An Interview with Erin Celello, Author of Learning to Stay
Photo Credit: Erin Celello
Learning to Stay opens March 23 at Forward Theater in Madison. The play, the first commissioned work by the theater company, was adapted by local playwright Jim DeVita from Celello's novel of the same name. Celello shared with us via email where her inspiration came from and her perspective on the adaptation process.
F: Where did your inspiration for the book LEARNING TO STAY come from?
C: I’ve always been intrigued by relationships and marriage – why some succeed, or simply survive, and why some unravel – and what the balance is between staying true to oneself and to the person with whom you once exchanged vows, because so often, over the course of a marriage, people change. And not all couples are adaptable as others in the face of that kind of flux. This was a topic, a question, that was addressed with great humor and insight in a memoir I read years ago called Where Is the Mango Princess by Cathy Crimmins, and I’ve been looking for a way to explore it through fiction ever since.
A few additional things happened after my reading of that memoir that contributed to LEARNING TO STAY.
First, I used to work for Governor Jim Doyle’s press office. Part of my job was to go “on the road” with him to events, and he made sure to never miss a military funeral. As a result, I was able to witness firsthand a side of and cost to the wars we were fighting that most civilians never do. Then the media began reporting on Traumatic Brain Injury and Post Traumatic Stress as the signature injuries of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I realized that even if they hadn’t made the “ultimate” sacrifice, there were so many returning soldiers for whom life would never be the same again.
And finally, about four years ago, my husband was hospitalized with H1N1. He was in a coma for a month and his organs began shutting down. Doctors gave a guarded, if not grim, prognosis for his recovery. There were questions surrounding what his mental and physical abilities would be after – if – he emerged from the coma, and how long it would take him to return to a full-time job, if he was ever able to do so. We hadn’t been married a year at that point, and during those long days, weeks, and months, I asked myself a lot of the same questions Elise does in the book. Like a puzzle, eventually all the pieces fell into place.
F: What has it been like to work with Jim on this adaptation?
C: Jim is incredible. I have long admired his work as a performer at APT, and then read A Winsome Murder, which I loved. He is an unbelievably, multi-faceted creative talent. When Jen Gray at Forward first contacted me about this project, I was thrilled that my book was going to find an even wider audience. I never expected to have any involvement or say in the production. I've been both amazed and thankful that Jim and Jen both have involved me at every turn. It's been a fun collaboration, and I've learned so much about storytelling, and how a story can change and grow depending on the medium it's told in. I love what Jim has done to the story -- he's pared it down to its essential elements while staying completely true to the integrity of the original story I laid out in the novel. I joked with him a few weeks ago that I'd love for him to take everything I write from here on out and just improve on it, because that's what I feel he's done here.
F: What has been your favorite part of the process? On the reverse, have their been any challenges with seeing it adapted for the stage as the book’s author?
C: I've loved the peek behind the curtain at seeing all of the elements that go into a theater production. I've long loved theater, but I enjoyed it as a patron, as a consumer of the artform, not as a student of it. It's fascinating to me how all of the components of theater -- the story, the cast, the set -- work together to create this immersive experience. I also have to say that the staged reading last fall was a wild experience. As an author, I'm used to working alone, in isolation. But through this process, I've been able to watch others' reactions to the story in real time. That's something that few authors ever get to experience. I feel so lucky.
F: If you can share, what are you working on right now or what will you be working on next?
C: I always have a few things going at any given time. I have a completed, polished manuscript right now that I'm struggling to know what to do with, because it deals with politics and to be honest, there's nothing that a fiction writer can come up that even holds a candle to real-life events at the moment. And I just hit 30,000 words on another novel yesterday that deals with that age-old question of if you can ever really go home again, so I'm hoping to have that completed early this summer sometime. I also recently started a program with my partner, Wisconsin author Ann Garvin helping aspiring writers take their ideas and manuscripts from conception to publication, so I'm busy reading a ton of our students' manuscripts, which I must say are amazing, and that's a huge thrill, too.
Forward Theater's Learning to Stay runs March 23-April 9 at The Playhouse in Madison. For tickets, please visit forwardtheater.com.
Want to learn more about Learning to Stay’s playwright? Then check out this interview with Jim DeVita.