James Magruder: playwright's new novel, 'Vamp Until Ready'

  • by Gregg Shapiro
  • Tuesday January 11, 2022
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author-playwright James Magruder
author-playwright James Magruder

James Magruder is a funny guy. His wonderfully wicked sense of humor comes through in his plays (most recently, the 2018 Broadway musical Head Over Heels), as well as his fiction, including his 2009 Lambda Literary Award finalist debut novel Sugarless.

His new novel, Vamp Until Ready (Rattling Good Yarns Press, 2021), spans 1980-1992, isn't all fun and games. In fact, it has its share of heartache and heartbreak. It also contains some incredible literary sexual tension (Cary and Jon's budding romance) and a marvelous tribute to none other than Shirley Booth. James, who also teaches at Swarthmore College, was kind enough to make time for an interview in advance of the publication of Vamp Until Ready.

Gregg Shapiro: Early in your new novel Vamp Until Ready, there is a reference to a Lily Tomlin routine involving her characters Lud and Marie, and Tomlin is referred to again near the conclusion of the novel. What can you tell the readers about Lily Tomlin and her influence on you?

James Magruder: Somehow, I got a hold of Lily's On Stage album when I was a junior in high school. Like many other gay boys, I wore it out until I had memorized it. "Please stop talking about that cake!!", from the "Lud & Marie Meet Dracula's Daughter" routine is as much a '70s comedy flashpoint as Cheech & Chong's "My name is Sister Mary Elephant" or the Coneheads' "We come from Remulak, a small town in France." Tomlin's earlier album, Modern Scream, was equally formative/corrupting. My husband and I saw her once in a taqueria in Austin. She moved past our table, knew we had recognized her, and blew Steve a kiss.

For the most part, Vamp Until Ready is set in Ithaca, New York. Why did you choose this setting?

I went to college at Cornell and spent three summers doing stock at the Hangar Theatre. It's a town I've loved for 40 years.

The way you write about it, Ithaca is a character unto itself. Was it your intention to make the city as much a character as the others that populate the novel?

Absolutely. Tompkins County is the blue island in all-red upstate New York, like Austin is for Texas. It's one of the great college towns, a very special place for those who know it.

The other significant geographical location in the book is Africa. As someone who has traveled there, was this an opportunity to share your knowledge and experience?

More autobiography, I'm afraid. My husband, who was monitoring HIV research studies for Johns Hopkins, and I lived in Kampala, Uganda for ten months in 2013-14, before Dictator/President Museveni passed a "kill the gays" bill. We were airlifted out with our cats by Johns Hopkins. (The character) Judy Gabelson's experience in Part Three of Vamp was a way for me to capture the things I liked about Uganda and Ugandans before things went downhill.

There's a line near the end of the book describing the life of Cary Dunkler — one of the main characters — prior to an important turning point as "vamping until ready," the phrase from which the book gets its title.

The book needed a theater term for a title. For the longest time, it was called Save Yourself, which is what you do onstage if everything is fucking up. Lesbian comedian Cameron Esposito brought out a memoir with that title only last year, and that felt too close in time. "Vamping until ready" is what the orchestra does until the singer is ready to begin the song. What the major characters experience in the novel by making theater prepares them to begin life, or begin again. They've been vamping, but now they're ready.

The Cary Dunkler parts that bracket the novel are written in first person, while the other three parts — Kristy Schroyer & Isa Vass, Judy Gabelson, and Mark Shinner — are in the third person. What was involved in the decision to utilize these devices?

A gay, first-person male narrator is my sweet spot, so Cary was easy to write. Kristy, Isa, and Judy were and are a departure for me. They are functioning heterosexual women, and I didn't feel it would be honest for me (at least not yet) to write them in the first person. Ditto Mark Shinner, the first straight man with whom I spend meaningful time in my fiction.

Vamp Until Ready is divided into five parts, with each section having a specific time setting. It isn't an AIDS novel per se, but were these years chosen as a way to allow you to write about AIDS?

I've written so much about AIDS, and my own positive status, in Let Me See It and Love Slaves of Helen Hadley Hall, that I backed away from it in Vamp. But it cannot, and should not, go missing in a novel about theater people in the 1980s.

At a time when the future of Roe v. Wade is increasingly uncertain, Vamp Until Ready shines a light on adoption, with the characters Cary and David having been adopted by the same family in what is referred to as "two for one orphan deal."

Theater is a place where you form successive families that last as long as the show does. Sometimes you can make friends for life from members of a theater family. I worked at a big regional theatre for 15 years and always thought of it as an orphanage, peopled by birth family casualties who are looking for adoptive parents and siblings for a safe amount of time.

Theater plays a large role, pardon the pun, in the novel. There's a wonderful description of the emotions stirred up during closing night of a show. As a playwright and someone who knows how a closing night feels, was it easy or difficult to put this experience into words?

Closing night for a playwright is very different than closing night for a chorus boy. I've been both. Rather than go on at length about how bizarre the experience is, it was easier for me to have Cary directly address the reader by saying, 'I figure some of you have been in plays, and so know how a closing night feels.' Their common knowledge keeps Cary from examining his own sad feelings about it. He transfers them to mention that the Damn Yankees diva, Suzy Skurnik, was as red and leaky as a fire hydrant at the curtain call.

The musical Head Over Heels, for which you adapted the book, features the music of the Go-Go's who are being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in October 2021. What do you think about the band finally receiving such an honor?

Way, way overdue for the first successful (all-female) rock band that wrote and performed all of its own music.

Regional productions of Head Over Heels are being mounted in a variety of cities. What does it mean to you to see the show being revived in post-Broadway runs?

Since the show closed in January 2019, I have seen productions in Atlanta, Chicago, and Sarasota. I love that our big-hearted musical for mean times has proven so popular.

One of the regional productions features Lea DeLaria as King Basilius and RuPaul's Drag Race alum Alaska 5000 as Queen Gynecia. What do you think of that casting?

The co-directors called me about Alaska, whose work I didn't know. I heartily approved the choice when I found out that they weren't going to cast the non-cis Oracle part, originated by Peppermint, as female-presenting. You can't have Alaska and a Peppermint-type actor in the same show, unless you're doing Schiller's Mary Stuart. I said that since they were messing even further with the gender spectrum than we had on Broadway, they could keep going. Hence Lea DeLaria, whose cross-gender casting as the King, was a lovely shock a few days ago.

Have you started working on or thinking about your next theater or book project?

The hardest thing I'll ever do, a non-fiction chronicle about the first fifty years of Yale Repertory Theatre, has currently, after five years of research and interviews, entered the physical production phase with Yale University Press. That should come out a year from now. I'm writing short stories after a long hiatus and have been writing the books for two new musicals that I can't talk about for the time being. Stay tuned.


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