Batesville Herald Tribune, Batesville, Indiana

June 21, 2013

BSU author's novel inspires musical

DebbieBlank The Herald-Tribune
The Batesville Herald-Tribune

---- — OSGOOD – “Write what you know,” authors have long been advised. Cathy Day, who teaches creative writing at Ball State University, found success doing just that, she told about 20 during a June 6 discussion at the Osgood Public Library sponsored by its book club.

Her 2004 debut novel, “The Circus in Winter,” is about her hometown of Peru in northern Indiana. Yet “southern Indiana has been my ... home for quite a while.” Her parents now live in Aurora, her sister works at Bright Elementary School and her mother and brother used to work in Batesville.

One woman asked about her writing beginnings. “Like a lot of writers, I love to read,” she answered. While devouring “Silas Marner” at 12, “I read this really beautiful paragraph .... What occurred to me, a writer could put words together in such a way to make readers feel something.”

At DePauw University, Day had to write a senior thesis. The professor pointed out, “‘You’re from that weird circus town. Why don’t you write about it?’”

The Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus performers wintered there from 1884-1944 because the owners lived in the town. She explained, “The kids in Peru hate the circus. They’re sick of it,” just like Gettysburg residents are tired of the Civil War.

But she did have stories. “My great-great-uncle, my mother’s sister’s husband’s father, got killed by the elephant.”

Her book began as a 50-page nonfiction essay. She wrote more stories before earning a master’s degree at the University of Alabama in 1995 and the rest of the chapters after that.

One professor said some of her stories were like Victorian dollhouses. Day got the period details right, but the characters felt like dolls, not real persons. She realized, “You have to get inside the characters in the same way actors and actresses do. For me, my favorite stories are the ones when I’m learning as much about myself” and putting those emotions into the characters. “They are literally parts of me.”

Day, who previously taught at Minnesota State University and the University of Pittsburgh, based some of the chapters on true incidents. “I’d forgotten to warn the people in my town they were going to encounter their own personal tragedies in my book.” She learned “you probably should give them a heads-up.”

Edwina Callan, Osgood, asked, “How long did it take you to write the book?” The answer: “Twelve years, off and on. As a college professor, I needed to publish. I wasn’t in a great hurry. I just wanted to get it right.”

A few years later, the novel inspired a musical (please see sidebar below). It put the author in a unique position. “I wrote these stories in private and you went and read them in private .... The weird part for me was sitting in the audience (at the musical performances), watching people watch my subconscious.”

Marty Ryan, Bright, asked how she felt as a writer to have her work adapted. Day responded, “I had to really push ... (the students) to veer away from the book” to make the story easier to follow. She figures, “The best chance of my book finding a wider audience is if the musical does well.”

In 2008 she published “Comeback Season: How I Learned to Play the Game of Love,” part memoir about life as a single woman and part sports story about the Indianapolis Colts Super Bowl season.

Osgood librarian Kay Koppel wondered, “What are you working on now?” Day divulged, “I’m interested in nonfictional fiction.” Recent recommendations are “The Paris Wife” about one of Ernest Hemingway’s spouses, and “The Chaperone” about the late actress Louise Brooks.

She would like to pen a novel about Mrs. Cole Porter, who also lived in Peru. “Linda’s first husband was like Charlie Sheen. They were in the papers all the time.” After divorcing, Linda met the younger and famous songwriter Porter. As a child, Day used to walk past her gravesite.

The Muncie resident, now married, told the listeners, “if you’re interested in connecting to other writers,” they should attend the 40th Midwest Writers Workshop (www.midwestwriters.org) July 25-27 in Muncie. The planning committee member reported authors, agents and editors will contribute to 35 instructional sessions.

FROM BOOK TO MUSICAL

• Dr. Tony Edmonds, a BSU history professor, has been using “The Circus in Winter” to encourage students to write their own family histories.

• BSU Professor Beth Turcotte led 14 students in an immersive learning experience in 2010 to create an original musical based on the book. Of songwriter Ben Clark, Day said, “It baffles me how a 21-year-old could read my book ... and write such beautiful, moving songs.”

• In July 2010, her grandmother, who told Day some of the stories, was able to watch one of two musical performances at the Circus Hall of Fame and Old Depot in Peru, where elephants used to disembark from a train. “That was a really cool thing.”

• BSU mounted a full production in September 2011. “These kids that built this set are now in New York, building Off-Broadway stuff.” Two students propelled the elephant frame. “When the elephant comes in, in silhouette … you can’t tell it’s not a real elephant.”

• At the March 2012 Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival, the musical gained seven awards, “an unprecedented sweep.”

• “The Circus in Winter” was performed in New York City Oct. 11-12, 2012, with Tony Award winner Sutton Foster playing the female lead, as one of eight musicals (and the only one created by students) featured in the National Alliance for Musical Theatre’s 24th annual Festival of New Musicals.

• A reading for investors and producers took place May 3. A production at Cumberland Playhouse, Crossville, Tenn., is slated for next spring. “That’s kind of how things go to Broadway .... I hope it doesn’t end. I hope it keeps going.”

• Part of the musical video may be viewed at http://cms.bsu.edu/academics/undergraduatestudy/beyondtheclassroom/immersivelearning/featuredprojects/circus-in-winter. More information about Day is available at http://cathyday.com.

Debbie Blank can be contacted at debbie.blank@batesvilleheraldtribune.com or (812) 934-4343 ext. 113.