Gunnar Ohberg: Have you always wanted to be a writer or was there something in particular that drew you to writing?
Kristyn Dunnion: Growing up watching a lot of bad TV in the 1970s, I was heavily influenced by tough chicas like Pinky and Leather Tuscadero (Happy Days), by the Lady Detectives of Charlie’s Angels, etcetera. I wanted to be like them. Writing is something I’ve come to, more and more, as other excitements have fallen away and as my attention span (and ability to sit still!) has grown. I appreciate the solitude of writing and the discipline of playing with language to get things ‘just right’ in a way that’s so different from collaborative theatre or activist/community projects, from other work I’ve done over the years.
GO: Your books cover a wide range of genre: dystopian, domestic drama, murder-mystery thriller, sci-fi fantasy. Does your experience as a writer change depending on the genre? Have you found some genres easier or harder to write than others?
KD: With each new project, I try to stay open, curious about exploring the world of the story. For me that includes style and genre — I’m more concerned with discovering the aesthetic and getting to know the characters, really inhabiting their bodies and dreams, than with categorizing how it will be told. For me, genre is more of an internal discovery than a conscious choice. One exception is short fiction, which I actively pursued with the misguided notion that it would take less time to write. Ha! I spent almost eight years revising some of the stories that ended up in Stoop City(Biblioasis, 2020). Each book is compelling and challenging (to write) in its own way. Each has been driven by an emotional landscape or unanswered question, by stark imagery and sometimes by an audacious character/voice that will not be dislodged from my head, otherwise.
GO: In addition to writing, you are a performance artist, a former cabaret performer, and have been the bassist for multiple rock bands. Have these creative performances influenced your writing in any way?
KD: Yes! Visual arts, too, are a deeply satisfying medium to balance the two-dimensional world of text. I am happiest in a studio, mucking about, experimenting. I urge writers to balance that part of their life with physicalized movement, with martial arts or dance or something like that. Making music, co-writing songs, working with other artists to stage something, these are all invaluable experiences that help flex creative muscles and teach us new vocabulary, new ways of thinking, communicating, being. I resist the convention of committing to a single modality within the vast artistic universe, or to a single genre in all of literature; categorization like this, which might serve to inspire expertise and deep understanding for some people, feels restrictive to me.
GO: You’ve also worked in a shelter system since the COVID pandemic began. How has COVID impacted your writing, if at all?
KD: At first, things weren’t too different, in that I was deep into final revisions for Stoop City, which gave me a framework for continuing to write. Launching a book during the pandemic was strange. One of my favourite parts about being an author is travelling and giving public readings, meeting readers and other writers, and that dynamic in-person element was missing. But it’s astounding to have access to online technology that facilitates connection, and those advantages have been pretty cool. The paid work I do outside of writing is so focused on pandemic response and active front line work, which brings its own stressors and challenges. There have been points during the pandemic when I was unable to read for any length of time (I’d switch to short essays and poetry), or felt too despondent to write (I completed two jigsaw puzzles, instead). People say, “Oh, are you going to write about the pandemic?” and I’m like, “No way, so redundant!” I’m working on a sequel to the dystopic Tarry This Night. Glean Among the Sheaves explores abundance, reciprocity, alternative concepts of the Divine. For a change, I want to conceive of a possible future which is not in itself terrorizing: the antidote to white supremacy, to patriarchal capitalism.
GO: It’s been noted that punk and heavy metal have some influence in your work. Can you tell us more about that relationship between music and literature for you? Are there particular songs or bands you listen to for inspiration?
KD: Oh, yes, music fuels me. Each book has its own playlist — what I played while writing, that (hopefully) seeps into the text, contaminating readers. I listened to a lot of doom/sludge metal for Tarry This Night, and wrote hymns in the stairwell of my building: creepy! As a bassist, I’m partial to Black Sabbath, the Melvins, Sleep and Bolt Thrower, to name a very few.
GO: What books were essential to your formation as a writer, and are there any books you’d recommend for any beginning writer?
KD: Books were a lifeline for me as a kid; the public library in town was a safe haven. It’s so subjective, what book (or band) will knock someone’s socks off, and I continue to be astonished by new or new-to-me writers. The stories I remember most vividly from childhood were emotionally devastating, so much so the books were sometimes confiscated until I’d ‘calm down.’ Books that told me about another person’s struggles in their differently-lived life nurtured deep empathy in me as a reader, as a human. This is probably why I write – primarily to express those intimate longings and, secondly, in hopes for some kind of connection, however anonymous it might be.
For a beginning writer, especially, read widely. Read outside your comfort zone: different genres, diverse writers. Listen to authors speak about their work (so much is accessible online now); this is how we learn to talk and think about our own work, and to place it in the context of what has come before, what’s current, whatever will come next.
Kristyn Dunnion was raised in the southern-most tip of rural Canada and now lives in Toronto. She has authored six books, most recently Stoop City (Biblioasis, 2020), winner of the 2021 ReLit Award for short fiction, and Tarry This Night (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2017). Recent work appears in Best Canadian Stories 2020, Toronto 2033 and Orca. A queer performance artist and heavy metal bassist, Dunnion is also a community mental health support worker.
Gunnar Ohberg is a member of the University of Saskatchewan’s MFA in Writing program. His poems and short stories have recently been featured in The Racket, The Mark Literary Review, and in media res. He is currently working on a dystopian novel set in South Carolina. Sometimes he plays in rock bands.