Nebraska Center for Writers

Chimney Rock What the Critics Say
About Patti Frazee


Copyright © 2006
by Patti Frazee
Alyson Books

Cirkus began as a writing exercise in a playwriting class taught by Judith Katz (Running Fiercly Toward a High Thin Sound and The Escape Artist) at Hamline University. In the assignment, students were to write a series of monologues between two characters who shared an experience but had different viewpoints about it. Judith encouraged the students to let their imaginations go wild, to think outside the box. Frazee decided to write a series of monologues where conjoined twins shared a dream. But what dream? "As I slept that night, I dreamt that one twin was telling me a dream (which is now in Cirkus) and I saw the dream unfold in my own dreams. I woke up and wrote Atasha's dream. Then I had to write Anna's opposing view. To change from one sister's voice to another, I gave Anna a stutter. While Atasha dreamt that the ringmaster (who later became the character of Jakub) was raping and abusing them, Anna dreamt that he was their lover and romanticized their experience." The scene was very powerful and Katz encouraged Frazee to continue working with it. She worked on the project in the form of a play for about a year.
It was in Mary Rockcastle's Advanced Fiction class at Hamline that Frazee tried it out as a novel, writing the first chapter. In describing the switch from writing the story as a stage play into writing it as a novel, Frazee stated: "Suddenly, the twins' world opened up. I was no longer confined to a bare-essentials set and costumes. I wasn't confined to the physical dimensions of the characters. Where I envisioned a stage of black costumes and boxes, the novel broke open with color and imagery." The character of Shanghai was peripheral in the stage version, but became the main character in the novel. Mariana was created as a way for Frazee to watch the twins and Shanghai from the outside. But Mariana, too, quickly became part of the plot.
The Czech influence came into the novel in two ways. First, Frazee strongly felt that the characters were European and she had to choose a country from which they came. Because Frazee's mother is full Czech (although born in the US) and because Frazee had a Czech coworker at the time, Frazee chose the Czech Republic as her characters' homeland.
Frazee spent two years researching circus history, Czech culture and history, dwarfism, conjoined twins, and Romani (gypsy) culture. When she sat down to the task of writing the story, she worked on bringing history and character to life by grounding the reader in detail while tinkering with magical realism and fairy tales. — from the publisher

For everyone who has ever dreamed about juggling fire, spinning in space, or falling in love with the girl on the flying trapeze. — Judith Katz, author of The Escape Artist and Running Fiercely Toward a High Thin Sound

The "freaks" of Cirkus are fully realized, poignantly drawn fictional characters. Conjoined twins Atasha and Anna, in particular, are so intimately portrayed that Frazee herself strikes me as a conjurer, a channeler of separate human experience. — Alison McGhee, Author of Rainlight, Shadow Baby, and Was it Beautiful?

Cirkus is a feast of words and dreams, and a rare salve of compassion. Here we meet characters as different from ourselves as exotic spices only to discover that we share the same greedy, generous, searching heart. — Susan Power, author of Grass Dancer

Frazee's characters, far from their homelands and often sharply different from the people for whom they perform, are gorgeously portrayed in what must be one of the greatest novels of circus life. — WSUI-FM

Cirkus a whee of a ride. You have your fortuneteller, your fire-breathing dwarf, and the conjoined twins with two heads, two arms and three legs ... An unusual story with a celebration of the human experience. — Minnesota Women's Press

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