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An Interview with Cathy Day photo

Cathy Day grew up in Peru, Indiana, where the Great Porter Circus lodged from 1884 to 1939. Her first book, The Circus in Winter, illuminates the rise of the circus, its collapse, and the legends that ring through to the present day.

Day, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, has since published a memoir, Comeback Season, about a year in her life as a single woman set against the Colts' run to the Superbowl, but this interview focuses on her work in The Circus in Winter. Early this spring, we talked about omniscience, poaching on Southern Gothic territory, and I tried to pick a fight about Sherwood Anderson. Let's get to the good stuff.

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I'd like to start by talking about omniscience. You don't see much of the omniscient point of view in short fiction nowadays, and when you do, the narrator isn't often the kind of assertive storyteller featured in most of your stories. Your narrator, for example, isn't afraid to tell the reader what the story is and what the story isn't. Tell me a little about your choice here. 

Like most apprentice writers, I was taught that third-person omniscient point of view was a big no-no, a relic of the past. The early drafts of stories in The Circus in Winter were written in third-person limited, a point of view in which you're (of course) limited in terms of what you can reveal: only that which the character understands. In 1998, I was working on a revision of "The Circus House," and I wrote this line: "No woman sets out to make a fool of herself, but it still happens. All the time." I thought, Where did that come from? Who said that? Not the main character, Mrs. Colonel. She's too besotted to realize she's making a fool of herself. That's when I realized that "The Circus House" wasn't a third person story at all. It was first person, narrated by a storyteller's voice I call "my bossy narrator." This voice gave the stories set in the past an "old-timey" feel, but it was also vaguely metafictional, which interested me because it allowed me to be both "old" and "new" at the same time. Once I found this bossy narrator voice, I went back to all of the third person stories and revised. That's when the book really started to come together. 

Finding my bossy narrator was a happy accident. Around that time, I was reading an old circus book from the 19th century that used those antiquated subheadings, you know−"Chapter IV in which Our Hero Escapes." I thought "Gee, what's the difference between the self-conscious narration of the 19th century and of the postmodernists?" I was also reading Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried. Now, most people would say that the title story of that collection switches between third person limited (the Jimmy Cross sections) and third-person omniscient (the Alpha Company sections), but I'd argue that what seems like third person omniscient is actually first person, the narrator Tim O'Brien, who simply hasn't made his presence known quite yet. Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio employs a similar voice. You begin reading "The Book of Grotesque" imagining that you're reading a third-person limited story, but about half way through, an "I" appears. It happens in his story "Hands" too: "Let us look briefly into the story of the hands. Perhaps our talking of them will arouse the poet who will tell the hidden wonder story of the influence for which the hands were but fluttering pennants of promise." 

I'm trying to put my finger on what makes that "bossy narrator" so appealing to the reader, in your work and the others you mention. Maybe something in that narrative stance hearkens back to listening to stories as children, because the narrator's storytelling voice seems almost more "spoken" than "written." Or maybe it combines the intimacy of first-person−one person relating a story to another−with the power & authority of third-person. 

I know this is a strange question, because I'm asking you to look at your work from a reader's perspective, but what are your thoughts on accounting for the bossy narrator's appeal? 

I think you're right. The storyteller's voice summons up our memories of being read to as kids. But also, I think readers love to be surprised. As a young writer, I was taught to write stories that were aesthetically "real," to create what John Gardner called the vivid and continuous dream. This method alone, I was taught, constituted story making. The first time 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." When I was a kid, one of my favorite books was The Monster at the End of This Book. The main character, Grover, pleads with me not to turn the pages because there is a monster at the end. A book that knew it was a book! I loved it. The bossy narrator (whatever form it takes) makes us think we are glimpsing behind the curtain, that we're seeing something more true than the "made up" art before us.

I think perhaps the "bossy narrator" in my book surprised readers. It was a throwback narrative choice, and yet it also appealed to our contemporary fascination with "the real truth," the confessional voice, behind-the-scenes access. 

Certainly appealed to me. Speaking of "the real truth," your book has its roots in some very real things, including your hometown of Peru, Indiana (though you fictionalized it as "Lima"). Monica Ali's book Brick Lane has been met with protests by the real residents of Brick Lane, who are offended by what they call a misrepresentation of their home. As far as I know, your office at Pittsburgh has never been picketed, but has anyone ever held up your book and said, "This is not my Peru?" 

I spent years and years worried about just such protests. Well, Hoosiers wouldn't protest, per se. They might say things to my grandparents at K-Mart. "Well, I saw in the paper that your granddaughter wrote a book. How about that! I hear it's got a lot of death and S-E-X in it. Well, Cathy always was different." I would sometimes imagine little scenarios like that while I was writing. Finally, I changed the name from "Peru" to "Lima," and the K-Mart scenarios stopped. It's true that after the book came out, I did hear third hand about a little grumbling. The book was too dark. I changed things. I wasn't celebrating the American circus enough. But mostly, people in Peru were excited. I had a book signing and over 200 people showed up. I got to ride in the circus parade and wave to people. That was like a dream come true, honestly. So, I spent years worrying for nothing, because the town was just pleased that anyone would write anything about them. 

Let's talk about influences. You mentioned Tim O'Brien and Sherwood Anderson−we'll get back to Mr. Anderson in a moment−and I can see their influence on your work, but something in your writing also smacks of Southern Gothic literature. Maybe it's the strong sense of place, the elements of the lurid and grotesque, or how you don't shy away from catastrophe. Do you sense any connection to Southern Gothic in your work? 

There's most definitely a connection, although I don't see why Southern literature has a monopoly on those qualities. Midwesterners have a lot of the same problems and concerns as Southerners, although they may not like to admit it. Not to keep returning to Sherwood Anderson, but do you know that he's at least part of the reason why we have a Yoknapatawpha County? In New Orleans, back in 1925, the two men were friends. Anderson was at the height of his popularity and Faulkner was still struggling to find his voice and subject matter. Anderson told Faulkner he should write about where he was from. "You have to have somewhere to start from: then you begin to learn. It don't matter where it was, just so you remember it and ain't ashamed of it." My fascination and identification with Southern writers began in college probably. I went to a small school in Indiana, and I remember the day my sociology professor showed us a documentary called Ethnic Notions, a film that traces the historical roots of racial stereotypes in American culture. It was an eye-opening experience. I remember the film featured a still shot of that now-famous lynching photograph, which I'd always assumed was taken in the South, and then I saw written in the corner, "Marion, Indiana, 1930." I grew up 30 miles from Marion. Around this same time, I read Absalom! Absalom! for a class, and I absorbed it in a trance. When Quentin Compson cries at the end that no, he doesn't hate the South, I felt that might as well have been me, crying, "I don't hate Indiana! I don't! I don't hate it!" Add to these factors that I also became a writer in the South, in the MFA program at the University of Alabama. Beyond the grotesques, the freaks, the catastrophes, their concern for place, Southern writers are obsessed with the past, and at the time, so was I. It was a good match.

Old Sherwood keeps haunting the edges of our conversation, so let's talk about him directly.Winesburg, Ohio is a book that people either love or hate. Malcolm Cowley, in his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition, attempts to bridge this gap by describing Anderson's work as "desperately uneven, but . . . the best of it is as new and springlike as ever." What would you say to someone who would characterize Winesburg as more of an Important Book (for the ground it broke for story cycles) than a Great Book? 

Oh for goodness sake, what is the difference between a Great Book and an Important Book?Winesburg, Ohio made an indelible impact on me and many other writers. For that, it's a great book. Then there's this: So often, linear novels get more credit in terms of "greatness" than story cycles or story collections. Why? The story cycle form, the collage, is incredibly difficult to master. Actually, I think that our postmodern narrative sensibility is more informed by collage than chronology. Consider "Lost," which is structured in terms of a linear basetime (George Willard = Jack Shephard) but includes satellite narrative lines as well. I think the collage form is poised for a dramatic comeback, and Winesburg will be patiently waiting for the new readers it deserves. 

Any writer's regrets? Anything you would change−from the stories, to the marketing, to the cover art−if given a chance? 

I worked on the stories in The Circus in Winter on and off for 12 years. There's not really much I'd change about them, maybe delete an unnecessary word or polish an imprecise sentence here and there, but basically, I love each and every one of those stories just as they are. 

As for what I might change about the cover, the marketing of the book, I try not to think too much about that, or I drive myself crazy with coulda, woulda, shoulda. The toughest lessons I've learned in the last few years have nothing to do with craft, nothing to do with writing books at all, but with the difficult task of selling them: marketing, covers, publicity budgets, cross promotional platforms, in-house editorial advocacy, and bookstore product placement. You spend a decade of your life devoted to your book, this beautiful, ephemeral thing. You control every word, every comma. And then, glory hallelujah! the book is published, but nothing is in your control anymore. It's completely out of your hands, into the hands of fate and editors and agents and reviewers and publicists. For example, I have a hard time going into chain bookstores now, because I know that the reason certain books are on display in high-traffic areas is because the publisher has paid for that space, so you, the book-buyer, will notice them. The Circus in Winter benefited from this form of business exchange, and I'm grateful for that, but it also made me aware of how common it is for good and worthy books to get lost in the cracks for lack of "good buzz." When I get depressed about this, I go back and read an essay called "First Books" by my other favorite writer, Andre Dubus, who said, "What is demanding and fulfilling is writing a single word, trying to write le mot juste, as Flaubert said; writing several of them which becomes a sentence...and when a writer does this work steadily enough to complete a manuscript long enough to be a book, the treasure is on the desk. This is splendid work, as worthy and demanding as any, and the will and resilience to do it are good for the writer's soul. If the work is not published, or is published for little money and less public attention, it remains a spiritual, mental, and physical achievement."

image: The Circus in Winter cover design