Q&A: UI English professor reflects on seeing his book adapted to Broadway

Based on his experience fact-checking an essay, John D’Agata’s book, The Lifespan of a Fact, has recently been adapted into a Broadway play. Now that he’s seen the previews of the show, D’Agata gives his insight on its adaptation.

Sarah Stortz, Arts Reporter

University of Iowa English Professor John D’Agata recently returned from a trip to New York City in which he saw a preview of the Broadway play “The Lifespan of a Fact,” based on his book of the same name. The Daily Iowan discussed with D’Agata the story of writing the book and his experience watching his work on the big stage.

DI: When you were initially writing “The Lifespan of a Fact,” did you think it had any potential to be adapted into another medium?

D’Agata: The book is based on my experience of fact-checking an essay I wrote for The Believer magazine. While we were fact-checking, my collaborator and I had a really interesting, mostly civil, discussion about this stuff, and we felt that it had the potential to be a fascinating book about the controversial and very contentious topic of facts in nonfiction.

But as the book progressed, it became clear to us that our exchanges needed to be more performative, because in order to make the book readable, we needed to consolidate and expand certain points, and in order to make the book clearer, more dramatic, and more fun to read, we also had to assume more polarized positions. So while the book is based on our real experience of fact-checking, it’s a version of that experience, a dramatized version. What we didn’t know, in other words, is that we were writing the first draft of what would become this play.

DI: Could you describe how you reacted when the late Norman Twain first approached you about developing the book into a play?

D’Agata: I was giving a talk about the book at a store in Manhattan, and afterwards, Norman came up to me and introduced himself as a Hollywood film producer who had recently started working on Broadway. He said he thought that the book would make a great play, but to be honest, I was so numb at that point to the craziness that the book was attracting that I just ignored him. I think I said something like “Oh, that’s interesting,” and then moved on.

But the next day, Norman tracked down my agent, made his pitch, and I think within a month we signed a contract to develop the book as a play. I’m so happy he approached me that day in the store, because not only am I really happy with the play, but Norman and I ended up becoming good friends. We periodically met when I was in New York to talk about old films and obscure stage productions, and occasionally he’d share enticing news about the play and his own fantasies about who might be cast as whom. He was fun and energetic and a deeply generous man. Unfortunately, he 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, Norman managed to see something in it that no one else did. He saw a story about how very difficult the truth can be.

DI: Were you familiar with the three actors — Daniel Radcliffe, Bobby Cannavale, and Cherry Jones — before the book became a play? If so, what were your thoughts on their acting style or previous work?

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D’Agata: I knew the work of all of the actors very well because I’m a huge fan of all of them. When the producers started casting the play, therefore, it was a thrill to gradually get the news that they had each signed on to the project. They each have unique styles, both as dramatic and comedic actors, and I think that’s the key to the play’s success. The play that starts out very funny, but then it takes some very serious and very tender turns, and watching these three actors make that work on stage is a dream. It’s like watching the Olympics every night because they’re each at the peaks of their craft. I think they’re a brilliant team.

DI: How well did you think they portrayed the characters? Do you think Cannavale was a fitting choice to play the character based on you?

The book represents versions of me and my collaborator, just as it represents a version of our real discussion. And the play does the same. So I don’t think of the character of “John” in the play as a representation of me any more than I consider the “John” that’s in the book to represent me. I was talking to Bobby about this over dinner a couple weeks ago, and we were having fun discussing 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.

DI: When you spoke with DITV, you mentioned that you wanted the playwrights to take artistic liberties while developing the characters. Did the writers also alter any other aspect, such as setting or conflict? If so, do you think it strengthened the play?

D’Agata: I told the playwrights to take any liberties they needed to take in order to make the story work for the stage. And they took that license and ran with it. There are many differences between the play, the book, and my life, and I think that’s great. That’s the whole point of the book. So while I don’t see my nonfictional self in the “John” who appears in the play, I do see the spirit of the book. And that’s what matters.