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CALLING ALL DIVAS. There's no shortage of books whose plots have been reincarnated as scripts for films--those Merchant Ivory epics, for example. Lately, there's even been a spate of books that make cameo appearances themselves on the big screen--I'm thinking of Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway or Susan Orleans' The Orchid Thief.

Make a U-turn and you'll crash head-on into inspiration traveling in the other direction. Call it the celluloid muse.

Eight writers have been meeting to talk about and support one another's literary pearls for half a decade. In the last few months, Fandango 8, as the all-female octet is called, has spilled ink and molded stories and poetry inspired by their own inner Hollywood divas. I talked with Margaret Levin recently, the group-appointed spokesperson (though not her usual role), about how the "assignment" to channel the Tinsel Town heroines into their writing turned out, and how a writing group with that many personalities functions.

"Even if you hate the film, it's still simply a good jumping-off point to work on one metaphor," Levin explains about how movies share similar narrative structure with the written genre.

"Reading as inspiration is so important, but it can leave us stranded on a literary island, land-locked with all those words. But film is the delicate span bridge to walk off the island."

The film structure helped to coalesce a reading that kicked off the Tucson Poetry Festival a few months ago, braiding together the love affair writers and filmmakers have with each other. Fandango 8 read at the Hotel Congress' Banquet Room--a perfect venue, says Levin, for the group to channel their divas.

"They have these floor-to-ceiling, chocolate brown, velvet curtains, blanketing you away from all that traffic whizzing by on Congress Street. It was the ideal backdrop visually for us to read. And it did something for the acoustics because none of us needed a microphone.

"That chocolate velvet was so subtle, like hot fudge," Levin adds.

This was Fandango 8's first reading under the watchful eyes of Marilyn or Doris or Bette. Levin sees divas as having a contradictory strong vulnerability. "Divas are drawn to chocolate, Elvis, road trips and all things shiny. Divas melt for patent leather."

Girly-girl meets "smart-is-pretty." The impetus for the diva theme came from watching A Touch of Mink, an early '60s Doris Day flick about a lovely girl who does everything except lose her virginity.

"It's pretty colorful," adds Levin, "but it's kind of sickening to watch the absolutely ridiculous message about women's worth. You'd think we would have come farther than that and dropped all the silly game-playing that really only men fall for."

The Fandango 8 women met in a fiction-writing workshop five years ago at Pima Community College. When it was done, they were still hungry for more. Some members continue to write fiction--three novels have been penned so far--but some have moved comfortably and prolifically into producing poetry and short stories. They meet once a month. Some write daily, others more sporadically. There's no authority or leader.

"When we get together, we do a half-hour of yakking. Any group with this many girls is going to do this--talk about recipes or kids or grandkids or world events. Then one of us, usually me--I'm the grumpy one--gets focused. We each read for four minutes and brace ourselves for a response."

Levin says they use standard workshop language to cut through the crap, but also to maintain safety.

"We'll say, 'We have a concern,' but we'll also follow up with an appreciation for something in the work. The group allows us to be amazed and wowed. For some of us, this is the only place in the world they feel comfortable."

The assignments are a way to make the writers stretch. "Very often, someone starts to read their work by saying that they didn't actually follow the assignment. It's really just a little bit of structure."

They don't get together to re-write each others' work, either--though there are, by Levin's count, three master editors in the group and three intuitive editors. "By the time the fourth person tells you there's something not working in your poem, you know it's time for a re-write--on your own time."

So how did the generically named "Writers' Collective" morph into its current moniker?

"One of us was preparing to come to a group meeting early on in our incarnation. She was rushing around the house, getting her potluck dish together, collecting her writing folder, trying to match her shoes. And her husband asked, 'Aren't you ready for that Fandango yet?' and it just stuck."

Considering a Fandango is a joyful, Spanish dance, it seems a snug fit based on Levin's descriptions of how the group operates and what jumps off the page.

Come hear what the divas have birthed as Fandango 8 collectively reads on Friday, June 6, at 8 p.m., at Reader's Oasis, 3400 E. Speedway Blvd. You can get a copy of their newest chapbook, Girls on Film, and maybe even get it signed by a lovely starlet lurking in the shadows.

Questions? Call 319-7887.

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