Katherine Dunn has a new book out. That’s not something one gets to say terribly often. The book, entitled One Ring Circus, is a collection of her musings on boxing. Many people don’t know that in addition to being a wonderfully inventive fiction writer, Dunn is an award-winning chronicler of fisticuffs. She is also a literary legend in the northwest corner of the U.S. Her 1989 novel Geek Love can be read as an example of everything that makes Portland, the city in which she wrote the book, extraordinary. It’s weird and exciting, voyeuristic and sad, and brutally, quintessentially American. Geek Love is one of those regional transplant books that make neophytes feel settled in a new locale, like reading James Baldwin in Harlem or Kurt Vonnegut in central Indiana. For the last twenty years, it seems that everyone who has moved to Portland—and stayed—has eventually read Geek Love.
Born in Kansas in 1945, Dunn spent her formative years moving around the western United States with her family before settling in Tigard, Oregon. She attended Reed College, where she began her first novel, Attic, published in 1970. Her second book, Truck, followed in 1971. Dunn spent the majority of the nineteen seventies in Europe, where she gave birth to her son. Upon returning to the U.S., she again established herself in Portland. It was nearly two decades before she published her most famous work. Geek Love brought her a National Book Award nomination and a loyal following.
Currently at work on her fourth novel, Cut Man, Dunn has reported on boxing for various publications for the last twenty-seven years. She is more than an admirer of boxing, though; she is a gritty philosopher of pugilism. When discussing the sport, she chooses her words with the care of a true aficionado, as evidenced by her writings in the book Shadow Boxers: Sweat, Sacrifice & the Will to Survive in American Boxing Gyms, which won her the 2004 Lange-Taylor Prize from the Center of Documentary Studies at Duke University.
As we spoke in her office, she drank tea and rolled cigarettes, somewhat absently, from tobacco stored in a tin. The light was bright. She sat with her back to her desk. Behind her hung large black and white photos from Shadow Boxers. Cover art for various editions of Geek Love graced the opposite wall. Pristine red boxing gloves—one signed by Felix Trinidad, the other signed by Roberto Duran and “Sugar” Ray Leonard (whom she calls “a despicable little man”)—hung from the closet door, and volumes of historical boxing data crammed the bookshelves.
—Mateo Hoke for Guernica
Guernica: One Ring Circus recently appeared. How is it to be back in the publishing ring, so to speak?
Katherine Dunn: Well, so far my head is still up, my feet are still down. I call that good enough.
Guernica: Will you be touring?
Katherine Dunn: Not really, no. I’ve kind of put my foot down about traveling more. My rule is no television, and I’ll travel, but nowhere I can’t either swim or walk.
Guernica: What are your hopes for this book?
Katherine Dunn: I hope that it’s an invitation to non-boxing fans to take a look at this very peculiar subculture which is built on and devoted to violence, but has a remarkably friendly and often quite hilarious aspect to it. I think many people nowadays have very little access to information about boxing and so they’re left with Hollywood stereotypes, and I think that far too often that gives them the wrong idea. But I think boxing really is a contribution to human culture, in the sense that humans are the most dangerous predator—probably with the exception of a few microbes—and boxing is one of those forms that human society has developed. It’s a kind of stove to keep that fire safe and useful.
Guernica: Do you feel you’ve captured that in the book?
Katherine Dunn: I think I’ve captured a different approach to boxing and a different view of boxing than is commonly held.
Guernica: What have you captured that is atypical of the mainstream?
Katherine Dunn: I think the mainstream really tends to see it as evil, and I have striven to demonstrate the many, many good things that I see about the sport, and the why of the people who do it and the people who are spectators and fans.
Guernica: Can you talk to me about Cut Man?
Katherine Dunn: Cut Man is a novel that I’m working on right now, and it is [also] set in the world of boxing. I think you could probably say that in the same sense that Geek Love is a circus novel, which it’s not, Cut Man is a boxing novel. Not really. But it’s set in the world of boxing.
Guernica: What stage is it in?
Katherine Dunn: I’ve been through several drafts, and it is now in a stage where it needs severe cutting… and probably another draft.
Guernica: Do you feel any pressure to follow up Geek Love?
Katherine Dunn: Oh, sure.
Guernica: After twenty years, is the pressure still there?
Katherine Dunn: Nah. It’s much, much better now. Nobody will remember, nobody will care. It’s great. It’s like being born anew. I think my previous book to Geek Love came out in seventy-one, and Geek Love came out in eighty-nine… and that was like a first novel. Most people didn’t even know I’d ever written anything else.
Guernica: So do you have that kind of sense of being refreshed again for your work on Cut Man?
Katherine Dunn: Well, I do in a way because I can write in the style that seems proper for this project, rather than thinking, “Oh God, the Geek people aren’t going to like this.” I have to say that one thing that really enchanted me was when Geek Love first came out in eighty-nine… they sent me out on a little tour, and it was exciting because I’d never gone on a tour before, but of course nobody had read the book. It was new. But when Vintage brought out a paperback a few years ago, they sent me on another little tour and it was like, “Wow, everybody who interviewed me had read the book… when they were in high school.” (laughs) That was such a hoot. The people who came to the bookstores for the readings were these fabulous punk kids, people in mohawks and people with piercings and tattoos and fabulous shredded clothes. I really enjoyed it. But I have to tell you, one of the disgusting things about this is that the people who came to interview me are by and large far more interesting than I am.
Guernica: Geek Love seems to have a very loyal fan base. I’m wondering if you have any thoughts on what makes the book stand out to them.
Katherine Dunn: I get the impression that different people find different things in it, and that there are some elements of it are things that are common enough in western culture that a lot of people can bring their stuff to that. Their lives are somehow aligned with that, at the period of their lives when they happen to read the book. I really think it’s important to always acknowledge that fiction reading is a collaborative effort between reader and writer, and no two people read the same book. So I’m the last person to know.
Guernica: You’re one half of every collaboration…
Katherine Dunn: I’m one half of every collaboration, but I don’t have control over the other half. The other half is really spontaneous. People bring stuff to it that never would have occurred to me, and I think that’s pretty cool.
Guernica: One of the things people mention when talking about Geek Love is the imagination that went into writing it. Is imagination a muscle that can be exercised and built up, or is it a well that dries as we age?
Katherine Dunn: Oh, no, it’s muscle. It’s muscle. And the more you do it, the more you can do it. Absolutely. And you’re never too old to start!
Guernica: I enjoyed the introductory essay you did in Death Scenes. I had a strange reaction to that book, but I enjoyed the introduction. Specifically your deconstruction of the ideological vision we have of our American past and the heyday of America. It didn’t exist.
Katherine Dunn: No such animal… same old. Same old.
Guernica: As a book of murder scene photographs from Los Angeles during the nineteen twenties through the early nineteen fifties, does it show a particularly American sort of violence?
Katherine Dunn: There’s nothing in that book that hasn’t happened elsewhere, and there’s nothing in that book that hasn’t happened forever. I haven’t always thought this—but basically I think that we’re predators. We’re very heavy-duty predators, that’s what we do. And our social contract deal is an iffy proposition. But I think that violence and our capacity for enormous aggression is extremely valuable to us. I think that it has a crucial, ground-level value to our survival.
Guernica: To the individual or to the species?
Katherine Dunn: To the individual and to the species.
Guernica: Explain that. Our enormous capacity for violence against whom?
Katherine Dunn: Against anything. Against other predators, against other humans, against rocks that are in our way when we need to escape from the path of molten lava. Whatever is dangerous to us. The ability to tap into that enormous capacity for aggression is extremely valuable. We commonly have this Zoroastrian view of the dark and the light in human nature, and I think that’s fundamentally a misapprehension. I think that all of that capacity for violence and aggression is just part of the continuum of who we are, and it’s directly linked to the deep, protective, loving attitude we have for infants and puppies. It’s part of the willingness of firemen to run up the stairs when everyone else is running down, and of the Coast Guard to risk their lives for complete idiot strangers. It’s all part of the same continuum of this animal that wills to live.
Guernica: I think a lot of people would challenge that and say that it certainly serves the individual purpose at times when one is presented with a dangerous situation, but ultimately as a species that ability to destroy what is in our way is ultimately leading to the demise of this species through environmental degradation.
Katherine Dunn: As a species, we are not good at moderation. We manage to pervert all good things. We turn food into an obesity problem. We turn sex into a perversity problem. We turn shelter into McMansions. But when the chips are down, this is a real tool that is very, very valuable. And it’s the reason there’s so damn many of us on the planet. I do not personally approve of war. I think war is to be avoided under almost all circumstances. But I also believe that group cooperative effort is essential. Ten small guys with spears bringing down a mastodon to feed the entire tribe is a pretty remarkable achievement. And maybe it’s not quite as remarkable as the five hundred guys who put up the Empire State Building with only three deaths, or whatever it was, but nonetheless, these are cooperative endeavors that harness not just organizational ability, but fundamental individual aggression for the good of the community. I don’t think those things are to be lightly thrown aside. I don’t think we would be benefited if we could breed a designed population of bovine people, of sheep who would follow and bleat and never rise up and complain.
Guernica: Given these are your concerns, why write?
It’s part of the willingness of firemen to run up the stairs when everyone else is running down, and of the Coast Guard to risk their lives for complete idiot strangers.
Katherine Dunn: Well, writing is just a tool. You know you can build Taj Mahals with your little hammer or you can build dog houses. Dog houses are often just as important and useful as Taj Mahals, so I think it’s different for different people.
Guernica: For you?
Katherine Dunn: Well… I like stories. And when you’ve got a good story, there’s just something that wants to tell that story… I think that for me, I have to say that basically I write because it’s fun, because I really, really enjoy it. And because I don’t enjoy anything else on earth as much.
Guernica: Who are writers you admire?
Katherine Dunn: Gabriel García-Márquez. I love the magical realists. I love Jorge Luis Borges. And Günter Grass. And Mark Twain, who never really got enough credit for being a magical realist. They didn’t have a name for it in those days. But I also really like the very good storytellers who are just real… pure, like Somerset Maugham. I like Martin Cruz Smith. I think he’s really one of the finest writers writing today, even though he’s classified as a crime writer, or a thriller writer. I think he’s got such a perfect, pure ear. He never puts a foot wrong. It’s like poetry. I attribute that to his musical background, that his mother was a singer and his father was a jazz musician.
Guernica: García-Márquez compared writing to carpentry. In his opinion, there are tricks and techniques. But basically there’s not a whole lot of magic going on here, it’s just a lot of hard work.
Katherine Dunn: It’s work, there’s no question about it. It’s always work. But I have to admit when it’s going well, there is definite magic involved. When it’s going well, there’s no feeling like it. It’s like walking six inches off the floor at all times… like my god…I’m a god. It doesn’t happen all that often, but on those rare occasions when it does, it’s just sufficient to keep you addicted and working towards that next moment of ecstasy.
Guernica: It’s an addiction?
Katherine Dunn: Yeah, I think so. And you know, it comes in small doses. And this is not to say you might not change your mind the following day when you’re rewriting. But yes, I think it’s addictive.
Guernica: Allow me to quote from Geek Love: “It is bitter for the young to see what awful innocence adults grow into, that terrible vulnerability that must be sheltered from the rodent mire of childhood.” Have you grown into an awful innocence?
Katherine Dunn: My children think I have.
Guernica: Do you find them trying to keep you sheltered from the rodent mire?
Katherine Dunn: Oh, yes. Definitely.
Guernica: How so?
Katherine Dunn: Well, we all keep things from our parents, because, you know, it really wouldn’t be good for them to know. (laughs) My mother is ninety-five and I keep things from her. I remember as a small child thinking, “You know, mom really has no idea what’s going on. She has no clue what’s going on in my head, or what I’m about, and what I’m about, she really wouldn’t like. She’s got this pink and blue nursery notion of what a child is, and I am not that. No… I am not that.” I swore I would remember. When I was a kid, I thought, I’m not going to let myself forget. I see they forget, but I won’t forget.
Guernica: How have you kept it at bay then, that awful innocence?
Katherine Dunn: Oh, I’m sure I’m terribly innocent, ignorant in many, many ways.
Guernica: You say you promised yourself; I’m wondering how does that shape into adult perspective in relation to one’s children?
Katherine Dunn: Well, you recognize that they’re a whole lot more complicated than you would like to believe, and they’ve got the full spectrum of human capacity within them at all times, from infancy on. And you have to respect them. You can’t reduce them to fuzzy bunnies; you have to recognize them as complex creatures who are absolute individuals from the get go. Of course, my son would be well within his rights to tell you I am not the greatest parent on Earth. (laughs) He makes great excuses for me at all times, but I was a dreadful parent. Nonetheless, I meant well.
Guernica: Your fiction all has elements of travel, characters in motion.
Katherine Dunn: We were pretty peripatetic from the time I was born until I was about twelve. We settled down, so to speak, in Tigard when I was twelve. I went to high school in Tigard. But up to then we had lived all up and down the West Coast and in the western and southwestern states. It was a period of time when a great many people were doing that.
Guernica: How did you balance your art and your family life?
Katherine Dunn: Well, I have to say that having a child never interfered at all. Having to earn a living sometimes interfered, but I would have had to do that anyway. And I never earned much of a living. I was always a waitress or a bartender or a house painter, or some God-awful, dumbshit job. It wasn’t like a real job. And my son was really not problematic. I just took him everywhere with me. There were times when he was a little older when he was kind of wild in the world. He was out on the streets. But fortunately it was the streets of northwest Portland, where everybody knew him.
You can’t reduce children to fuzzy bunnies; you have to recognize them as complex creatures who are absolute individuals from the get go.
Guernica: How did you get into reporting on boxing?
Katherine Dunn: I was born in 1945, and in the late forties and early fifties, boxing was still an extremely important sport in America. It was one of the two big sports—baseball in the summer, boxing in the winter. I grew up with the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports on the radio, and then later on television. And the men in my family, my stepfather and my brothers, were very interested, and my mother intensely disapproved; she thought it was barbaric and vulgar and she didn’t want it in the house. So naturally I was fascinated. I came back to Portland and I married a man who was a boxing fan. He went out to work one day I happened to be staying home and said, “There’s a boxing match on TV, will you watch it and tell me what happens?” So when he got home that night, I had three pages of blow-by-blow descriptions, round by round. I sat down with him and started telling him, “Well, in the first round…” he said, “No, no, no, I just want to know who won.” Which of course embarrassed me. [But] I was just immediately drawn to and enthralled by the kind of emotional content of the sport, and the visual aspect of the sport, and the more I learned about it in a more detailed, intimate, scholarly variety, the more drawn I was to it. And I, like all boxing fans, was not satisfied with the coverage provided by the local newspapers, so I approached the local Willamette Week. My thing was, if I want it written about, and I consider myself a writer, I owe it to do it. So I started doing monthly reports in 1981.
Guernica: So what have you learned?
Katherine Dunn: For me, at least, boxing has been extremely instructive. All things human are contained within it; anything that’s possible for a human animal pretty much does or has or will take place in boxing.
Guernica: Explain that.
Katherine Dunn: Well, I don’t mean in the sense of inventing new technologies, but within the body of the human animal and the mind of the human animal, boxing as a business, as a sport, as a community unifier, as an individual meditation instrument, as a teaching tool, and probably many other things—all of those things are operative there. And you can see the very bad—the conniving and the backstabbing, the lying, the cheating, the stealing. But you can also see a very wide spectrum of extremely positive traits. And because of the simple structure of the sport, it’s very overt. It’s not fancy. What goes on there is really upfront. It’s really in your face. So it’s easy to discern.
Guernica: For every minute in the ring, there are weeks and months spent in the gym. The punching is a big part of it, but it’s not the only part of it. It seems like there is a great deal of representation of the human animal linked to two people stepping into the boxing ring.
Katherine Dunn: I’m not one for suburban angst or psychological ennui—just not my cup of tea. So I like it when things happen. And there’s always something happening in boxing, just on a moment-to-moment basis. From the moment the bell rings and two people come together, it is a ritualized crisis. And the individuals have to respond to crisis. Just as every news pundit will say, when the flood came or when the earthquake happened, you saw people operating in a crisis and they were terrific, or they fled and bit each other in the back like cowards, or whatever. What that does is strip away the veneer of social courtesies and social requirements. If it’s a good enough fight, all posturing and all pretenses are stripped away, because you’re pushed past the point where that’s functional. You have to go down into the place where whatever you truly, truly are is all that’s left, and all you can rely on.
Guernica: What do you have to say to the people who would like to ban boxing?
Katherine Dunn: I guess I can say I understand where you’re coming from. I can understand what you’re saying and how you feel… I don’t agree. I used to be very defensive about it. I used to get really angry at what I perceived as hypocrisy. But you know, some people just don’t like it, and that’s all right. See, I’m not afraid anymore that it’s going to be banned.
Guernica: Were you at one time?
Katherine Dunn: Oh, yes. You know when the AMA [American Medical Association] mounts a horse and starts riding hard, which they occasionally do, or some other vast lobbyist group decides to pick a pony and ride it, then there’s the potential for a problem. But what I feared was not that boxing would disappear, because I don’t think that it will ever disappear, but simply that it would go underground where it would be less accessible to me, and less accessible to the people who need it.
From the moment the bell rings and two people come together, it is a ritualized crisis.
Guernica: Do you think anti-boxing folks realize the large role that boxing gyms play in many communities?
Katherine Dunn: No, I don’t think they do. But I also don’t think that would matter to them. I think they would say tennis would do it just as well. Ping-pong would do it just as well. Olympic-style wrestling would do the whole thing just as well as boxing does. Why does it have to be boxing? It doesn’t have to be boxing.
Guernica: It’s been proven that there are certain long-term dangers to boxing. You wrote in Shadow Boxers that the boxing gym in many communities serves as a sanctuary from the harsh realities of urban life for a lot of young people, and I’m wondering if you see any irony that a young person might have to tacitly accept brain damage later in life to participate in that sanctuary?
Katherine Dunn: Sure. Actually, one of the reasons tennis or ping-pong would not serve the same functions as the boxing gyms do is that part of the reality of life for many young people is they must develop a public identity of toughness, of a certain impermeability or invulnerability. That if you mess with them, it will not be cost-free. And tennis just doesn’t cut it in that department. Being the neighborhood ping-pong champion is not going to prevent you from getting mugged on the way to school. So even now, in our more upholstered, cushioned society, there are large venues of our population who are living in a world where it is necessary, or at least valuable, to develop that kind of self-confidence and to some degree that kind of reputation.
Guernica: So in that regard, if one is really anti-boxing, instead of attacking boxing, one should be attacking social inequality…
Katherine Dunn: Poverty.
Guernica: Who’s the greatest fighter?
Katherine Dunn: (long pause) In my personal opinion, Jack Johnson is the greatest boxer of all time. He changed the sport. He revolutionized the sport.
Guernica: In what ways?
Katherine Dunn: He moved. He moved. He got up on his toes, he brought fluidity and movement to a sport that had been flat-footed, forward-backward movement. Everything that came after him was affected by it. I don’t think there’s any way that can be overestimated.
One of the artificial dichotomies of our culture is that between the nerds and the jocks.
Guernica: Who wins in a fight between Jack Johnson and a pissed off kangaroo wearing boxing gloves?
Katherine Dunn: Oh, Jack Johnson. No problem.
Guernica: What if Jack Johnson happened to be drunk?
Katherine Dunn: I have no reason to think that Jack Johnson was sober for any of his fights. And I still pick Jack Johnson.
Guernica: Is there anything else you’d like to tell me about pugilism?
Katherine Dunn: I think that one of the artificial dichotomies of our culture is that between the nerds and the jocks. And I think that there’s a lot of righteous snobbery among the literati about sports in general. And I sometimes get irritated by that. But I would ask them to consider that these are performance arts. If you were to make a list, for example, of all the benefits and reasons that a ballet dancer or a violin master perform and all the reasons that a great athlete performs in a spectator sport, they would be identical. And if you were to pin down the audience for the violinist and the ballet dancer and the audience in the arena where the football game is being played, what they benefit from, what they are looking for, and what they get are really very much the same. With this exception—that the people in the arena get to stand up and yell, and the other people have to sit there and be very prim and proper. For which reason I would say the sports have the advantage. And this advantage also: that they are high drama. And sometimes they’re comedy as well, or comedy mixed with drama. And that they have this enormous advantage over all other drama, which is nobody knows the outcome. Nobody knows how this plot will evolve. The worst thing you can say about any sport is that anybody knows how it’s going to come out in the end. So the audience is part of this moment. The audience and the participants are melded in this moment; they influence each other. The audience influences the players, or the boxers, cheering them on or booing them or throwing beer cans at them. And the boxers have this enormous emotional and intellectual and physical impact on the audience, just as any powerful art form does. This is a real moment, these are real lives, and this is a real plot playing out before your eyes, and you don’t know how it will come out.
Guernica: How do boxing and writing compliment one another?
Katherine Dunn: Writers really benefit from boxing. We have always really benefited from writing about boxing, we have always really enjoyed it, back to Homer. Book twenty-three of The Iliad.
Guernica: There’s the reporting element of what goes on in the boxing world, but do boxing and creative arts have any correlation?
Katherine Dunn: Boxing is one of the most written about sports, and one of the most painted sports, and one of the most poetified sports. It’s a sport whose language has permeated the American English language. Everything from “toe the line,” to “on the ropes,” to “throwing in the towel.” It’s a sport whose language has become a pervasive part of our colloquial tongue because it’s so powerful and so crisp and it conveys so much in terms of the rudimentary experiences of human life. But see, being interviewed and having to talk about this stuff kind of puts you in the position of the performer. But of course, you’re not, or most of us aren’t. I’m sure some people are really wonderful at talking about it, but a lot of us are not. A lot of us are really not accustomed to it. I avoid this kind of stuff, but I’m trying to re-emerge a little bit.
To contact Guernica or Katherine Dunn, please write here.
Photo by Carole Delogu.