A novelist on a mission
Ella Minnow Pea author delights in tweaking the genre
Although novelist Mark Dunn considers himself "an inveterate New Yorker," he's lost none of his soft Tennessee accent during the 15 years he has lived and worked in the Big Apple. The author, who got his start writing plays, not novels, has been writing since he was a child in Memphis, where he grew up just a block from Graceland. "So I do have Elvis stories," he says.
After the surprise popularity of last year's Ella Minnow Pea, his critically acclaimed and remarkably clever debut novel about an island whose residents must contend with a shrinking alphabet, Dunn decided he needed "to shift some major gears in terms of what I want to spend the rest of my life writing." During a phone call on a muggy morning to the small West Village apartment he shares with his wife, he explains, "I'm on a mission that every new novel I write is going to bend or tweak narrative as much as I can. I think writers need to be a little more daring. There are a lot of ways to tell stories and construct narratives that writers shy away from because they want to be either traditional or safe. I decided that's not going to be my mission."
Dunn's first ambition as an author was to write movies. He majored in film at Memphis State University and did post-graduate work in screenwriting at the University of Texas. But it turned out that a young writer could more easily see his work realized on stage than on screen. So, when he moved with his wife Mary to New York, Dunn began a modestly successful career as a playwright, while working as "a sort of administrative assistant" for the Rare Books and Manuscript division of the New York Public Library— "an incredible place for a writer to work" and the perfect day job for supporting his playwriting fix.
"I fell into theater and found that I really loved it," he says. "I loved telling stories through dialogue. I enjoyed all the restrictions that writing for the theater puts on a writer. I welcomed the challenge of telling stories in two hours with a handful of characters on a minimalist stage, incorporating the audience's imagination in the storytelling."
In turn, college and community theater audiences seemed to love Dunn's crisp dialogue, deft comic touch and his willingness to experiment with dramatic form. Of the 25 plays he has written, nine have been published in catalogs of acting editions for theaters to license and produce. Royalties from those productions never provided an actual living, but the attractions of writing for the theater were strong enough that even now, despite newfound success as a novelist, Dunn remains a playwright-in-residence with the New Jersey Repertory Company.
In New York during the early 1990s, working in the tiny second bedroom he and his wife had converted into an office, Dunn began writing the novel that would become his new book, Welcome to Higby,. The narrative is a more wide-ranging effort to fully employ his gift for comedy and dialogue, as well as his willingness to experiment—gifts he developed in playwriting.
Welcome to Higby is a funny, thoroughly charming story of what happens in a small town in northern Mississippi over Labor Day weekend 1993. In the grand scale of things, nothing momentous happens: 15-year-old Clint Cullen falls from a water tower and, by happy chance, lands in a neighbor's swimming pool; shy, clumsy Carmen Valentine has her eye on a handsome lumberyard Don Juan but meets Euless Ludlam instead; Talitha Leigh is kidnapped by a hapless religio-vegetarian cult; Clint's widowed father, the Reverend Oren Cullen worries about his grieving son and his own attraction to the owner of the Far East House of Massage out at the edge of town.
On the less grand scale of regular human life, however, Dunn's novel manages to touch on what troubles and enlivens most of us. His characters, he says, "want to be able to love someone and be loved back. They want to get some kind of handle on God, which troubles us all. . . . I like to say these people are looking for love and faith in all the wrong places." So, in what is the understated masterstroke and great experiment of the novel, Dunn weaves together five separate stories lines, 25 main characters and 60 or 70 supporting characters—and somehow brings them all together for a satisfying conclusion.
Dunn's inclination to be a little more daring in his storytelling was given a big boost by the unexpected success of Ella Minnow Pea, which has just been released in paperback. Even though its publication a year ago was overshadowed by the events of September 11, this playful first novel about the pleasures of language and the importance of freedom of expression caught the attention of booksellers everywhere, who recommended it widely.
"I was prepared to get a very small reception for the book," says Dunn, who spent a couple of years just trying to getting editors to understand "what in the world I was trying to do in the novel."
Not only has the book's success made him re-evaluate his writing career, it's also made him shift some major gears in the way he thinks about himself. As a result of having a twin brother, he says, "I never grew up saying 'I.' From an early age it was hard for me to think of the world in terms of just my own place in it, singularly, all by myself." Which may explain part of the attraction of playwriting, the most collaborative of art forms.
"For years and years," Dunn says, "writing a play was one step in a process that involved a lot of people. At some point I would let go of the idea that the play was mine and it became ours. I'm not experiencing that with writing novels. All of a sudden it's about me and my book, and I'm having a little trouble dealing with that sort of singular attention. I've stopped saying 'we' and had to learn how to say 'I.' "
Alden Mudge writes from Oakland, California.