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Saturday December 10th

Former DTH staffer Dan Kois shares the experiences of those affected by 'Angels in America'

Dan Kois co-wrote "The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels in America." Photo courtesy of Dan Kois.
Buy Photos Dan Kois co-wrote "The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels in America." Photo courtesy of Dan Kois.

Dan Kois, former Daily Tar Heel staffer and writer and editor for Slate, is coming to Flyleaf Books on April 15 to discuss his new book, "The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels in America." It follows the stories of actors, writers and theater lovers as they share their experiences of Tony Kushner's play, "Angels in America." 

Staff writer Krupa Kaneria talked to Kois about his journey co-writing the book, the inspirations behind the book and some of the difficulties in producing the work.

The Daily Tar Heel: Tell me about your book, "The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels in America." 

Dan Kois: The book is a history of “Angels in America,” which is Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play that premiered on Broadway in 1993. It’s based on 260 interviews with actors, directors, writers, critics and historians. They all tell the story about how this one amazing work of art came to be and also tell the history of the era that it sprang from — the Reagan '80s. 

DTH: Why did you choose to write about the oral history of Tony Kushner's "Angels in America"? 

DK: My co-author and I had pretty profound experiences with the play when we were in college — when I was in undergrad at Carolina. I first read the play, and then saw it on a trip to New York. I was a drama major at the time and thinking a lot about theater and putting on shows at the LAB! and reading plays all the time. I had never really had my horizons expanded by a single work the way that “Angels in America” did. It completely transformed the way that I thought about what art could do and how high a piece of art can aim and the type of politics that a piece of art can make you think about. It’s a play that was pretty formative for me as a writer. 

The play is so epic — it’s a two-part play, and if you see the whole thing in production, it’s usually about seven hours long. And it struck me, given the time that it came out of, that the difficulty of making something that big in the theater world was significant and that it must have a similarly epic origin story, and I wanted to try and find it and tell that story. 

DTH: What was the co-writing and interviewing process like? 

DK: We interviewed about 50 people for a Slate cover story that ran in June 2016, and the story was so big, so immediately — that piece was about 50,000 words long, and the piece ran at about 17,000 words. Even then, we felt like there was so much that we left out, so many amazing stories we had heard just from the 50 people that we had interviewed, and then we felt like there was much more to tell. 

For about a year and a half following that piece running, we called more and more people. We ended up talking to about 250 people by phone, Skype, email and in person and generated hundreds of thousands of words of transcribed interviews. Then we tried to put it into a story that worked both chronologically — that told the story of “Angels in America” from beginning to end — but then left out a chronology to dive deeper into each of the primary characters of the play and the personal stories of people who had been in the play or inspired by the play. 

DTH: Did you come across any difficulties in creating the narrative history of the play? 

DK: There is definitely a lot of stuff, which creates a set of issues, but those were mostly procedural issues. We had so much stuff and liked so much of it, and we wanted to make sure that we were doing justice to the story. It was not hard to get people to talk about this. This wasn’t one of those books where you were constantly cajoling people into talking to you and you had to sweet-talk sources in order to get them to open up. These were stories that were as formative for everyone who was in the show or worked with the show or saw the show as they were for us. In a lot of respects, it was as if people had been waiting 25 years for someone to call them on the phone and ask them about their experience of “Angels in America.” Almost no one said no — our batting average was way higher on this than on any interview-based project I have ever done. 

DTH: What are some takeaways from your book? 

DK: I hope people come away from the book convinced of our argument that the play contains within it everything you need to know about American art, culture and politics over the last 30 years. I really do think the play is a microcosm of our country, and I also hope that people come out of it thinking a lot about how much the politics of our time resemble the politics of the late '80s — the time of desperation in a lot of people’s lives when there was an unappealing administration in Washington that was not interested in the lives of people who were at risk or in danger. A lot of progress has been made politically since those days, and that is part of the message of the play — you can’t stop progress, and human beings will always move forward.


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