Thursday, September 29, 2011

Authorsday: Genni Gunn

Genni Gunn 

  1. When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

 Writing and music have always been constants in my life. I decided to go the professional musician route first, but even while I was touring, I filled notebooks with stories and impressions of my experiences. At a certain point, however, I grew disillusioned with the musician’s life – the constant travel, the everchanging bands, rehearsals, etc. Much of the musician’s life is about maintenance, and I got tired of it. Writing was a way of expressing myself without having to rely on other people. I switched my focus from music to writing – I returned to university to do a M.F.A. which made me take myself seriously.  It was simply a matter of switching outlets for my creative energies.

  1. Who were your earliest literary role models, and why?

 I grew up in Italy until I was ten, so my literary models in those years were very different from ones people here have.  I was raised on Italian fairy tales as a child, then more classical texts, such as Dante, Carducci, Petrarch. Roman and Greek mythology were forefront too – if you live in Italy, it’s hard not to relate everything around you to its classical history.  In terms of music, too, I grew up listening to opera, and to this day, there are a number of operas I know by heart. 

  1. What was the first thing you ever wrote? What reaction did this get?

There’s a big difference between the first thing I wrote, and the first thing I published.  I’ve been writing all my life, so I don’t remember the first thing I wrote. As a child, my sister and I would make books – I’d write the stories and she’d illustrate them – then we’d sell the books to our parents, whose reactions were marvellous!

The first thing I published was a poem called, “Long Beach.” I had entered it in a contest and it won first prize. Of course I was both thrilled and encouraged to keep writing.

  1. What was the name of the first novel you wrote? Did you try to publish it?

When I was at university, I wrote a novel for my M.F.A. thesis. The entire novel took place in an airport, and covered only a few hours, although of course, in flashbacks, it covered a whole lifetime too. I sent the manuscript out to a publisher, and the editor wrote back with a series of questions. At that time, not realizing how fortunate I was to even have received a response, never mind a long one with queries, I didn’t reply, so the manuscript was never published.

In retrospect, this was not a bad thing, because novels written this way, tend to be novels-by-committees, which tamps them down somewhat. So I consider that first effort my learning novel. The next novel I wrote, Thrice Upon a Time took me five years, and though it was a long struggle, a lot of research, and little money, it was mine, and after publication, was shortlisted for Best First Book for the Commonwealth Prize.

  1. Do you plot or do you write by the seat of your pants?

I do some of each at various stages in the writing. I usually begin with an idea or a question I want to explore, then I research for several months, until a narrative begins to form in my head. I spend a lot of time thinking about it, and when I can envision the bones of a story – essentially the beginning premise and the ending – I write by-the-seat of my pants, so-to-speak, and see how my protagonist gets to that ending. Along the way, I sometimes stop and outline what I have so far, and what I know is coming. This outline is like a signpost, a map. I know the destination, but not how I’m going to get there.

Once I complete the first draft, I begin the real work, and the part that I love best – the shaping and honing of everything. I do 10 or so drafts of everything. Sometimes more. My latest novel, Solitaria, went through 21 drafts. I guess I’m my own very picky editor.

  1. What drew you to the subject of Solitaria?

The question I began with and wanted to explore had to do with love and duty. I had been visiting an old aunt in Italy who had been very generous to her family, but had always attached very long strings to that generosity. The result was that everyone had fled. So the question that began the exploration was: At what point is one’s love indebted to another?

That’s a very big question, and although the novel developed well past the original concern, that question is still evident in the characters’ modes of dealing with others.

Another fascination I have always had is with memory – how it functions not only to define us, but also to create us, to embellish our lives. And there’s nowhere better to observe memory in action than in a family reunion, where everyone’s memories clash, so that the same incident is virtually unrecognizable as it is recalled from person to person. This concept found its way into Solitaria, with interesting results.

  1. What authors do you admire?

The list of authors I admire is endless and eclectic, and constantly being added to. Damon Galgut, Cormac McCarthy, J.M. Coetzee, Don DeLillo, Meg Wolizer, Kazuo Ishiguro, Dacia Maraini, Elsa Morante, Carlo Levi, Alice Walker, Russell Banks, Dorothy Parker, Haruki Murakami, Alice Munro, Jonathan Lethem, Richard Ford, Toni Morrison, Jeffrey Eugenides, Richard Russo, Steinbeck, Nabakov, etc.  I could go on indefinitely….

  1. What three things would you want with you on a desert island?

Assuming you mean marooned on a desert island, I would want to have with me the world’s best ship builder, a solar panel, and a laptop/satellite phone. This would give me lots of options: I could call for help; I could read – by downloading books through satellite connections; and I could write on the laptop, which would be solar-powered. Naturally, while I would be doing all this, the world’s best shipbuilder would be building us a ship to sail away on.

  1. What place that you haven’t visited would you like to go?

While in Thailand five years ago, I found myself in the vicinity of a cave that contains the world’s smallest bat – the Kitti bat. I have always loved caves, and have visited many in different countries. This one promised something very exotic – a bat the size of a bumblebee, the smallest mammal in the world. The opening of the cave was very small, barely large enough to lower oneself into, and no light was allowed below, except for a dim flashlight. I squeezed down the opening, into a slightly larger area, then down a claustrophobic tunnel to another slightly larger area. From here, I could see the sky as a jagged hole up above. I took a deep breath and continued for a short while until I saw someone begin down the tunnel behind me. That pretty well panicked me into waiting for the newcomer to pass, then I scrambled back up and out. I returned home disappointed with myself for missing such an amazing opportunity. This may not sound like the place I haven’t visited but would like to, but it is.

  1. What did you enjoy most about writing this book?

Writing itself is an absolute passion for me. One of the best things ever about writing this book is that I had the perfect excuse to go Italy every year and spend a month researching, interviewing and writing. I have many relatives there, and I was able to listen to and record their stories, which collectively, are also my stories. I must set more books in Italy….

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