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UI nonfiction director’s book spins into Broadway play

When “The Lifespan of a Fact” opens Thursday for its Broadway previews, John D’Agata of Iowa City will be there.

He’ll attend several more performances as the play moves to its official opening Oct. 18 for a 16-week run at Manhattan’s Studio 54.

Why his interest? He wrote the book that turned into the play by a team of three playwrights, and starring three stage and screen heavy-hitters: Daniel Radcliffe, Bobby Cannavale and Cherry Jones.

Radcliffe was cinema’s “Harry Potter” and has received critical praise for several star turns on Broadway, including a revival of “Equus” in 2008. Cannavale won an Emmy for television’s “Boardwalk Empire” and played Will’s partner in “Will and Grace.” Jones won Tonys for her stage roles in “The Heiress” and “Doubt,” and picked up a supporting actress Emmy for TV’s “24.”

The play focuses on the give and take between D’Agata (Cannavale) and eager young fact-checker Jim Fingal (Radcliffe) over blurring the lines between fact and fiction in a “groundbreaking” article for a major magazine.

That dichotomy grows even more intriguing since in real life, D’Agata has been the director of the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program since 2013.

Hailing from Boston and Cape Cod, he earned an MFA from the UI’s nonfiction program in 1998, as well as an MFA in poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop the same year, and began teaching at the UI in 2005.

Q: Is the book fiction or nonfiction?

A: That question is the very point of the book. It’s not 100 percent nonfiction, but neither is it fiction. And that’s exactly what the book is trying to explore — whether this genre, like other genres and other forms of art, has the right to occupy a space that isn’t at the extreme end of a spectrum of either fact or fiction. Does it have the right to an “in-betweenness,” which is to say, does it have the right to art?

Q: What was the genesis of “The Lifespan of a Fact”?

A: While Jim and I were fact-checking one of my essays for The Believer magazine back in 2003, we kept bumping into discrepancies in many of the sources that we were relying on for information. Those discrepancies — finding one set of facts from one “authority” and an different set of facts from another — are what actually inspired my essay. On its surface it’s an essay about suicide in Las Vegas, but at its core I’ve always thought of it as an essay about uncertainty, and how not all kinds of information — nor all kinds of nonfiction — are as reliable as we want to believe they are. So Jim and I were having a really interesting discussion about what counts as a fact and what counts as fiction in a work of literature. And we thought that these nerdy discussions might make an interesting book. But our correspondence was largely over email, and it was messy, because our arguments were scattered, patchy and not chronological at all. So simply reprinting our correspondence as a book would not have worked. It would have been a mess at best and illegible at worst. So in developing the book we consolidated and expanded our points, and we naturally polarized to try to help make those points clearer, more dramatic, and also just more fun to read.

Q: How much of it is autobiographical?

A: The book represents a version of ourselves as well as a version of our discussions — just like this new play represents a version of the version that appears in the book. I met the cast two weeks ago, and we were talking about the similarities between writers and actors. They spend their careers wearing masks, and so do writers — even nonfiction writers. There is a long tradition of writing behind the guise of a persona in the literary essay. These personas aren’t fictions, but neither are they nonfiction. They are versions of ourselves; they’re masks.

Q: How does a book leap from page to stage?

A: I was giving a talk about the book at a store in Manhattan and afterward a man came up to me and said he was a Hollywood producer who had recently started working on Broadway and thought that the book would make a great play. And to be honest, I was so numb at that point to the craziness that the book had attracted that I just ignored him. I think I said something like “Oh, that’s interesting.” And then moved on. But the next day he tracked down my agent, made his pitch, and I think within a month we had a contract. In fact, that producer and I became good friends. His name was Norman Twain, and he’d actually had a very successful career in Hollywood making socially conscious movies that still somehow managed to make money. I think his biggest hit was “Lean on Me” with Morgan Freeman. Unfortunately, Norm passed away two years ago this fall, so this production is a great tribute to him, because six years ago, amid all the nutty hysteria that the book attracted, he managed to see something in it that no one else did. He saw a story about how very difficult the truth can be.

Q: Why do you think this material/subject matter resonates from reader to the upper echelon of theater?

A: It’s embarrassingly prescient for today. I say “embarrassingly” because I think most of us would prefer not to be living through this period in American history, and because I would prefer not to be represented by a character who sometimes sounds like he’s quoting a tweet from the Oval Office about “fake news.” But the play really isn’t about politics. The play is concerned with facts, but facts as they have to do with literature. The book never argues that journalism should be allowed to take liberties with facts. Instead, the book explicitly states just the opposite: that there’s a big difference between journalism and literary essays, and that it’s in literature that we ought to allow writers some leeway in how they craft their stories. At its dorkiest heart, the book and the play are both about the nature of genre.

Q: The show boasts Broadway’s first all-female design team. How exciting/significant is that?

A: It’s significant — but should it be? It’s kind of embarrassing that in 2018 this is considered a monumental “first.” Shouldn’t it have happened years ago?

Q: What do you hope readers and viewers take away from experiencing your story?

A: Black-and-white absolutes are dangerous things. The certainty that they pretend to give us can make us feel comfortable and self-righteous, but that comfort always comes at someone else’s expense. My hope is that the book and the play both try to challenge the appeal of those kinds of absolutes.




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