Wellington-based writer Megan Dunn ‘put all her undies on display’ with the release of her second book, Things I Learned At Art School. Part memoir, part essay collection, the author chronicles her coming-of-age in Aotearoa in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s.
We speak to Dunn about her not-so-placid life, why she believes that art is a vocation not a career, plus her very own advice for art school wannabes.
You consider yourself a cross between Fran Lebowitz and Anne of Green Gables. Can you elaborate further on this self observation?
Well, I was kiddin’. If you crossed Fran and Anne, I reckon you’d get a wisecracking redhead, who can write a mean joke and is urbane, but not that urbane. I said I was like Fran crossed with Anne via Huntly. I don’t think you could put Fran Lebowitz in Huntly — though God knows I’d watch the Netflix docomentary if someone did!
Anne Shirley was the little red-headed orphan with lashings of apple-pie moxie that I fell in love with as a child. She was one of my first images of what a writer and a redhead could be.
I recently watched Fran in Scorsese’s Pretend it’s a City, and adored her too. What an entertainer, what a thinker, what a human being! She can write too, but chooses not to, and that I also support.
Among many cultural topics, you’ve written about mermaids, art, and bookselling. What was it like to change tack and write about your own life?
Mermaids, art, and bookselling are my life! If a subject doesn’t have me in it, I won’t touch it. I tried for years to write novels about other people, but no one wanted to read them and I often couldn’t finish them either. Now, I write about being Fran Lebowitz crossed with Anne of Green Gables, and I’m in Fashion Quarterly! You can’t make this stuff up.
What do you hope readers will take away from your essays?
An image of the artist as a young foolish woman in a Yvonne Todd photograph. Specifically this one of me in my Showgirls uniform, circa 2001. You can consider it a picture of me in my undies. This is who I was when I had most of the experiences recounted in Things I Learned at Art School…a woman who couldn’t go placidly.
What is something you learned from writing this book?
Lots of people love their mothers. Including me. Art is deep and preverbal. It is a place where you can wrestle with the irreconcilable sides of your nature and with existence itself. I learned that so much of my childhood had stayed with me, and it shocked me that little humble plaques like The Prayer of Serenity, which was on the wall of my family home, still mean so much to me.
A sentence from childhood can stick in your mind forever, waiting to be transformed into a story. Like my piece ‘Desiderata with Reverb’, on Pg, 284, which begins, “I’m not sure this is going to go placidly…” Life doesn’t go placidly!
Do you have any words of advice for those thinking of, or still studying at art school?
Art is a vocation not a career. Enter into it, only if your soul is a wild demon that can’t be satiated by normality. But, bear in mind even culture comes with a price-tag. Buy a piggy bank and put it next to your bed. Money counts. Stick vulvas on your face.
What is it about essays/memoirs that you feel are of interest to readers?
A good book of essays is like playing a game of tarot cards with someone else’s life. You look at ‘The Fool’ crossed with the ‘Ace of Wands’ and wonder what it means. You find patterns where they may have been only chaos, and try not to draw ‘The Hanged Man’, ‘The Devil’ or all those woodcut men tumbling from ‘The Tower’. There are no inherently negative cards in the pack, but when you’re playing with your own life, you prefer not to draw ‘Death’.
Things I Learned At Art School is really personal — do you feel like all your undies are on display, or is it not as bad as that?
Yes, my undies are on display but at least they are my undies from over twenty years ago, when I was younger and more splendid. And sordid. I wrestled with what to withhold. It might seem like I have shown everything but even an exotic dancer can be discrete. My writing scissors at the right moment, leaving only what I want on display. Some things too are not my story to tell and other men and moments were important and meaningful at the time, yet I had not a jot to say about them now. Go figure.
Maybe in years to come, it will be revealed I never wore undies anyway.