Good to Know
Dunn's first book, The Official Slacker Handbook, was published in 1994.
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In the summer of 2004, Sarah Dunn took some time out to talk with us about some of her favorite books and authors, and the secrets to her success.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer -- and why?
I realize I sound like George Bush here, but I've got to go with the Bible. I grew up reading it, studying it, memorizing it, and, for long stretches of time, obeying it.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?The Secret History by Donna Tartt -- I am jealous of people who haven't read this book, truly envious of them, because they can still read it for the first time. A page-turner, beautifully written. Who is it that said that the dream should be vivid and continuous?
A Month of Sundays John Updike -- A Protestant minister is sent off to a clinic for spiritual leaders with sex addictions. Each morning he writes a sermon and tells us how he ended up there. Sex and religion, my favorites.
Heartburn by Nora Ephron -- Her voice is so funny and straightforward and honest. Great dialogue, and a story that clips along nicely, even though not a whole lot actually happens.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy -- A book to get lost inside. I read it every few years, usually on a trip where I have time to read it straight through.
High Fidelity by Nick Hornby -- Hornby makes it look so easy in this book. I love the intimacy, the humor, and the narrator's lively inner world.
The Psychological Meaning of Redemption Motifs in Fairy Tales by Marie-Louise von Franz -- A book of lectures on Jungian interpretations of fairy tales. A great way to help you think about dreams and stories and psychological principles, by an apprentice of Carl Jung.
Flannery O'Connor's Collected Short Stories -- My desert island book. My book-between-books book. Original and startling and completely compelling.
The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron -- A little self-helpy? Sure. But it's the first thing I suggest when anybody asks me for advice about the writing life and creativity.
When Harry Met Sally (the screenplay) by Nora Ephron -- Really, really great writing. Snappy dialogue that doesn't feel snappy, which is quite a trick.
The Diary of Virginia Woolf -- I get lonely when I'm working, so I like to read writers' diaries and letters at night when I go to sleep, and Virginia's are my favorite. All of the struggles of a writer's life, plus history and gossip and a window into an exceptional mind.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you? Manhattan by Woody Allen -- I love the look of this film, the score, the story, you name it. You can learn a lot about dramatic structure if you bother to study it.
Walking and Talking -- I love how breezy this movie is, simple and amusing and touching. When I watch it, I wonder why there aren't more movies just like it.
Postcards from the Edge (DVD with commentary) -- Buy or rent the DVD and listen to the commentary by Carrie Fisher. It is like spending two hours with a friend who is funnier and odder than anyone you know. Meryl Streep will swallow a pill on screen, and Carrie will say, "God, I miss pills." Plus, she talks about her mother and her career and her life. Utterly charming and revealing.
What types of music do like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I have horrible, embarrassing taste in music, and I make it a point to not go on the record about specifics. If anyone were to get a hold of my iPod and scan through it, they would immediately stop being my friend. I will say that for the past two years, I have written almost exclusively to Celtic Christmas music, and not obscure, cool Celtic Christmas Music, but the kind that comes on those cheap compendium CDs meant to be listened to in the bathtub by frazzled soccer moms.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
I like the idea of a very rigid, rule-bound book club that would make me read books I wouldn't get to on my own and would punish those who don't finish the book by, say, not letting them drink any of the wine. My ordinary reading has become so mood-driven and impulsive, I'd kind of like someone to impose a little order. So I'd say, only "biggies" that people are embarrassed that they haven't read, sort of plug in all the holes for a year or two. Somehow I missed Moby-Dick, and I'm afraid I'll never get to it unless the punishment is a night with my friends in which I'm not allowed to partake of the wine.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
The book I'm giving now is Gladstone's Games to Go by Jim Gladstone. It is filled with fun games you can do with just a paper and pencil, and it lists different variations in rules and styles. Some of the games are familiar, a lot are new, and it's a good book to have around the house or in the glove compartment on a car trip. It's a great way to get people to "unplug" and have fun with each other.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I hate this question, because the truth is I have so many rituals I should probably be institutionalized. They are always changing, though, which I think is a good thing. I've got smelly candles and special journals and fuzzy slippers and cats on my lap and hot water bottles and my special mint tea, all punctuated by multiple baths. My main problem is writing in the summer. I have to turn on the air conditioning really high because otherwise I would pass out.
What are you working on now?
I'm working on my next novel. I don't like to talk about it. You shouldn't open the oven door while the cake is rising or the steam might go out of it.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
It took me an embarrassingly long time to write this book. Five years -- and if you bother to read it you'll see why I'm embarrassed by that figure. It took so long, really, that after I had sold it to Little, Brown, my mother said to me, "You know, don't take this the wrong way, but last spring I started to suspect that maybe you weren't writing anything at all! I thought, well, Sarah sees that shrink all the time, maybe this novel she talks about is just a figment of her imagination," I think that qualifies as a horror story, even though there was no actual rejection-slip to put in the bottom drawer.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be -- and why?
I spent time in the west of Ireland, at Anam Cara, which is a writer's colony and a great place to get work done. A young woman named Leanne O'Sullivan had an after-school job there, cleaning up after the writers and looking after the ducks. Well, one night I heard her read a few of her poems, and it was like having my guts ripped out. Her work is wrenching and exquisite -- a 19-year-old Irish Susan Olds. She has been discovered in Ireland, winning national literary prizes before her first year in college, and I believe her first book of poetry is coming out in the fall.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Well, I'm sure everybody says here, "Don't worry about being discovered, just write." That's true -- but I will add this: "Climb the right mountain." If you want to write movies, don't go get a job as a copywriter at an ad agency, or try to launch a freelance magazine writing career. If you want to write a novel, don't decide that first you should get a column in a national magazine, because that would be easier, or first you should write short stories because they are shorter. None of it is easier than anything else, and I am just at the age where I see a bunch of friends who made decisions in their 20s that led them to the top of the mountain they don't want to be on. It's awfully hard to give that up and start all over again. Pick the thing you really want to do, the true dream, instead of the thing that you think won't make you feel so bad if you happen to fail at it.
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