a dream month, let me tell you. Somebody paid me to spend a month in beautiful libraries! And, if you liked the “bossy narrator” and the “artifactual-ness” of The Circus in Winter, then you’ll dig this new book, too.
SLEET: You’ve been extremely generous with your replies, thank you! I hope you can leave us with a good anecdote. What was the most interesting or bizarre experience you’ve had regarding your writing experiences?
DAY: I once visited a book club, and the hostess had hung a Barbie doll by her wrist from the chandelier over the food table. “Look,” she said, “it's Jennie Dixianna doing the Spin of Death!” This lady had even used a red marker to make Jennie's trademark wrist wound. She was so proud that she'd come up with this idea, and so I just said thank you and made myself a plate of appetizers.
Wendy A. Skinner is a freelance writer and Hamline MFA student living in Minneapolis. She’s the author of the book, Life with Gifted Children: Infinity & Zebra Stripes (Great Potential Press, 2007) and her writing has appeared in professional education journals as well as literary anthologies and magazines. She’s writing a collection of short stories that take place in the Lake Superior port town of Two Harbors, Minnesota. www.wendyaskinner.com