I've been in the entertainment industry for over 20 years and with his newest book Dizzy, author Arthur Wooten has dropped his readers directly in the middle of that world and turned them around and around with delightful insider stories. Only this book goes beyond the backdrop of New York City and the Broadway community to share a very personal medical story of the author. I've known Wooten for over a year now and yet learned so much more by reading this book. Dizzy is the story of Angie Styles, a beloved Broadway singer and dancer who, at the height of her career, is struck down by a mysterious disease and is forced to reevaluate her life and the people in it as she struggles to survive. The book launched at the top of the Amazon Bestseller list for theater-related books and the author spoke to me about this very unique story.
Arthur, you use your background as an actor to share some of these theater stories. Did you know you always wanted to be a performer?
Arthur Wooten: I'm not quite sure I knew I wanted to be a performer -- I just performed! The first show I remember doing I must have been about eight years old, and it was Rumpelstiltskin. Staged in my garage, I produced, directed and acted in it demanding that everyone involved, including myself, perform the show on roller skates. I guess I was thinking outside of the box even then. Growing up in Andover, Mass., we had a fantastic theatre department in school, and then I majored in theatre and communications at UMass at Amherst and did many shows there. Once moving to New York City, I was cast in numerous shows and dinner theatre jobs, and then discovered a love for writing -- first for a TV pilot, A New Leash on Life -- about an NYC dog-walker -- optioned by Dick Cavett of all people.
You have such a knack for translating some wonderful backstage stories into your novel. Did you have to change names to protect the innocent?
I hope I did. Minor changes. Some people will clearly pick up on whom I'm really dishing about. But some things like the schools and theatres -- like HB Studios, the Off-Broadway Theatre or Production-Center Studios are real places. Like in my novel On Picking Fruit and its sequel Fruit Cocktail, my lawyer suggested I change the names and the dates I "fictionally" wrote about. Actually, I wanted to keep their real names in and convict the guilty. Just kidding. Kinda.
Why did you choose to fictionalize this book instead of creating it as a real memoir about yourself?
Simple answer -- my life is too boring. I say that half-seriously. I love my life and some exciting things have happened, but when I was diagnosed with the same disease that Angie, our lead character has, I had a writing career that I could continue doing. Granted, I have to take breaks from the computer because it makes my symptoms pretty scary but I didn't have to give it up. In the book, the lead character is an actress, singer and dancer. You can't do that when you have symptoms as extreme as mine. I think it makes for a much more exciting if not heartbreaking story. Angie has to completely reinvent herself.
So this mysterious disease in the book is something that you actually deal with it, something very few people know about. Tell us about it.
It's called bilateral vestibulopathy with oscillopsia. I know, it's a mouthful. Basically, in 2005, a virus went to my brain without me feeling a thing and it destroyed the workings of both of my inner ears. One of the jobs the inner ear does is to relay information to your brain, letting it know where you are in space. Well, I've lost that ability. I have no sense of balance. Ironic for a former dancer and gymnast. Every step I take in life, actually every movement of my head, feels like I'm bouncing on a trampoline. And it never goes away. On bad days it feels like I'm dropping in an elevator or walking through life on a water-bed. That's the vestibular part.
The oscillopsia is my brain forcing my eyes to look onto objects to get a reading as to where I am in the world. It needs to know whether I'm upright or upside down or sideways. Whether I'm turning, standing up or sitting down, it has to get a reading or I just fall over. My brain has no idea where I am. And it's stubborn. It makes my eyes stick on objects and then they will jump to another very quickly. So I see life through an erratic handheld camera. Think bad indie film. Speaking of films and TV, while watching movies or shows, my brain thinks I'm in them. Action pictures are real tough for me and afterwards it's almost impossible to walk for a while. But I have exercises I do to teach my brain to stop locking my eyes onto things. It's exhausting and sometimes painful, but my eyes are tracking smoother. But stress, adrenaline and change in barometric pressure wreak havoc with my symptoms. Even word retrieval can be affected. Not a good thing for a writer.
So fascinating to hear about something that we simply do not know exists. Did you think in terms of the awareness you would bring to Vestibular Disorders when writing the book or was it more a cathartic experience?
Both. Writing the book was extremely cathartic. So much so, that I put off writing it for several years. Every time I thought about it, I'd breakdown into an emotional puddle. The process of getting Dizzy out of me was so emotional; it made my symptoms incredibly severe. There is a very dramatic scene, what we would call the denouement (that I don't want to spoil) but once I wrote that chapter, I felt better. It was like the calm after the storm. Once the book was done, I clearly realized that this was an opportunity to come out of the vestibular closet. Many people had no idea I was dealing with this syndrome, but Dizzy now offers me a platform to inform, educate and help others suffering from this disease, help them find support and let them know they are not alone out there.
Did this have anything to do with you stopping your performance career and switching gears to that of a writer?
No, not at all. As I mentioned earlier, I segued into writing before the vestibular disease appeared. But honestly, the book signings I do are very much my performance pieces. And in many ways I am acting again, every day of my life. I try to blend in as well as possible so that people don't notice my symptoms. A constant sensation is that internally I feel drunk. And if I'm not careful, I'll look that way too. One day not too long ago I laughed and said to myself, "Just go with the drunkenness. Enjoy it. Hell, there's no hangover!" In truth, my life now is the biggest acting job I've ever had.
I honestly think this book covers it all from entertainment to medical and will be loved by many. Arthur, thank you for writing such a powerful story and being so honest about your own life...even if you had to 'fictionalize' it a bit to get the story out there. Dizzy is available at all online book markets and more information can be found at www.arthurwooten.com