a conversation with Mark Dunn      

Mark Dunn standing in front of the Three Lives Bookstore in Greenwich Village.


Bold Type: You're a playwright and this is your first novel. What inspired you to try a different form? How do you compare the writing of plays with that of a novel?

Mark Dunn: This is actually the third novel I've written. I couldn't find a publisher for the first two. I've been writing plays and novels since the early eighties. My first love is the theater; I've written many plays and enjoy telling stories through dialogue. And that's a strong component in each of the three novels I've written. And I think that's true of Ella Minnow Pea; I look at letter writing as a form of conversation, you just have to wait a little longer to get the answer back. It allows me to use the voices of my characters in a very conversational style, albeit in this particular book I do put some pretty formal language restrictions on the characters. But dialogue, I think, is one of the strengths of my writing.

BT: What challenges did you face as a novelist that surprised you?

MD: I think every day working on that novel presented a new challenge. I expected that because of the odd, progressively lipogramatic format, and I have to say progressive because people conjure a book written without one letter of the alphabet, and they don't realize that this is almost like the ultimate challenge. There are specific challenges that revealed themselves. I'll give you one example. I decided early on that I had to remove an important letter from the alphabet, so I thought the least amount of damage would be done by removing the letter 'D', not realizing how important it is for creating past tense. And just how many words in our language use that letter, there's just no getting around it. All of a sudden I went from having a pretty easy time finding the write words to use to having to really dig in to the thesaurus to find substitutory ways to tell my story. And there are a lot of other examples about the way things really surprised me.

BT: You obviously have a deep love of language, and I get the feeling you're a force to be reckoned with in Scrabble. Where did your love of words come from?

MD: I'll give you an answer that you might find surprising. I actually have a slight reading disability. It's not terrible, but the result is that I'm a chronically slow reader and it's frustrating because I can't get through all of the books that I want to read. But because of that I've been determined to approach language in a wholly different way and to make it work for me. From an early age I would sit and read the dictionary, and see the ways words relate to each other, and how they're employed in different ways and used in different contexts. It's incredibly nerdy stuff, but it did allow me to approach the language in such an odd way that I think it facilitated writing a book like this, where language is used so differently from what we're familiar with.

BT: That's interesting, because as the letters progressively drop out of the story, it seems like the pacing of the novel speeds up, and that probably would benefit you as a reader.

MD: That's a nice dividend. There's so many ways in which things worked themselves out in this novel, and a lot of it was just plain luck.

BT: Where did the inspiration for this particular story come from?

MD: I have some major concerns about people who impose their beliefs upon others, and by doing so rob others of their civil liberties. And that was an area that I explored in some other work and that I really wanted to take to an extreme, but in such a way that it didn't repulse readers. It was almost like I wanted to have it both ways. I wanted to employ some really high stakes, but I didn't want to have a blood bath like a lot of dystopian novels do. I wanted it to be something that high school kids could read and think about what the book was trying to say without being disturbed by its presentation. And I think that's why a couple of people have compared it to a "kindler, gentler 1984."

BT: You manage to explore a topic as weighty as totalitarianism with an impressively light touch. Did you set out intending to find a balance between these diametrically opposed qualities?

MD: Which you think would be difficult, but once you get used to the light touch, you can sort of keep it going and be a little bit dark, a little bit ironic, and a little satirical in places, but not do it to such an extreme that it's going to put people off. I think I achieved a balance that I'm comfortable with.

BT: Did you have something topical in mind when you chose to tackle this subject?

MD: At the risk of offending a lot of people who are really calcified in their religious views, a lot of what concerns me, and has for years, is the imposition of one's religious views on others and the ramifications of that. As I was finishing this book, they were blowing up the Buddhist statues in [Bamyan] Afghanistan. That resonated really strongly for me. That they were so convinced that they knew the only path to God that they would destroy something the things that other people had created in their own attempt to understand God is incredibly offensive to me.

BT: It must have been quite a challenge, as the book progressed, to write with an ever-contracting palette of letters.

MD: I call it a challenge, but it was also incredibly fun. The Nollopian people also create their own words, and later in the book, their own sound-alike language, and that continued to be fun for me throughout the writing process and didn't send me tossing the book across the room.

BT: That begs the question, what is your favorite word that you made up to skirt the Nollopian authorities?

MD: Gosh, I think I coined about 150 words in the book. There's a couple that I Ioved, and one that comes quickly to mind is "stagnationality." I love the idea of stagnation on a national level. Another I like, because of its onomatopoetic quality, is "scissoresonance." It has a great Zzzzz thing going on. That was another aspect of what was so much fun, not only was I getting to tell this fun story but I was also getting to reinvent the language.

BT: Did you use the "Find" function on your computer to make sure you were not using a "banned" letter by mistake?

MD: I would dead without the "Find" function! What I would do, periodically, is to go back through the chapters I'd done before and run the "Search" feature on each of the letters that had been outlawed. And the biggest fear of my original editor was that the book would be finished and we'd all breathe a sigh of relief and a few days later someone would come out of the woodwork and alert us to a letter that shouldn't be there. I think we caught them all, though. So far nobody has come forward.

BT: Did you think while you were writing the book that there was a population of wordfreaks out there who would love it, or were you simply trying to amuse yourself?

MD: I suspected that there would be some people who really got into that aspect of the book, but so far I haven't received any letters from people like that. My hope was that it would appeal to a lot of different groups of people in a lot of different ways. I haven't been chased down any alleys by any word geeks yet, though.

BT: Nollop is a place where words are revered. What do you think about the esteem in which language is held in today's society?

MD: It kind of depresses me. I think we, living here in New York City, are lucky in that this city reveres language so much. I love getting on the subway and seeing everyone reading a book. But American society… I think we're getting away from that. I don't think we're instilling in our kids a love of the written word, because of the tendency for them to sit too often in front of TVs and computer screens, and I miss that. I see a paucity in the language that kids are using now. I hope that if the book does nothing else it makes people take a look at the importance of language in our lives.

BT: Was this story as much fun to write as it was to read?

MD: That was the big question that I had. I enjoyed writing it so much that I thought there's no way people will have this much fun reading it. I felt like I was on this journey and I didn't realized that there would be so many people who would want to take this journey, too.

BT: Can you describe for our readers what your writing process is like?

MD: It's pretty similar, whether I'm writing a novel or a play. What I'll do is go back over what I've previously written over the last day or so, and I'll shape that before I launch into something new. For me, the writing process is most enjoyable when I be writing and rewriting at the same time, because I enjoy both aspects of that.

BT: Are you a disciplined writer? Do you have a writing schedule or is it more serendipitous?

MD: It's more serendipitous. It's not that I have to be moved or inspired to write, it's that I love writing so much that I work on projects simultaneously. If something isn't working out, I don't sit there and stare, I move on to something else. I don't think there's ever been a time when I've just worked on one project, and I think that's healthy.

BT: Who are some of your favorite playwrights and novelists?

MD: I tend to like a lot of Southern writers. Of course, remember that I'm one who can't get through a lot of novels; that may have been one reason I gravitated towards plays. I like people who tell quirky tales, and enjoy Southern gothic stories. I like Fannie Flagg and Larry McMurtry. I like writers who are so adept at storytelling without any pretension, who tell simple tales in a simple way. I like Tennesse Williams and a British playwright named Allen Ackborn. I love his sense of humor.

BT: Do you have any advice for aspiring novelists and playwrights?

MD: I have some great advice. I just turned 46 years old, and I've just in the last two years established myself as a writer. You just have to be really patient. I enjoyed some success in the theater, but never reached the level of success where I could support myself strictly by writing plays. And, of course, few playwrights do. But if you're confident that you've got talent and you write from your heart and you're not in it for the money, perseverance is the main thing that I would tell people. Hang in there and eventually things are going to fall into place, though sometimes it takes twenty or thirty years to happen.

BT: Tell me about your new novel that's coming out next month.

MD: It's a southern novel called Welcome to Higby and is coming out from MacAdam/Cage in October. It's about a small town in Mississippi over Labor Day weekend. I think it's Altmanesque because it carries about 25 different characters and 5 different storylines and weaves them through the book. And that is sort of another logistical challenge, like Ella Minnow Pea. I had a lot of fun with it, and I hope people enjoy it. It's a little more traditional than Ella, but still a lot of fun.

--Interview by Larry Weissman

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    Photo credit: Larry Weissman