Sunday, October 18, 2015
Mark Dunn talks about We Five, being obsessed AND iconoclastic, writing and having fun, and so much more
I think it is fair to say that I would read Mark Dunn's grocery list, especially since you just know it would be written so imaginatively that you would want to save and frame it. He's the acclaimed author of five previous novels and more than thirty full-length plays. His debut novel, Ella Minnow Pea, was winner of the Borders Original Voices Book of the Year, a finalist for the BookSense Book of the Year, and a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selected title.
We Five is stunningly imaginative, an amalgamation of five novels, about five different young women, in five different time periods. I am so honored to have Mark here to talk about it. Thank you a million times, Mark!
What was the idea that sparked this book, the thought that haunted you so you had to write it out?
For quite some time now I've been fascinated with all the different ways that writers tell their stories and, specifically, the various ways that different writers can tell the same stories, using their own voices and their own literary contexts to do this. I've been a fan of the Victorian author Elizabeth Gaskell for a while and wanted to share my interest in her work with readers, but at the same time I wanted, in effect, to partner with her, to tell a new story, but do it using her voice. I've also sensed in her writing that she wished to be even more honest (and daring) in her own storytelling but was hampered by the narrow Victorian strictures of the day in which she lived. What if Mrs. Gaskell had the same freedom that today's writers have? This question really excited me.
What made the project even more exciting was the possibility that her story might resonate with other writers in such a way that they would feel compelled to retell her story in their own times and in their own voices. I've "channeled" other writers and their styles before. An earlier novel of mine, FERAL PARK, was written in Jane Austen's voice. Likewise, many of the 100 stories that comprise AMERICAN DECAMERON were written in the styles of writers who were active in the periods in which the stories were set.
I decided to pretty much pull out all the stops with this one. Not only would one fifth of the book be voiced by Elizabeth Gaskell, but another fifth would be ostensibly written by someone quite comfortable with the wry, observational voice of America's Sinclair Lewis. The turn-of-the-20th century authors Frank Norris and Jack London are channeled, as well. For the version of the story set during the 1940 London Blitz I created an amalgamate voice from those British authors who wrote contemporaneously with that war. For the last version of Gaskell's story, set in Mississippi in 1997, I went with the voice I'm most comfortable with: Mark Dunn (channeling, somewhat, my novel WELCOME TO HIGBY, which also stomps this ground).
There wasn't a single epiphany-moment in which suddenly I knew I was going to write this novel in this special way; one idea simply built upon another and so-forth. Even the idea for the epilogue took its time getting to me.
This is truly one of the most ambitious novels I’ve read. You have five different female friends, five different suitors, five different historical periods (an epilogue, whose time frame I won’t spoil here), five different locations, and five different jobs through time. How difficult was it to structure the novel and what surprised you about it in the writing? Did you have a favorite period that you were writing about, and if so, why?
I like each of the story frames for different reasons. I enjoyed the freedom of language and expression that my contemporary Mississippi characters gave me. (I could use profanity and not have to answer for it!) The London chapters were a treat because I was writing about a place and a period in which, because of my initial unfamiliarity, required me to do quite a bit of historical research (something I really enjoy). I've also been a big fan of Sinclair Lewis and his witty, sometimes jaundiced take on middle America in the teens, twenties and thirties, and am especially comfortable writing about the 1920s, a period radically different in terms of culture and societal freedom than anything that preceded it. I've also always wanted to set a novel in 1906 San Francisco, which WE FIVE partly allowed me to do.
It wasn't difficult to structure the novel, although I did have to take care to guide the reader in such a way that the shared story thread didn't get lost. I had to strike a balance between giving each version of this story its own literary individuality while keeping true to the essence of each of the characters, which required solid character continuity. I rarely construct story outlines for my books (although I do ultimately impose a deliberate structure upon them as I go along) so I was constantly being surprised by the direction that the characters (who often seem to take over my stories) wanted me to go. There were moments in which I was shocked by the directions in which my characters were taking themselves, but I gave them their heads, because my many years of writing characters for stage and page have taught me that the character is almost always right.
My original feeling was that there would be a paradigm of good vs. bad/right vs. wrong that would define the book. I didn't realize that the characters would, none of them, fall so easily into those rigid boxes. Still, there is a tidiness to some aspects of the book which keeps it on a bit of a leash: the recurring theme of fives, for example, the distinction among the five climactic "apocalypses," and so forth.
I love the whole conceit of five different authors retelling the same story and that this book includes bits of each story. How did you juggle all these sensibilities and create a cohesive book while staying true to each of the authors’ intent?
One of the things I strove to do was to imagine each of these authors writing in a very specific time, which made me seek to make their voices contemporaneous with the period in which they were writing. You'll notice that none of the five authors is writing with blatant historical retrospection; they're writing about something that could very well have happened on that very day or in the very recent past. This kept their stories, for me at least, dynamic and immediate. One of the challenges for me was respecting what could and could not be said by an author at historical points that would not make the story too anachronistic or unrealistic. You'll notice as we progress through the time periods of the five versions of the primary story that behavior and language begins to loosen up. I did, for the sake of narrative continuity, have to take a few liberties. Jack London could not have written about Jane's rape with the frankness that Grady Larson did. Nor would Sinclair Lewis have been able to acknowledge, so freely, Cain's homosexuality and his obsessive love for Pat. (Although, interestingly, in Lewis's 1930 novel DODSWORTH, he has the eponymous character inadvertently visit a Berlin gay bar and make a couple of comments about what he saw there! Way to go, Sinclair!)
All of these women are searching for love- so hard they don’t see what the men chasing them are really doing. Since this goes on through all the time periods, I’m wondering, do you think gender wars have progressed at all? Or is it just...different?
Nothing really changes in the universal need for love. Perhaps society has allowed us to loosen the blinders a bit, but we all continue as human beings to make bad choices surrounding who our hearts tell us to love. People still take advantage of that vulnerability. Our lives even today are too often defined by that hunger to be loved and all the lousy outcomes that this hunger can lead to. Obviously, over time, women have become more empowered in society, but there will always be predatory men and vulnerable women. (And for that matter, predatory women and vulnerable men!) That doesn't change.
So much of the book is how catastrophe impacts our lives. Would you talk about that please?
One of the themes that I wanted to explore in the book was an existential one -- that when it comes right down to it, no matter what we do, no matter what choices we make for ourselves -- we are still at the mercy of a random universe that throws situations our way over which we have no control (and often don't even see coming!) In such a random universe anything can happen, and some of it very bad, even catastrophic. One of the things that keeps us going -- that allows us to thrive in such a haphazard, aleatory environment is the compensatory knowledge that there are those at our sides who care about us and look out for us. Families often play that role, but we don't choose our families. We do choose our friends. And we choose them mostly for positive reasons.
What kind of writer are you? Do you outline or do you wait for the muse?
As I mentioned above, I'm not a big outliner. Only one of my novels UNDER THE HARROW was so narratively complex and so broadly scoped in terms of its story, that I could not have written it without an extensive outline. But generally speaking, most of my books and plays, I've allowed initially to unfold on their own. Only in subsequent drafts do I go back in to shape and cut and rearrange the story elements -- in a sense, to "clean up" the narrative. With WE FIVE the muse was beside me for the whole process, though I did have to remind her that there was a certain protocol that had to be respected: the prescribed cycle of author participation, the need for each chapter to propel the reader to the next chapter as smoothly as possible given the radically different story presentations, and that there was an overarching narrative arc that needed to remain intact through the book.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
How did you know I was a hopelessly obsessive writer? My obsessive hope right now is that those who would enjoy this novel have the opportunity to discover it. The last few years of my journey as a writer have put me in partnership with two different publishing houses that didn't have the tools or resources to promote my work. A writer writes to be read, and I'm looking forward (with, yes, some obsessive trepidation) to finding from my new publisher, Dzanc Books, the opportunity to share my latest novel with interested readers.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
I suppose something might be said about an author who has made somewhat of a career out of finding new, often iconoclastic ways to tell his stories. Every novel I've written (and I loosely call AMERICAN DECAMERON a novel, since all of its 100 stories in the aggregate create something much larger than a simple "short story collection") have represented attempts by me to discover new and sometimes, as in the case of my progressively lipogrammatic novel ELLA MINNOW PEA, unique ways of creating narrative. Indeed, to my knowledge, no one has written a novel in a format similar to WE FIVE. This isn't brag -- simply exemplary of my belief that writers -- and novelists especially -- may be as narratively adventurous as they like and still remain accessible to their readers. Moreover, they can blaze new territory in the process. However, I don't consider any of my work "experimental" in that often pejorative sense. Still, I can never myself writing future novels in a safe, traditional style. What's the sense of being a writer if you can't have some fun?