Cathy Day is the newest member of Ball State’s Creative Writing faculty in the Department of English. She is the author of two books. Her most recent work is Comeback Season: How I Learned to Play the Game of Love (Free Press, 2008), part memoir about life as a single woman and part sports story about the Indianapolis Colts Super Bowl season. Her first book was The Circus in Winter (Harcourt, 2004), a fictional history of her hometown. I had the opportunity to sit down with Professor Day and talk with about what kind of research goes into her writing, the influence of her hometown on her craft, and writing in different genres.
Since environment seems to be a great inspiration for you, can you tell us about your hometown—Peru, Indiana?
My town was winter quarters for a circus at the turn of the century. There was a guy in the town named Ben Wallace who was a livery stable owner and he got this notion to buy a circus. When the circus was sold, the people who traveled with the circus ended up settling in Peru because it was the closest thing they knew to a home. Some fairly famous circus folk that settled there ended up training their kids how to be performers, and so these kids put on a circus.
When I went to college, people would ask me where I was from and I’d tell them the story of Peru and they’d say, “Wow! That’s really interesting.” The thing about being from a town is you think it’s boring because it’s always around you. That’s been a big thing for my writing and teaching: trying to encourage people to look at the places they’re from for their material. It’s usually all there.
How did you research The Circus in Winter?
I spent the first five or six years reading circus history books. I would be inspired by a photograph or a factoid, and let the story go from there. I think fiction writers research in a very different way than nonfiction writers in that I didn’t have to feel bound by the facts. I would flip through a book or look through a microfilm for something that would catch my interest and go from there. There’s this thing a friend of mine calls “the atrophy of writing” where if you’re looking, as I did, at this massive body of information you kind of pick through it and don’t know what’s going to be interesting. You just have to trust that the stuff that matters to you will rise to the top and the rest of it will fall away. It’s really overwhelming to look at all that stuff and think, how am I going to get all that in there? And the answer is you don’t.
CiW is being adapted as a musical by the Ball State University Department of Theatre & Dance, slated to be performed as part of their 2011-2012 season. What’s it like as an author to have your work adapted into another medium?
It’s surreal. To actually have a story that’s in your head tangible is awesome, but it’s also very weird. It’s really moving that they’ve created songs, a whole different medium to convey the themes of my book. One thing I was incredibly impressed by was that those songs were very faithful to what I was trying to say in the book. I call them the “truths of my heart,” coming out of someone’s mouth.
You also have a memoir out, Comeback Season: How I Learned to Play the Game of Love. Can you talk about your experiences writing memoir rather than fiction?
The thing I loved about writing Comeback Season was that it helped me learn to write a novel. To a certain point when you’re writing nonfiction, the plot’s already there, you just have to pick what parts to use. It’s a bit like being a documentary filmmaker and you shoot a ton of footage and then you have to go to the editing booth and figure out what to cut.
Is there anything you’d like to say to your new students at Ball State?
Ever since Circus in Winter came out I’ve been trying to come back here as often as I can to kind of give back to Indiana. When I was young, I didn’t know how to become a writer. I didn’t know how to be an artist or to live the life that I wanted because there was absolutely no one in my hometown who lived the way I wanted to live. I left for twenty years and now I want to be that person I would have loved to meet when I was a kid, to be that person to say, “That’s interesting. You should write about it.”