AN INTERVIEW WITH MEGAN DUNN
Megan Dunn is the 2022 writer in residence at Te Pūtahu Tuhi Auaha o te Ao, IIML. An art school graduate, ex-video-artist, art writer and personal essayist, Megan is also the author of two genre-resistant memoirs: Tinderbox (Galley Beggar Press, 2017) and Things I Learned at Art School (Penguin Random House, 2021).
Alongside her writing, Megan has this year curated a multi-media exhibition at the Adam Art Gallery called The Mermaid Chronicles. The exhibition is named after a long prose poem she wrote in the early 2000s, and explores her passion for all things mermaid.
You’ve mentioned in the past that you hate writing and that you’ll spend all day avoiding it. And yet you have two successful memoirs behind you, and this year you’re a Writer in Residence. How do you feel about writing now? Has the residency changed anything about your approach to writing?
Hmm. I don’t sound like much of a cheer bear do I? I think hating writing is a surprisingly common experience for many writers. Read John McPhee’s essay ‘Draft No. 4.’ Or consider this often-cited Thomas Mann quote, ‘A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.’ By my nature – depressive, obsessive, hyper-critical, self-conscious – I do find the process of writing exposing. As I have ended up being my best subject, it has also been revealing. I’m of course a very ordinary person, born in 1974, with no particularly striking attributes – I’m not a famous actress, or an inventive scientist; I can’t walk a tightrope between tall buildings. Yet my second book, Things I Learned at Art School, was a memoir! Once published, you get asked, ‘What is your book about?’ and I found myself in the bizarre position of replying, ‘Me, Megan Dunn.’ That felt very cringey to say out loud. Still does. But it’s also funny and true. However, I have an even deeper appreciation for novelists now. Imagine being able to reply, ‘My book is about a boy wizard who goes to magic school and saves the world.’ How satisfying.
Writing a memoir is like taking an evil selfie, where you focus on all your worst angles, making sure everyone can see your pores and teenage acne scars up close. Or like playing a game of psychological limbo, where you see how low you can go … it’s also a bit like working in a strip club: people want you to take your knickers off seductively, but sometimes they respect you more if you don’t.
I’ve done two short residencies. One in early 2020, at the Michael King Writers Centre in Devonport – a tense and productive two weeks. My mother had just died, and I was alone at night in the beautiful but secluded villa on the hill. I wrote round the clock, listened to loud pop music – Dua Lipa a favourite – and intermittently took baths. But I cut the residency short as COVID cases had just hit Aotearoa, and the world was in the process of shutting down.
The other was in 2018 at the Surrey Hotel, a mock Tudor building in Grey Lynn with aging Axminister carpet that reeked of old beer, and a charming, threadbare cat (now deceased). The Surrey had a very shallow indoor pool, so I took my mermaid tail and remember swimming in it, as the cleaners rattled past with their trolley. This residency was at the height of my mermaid mania, and my Mum came and stayed with me, and we sat in the big double bed, and I read her out bits of my flailing manuscript, and she laughed. I remember the residency as a time of closeness, me and her together again in a forgotten wing of the derelict Surrey as though I was a teenager. The apartment flat I had away from the main hotel building reminded me of the granny flat above the old people’s home where I grew up. I was 42.
A year-long residency is a different beast. It’s brought out the best and worst of me. I’ve gone so low in limbo I’ve dropped to the floor. I’ve also galvanised. This year has brought me home to myself as an artist. My inner compass has righted itself. Curating The Mermaid Chronicles has been a big part of that, because I have a zeal and natural inclination towards mix-and-matching different references from high and pop culture. I also love interviewing people, and including catchy quotes in my work. It’s been fun and delightful, and I love to delight and entertain, just like the mermaids do.
You’ve talked about how your first book, Tinderbox, grew in part out of your failure to write a novel. A lot of people, responding to failure or criticism, might have tried to make their work more generic, but you took your writing in a unique and very personal direction. What do you think gave you the courage to do that?
I am tempted to be glib and say stupidity. But really this question seems to assume that writing is chosen or external to the self. For me, that has not been the case. All writing has some core relationship to truth and to perception. As I became more honest, my writing naturally became more specific. Tinderbox is a highly irreverent and formally experimental work, but not without its bedfellows on the bookshelf.
It surprised me how some readers responded to its zany specificity – a handful of individuals felt it was written just for them.
Details matter. God is in them. And God is an editor and highly attuned reader.
Tinderbox grew out of an attempt to rewrite Ray Bradbury’s science-fiction classic Fahrenheit 451 from the perspective of the female characters. That attempt failed. It was too silly. It was unreal. The book I wrote about why I wanted to rewrite Fahrenheit 451 and why I failed, was a minor hit. It was a small, successful essay-length book about failure.
Earlier still, I finished an unpublished novel called The Santa Parade. That book got me an agent in London and the interest of several publishers, but no one loved it enough to commit. In hindsight, I think the book was too generic. It wasn’t emotionally honest enough. Among other sins.
One of the hard things about keeping going – if you don’t have a commercial or critical smash-hit – is the constant doubt. Maybe the doubt is there no matter what. Any enterprise in the West at least, is marked by exceptionalism. This morning I read another Patricia Lockwood essay in the London Review of Books. I felt again like I did as a teenager when I realised I would never be Elle MacPherson, then referred to in mainstream media as the body. The playing field is always uneven – will you play anyway? Will you keep going?
What has the reaction been from friends and family to some of the more personal aspects of your writing?
I’d rather not say. The memoirist doesn’t always get put on Santa’s Nice list at Christmas time. I still have mixed feelings about that. My aim is never to hurt people, but sometimes writing does hurt. Myself and others.
You’re very funny, both in person and on the page. Do you aim to include humour in your work, or does the humour in your writing sometimes surprise you?
I’m actually a very stern, depressive personality and it is a wonder to me that on the page I am funny. It’s not something I have ever aimed for. In fact, I’ve aimed to be deeply serious … but that seems to be when I am at my funniest! However, I do think comedians often have a bleak flipside – humour seems to overflow from deep sadness. Why? I dunno. My jolly Irish uncle who I loved committed suicide when I was 14. I remember Mum saying, ‘But he always seemed so happy.’ Even that’s kinda funny, if you think about it.
Things I Learned at Art School is a funny book that deals with some deeply serious issues, especially as the book progresses and you write about your mother’s illness and the time you spent in hospital with her before she died. Why do you think sadness and humour so often go hand in hand?
Because none of us can afford to go through even the most ordinary untroubled life without a sense of humour. However, in some books the stakes are so high, the terrain so inhospitable and devoid of basic human rights, that the humour on the page is nil by mouth. So far, I am lucky to have been in the position not to need to write one of those books. I hope to remain in that position.
Writers these days are expected to have a public face. Is marketing your work, and talking publicly about it, something that comes naturally to you, or have you had to work at it?
Yes. I am a natural. I have always been obscurely good at public speaking. I was on the debating team in high school. I won best speaker at one debate, beating some boy who usually got that accolade. He was more surprised than me. I have also worked in retail and as a sales manager of a bookstore. I have pimped plenty of other people’s books and find I do seem to have a knack for it. I like the verbose hollow ring of marketing slogans – I enjoy awful puns and one-liners, in fact that’s part of my attraction to mermaids. The lexicon of mermaiding is so optimistic and upbeat, eg:
‘Hey, I’m a mermaid and this is crazy, but here’s my conch shell, call me maybe?’
‘Don’t krill my vibe.’ (A Megan favourite.)
And ‘Shell yeah!’
The book you’re currently writing explores the world of the mermaid, ‘past and present’, and in addition to that, you’ve been working on an exhibition about mermaids, The Mermaid Chronicles, which is currently on display at the Adam Art Gallery in Wellington. What do you think lies behind our ongoing fascination with mermaids?
I think people want to see and be mermaids. And I am one of those people. The number one question children ask mermaids is, ‘Are you real?’ At first I thought this question was naïve; now I find it profound. Once upon a time, we believed in mermaids, ancient maps, sported depictions of their chubby tails rising out of the sea, like wayward compasses. Interviewing mermaids has made me feel more real to myself. Stop and think about it. What makes you real to yourself?
For me it is: stories, narrative, myth, tall tails.
As part of the exhibition you had your portrait taken as a mermaid by Christchurch-based artist Julia Holden. Did the experience of becoming a mermaid live up to your expectations? And what did your counsellor mean when she said the portrait was ‘an oxymoron’?
Given that my favourite mermaid is Daryl Hannah in Splash, the experience of being made into a mermaid could never live up to my expectations. Still, it’s not an opportunity one turns down. Years from now, it will be an image in our family album. I hope to be someone’s grandmother or weird relative who was once a mermaid. And that whoever sees it in the future will be emboldened to take chances and think outside the box. To even be silly. That’s what I love about professional mermaids – they are thinking outside what’s plausible and easily possible. They attempt to capture and harness joy!
I’m not sure what my counsellor meant. Perhaps that the image of the mermaid is a contradiction in terms? I liked the fact that oxymoron contains the word moron, and I have felt like a moron at times on my mad wild mermaid chase.
How did the work of researching, compiling and launching a multi-media art exhibition compare to the process of writing a book?
I loved making the show. In general it is much easier than writing a book. The wall texts totalled about 4,000 words. Other artists made most of the work on display, the Gallery had great staff do the installation. The process of curating an exhibition is a lot more collaborative and instantaneous than writing an extended work of prose. Curators, you have it made!
However, on a good day, when the writing comes together, it’s like something unexpected drops out onto the page, and suddenly you’ve found the key to a treasure map that exists inside your own psyche. You know, like The Goonies, when the kids are crowded around the map and the whole adventure is about to begin.
You seem to have carved out a pretty great life for yourself, creatively speaking. Do you have to pinch yourself sometimes?
I will stop and pinch myself now. Curating my mermaid exhibition has been a high point. Skyping mermaids, meeting mermaids and researching mermaids, has been a great thing to do in my forties, as I sprout chin whiskers and turn into the terrible fish from the last line of Sylvia Plath’s poem Mirror.
I pinch and tweeze, pinch and tweeze.
What do you think your teenage self would say if she could see you now?
I think she’d be shocked at how little I have accumulated materially. She’d be worried and amazed that I have not amounted to more in some ways. I mean, this teenage girl knew very little about how the world works. I also think she’d be shocked I have a child and a partner. Maybe she’d even be pleased.
Describe your typical writing day … if such a thing exists!
Woman gets up, gets daughter breakfast – cocoa pops or cheese and crackers are favourite choices – cajoles child into getting dressed and going to school, drops child off, walks up hill to office, sits at desk, facing down inner demons, writes, edits, writes, eats, snacks, frets. From the outside it looks like nothing is happening. But now the builders have covered the windows, and scaffolding is installed around the exterior of Bill Manhire House. No one can watch her anymore. But she can hear the rasp of the builder’s paint brushes.
The IIML website mentions that the book you’re working on at the moment will mark the ‘completion of your life-writing trilogy’. Does this mean we can look forward to a Megan Dunn novel in future?
No. But hopefully you can look forward to a Megan Dunn movie, a T-shirt, a coffee cup, a tote bag sporting a hollow brazen slogan and a series of children’s picture books. Maybe some personal stationery too, a Moleskine, though I’ve never kept a diary, and hopefully a range of birthday cards and a tarot deck. I’d love to write my own set of inspirational affirmations and a self-help book. I’ve always been hopeless at affirmations, but I won’t let that stop me. Fitness videos? Is it too late? Is the fitness video still a thing? Can I be in a Briscoes ad?