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Master Craftsman

Writer John Biguenet translates his short story The Vulgar Soul into a stage play to kick off Southern Rep's New Plays Festival.



When I started to write fiction, I was struck by the depiction of religion in contemporary writing," a silver-haired John Biguenet said last week over a cup of coffee at Fair Grinds Coffeehouse. "It's not there. Why not? Characters shop, they listen to car radios, but they never go to church. Yet Americans, by and large, do. It's very curious."

Biguenet's own fiction does ask difficult questions about deep involvement, religious and cultural, erotic and economic. In 25 years of teaching creative writing at Loyola University, he's come to disregard the old chestnut "write what you know."

"The fact is, we know a lot more than we're willing to admit. Like Tom Hogue (the stigmatic main character of his story and play The Vulgar Soul), we know things we don't want to know."

Although he is a literary writer, with a refined prose and deft technique, Biguenet has found a dedicated readership among fans who rarely leave the niche genres of thriller, horror or mystery. His audience is growing. As with similar fabulists Stewart O'Nan, Joyce Carol Oates and Jose Saramago, readers forgive Biguenet for being literary because they are so strongly affected by his imagination and invention, indicated by translations into French and Hebrew and by adaptations of his work into theater and film.

Biguenet's first play, The Vulgar Soul, opens at Southern Repertory Theater this week, just in time for Lent. The play will be directed by Southern Rep's artistic director, Ryan Rilette, and stars Barret O'Brien as Tom Hogue. An actuary without any specified religious belief, Hogue undergoes a kind of metamorphosis as Christ's wounds begin to appear first in his hands, then in his feet, and finally in his side. It's the one in the side that proves hardest to conceal. Hogue is unable to hide the wounds from the world, and he struggles between his disbelief and the intense belief of the faithful. The play, adapted from one of Biguenet's short stories collected in his 2001 work, The Torturer's Apprentice (Ecco/Harper Collins), will headline this year's Southern New Plays Festival.

BRINGING THE STORY TO THE STAGE was difficult. The shift from literary discourse to the vocabularies of the stage -- set design, lighting, costuming, not to mention acting -- required a shift of emphasis for Biguenet. Consider the moment in the story where Hogue begins to accept the nature of his stigmata:

"As he circled the fountain trying to come to grips with what the doctor had confirmed for him, Hogue strained to penetrate the shimmering water down to the mosaic arabesques that lined the floor of the pool. He was startled when a mottled, foot-long fish suddenly shattered the mirror-like surface of the pond as it burst into the sunlight, devouring a mayfly that had lit upon the water. The pool, momentarily animated, quickly regained its tranquility; the ripples of the extraordinary event were diluted by the stillness of the water before they could reach the arched concrete lip that curled back over the edge of the pool. 'Not a trace,' he almost said aloud."

As a director, how do you translate this brittle rippling at the surface of the character's self-awareness?

"It's a challenge," Rilette acknowledges during the first week of run-throughs. Rilette learned about Biguenet from a glowing Esquire review of his first novel, 2003's Oyster (Ecco/Harper Collins). He saw the dramatic possibilities and was looking for fresh material. The rights to Oyster were already purchased, but Biguenet suggested a stage adaptation of The Vulgar Soul, which had already been performed on German public radio.

When they held a staged reading last summer in a developmental workshop at Southern Rep, Rilette recalls, "Everyone was stunned. It's a very smart story, an ensemble piece, in the sense that each character has some kind of stigmata -- in modern medicine, the word means 'symptom,' the way a disease presents itself."

For Rilette, who grew up "a West Bank Catholic," working on the play has meant working for the first time in theater with those important personal experiences. "I'm trying to tell John's specific story, not some interpretation of my own," he cautions, "but it asks some very serious and provoking questions about the need to take care of one another, about the nature of belief."

Turning the story into a stage play meant a deepening of characters, so much so that both Biguenet and Rilette consider The Vulgar Soul an ensemble piece instead of focusing solely on Hogue's predicament. Characters who had been minor creations in the story had to become round, interesting figures with conflicts of their own. Biguenet had to consider the living presence of actors in these roles, as well as other aspects of production. "Anticipating what other information is available to the reader was the hardest part of writing this play," says the O. Henry Award winner. "Fiction is mostly in past tense. A play is alive and happening right in front of you."

For the production, award-winning set designer David Korins has created a meditative and contemplative stage that will be in perpetual transition. Such choices, which are beyond the control of a writer, have amazed Biguenet as the play has developed. "That stage, which never would have occurred to me, is an extremely perceptive reading of the major theme of the story, which is not about someone suddenly showing the stigmata, but is about people in transition."

Likewise, lead actor Barret O'Brien's interpretation of Hogue has Biguenet nodding his head. Also a playwright, O'Brien read the story closely for signs of the character's physical presence and found in the insomnia that accompanies Hogue's stigmata a jittery behavior.

"Of course Hogue's nervous," Biguenet says. "He's out of balance, and the stigmata are perhaps only a symptom of his real problem. Barret's reading shows the joy of collaborating with a group instead of going it alone: To be involved with other artists gives you a real respect for your own art."

BBECOMING A PLAYWRIGHT, Biguenet says, is like building a second story to the house he's already built through the craft of writing. His career is a tribute to his patience as an author, translator, editor and teacher. At an age when many of his contemporaries have written their best work, Biguenet is often acclaimed as a new young writer on the literary scene, which -- although a misunderstanding -- demonstrates the way he's built his career and the freshness of his writing.

"My father was a sailor," he remembers. When John was born, though, his mother made the sailor come home and take up a new career, carpentry. The memory of his workshop doesn't seem far away when Biguenet talks about his own craft as a writer. "Craft is just as important as art. If you're going to practice a craft, be a master of it. A real carpenter, given enough nails and lumber, and enough time, should be able to build a whole house."

He began his writing career as a poet and was named poet-in-residence at the University of Arkansas only a few years after he graduated from Loyola. Soon, however, American poetry's obsession with the lyrical self drove him toward reading and translating poetry, and then fiction, from Europe and Latin America.

"Believe me, there is no less interesting subject to me than myself, and in fiction, the subject is less about the self than the Other. I found in the freedom of other languages the limitations of English, how it excludes serious consideration of subjects outside the lyrical self."

He became involved with the American Literary Translators Association, eventually serving two terms as president and publishing several books of essays about the art of translation. About 15 years ago, he began to concern himself with his own work again, and what came out wasn't poetry but fiction modeled more on the European and Latin American masters he'd been translating than on what his contemporaries were writing in America.

"My fiction is based on the concept of self-deceit," Buigenet says. "Hogue is kidding himself. But why is there self-deceit? Don't we need it? There's a survival game at stake with self-deceit. It's based in language, too, the way that perception is based in the body. Self-deception must serve some purpose. It's probably the source of courage.

"Books and movies are full of easy assurances. The duty of a writer, I think, is to raise questions. Most books and movies that appeal to the larger audience, which expects easy assurance, create propaganda precisely because they don't raise questions about things like the nature of belief, the nature of violence. On the rare occasion that they do -- Schindler's List, Hotel Rwanda -- they take the easily identifiable point of view. The fact is we need to know what it's like not to be the one who survives. I'm trying to present characters who get caught in questions, and the reader or the audience can follow them to their own resolutions. Anything else is propaganda."

A FEW MONTHS BEFORE Rilette found his way to Biguenet's work, New Orleans filmmaker Banks Griffin encountered Biguenet's first novel, Oyster, in the basement of The Strand Bookstore in New York City. He was looking for a Louisiana story to adapt for his first feature film. Set in the oyster beds of Plaquemines Parish in 1957, Oyster provided the dark, troubling atmosphere that Griffin was searching for, through its cruel family rivalries and strong, flawed characters.

"I see Oyster, in the thematic image-making tradition of The Last Picture Show, Like Water for Chocolate and Antonioni's Red Desert," Griffin says by phone from New York, "I feel like I'm opening a door to be able to explore other facets of Louisiana culture.

"What I love about Biguenet is that he's able to combine the elements of Greek tragedy with what's going on in Louisiana, using subtle tones from his influences such as Euripides and William Faulkner and Gabriel Marcia Marquez. He doesn't deal in Southern caricatures or stereotypes. His characters feel like the people I've known in Plaquemines."

Pre-production will begin in the fall with Washington Square Films veteran producer Amy Hobby, whose previous adaptations from literature into film include Secretary and Michael Almareyda's version of Hamlet.

Griffin got to Oyster before Rilette and Southern Rep, but he admits a measure of jealousy: "The Vulgar Soul would make a great movie, too." As for Biguenet, the immediate future obliges him to continue work on his second novel and to entertain ideas about more dramatic writing, original rather than adapted, following his father's observation that it's easier to build a new house than to renovate an old one. With The Vulgar Soul, he simply hopes the audience engages with the questions and doesn't feel that answers have been pressed upon them. "That's presumptuous," he notes. "I want people to leave the theater wanting to get a cup of coffee and talk about what they've seen."

The son of a carpenter, John Biguenet has applied his memories of his father's workshop into his writing: "Craft is just as important as art. If you're going to practice a craft, be a master of it." - DONN YOUNG
  • Donn Young
  • The son of a carpenter, John Biguenet has applied his memories of his father's workshop into his writing: "Craft is just as important as art. If you're going to practice a craft, be a master of it."

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