Katherine Dunn has come a long way from the teenage girl who ran away from home, joined a cult-like magazine-sales crew, and ended up in jail at age eighteen for passing a bad check. The author, who is now 50 years-old and lives in Portland, Oregon, is one of the most original and powerful female voices in contemporary American literature. Her stunning third novel, Geek Love (Knopf, 1983), was nominated for a national book award, and with it Dunn attracted a cult-like following herself.
After her brief but nasty experience with the U.S. penal system, Dunn returned to her hometown of Portland, Oregon, where, despite a sketchy academic background, she enrolled in a local state college. A scholarship to Reed College followed and there she found the stability and support she needed to pursue a writing career.
Born in Garden City, Kansas, on October 24, 1945, into a family of peripatetic blue-collar workers, Dunn spent much of her early youth traveling up and down the West Coast, eventually settling outside of Portland. She has described the members of her family as dynamic storytellers and avid readers. This may have something to do with the fact that she already knew, at the age of six, that she wanted to be a writer.
Dunn's first novel, Attic (Harper & Row, 1970), tells the story of "Kay," a member of a cultlike magazine sales crew, who passes a bad check and ends up behind bars. She used the money she received from this first book to write a second and to travel through Europe with her boyfriend, with whom she had a son. Truck (Harper & Row, 1971) is the disturbing narrative of a runaway teenage girl Although unevenly written, Dunn succeeds in creating an honest and unique character.
Twelve years passed before the publication of Geek Love, the arrival of which heralded Dunn's literary presence. (The book was recently optioned by director Tim Burton and is currently under development.) Since then, Dunn has worked as a boxing stringer, a freelance journalist, and as advice columnist for Portland's local alternative weekly. Her columns were published as Why Do Men Have Nipples? and Other Low-Life Answers to Real Questions (Warner, 1992).
Dunn refused to meet me in person to discuss her writing career or her newest project, the introduction to Death Scenes (Feral House, 1996), a collection of photographs from the scrapbook of an L.A.P.D. homicide detective. I even attempted to bribe her with an invitation to the Portland restaurant of her choice. (I was understandably eager to talk to the woman behind Geek Love in person. Was she a dwarf?) Instead I had to settle for her deep, seemingly normal voice over the phone. Dunn would not explain why she would not meet me, except to say that she does not do face-to-face interviews and was not in that "book-selling mode" (a sad commentary on the state of literature in general). Perhaps she was motivated by a wariness of journalists (being one herself) or superstitious fears for the novel she is currently writing. Nonetheless, she was a compelling talker, with a thoughtful and eclectic mind. I eagerly saw it her next creation.