Popular Gay Author Morphs into Female Broadway Legend in His New Fictional Memoir
When I began my journey to author-hood, one of the first and most generous writers with whom I connected was the prolific and witty Arthur Wooten. Offering advice and willing to share tales of his own publishing adventures, Wooten quickly became a favorite. While his books range from the très gay On Picking Fruit and its sequel, Fruit Cocktail, to family dramedies, including Birthday Pie andLeftovers, to even children’s books, such as Wise Bear William, it’s safe to say that his latest novel, Dizzy, will surprise even his most ardent fans. A “fictional memoir,” Dizzy transplants Wooten’s own battle with an unusual disease onto his fictitious heroine, Broadway star Angie Styles, with all of the pluck and wit his readers have come to expect.
I recently caught up with Wooten, fresh off having two of his titles land on the acclaimed Band of Thebes’ Best LGBT Books of 2012 list, and we chatted about his body of work, the accolades he’s received, and his new “fictional memoir,” Dizzy.
Arthur, thanks so much for taking the time to meet!
It’s always a pleasure, Kergan.
Given that your new book is a “fictional memoir,” the obvious first question is, what do you and your lead character have in common?
Angie Styles, my lead character in Dizzy, and I have so much in common. We both have bilateral vestibular disease with oscillopsia. That means that we have no sense of balance and that our brain’s ability to detect where we are in space is compromised. Unless my brain can lock my eyes onto something, it has no idea where I am. In darkness, I don’t know if I’m upright or upside down. And every step I take is like bouncing on a trampoline–It never goes away.
That sounds so challenging…
And it really messes up your vision, too! Another thing I have in common with the character is that for fifteen years I was in show business: acting, singing and dancing. We both live on the Upper West Side in Manhattan, have been forced to reinvent ourselves, and we’ve had to retrain our brains, literally, in order to keep functioning in the world.
Prior to this, you’d written several novels focusing on gay men, so I’m assuming there are elements of yourself in those characters as well.
There’s a bit of me in all my books. When I wrote On Picking Fruit and its sequel, Fruit Cocktail, I myself was on a quest to find the love of my life. Birthday Pie was a love letter to my family–although I’m not sure that they all saw it in that light–and I clearly related to the character of Lex, the New York City writer. Leftovers is an homage to the 1950s and Tupperware, and so much of what that lead character of Vivian goes through is similar to my life. She had to reinvent herself and find the courage to move on and grow.
What about in your children’s book, Wise Bear William?
All of those characters are aspects of me. I even look like Bean Bag Bunny, as beautifully illustrated by Bud Santora! That is a story of love and friendship, but more importantly hope. Hope when all else seems to be lost. So, in short, all of these stories are elements of my story.
Why not write a traditional memoir? What prompted this unique approach?
I thought of telling Dizzy as my autobiography, but my life isn’t that exciting. Creating Angie, who is a huge Broadway star–a triple threat who can sing, dance, and act–and having her develop this devastating disease made the stakes that much higher. As a writer, even with this disease, I can continue my work. Granted, writing makes my symptoms much worse, but I can take breaks and rest. But when an actor who sings and dances loses all sense of balance, their career is over. And in Angie’s case, it was over in a matter of weeks. Actually, the symptoms, diagnoses, treatments, and timeline of Angie’s events are mine as well. It’s all true and accurate.
If you were casting the role of Angie Styles, which actress would be the most ideal fit?
That’s a tough question. Angie is a rare breed nowadays. She’s more like the huge Broadway icons such as Chita Rivera, Gwen Verdon and Liza Minnelli, who could do it all–which doesn’t mean that we don’t have fabulously talented actresses on Broadway today. If this were 1980, I’d cast Donna McKechnie. Sutton Foster would be great, but Angie is forty, so she’s a bit young unless we brought her age down. On the screen, Sarah Jessica Parker would be an interesting choice, as would Anne Hathaway.
While I’ve just started reading Dizzy, I’m really curious about some of these backstage tales. Out of all of the celebrities you’ve met, are there any who really surprised you, for better or worse?
Of the stars I’ve worked with, Farley Granger was by far the most childish. I could write a book about that! Sally Ann Howes was the most stoic and distant. Phylicia Rashād is the most irreverent, with a wicked sense of humor, and Debbie Allen is the sweetest. All of these really surprised me.
Battling illness is not usually something authors share, but you’ve been upfront about both your HIV status and this new revelation. Why do you feel compelled to incorporate such elements into your work?
The simple answer is that the most relatable writing is truthful writing; that which you know about and what you’ve experienced. Granted, I could write about a murderer and not be one, but I’m driven to share stories about what moves me, what I’m passionate about, and what I understand. With Dizzy I wanted to come out of the vestibular closet and reach out to others suffering from the same disease, to let them know they’re not alone and that are terrific support groups out there for us. One of them is the Vestibular Disorders Association. I’m actually so grateful that they have endorsed Dizzy and also offered a quote for the book. That meant a lot to me.
You’ve been compared to such serio-comic authors as David Sedaris and Armistead Maupin, which are heavy shoes to fill. Do you ever feel any pressure, having to “measure up”?
I’m honored to be in their literary presence, but no. My goal and focus is to write honestly with heart, humor, and humanity. The 4-H Club!
This has been an amazing year for you, career-wise, given these nods on the Band of Thebes’ Best LGBT Books list. What are some of the best books you’ve read in 2012?
I loved Clay Littlewood’s Goodbye To Soho, Drake Braxton’s Missing, and I discovered a book written back in 1950 by Paul Gallico, Abandoned. It’s brilliant, moving, heartbreaking, and about cats! I’d love to see that made into a film.
For some writers, it’s about awards and mentions, both of which you’ve had, and others are just happy to share a story. What does success as a writer look like to you? How will you know when you’ve reached that goal?
When I reach a million books sold? Just kidding–kind of. (laughing) Dizzy is my seventh book and the most personal. Writing it was cathartic, to say the least, and it took me seven years to get up enough courage to do it… That alone makes me feel successful.