Q&A with Ellen Bryson

  • March 3, 2011

A conversation with the author of "The Transformation of Batholomew Fortuno," an enchanting love story set in P. T. Barnum's American Museum in 1865 New York City.

Bartholomew Fortuno, the World’s Thinnest Man, believes that his unusual body is a gift. Hired by none other than P.T. Barnum to work at his spectacular American Museum—a modern marvel of macabre displays and live performances by Barnum’s cast of freaks and oddities—Fortuno has reached the pinnacle of his career. But after a decade of solid performance, he finds his contentment flagging. When a carriage pulls up outside the museum in the dead of night, bearing Barnum and a mysterious veiled woman, rumored to be a new performer, Fortuno’s curiosity is piqued. And when Barnum asks Fortuno to follow her and report back on her whereabouts, his world is turned upside-down. Why is Barnum so obsessed with this woman? Who is she, really? And why has she taken such a hold on the hearts of those around her?

Q)  You have a passage where you speak about the flight and swoop of birds, the few that don’t fly with the group discover how difficult freedom can be.  Do you believe this to be true for all of us?

A) I think it’s hard for all of the birds, and it’s possible for the whole group of them to swoop to their death. However, I suspect it’s just the leaders who crash, the rest being smart enough to veer off when they see the broken body ahead. But it’s the leaders and the loaners who play with the dangerous edge and it’s most of them who either crash or break through. Nice choice, huh?

Q) “If we close our eyes to fear, we get to feel better about the dullness of our ordinary lives…”  Are most of our lives ordinary?  Are writers different?

A) I think most lives get dull after a while. We like to preserve what we have, don’t you think? And to preserve, we avoid change and there you are because everything gets stale if you don’t shake it up a bit. Writers’ life may be even duller than most because of how steady the outside needs to be in order to listen to the inside story. But then again, what a marvelous trick writers pull. The story inside is as unordinary as the writer can imagine it and all hell can break loose at the blink of an eye.

Q) It’s your first book of fiction, you’re reviewed in the New York Times, Sunday Book Review on July 30, 2010.  You have at least 51 reviews on Amazon.  Have you read them all?  Are you generally thankful or forever irked by reviews and reviewers?

A) Being published is a lot like getting married. The fairy tale is to find your perfect mate, walk up the aisle. Everything after that is happily ever after, right? Not true, not true. Being published is a huge gift but being reviewed is the price you pay, good or bad, after the honeymoon is over. To be reviewed in the Times for a first novel? Amazing. The review itself? Not so good. (Funny how one lukewarm review cancels out a dozen glowing ones.) But it is the reality of the relationship and, after building up a few calluses, realizing that I am in the hands of the reader, some of whom will like the book, some of whom will not, and asking my husband to filter through the reviews for me, I’m thankful.

Q)  The book has a marvelous premise, is there a story about how you came to write about Bartholomew Fortuno?

A) It started with a dream I had of six sisters in a circus tent, all remarkably beautiful and all sporting full beards. It was their beauty that intrigued me. Or rather, how I could find them beautiful. They sported the unforgivable, yet shown like little suns. How? Why? And who not in a dream state but in real life might see the beauty of a bearded woman as well? Only someone like Fortuno who was as equally and as freakishly gifted. And a story is born.

Q) Do you think the circus is still the “Greatest Show on Earth?”

A) The circus and Barnum’s museum were certainly two of the greatest shows during Barnum’s time. Now, we are so overwhelmed with spectacle and so addicted to change, what ever is greatest simply changes from day to day. Just think how awesome a circus might have been in a time when there were so few of anything, and life was more or less limited to the region where you lived. Just think of the wonder in those days of a pine cone to an Eskimo or a kangaroo to a fisherman in Maine.

Q)  You’ve received the MA from John Hopkins, how has it changed your writing? (Note- it’s an MA not an MFA)

A) I think writing and reading changes how one works more than anything else. But what Hopkins did was surround me with people who lived, breathed and ate writing. Support. Articulation. Practice. Deadlines. What else could a new writer ask for?

Q)  Do you have a favorite passage within the book, will you share it with us?

A) Forgive me, but I don’t, although I am partial to the bird scene you bring up in your first question. Here it is:

The birds, set free, swooped about in fifty-foot drops, careening over our heads and then dashing up again, as if they were trying to make sense of a world without limits. I leapt to my feet with the rest of the audience, bedazzled by the spectacle, hope and fear rising in me in equal measure. Many of the birds settled on balconies or seat backs for a moment or two before taking off into the air again, and my heart soared with them. But an unlucky few seemed to lose their way, and rather than fly with their brethren, they swooped too high or too low and ended up smashing themselves against walls, discovering the hard way exactly what freedom meant.

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