Katherine Dunn


At Work

It took seventeen years to get from my second novel, Truck, to my third, Geek Love.

Katherine Dunn’s novel, Geek Love, is the most singular, evocative, twisted, hilarious book I have ever read. Every sentence contains a surprise. There is nothing else like it. I’ve given a copy of Geek Love as a gift at least once a year for the last decade. A while ago, I wrote Katherine Dunn a fan letter. In reaction to my heaps of heartfelt praise, she said simply, “I’m so grateful that you found it funny. Not everyone gets the jokes.”

Our correspondence ranged from marriage to Mike Tyson’s pigeons, but there was one steady thread—my repeated nagging for a short story or piece of fiction to read and consider for the magazine. I learned from Katherine that I was not her only fan among Paris Review editors. “Shortly before George Plimpton died, he phoned me out of the blue—he was a legendary figure for my generation so this blew my pulse rate to ecstatic shreds—asking to include one of my pieces in a volume of boxing stories he was planning to edit. It would have been a great honor.” A new Katherine Dunn story in The Paris Review, the issue’s printed, and my pulse has not yet returned to normal.

Since Geek Love was published in 1989, you’ve published many articles, essays, even poetry, but not much fiction. Does fiction take longer to simmer?

Yes, I’ve only published a few short stories in anthologies. Some projects do take longer to gel. But nonfiction is done on a deadline so somebody snatches it away and prints it.

Twenty years is a long time for something to gel, what has happened?

I don’t want to be glib here, but twenty years worth of life and work happened. Some might say I’m right on schedule by my lights. It took seventeen years to get from my second novel, Truck, to my third, Geek Love. And Cut Man is still in progress but it’s a longer book. Fortunately there’s no shortage of wonderful novelists to keep us all engaged. And, lucky for me, the Magi at Alfred A. Knopf are possessed of patience.

Is the process of writing fiction completely different from other kinds of writing for you?

Sure. Non-fiction is a big responsibility. Rationality. Facts. The urgent need to reflect some small aspect of reality. But fiction is a private autism, a self-referential world in which the writer is omnipotent. Gravity, taxes and death are mere options, subject to the writer’s fancy. Fiction, even when it’s grim and hard, is fun.

You’ve been a boxing reporter for years (One Ring Circus: Dispatches from the World of Boxing was published last year). How did you get interested in boxing?

When I was a little kid, back in the middle of the last century, my Dad and brothers were interested in boxing but my mother declared it vulgar and barbaric and banned even the mention of it in her house. Naturally I was fascinated.

Do you remember your first match?

Early on we listened to matches on the radio, and later saw them on TV. But I remember the first live professional match I went to in 1980. It was in a huge, drafty rodeo barn, a local club show. No big names. But most of the fighters were experienced, calm and focused. Then a kid came out to make his pro debut. He’d had a lot of amateur matches but this was his first bout without a helmet, and with the smaller gloves. He was a bantamweight, 118 lbs, with a neck the size of my wrist, and he was so nervous and scared that he vibrated. Waves of emotion rolled off him. It took him a few rounds to settle down, but he won his bout handily. It clicked for me that in a few more bouts he would learn to control his fear as the older pros did, to use it as a tool rather than let it rattle him. That struck me as a mysterious and valuable process. Within the year I started reporting on the sport for the local newspapers and I’m still writing about it. The novel I’m working on, Cut Man, is set in the world of small town, small-time boxing.

Is being a woman advantageous or disadvantageous for ringside reporting?

Thirty years ago it was an advantage because at most fights the lines to the women’s restroom were short. That’s not so true anymore.

When I started out I expected to get some gaff, because the sport was known as “The Last Male Bastion,” and all. But it never happened. The fight guys, male and now female as well, tend to be so obsessed with their sport that all they care about is whether can you do the job. That tunnel vision is part of the appeal.

Do you box?

No, I’ve never competed. I did, however, train in a boxing gym with a good coach beginning in 1993. I’d been writing about the sport for a dozen years by then and wanted to know what boxers endured, what it felt like. I was too old to compete when I started but I sparred enough to get a taste. The boys were gentle with me and the girls kicked my butt. Finally my coach retired from the gym a few years ago and, regretfully, so did I.

Last November a young woman tried to snatch my purse on the street. I punched her out until the cavalry arrived. Most fun I’ve had in years.

What do you love to do most when you’re not working?

Walk and talk, smoke cigarettes and drink coffee. Come to think of it, I guess I do all that while I’m working, too.