By Emily Williams
Nowadays he finds himself teaching at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, but best-selling author Daniel Wallace said he finds the most literary inspiration in his hometown of Birmingham – by way of Mountain Brook and Homewood.
It is a city that he says is built upon myth.
“I don’t know why everyone in Birmingham is not interested in myth when they have this huge Vulcan towering over them every day,” Wallace said. “Then you go over to Vestavia and you have the Temple of…(Sibyl) there. It’s just a very mythical environment.”
“Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions” was Wallace’s first book to be published, released in 1998. It has been transformed into a movie and a Broadway musical, which is being performed for the first time in a non-Broadway production by The Red Mountain Theatre Company.
The book is a collection of tall tales that a father, Edward Bloom, has told his son to teach him important life lessons. It just so happens that the tall tales all have the same protagonist, Bloom himself. At his father’s deathbed, Bloom’s son, Will, tries to learn the truth about his father’s life outside of the stories.
Throughout the novel, characters and situations are drawn from epic poems and tall tales such as “The Odyssey” and the “Twelve Labors of Hercules.”
Wallace said his interest in mythical tales dates back to his childhood and his time attending The Altamont School. Wallace said he remembers being exposed to epic poetry and myth in the classroom.
“I was always intrigued by them and loved them,” he said. “They’re just very exciting stories. Then there are movies I would watch, like ‘Jason and the Argonauts.’”
But the influence didn’t spring simply from movies and books; he drew upon his own experiences, as well. Glass eyes with mystical abilities appear in more than one of Wallace’s novels.
At a talk-back session on Sept. 13 after the opening production of RMTC’s “Big Fish,” Wallace told the crowd that his curiosity with the ocular prostheses can be traced back to the classroom.
One of his classmates had a glass eye and would raise his hand during the same class every day and ask for permission to go to the bathroom to wash out his eye – and for Wallace to be allowed to accompany him, “presumably because one simply wants company while one washes out their eye,” Wallace said.
It was an act that seemed simply absurd to Wallace, so his affinity for glass eyes grew and he began collecting them. He owns more than 70 and pulled one out of his pocket on the stage.
Though the stage version of the play doesn’t involve glass eyes, the character of The Witch in the novel has a glass eye that shows the on-looker their death. She is one of the many witches who reside in small Alabama towns, the basis for one of the novel’s first tall tales.
“I imprinted on Alabama, even though I’ve lived elsewhere for most of my life,” Wallace said. “The first 18 years of life are really when important things happen to you. Better yet, it’s when the first important things happen to you.”
Wallace said that those important memories are the ones that remain most vivid, which explains why myths, glass eyes and Alabama have important places in his work.
“In the South, especially, storytelling is valued,” Wallace said. “They aren’t just stories about things that have happened, but the exaggeration of things that happened.”
The novel’s protagonist is a jokester, a quality Wallace said his own father possessed, though his jokes were not appropriate for the stage.
“My father had the ability to tell a joke that could offend everybody, no matter what their race or religion,” Wallace told the audience.
Though the Edward Bloom in the film and novel have similar characteristics, Wallace said the musical version was as close as Bloom has ever come to his own father, and that is a testament to the people who created the musical. He kept his involvement to a minimum during the production of the film and musical, though he did have a cameo in the film as a professor at Auburn University.
“I honestly thought it had better chances of becoming a Corvette than it did a movie,” Wallace said. To be made into a musical was a thought that never occurred to him.
“I didn’t really think that it would have done as well as it did,” Wallace said. “I was surprised. When you look at the book, it doesn’t read like a book or a musical. It’s a collection of tall tales.”
In its Broadway production, “Big Fish” has a cast of about 30 people, but the RMTC uses a reduced cast of 12, which Wallace said gives the story a more intimate feel.
The musical will run until Oct. 4 in RMTC’s Cabaret Theatre. For more information and ticket purchasing, visit www.redmountaintheatre.org or call 324-2424.