Katherine Dunn. Photograph courtesy of Eli Dapolonia.
Katherine Dunn didn’t really make a living from her fiction until 1987, when, at forty-two, she sold Geek Love, her third published novel, to Sonny Mehta at Knopf for twenty-five thousand dollars—a windfall that briefly swept away her persistent financial concerns. Dunn had relied on all sorts of ways to make ends meet while she was coming up as a writer. At eighteen years old, in 1963, she sold fake magazine subscriptions door-to-door in the Midwest until she was arrested in Missouri for trying to cash a client’s fraudulent check. As a college student, first at Portland State and later at Reed, she worked as a topless dancer, a nude model for art students, and a writer of fellow students’ term papers. She also hustled pool.
After her first novel, Attic, was published in 1970, Dunn got a gig in Manhattan writing scripts for Warner Brothers. She returned to Portland in 1976, after years of travel. There she tended bar at the Earth Tavern, a dive-bar-slash-rock venue frequented by hippies, bikers, and merchant marines. She wrote a question-and-answer column for Willamette Week, the local Portland alt-weekly, and covered local boxing.
But, mostly, as she struggled to make it as a fiction writer, Dunn waited tables, most notably at the Stepping Stone Cafe, a terrific Northwest Portland diner. When I stopped there last summer on a trip doing research for a biography about Dunn, it felt like it probably hadn’t changed much since she worked there in the seventies and eighties. Back then, the only day care she could afford for her young son, Eli Dapolonia, was a seat at the counter while she poured coffee and charmed customers.
Around the time Dunn wrote and was trying to sell “The Education of Mrs. R.,” her story featured in the new Fall issue of The Paris Review, it was 1975 and she was living in rural Vermont with Eli, who was then five, and her long-term boyfriend, Dante Peter Dapolonia Jr., and working as a secretary for the Physical Education Department at Middlebury College for two dollars and ten cents an hour. She described her employment in a letter to an old high school friend that fall:
No trouble as a job but the money makes me ache with chagrin—it’s not even the sort of job an illiterate could do. Nonetheless, it’s a wee dock o’ something—we’d be fine if the unemployment came through—Dan stays with Eli—works in the garden—preparing for spring—building compost—cutting weeds—digging—and drives me to work and picks me up as well as doing the housework … So, as usual, we have everything but money. Long walks, a library across the street, and a good time is had by all except for a faint nag that surfaces between waking and sleeping to fret the nerves over what may come.
Dunn was around thirty when she wrote “The Education of Mrs. R.,” and it was a time of great uncertainty on the heels of some itinerancy. Since she had met Dapolonia in the Haight in early 1968, the two had been traveling, from Belize to Nova Scotia to Europe, where they’d lived on the outskirts of Dublin for several years after Dunn gave birth there to Eli. Now that they had returned to the States, the young family was trying to carve out a more stable life in Vermont. The Dunn-Dapolonias were radicals of a fashion; they lived abroad and without any regular source of income for almost a decade. True to the era, they were serious about health food, progressive education, and not working for the man for any length of time—though some of their aspects separated their attitude from the milieu. “Neither of us were hippies,” Dunn wrote in a family album that Dapolonia Jr.’s uncle assembled. “We resembled them with our longish hair and casual attitudes toward sex and drugs and careers. But we were skeptical, analytical, critical, and struggling to find some rational and pragmatic view of the turmoil around us. And we were fundamentally selfish—convinced that the world couldn’t be ‘saved’ and even if it could be, we had enough to do to keep our heads above water, and weren’t the ones to do it. I, of course, had a fantasy that I could write sanity into existence.”
Dunn published two loosely autobiographical novels about her teenage years—Attic and Truck—in 1970 and 1971, but her third book, Toad, which will be published this fall by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, was turned down again and again in the seventies. As she grappled with the demands of parenting and work, and the sting of rejection, she carved out time to work on a series of stories—all of them in the realistic vein and to some degree autobiographical—that explored what it means to be a mother. Reading them now, one can see Dunn exploring notions of family, power, and feminism, all while sorting through what kind of person she wanted to be.
Dunn’s own brand of feminism was complicated: “I wasn’t aware or interested in the women’s movement,” she wrote. “I was a loner and it never occurred to me that I couldn’t do whatever I wanted to. Being female I could get away with more than a guy could. It was an advantage not a liability.”
She believed that contemporary feminists depicted men as inherently aggressive and women as naturally helpless, and that this false dichotomy deepened gender inequality. “Defining men as the perpetrators of all violence is a viciously immoral judgment of an entire gender,” she wrote in “Just as Fierce,” a 1994 essay for Mother Jones. “And defining women as inherently nonviolent condemns us to the equally restrictive role of sweet, meek, and weak.”
Dunn refined this idea over the years. In “Call of the Wild,” a 1995 essay for Vogue, she declared the nineties to be the era of the bad girl. “There’s a Jungian notion that people cannot mature fully until they recognize and control their own dark side,” she wrote. “Perhaps a whole gender can go through the same maturation process.”
“The Education of Mrs. R.” is a dramatic exploration of Dunn’s belief that women need to recognize their inherent capacity for violence. It’s an origin story: after accidentally purchasing fifty roosters instead of egg-laying hens, Mrs. Rossich takes matters into her own hands and slaughters them, one by one, to provide food for her family. The story’s protagonist is a version of Dunn’s own mother, Velma Rossich née Golly, and the piece is reportedly based on a true story: Dunn’s younger brother, Nick, told me that their mom once slaughtered about twenty Cornish hens before realizing it was too much work.
Velma Rossich was a complicated figure in Dunn’s life. She was famously abusive and violent, and she was thought to be mentally ill. In her writing, Dunn valorizes fictional versions of her mother in one story, then emphasizes her nastiness in another. Undoubtedly, though, Velma lived up to Dunn’s idealized feminism. “My mother, still a witty and gifted artist in her hale 80s, got a rifle a few years ago,” Dunn wrote in “Just as Fierce.” “I pity the burglar who gives her a chance to use it.”
Of the several stories Dunn wrote and submitted to magazines in the mid-seventies, only one was published: “The Novitiate,” about a young mother protecting her two-year-old son in a squalid apartment building after being abandoned by the boy’s father. Redbook included the piece in their 1974 fiction issue. The story is harrowing and hones in on the details of squalor in typical Dunn fashion, but it presents a view of motherhood that was perhaps more palatable to readers of women’s magazines in the seventies—the protagonist is vulnerable, afraid, and sensitive. She cries after hearing a neighbor refer to her as a “sow.” She has a waking vision that her future vagina will “heal over for lack of use.” Redbook’s fiction editor wrote to Dunn’s agent to express interest in the story: “We admire the way this story explores feminine issues and desires, perhaps vanities as well.” And the magazine’s copy introducing the story hints at erotic overtones: “She was running on instinct—and fear of the men who hear her, almost smell her, through the walls.”
“The Education of Mrs. R.,” on the other hand, had never seen the light of day until The Paris Review published it this fall. It’s possible readers in the seventies weren’t ready for Dunn’s vision of a woman so enraptured by the act of murdering chickens that she doesn’t have time to tend to her young daughter. “You’re killing them!” Abby cries when she finds her mother covered in blood. “Yah!” Mrs. Rossich screams in return. In Dunn’s archives at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, I only found one rejection letter for the story, from an editor at McCall’s in 1975. “Katherine Dunn’s ‘The Education of Mrs. R.’ is a strong story,” she wrote, “but not really on track for our audience.”
After getting paid $1,750 for “The Novitiate,” in 1974, Dunn didn’t make another penny from her fiction writing until she sold Geek Love about fifteen years later. That money, combined with a sizable advance for her follow-up novel, Cut Man, plus proceeds from Geek film options, allowed her to buy a large Victorian in Northwest Portland, where her boyfriend, her little brother, her son, and a couple of his friends were able to move in. A period of prosperity lasted a decade or so before Dunn’s newfound wealth dried up, and she was back to having everything but money.
Eric Rosenblum is an associate couples and family therapist working in Brooklyn and an adjunct associate professor of writing at Pratt Institute. He is currently at work on a book-length biography of Katherine Dunn.
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