An Interview with Samantha Dunn

During her visit, the Parallax editors got to sit down and interview Samantha Dunn, fiction and nonfiction writer, about female representation in writing, the writing process, and how to deal with criticism.

Question: What is your main goal or intention you hope to achieve through your writing?

Samantha Dunn: One, to make a living. I’ve survived by the pen. There’s a certain amount of professionalism I have to maintain to keep a roof over my head. But really, that’s a complicated answer for me. I think it can be broken down to wanting to connect with someone other than myself, to break the illusion that I exist solely on my own. There’s an intense loneliness everyone walks around with, but for writers it’s exacerbated. Truly, there’s a sense of putting that voice out into the universe and seeing if it hits anyone, to see if there’s something there. And also to witness others. We are unique entities and we exist in a certain place in time. How many worlds exist in a person? One type of mixture might have happened in 1972 and then again today, but they do not have the same experiences. Our lives are these incredible spinning orbits. What is real, for me, is to witness experience.

Q: How do you feel you have been successful in achieving this goal in your writing?

S: Most days, I do not feel that successful. Like every writer I battle the Who cares? Oh my God what am I doing with my life reaction. I know that, having done this for a while, people have read my works. I have been the recipient of many letters and communications that say to me, very directly, “I’ve read this, and it mattered to me. Thank you for writing this.” Or sometimes they will say, “You suck. You are so stupid. I can’t believe you still breathe air. Who publishes you?” Even that is engagement. If I can piss you off that much,  it means I’ve provoked something. Yay. We’re alive, we’re in discussion. We’re in communication. My big claim to fame, kind of jokingly, is there’s a store called “Title 9,” (which is all women’s sports and fitness wear up in Seattle), and at one point,  they had one of my quotes from my book on their bag. And I thought “Wow! Somebody’s reading.” It is funny. As writers, we are not glamorous. The paparazzi is not stalking us. I was at a faculty dinner one time for the New York State Summer Writers’ Institute, and we, the entire faculty, were walking down the street. In this group was Joyce Carol Oates, Michael Ondaatje, Russell Banks, William Kennedy. Basically, what I am telling is that I was the slacker in this group; I was the one who had not won the Pulitzer Prize. We were walking down the street and no one was even looking sideways at us. And I thought, “Wow, in Hollywood, if the cast of Buffy the Vampire Slayer were walking down the street everyone would be like ‘Woah!’” But, some of the most exalted writers in American literature were walking down the street unperturbed. That’s it. That’s the life of a writer. We are alone a lot. Yet, somehow, the message in the bottle does reach another shore. I don’t know how, but it does.

Q: How did it affect you (or your writing) when people would respond to your work, positively or negatively?

S: Great question. Luckily, a great many of my friends are truly famous. For good or bad, that has not occurred to me yet, even with the amount of attention I have received. I was in People Magazine once. The book was panned. It had my picture and then a lot of bad stuff was said about me and it really froze me for a while because I thought, “Wow, I’m stupid. People are just gonna make fun of this.” But, then, on the opposite end, I did get those letters that said, “This meant so much to me,” and I thought, “You know what. You just have to talk to your people.” Screw all the others. Fuck all of y’all. Just talk to the people for whom it matters. When I start to get into that mindset of “My writing is about me talking to you,” then I am able to maintain that intimacy with that reader. The more I am able to maintain that intimacy, the more relaxed and productive I am.

Q: Were there any events which prompted you to become a writer?

S: Yes, I can give you a little anecdote. When I was in elementary school I won a Campfire Girls’ National competition. I wrote a poem on what freedom is and I was the 2nd prize winner. I was like “Oh! Writer, this is what it is.” But it’s also a much bigger story than that. My mother was a single mom and always very busy and she loved to read. Culturally, her family was working class Irish. They were all storytellers. If I have to psychoanalyze myself, it was me thinking, ‘How can I get her attention?’ I wanted that validation. Her reading something was profound for me. That had a deep impression. It was the thing we did. We told jokes and stories. It was always very lively in my house.

Q: What inspired you to start teaching?

S: There was no reason for me except to seek human contact. I was living the dream. I didn’t have to get out of my pajamas for shit. Yet, there was no way for me to connect on a regular daily basis. My friend, Les Plesko, a very dear friend and a brilliant novelist, taught at the UCLA Writers’ program. He said “Sam, you should just teach a class. It’ll get you out on Tuesdays.” That was why I did it initially. I had no other reason to be around people. But, I loved it. It is like my religion, my church, giving my life resonance and meaning. God, what privilege is that? To be a part in other writers’ journeys to discover their own voice; that’s an incredible privilege. I love it–I don’t teach for the money, honey [laughs].

Q: What inspires you to write fiction? And what inspires you to write nonfiction?

S: I really do believe they’re different, fiction and nonfiction. The muscles we put in are different. I think for fiction, the stories arrive. Nonfiction, for me, has to be circumscribed by fact. It’s what happened. It’s me making meaning about what happened; insight done beautifully. It is the thing that kind of holds the world together. With fiction, the stories arrive on currents. Out of scenes, physical experience, taken off on their own. I wrote a short story called “The Tortilla Construction Handbook” that ran in a journal called Black Clock. That story arrived with a voice in my head, a young guy kind of talking. He was talking about tortillas. It was like a rant on tortillas! I sat around and waited for more of that to reveal itself. It’s like dreaming. You just wait for it to reveal itself to you. It arrives in a different way. I don’t have much time for fiction, because fiction comes out of silence, which is not the case for me right now.  Memoirs are the most powerful thing we can do for ourselves and others. No safety net. It’s you trying to make meaning out of what’s going on.

Q: Was there an event that prompted you to write your novel, Failing Paris?

S: The anger at a girl in my workshop class who wrote a story romanticizing Paris. It’s not all puppies and Luxembourg! It’s sexism and racism! The most beautiful and yet the most debase. It’s all of these things at once. It exploded from me, This is how it is.

Q: Do you think your writing is empowering for young women, especially your nonfiction article “My Not-So-Bikini-Body”?

S: I hope it is, but you can’t write hoping to inspire. You can just witness your own experience. David Walcott says, “A writer’s job is to state the condition.” Hopefully, you as the reader will find meaning in it for yourself. I can’t hope for a message. I’m just telling you what it is to be like in this body.

Q: Have you ever felt that there is a lack of female representation in famous, frequented literature?

S: Fuck yeah! If you look at most of the award winners, they are guys! Dudes! Hello! Even this year, Kirkus did a list of “The Most Important Books of 2014.” One of them was written by a woman. If I throw a rock, I hit 15 incredible female writers. There’s still a long conversation to be had about where the female writers are. That’s why people like Cheryl Strayed, whose success has been phenomenal with the book Wild, are really important. That’s a book about a woman going into the woods, not because she had a bad romance—I mean, sure, she went through a divorce. But, it was really about the death of her mother and about the incredible grief she suffered. It was her on a journey of transformation, hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. It doesn’t terminate with her being swept off her feet by some handsome stranger.  It terminates with her on her own two feet. And the success of that book has been astronomical. I cannot underestimate the importance of that. It is huge. Cheryl’s story hit the vein, but there are amazing stories like this written by women all the time. That’s not to take away stories written by our brothers. It’s not. But, for so many centuries we were not even allowed to write and that still hangs over our heads, culturally and personally.

Q: Who are some female writers that have left their mark upon your work?

S: For better or for worse, Kate Braverman, because she was my first “bad mother.” But, also, when I read Virginia Woolf in college, she kind of blew the top of my head off. I did not know anyone could create a sentence like that. I did not know you could be so intensely personal. Same with Anaïs Nin. I read her, and her sexuality and writing so honestly about what was happening to her, my God! It was an access of freedom that I never knew. Also, Judith Krantz, who was a crass commercial best seller. I read her books when I was fifteen and it was the book, Scruples, a supermarket paperback. But, the heroine was defining her own life and doing her own thing and becoming a millionaire on her own! She was leaving men broken-hearted, she was not being left broken hearted, and I found real power in that. And also, I must say, from college on, Joan Didion has been my Alpha and Omega. I met her once at a reading and I was that geeky girl with fifteen of her books. I had nothing to say when I got up there, and she very politely signed my books while I stood there like a dummy. It was a huge moment for me. She really is the one writer I think I would most like to emulate.

Q: Could you describe your writing process? How do you pace yourself when writing longer pieces and how do you plan them out?

S: Before becoming a mother, I would write everyday.  The morning is the most fruitful for me. I would usually write from about seven o’clock in the morning to around nine o’clock, then throw myself back onto my bed to go to sleep. Then I would get up, write for a couple more hours, and be done for the day. I couldn’t do anything else. So, about four hours of solid writing was the most I could ever get. But then as the projects really start to take shape, really form where you’re almost at the end, it really becomes this all encompassing thing. I would sleep with my laptop, I kid you not. But now, I have a son and a husband. It’s hard. I cannot be precious about my writing at all anymore. I have to write whenever I get the time. Now, if I don’t write between 8:30 and 1:00, it’s just not gonna get done. Because then my son will get home and chaos ensues. There is no space in my brain. There is no space in my life. There is no physical way for me to get to the space I need to. I mean, I have an office that is in a separate building from my house, but it’s still on the property, so they know where to find me, and they do. When I really need to write, I will write in my car.

Q: You discuss intense personal stories in your memoirs and essays. A lot of writers find it difficult to write non-fiction because it is hard to open up about your experiences. Do you have any advice for that dilemma?

S: That’s huge. Because there is this thing of, “Don’t tell.” The rule breaking in the family: you cannot tell. It’s sometimes not explicitly said but you know it. So, I would say don’t force yourself into anything. Just keep writing. Just know, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, it’s stemming from someplace important. If you are crying when you’re writing, it’s important. You have to say to yourself, What the fuck. I don’t care. That’s the space you need to be in, that emotional space.

Q: Did you ever feel a sense of uncomfortability as you were writing?

S: Yeah. A lot. Really uncomfortable. Like, Wow. I’m afraid. I don’t know what people are gonna think about this. When my novel went into Kindle, it went into a whole other audience—before it was just in this literary community with people who had read Sylvia Plath. Then it went into this world where people are like, “I’m vegan and I’m anti-abortion. I can’t read this.” Like, what? Or people would say, “Wow. This is really depressing.” Yes, it is depressing. The hateful reactions were kind of my nightmare when I was writing that book, but now it doesn’t matter to me. People who don’t get it are not my people. Because I know the work matters. I have heard from the people for whom it matters. Not all the people but, I know that it matters to some. More importantly, I know that it mattered to me to express it. It’s not autobiography, but it does describe my experience, my emotional experience, and, more than that, it describes what I know is the emotional experience of other women. And that’s important to have out there. Good, bad, or indifferent. Happy, sad, or whatever you want to call it. I believe it is important.

Q: How do you balance talking about the subject and inputting your own opinions on the subject? Do you ever add in other people’s emotions or opinions?

S: Yes. You have to. A writer’s job is to have empathy. I have to, as much as I find it difficult, find empathy for those people in front of Planned Parenthood protesting. That’s our job as artists. For Failing Paris, I really wanted to get into that complexity of choice. Why couldn’t that woman be a mother? Why couldn’t she be there? I wanted to explore all of that in all the ways I could. That deep sense of mourning. The idea for me is how can I create empathy, no matter where it is in the story.

 

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