This week I got to talk with Mark Dunn, whom I first met in the late '90s, when we were both having our plays produced in Denver, directed by the same director. We stayed in touch and become friends over the years. In terms of juggling writing for different media, Mark has always been an inspiration and role model for me, moving effortlessly from writing mostly plays to writing a variety of books (including one of my very favorite novels, Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel in Letters ).
Back in the 90s and early 2000s, you were getting a lot of productions, at small and mid-size theatres across the country. Belles and Five Tellers Dancing in the Rain were getting a lot of productions . You had a dozen full-length plays published by Samuel French, DPS and Dramatic Publishing. And then your first novel, Ella Minnow Pea, came out and was a big hit. Ella Minnow Pea has been followed by a whole string of books—what was the transition like, moving from writing plays to books (and moving, physically, from New York to Albuquerque)?
The transition was stranger than I expected. I went from working exclusively in a very artistically collaborative medium to one in which the writer has to do most of the heavy lifting. I often make the comparison when I'm teaching writing workshops between the playscript serving as a blueprint which then is taken by the director and the actors and from which the physical play is constructed -- contrasted with a novel which serves as the creative entity itself and lives or dies only on the basis of the text itself upon the page. There are advantages and disadvantages to each: as a playwright I like working with people who bring their own forms of creativity and artistic insight into the mix. Together we create this (hopefully) beautiful piece of theatre that takes its author's original story idea and shapes it into something that everyone has a stake in. (And woe to the playwright who gets too proprietary about his work.) But a novelist doesn't get to benefit from the overlay of other talents and perspectives, except in terms of editorial input. And I've had editors who were very hands-off. I've had the other kinds of editors, as well, resulting in (in one sad case) clashing visions that resulted in my publishing house siding with my editor and dropping the book altogether. The physical move from New York to New Mexico paralleled my shift in large part from writing plays to books. I drew a lot of creative energy as a playwright from living in a theatre town like New York. But an author can pen his books anywhere, so my wife and I picked a place that was quieter and little more sedate than the Big Apple. The irony is that I really did want to keep my hand in and perhaps write a new play every year or so and suddenly I had entered a community in which being in the theatre was considered more of an avocation than a vocation. To put it bluntly, I moved to a town with an enormous number of community theatres, and very little opportunities for professional playwrights to develop new work.
Was Ella Minnow Pea the first novel that you wrote, or the first that was published?
Ella was my first published novel, but I had written Welcome to Higby several years before. After Ella was published, my publisher asked what I'd be working on next, and I handed him Higby. It worked out pretty well, although the books being so different from each other, spoke to different sets of readers (and some fans of my "progressively lipogrammatic epistolary fable Ella Minnow Pea" were looking for something similar and instead, I gave them a book about a small town in Mississippi).
How long did it take for you to find a publisher for Ella?
Quite a while. I couldn't get an agent for an odd book like Ella and had a hard time landing this unagented novel with a publisher. Most of the queries to both agents and publishers (for which I received responses) met with form-letter rejections. Good luck was eventually on my side, though. MacAdam/Cage had just opened its doors the year before and was still hungry for manuscripts, even to the point of accepting unsolicited manuscripts from unrepresented authors. Even MacAdam/Cage doesn't do that today. Interestingly, when the hardback did well and there was a bidding war among several of the large publishing houses for the paperback rights, I had a private laugh over the fact that each of these publishers participating in the auction for Ella's paperback rights, had rejected the book when I had first queried them about it.
It seemed like for a while you dived headfirst into writing books, but you’ve managed to keep your hand in theatre. What makes it so hard to leave playwriting?
Many of the things I noted above, but I should also say that as one who is basically a storyteller, and a storyteller who first learned to tell stories through dialogue, playwriting has always been a comfortable vehicle for me. As a writer who enjoys challenges, I've always felt that the idea of holding an audience's interest for two hours through people simply talking to one another on a stage was a challenge that I especially loved.
Do you find it difficult, as a writer, to go back and forth, or is it actually helpful?
These days I make that transition fairly easily. It's like an artist who spends part of his time painting in oil and part of his time painting in watercolor, which requires two very different techniques, but after a while you get used to the adjustments. With plays I work small and work concise. There's an economy of words that must be respected. My canvas is much, much larger with my novels and I have the chance to explore the contours of my novels' characters, which I can't do with my play characters. My latest book, though, offers an interesting challenge -- American Decameron is 100 short stories. As I've worked through these stories, I've found that I've had to apply some of my playwriting rules of saying much with fewer words. But in large part that's just a difference between long form writing and short form writing -- the same way that my one-act plays require a different approach than my full length plays.
Do you find that you have more freedom to challenge yourself and your audience when writing books? When I look at some of the work you’ve done, Ella Minnow Pea, Ibid , Under the Harrow , and your upcoming American Decameron, it seems like you’ve set up extremely difficult situations for yourself as a writer (for example, in Ella Minnow Pea, you are forced to progressively use fewer and fewer letters of the alphabet, Ibid is told entirely in footnotes), and the reader gets sucked in with seeing whether you can pull it off. It’s so cool that you’re able to write like this, yet at the same time, it seems like the publishing industry is becoming more risk-averse in terms of what they’ll publish. This would seem especially difficult for a writer like you, who is not writing in an established genre. What’s your take on the state of American publishing right now?
And that pretty much defines where I am right now. I do really enjoy the constraints and the challenges and the chance to do things that few if any authors have done before. I can safely say that no author has ever written a book about a disappearing alphabet in which the alphabet literally disappears from the book as it goes along. Ella Minnow Pea has now become fodder for literary trivia -- a weird but fun honor. But because I tend to do things that have few comparables, it puts me in an awkward and mostly unfortunate situation with regard to extremely risk-averse and conservative publishers (which pretty much defines all of the medium to large-size houses right now.) American Decameron was rejected by one editor after another when my agent started sending it around because it was a big book, because it was comprised of short stories in a day in which very few short story collections are being published (not that A.D. is a "collection" in the traditional sense), because it can't be easily described by an editor to those of her superiors who will ultimately decide its fate. And that's the problem with the industry right now. Hard economics has made it much more difficult to take on a book that may have the potential to break out on its own and turn itself into a publishing phenomenon, but also could end up falling far short and lose the house money. So what we have is fear and parochialism in the industry. Something similar, I noticed, happened with my published plays over the last four years of this recession. The community theatres that generally license my work from the play catalogs stopped scheduling plays in their seasons that weren't in what I call the "cobweb canon." We saw a lot of productions around the country of old plays (often tired, old plays) with familiar titles. Most of my plays don't have familiar titles and so my playwriting revenue went into a several-year slump.
You’ve written one book for kids, The Age Altertron (Calamitous Adventures of Rodney and Wayne, Cosmic Repairboys) . How did you approach writing for a younger audience?
I put myself as best I could into the head of the young pre-teen reader. I kept the language simple but not patronizingly so. What worked best for me is writing the kind of book that I would have enjoyed reading when I was twelve. But it definitely required the shifting of a few gears. Then again, I shift gears a lot. Every book I write requires its own voice and its own storytelling tool box.
I love that you’ve been able to do some non-fiction work—you wrote ZOUNDS!: A Browser's Dictionary of Interjections and you and your wife, Mary, put together the comprehensive, United States Counties. Again, you seem able to make some big, fun leaps into other types of projects. How do you balance it all? Do you tend to have a lot of projects running all at once?
I actually do work on more than one project at a time -- unless I have a deadline that forces me to concentrate on one particular book or play until I'm finished. I shuffle through them in such a way that I keep myself engaged and energized on each one. Maybe that's why I'm allowed to tell people that I don't get writer's block. If I find myself getting to a point where I'm going to have work myself through a tough spot, I move to something else and then come back. Often my return involves backing up a few chapters or pages and then going at it with a running start. I also have projects that I've set aside, that I like to come back to from time to time. My maxim usually is that anything I write can be made better if I keep working on it. It's only my published work that I'm not allowed to tinker with anymore. On occasion I've taken work out that's ten, twelve years old and now with a more mature eye, I can reshape it in a way that makes it more satisfying for me.
What is your writing schedule like for a novel, a book of non-fiction, a play? Does it vary a lot?
The non-fiction can be a slog. The county encyclopedia as the exception to all my usual rules was like working each day in a salt mine. On the other hand I usually am having so much fun with my books and plays that it's hard to pull myself away when I'm "in the zone." People wonder why I'm able to write such long books. Under the Harrow, for example is 200,000 words, and American Decameron will be 250,000. In large part it's because I really enjoy spending time with the characters I've created. I'm also not averse to research and so many of my books have been pretty heavily researched. I like discovering things in my research that will serve my story and characters and even sometimes shift things in an unexpected new direction.
How do you organize the research that you do? (I’m using Scrivener now and really like it.) I’d love to hear about the tools that you use. You worked for a long time at the New York Public Library. Did you learn any good tricks there?
I use no tools beyond the cerebral ones I've acquired through trial and error and intuition. For the county encyclopedia Mary and I created a large WORD database divided into state folders and county files and using the same template into which to plug in information and text, so that at the end of the day, the county articles were nearly written from the assembly of information in each file. But I'm an old fashioned researcher. I've spent thousands of hours sitting in library reading rooms with either my laptop or pencils and spiral-bound notebooks, jotting down facts that I felt might be useful in my plays and fiction projects. I'm an armchair cultural historian of the 20th century, so often I was building around information I already knew. With respect to my last novel, Under the Harrow, it was necessary for me to sit with the Encyclopedia Britannica from the 1880s and browse through nearly every page to get a sense as to what it was that my characters would know, since they were quarantined neo-Victorians who had only this encyclopedia, a Bible, and the novels of Dickens from which to create the lions' share of their world-knowledge. In the course of all that browsing, I discovered several things that furthered the plot of my novel such as the fact that the encyclopedia had quite a few translations of Egyptian hieroglyphics words and phrases (plot point!), or that there were little snippets of Victorian poetry throughout. I was surprised to learn that as far back as the late 1880s most scientists had a strong feeling that the invention of lighter-than-aircraft was only a few years away. How prescient was that!
What projects are you working on right now? (Weren’t you working on a board game at one point? Wasn’t there going to be a musical of Ella Minnow Pea?).
In between working on edits of American Decameron, I've been spending time with an old play from around 2000 that I didn't do much with back then, as well as a science fiction Young Adult novel I've been working on now and then for the last eight years. Alas, I had to give up my quixotic dream of becoming a game designer since there is no more competitive industry on this planet and especially in this day in which Hasbro has cornered 90 percent of the board game market (and has its own in-house designers). Not that I don't have at least five games either prototyped or living in my head. The Ella Minnow Pea musical premiered about three years ago at the University of Michigan and its book writer/lyricist and composer have taken it through a few more rewrites before hooking up with a theatre company in New York where I believe it's slated for a workshop production next year. I'm not too well looped into the project at this point. They just keep paying their option every year and I try to make sure it doesn't get too expensive for them since they're very talented and I'd love to see them eventually get a good New York production.