Wednesday, February 14, 2018

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Kristyn Dunnion

Kristyn Dunnion‘s Tarry This Night made CBC’s top twenty list of fall fiction, and Bitch Media's November Must Reads. The Dirt Chronicles (also Arsenal Pulp Press) was a 2012 Lambda Literary Award finalist and ALA Over the Rainbow selection. Recent fiction appears in The New Guard V, Cosmonauts Avenue, and The Tahoma Literary Review. Dunnion lives and works in Toronto with several large cats.

 Upcoming events and appearances include: reading as part of Performance Club 2: Valley of the Dolls with Keith Cole on February 13 (7pm; Super 8 Downtown Toronto; see link here for further information) and as part of Toronto's Chi Series on February 21 (8pm; Round Venue, 152a Augusta Ave; see link here for further information). Also: graduation ceremony and screening of Valley of the Dolls with Keynote Speaker Kristyn Dunnion, receiving an honourary degree from FADO Performance Art Centre, February 27 (7pm; 401 Richmond, Toronto; see link here for further information).
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
When Red Deer Press published my first book, a Juvenile novel called Missing Matthew (2003), I felt like I had been invited into this strange, revered room that was full of unknowns: industry protocol, knowledge, networks, etiquette etcetera. It was a steep learning curve! I still learn with each new book, and of course the industry is undergoing constant challenges and change. My most recent novel, Tarry This Night, is firmly directed to adult readers. It is grim, dystopic, and balanced with strong imagery and powerful prose.

2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
Non-fiction is terrifying and poetry confounds me. There was almost no other option! I’m beginning to dabble in screenplays, however.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
A new project can start in a heartbeat. I’m always scribbling in notebooks: ideas, images. I doodle, I paint, I pull Tarot cards. I write many, many drafts. And I come at the writing from a place of open curiosity. I often have no idea what I’m writing about until I’ve done a few drafts. It’s not the most efficient method, but it’s this creative process that hooks me.

4 - Where does a work of prose usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I’ve focussed on writing short fiction for the past decade, but Tarry This Night (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2017) came out of this era. I insisted it was a short, and then a long, story for two years. At last I conceded it was a novella. Finally, a novel. This book began with imagery that formed the skeletal structure: opening and closing images that stayed true throughout each draft. There were specific phrases that precipitated the idea of a story, and a yearning of some kind. That sounds really flaky, but it’s true.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Oh, yes. I like to put my theatre background to work! I love the opportunity to read new work to a juicy audience. It’s risky, but you can really feel what works, what doesn’t. There is no substitute for the actuality of preparing to read to a live audience. I can be really ruthless in an editorial way in these moments!

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
My concerns are endless. Foremost: how can we dismantle the patriarchy? Can we save this planet? Do we deserve to? Can white people ever truly acknowledge the extent of our privilege and move towards being reliable allies to people from racialized communities? Can we share global resources equitably and fairly and end capitalism? Can we engage with non-human animals in a compassionate and ethical manner? Can we ever be human and humane?

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I believe the artist’s role is to disrupt. To examine cultural - social- political circumstance and to record, reflect, critique, and offer creative solutions, if possible. We do this through movement, sound, imagery, taste. We do this through language. We use the senses, the intellect, technology, our emotions and our spiritual connections, to make meaning for ourselves and for others. It’s a vocation, to my way of thinking, revered by some, reviled by others.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
It is essential. It can be difficult, particularly if the writer is not able to distance him/herself from the material. It comes more easily with practice. Having a writing group can help in this respect, by setting guidelines for giving and receiving feedback. Sometimes people want others to read their work, only to hear how great it is. Every piece can take improvement.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
“If you can find another job, please do so.”

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (short stories to novels to performance)? What do you see as the appeal?
I love genre-bending! Each story must be told its own way. That might be through movement and music and costume; it might happen without uttering a single word. I love experimentation and discovery, so for me it’s essential.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I’ve spent most of my adult life working full time in a demanding unrelated field (housing support for adults with severe mental health struggles), so I take my writing time when I can get it. I use all of my vacation days for writing, for retreats and residencies. I take time away from paid work whenever I can afford to, and literary arts grants have assisted me in this regard, for which I am extremely grateful. I am hungry for time to create and write and to absorb the work of other artists. When I am working on a project (and not in a paid day-job), I never take a day off. I work long hours alone; I rarely speak to other people. I am in an altered state, non-ordinary reality, and I am rarely ever happier.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I always have multiple projects on the go. If one hits a wall (and they do when they need time to ‘marinate’ while I grow or shift in order to return with a fresh perspective), I turn to another piece and dig in. Life is short, folks, and I’m no spring chicken!

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
I probably associate food smells with most of my homes. My maternal grandma’s (deceased) would be curry and mothballs and dust. My paternal grandma’s (deceased) would be roast and gingerbread cookies; after she died the house smelled mainly of booze and cigarettes.  My current home in Toronto is vanilla and cinnamon (vegan baking!) or sage from smudging, and sometimes of cat litter – scooping for three cats is a part time job!

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
All of the above!  Tarry This Night was heavily influenced by the Old Testament, by Doom metal, and by research: quilt making, the American survivalist movement, drought maps, climate change predictions, former and active cult data, etcetera. I worked with Tarot cards for character development, and my spiritual practice influenced some of the writing heavily. I immersed myself in collage and painting during the final year of edits and spent a lot of time looking at, making, and thinking about visual art, movement, music.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I’m all over the map! A snapshot from my bedside stack: Tove Jansson, Julie Hensley, Josh Weil, Don Domanski, Ottessa Moshfegh, Casey Plett (editor), Anne Carson, Helen Humphreys. Margaret Atwood, Iain Banks and China Mieville have been major influences over the years.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I’d like to write and direct a short film. I want to go to Iceland and the Republic of Ireland. Learn to play the cello. I would like to sing in public (despite my fear)!

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Writing is cheap. You can do it alone, anywhere. There are few barriers and fewer limits.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I’ve been enjoying some television series a great deal: Trapped (Icelandic), The Bridge (Danish/Swedish), American Gods (based on the novel by Neil Gaiman), Rectify, Alias Grace and The Handmaid’s Tale.

20 - What are you currently working on?
“Last Call at the Dogwater Inn” is a story collection set in my Toronto neighbourhood that deals with gentrification and community. “The Fishwyfe’s Fury” is a narrative triptych set in my hometown on the shores of Lake Erie, and it wants a visual component. I started a sequel to “Tarry This Night” called “Glean Among The Sheaves.” My screenplay “Fits Ritual,” based on a story published in Grain Magazine (2012) demands to be made into a short independent film - I’m looking for collaborators to help make this happen!

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