It started with mermaids and ended up a memoir of sorts. Eleanor Black talks with Megan Dunn about learnings, love and life.
Megan Dunn was in the mermaid zone. Clever as hell and funny as a fox, she had spent considerable time and effort interviewing professional mermaids and researching mermaid lore for a book. She travelled to Denmark for an academic conference and to the United States to visit a famous mermaid bar called The Wreck. She was a little bit obsessed. She even bought a flipping tail - shades of orange and gold, pool-safe.
And then the people to whom she showed her draft said it wasn't working. They weren't so keen on the mermaids but they loved the vignettes about Dunn's life. Her 90s past as a video artist, her days behind the bar at a massage parlour, her reflections on being a young woman in some dicey situations - that was the marrow of the story, they said, and they wanted more.
"I was frothing at the mouth to various art world friends," Dunn says of the rejection, which untethered her from her sense of purpose. "They all want this story, and this is the title I hope to use: Vaginas Having Feelings. That's what people want. Me and my vagina, we go and we have our f***ing feelings. Maybe it's Eat Pray Love. We go on holiday and fall in love and then we're transformed and the vagina is uplifted."
She laughs darkly, leaning into the frame on our Zoom call. "What do you do when you want to think deeply about things but you're not, at the same time, Susan Sontag? How do you put it out there, how do you reconcile it with yourself?"
Dunn says she has no answers for these questions but her pain is our gain, because the essay collection Things I Learned At Art School is a hoot. It is also terribly sad in places, especially when her adored mother dies.
Lee Dunn, hero of the first half of the book, was a funny, unconventional woman who made a mean cheese on toast. She gave Dunn a card for her 14th birthday that read: "Good girls keep diaries, bad girls don't have time." At one point the pair lived above a retirement home in Rotorua where Lee cared for the elderly. It was Lee and Megan against the world, except when a man with a purple van started turning up at their flat. He was a musician who still lived with his mother. Like Dunn with her mermaids, Lee was a little bit obsessed.
"I found writing the childhood part of the book the most emotionally turbulent," says Dunn, 46. "I told Mum I was writing about her and the man with the van - and she did wince - but I know I had her blessing to do it and I know she would have been behind me. Mum also had a good sense of humour, so I'm sure we would have had a laugh about some of the things in the book."
Dunn's mother, her "biggest fan", died at the end of 2019, after her blood cancer unexpectedly returned. Soon after, Dunn, who runs the events programme for Wellington's City Gallery, was in Auckland for a Michael King Writers' Centre residency, and then returned home to spend lockdown with her partner and daughter. It was a discombobulating year. She finished the book a few months ago and is still processing everything. At one point during our conversation she mentions with a wobble that 6-year-old daughter Fearne is now her biggest fan.
She has mixed feelings about the portion of the book dealing with her mother's illness and the reaction to it, the power of death to make people pay attention. "Another writer said to me, you've really reached another level with that one and I bristled because it's like do you have to go to the worst place to reach a new level and to resonate?"
One of the great pleasures of Dunn's book is the nostalgia factor, especially if you happen to be a Gen-Xer who remembers when Strawberry Shortcake dolls were the hottest toy and dial-up internet cafes provided an exciting communication pathway.
Dunn writes about moving around abruptly as a child (from her mum's boyfriend's place in Auckland to her grandparents' home in Huntly, back up to Auckland) and how precious her Western Barbie was in the midst of this upheaval. Smurfs and My Little Pony characters also feature.
Dunn went to Elam, where she studied Intermedia, a subject they no longer offer. As a video artist she spliced together bits of films she rented from Video Ezy - a clip of Kim Basinger in 9 ½ Weeks overlaid with the soundtrack to Fantasia; a reimagined Splash without any Tom Hanks or plot. She opened a gallery called Fiat Lux with best friend David Townsend, and much cask wine was consumed.
Although she describes her video art jokingly, she enjoyed some success. She was invited to exhibit in Melbourne; she and her close friend, the photographer Yvonne Todd, took a roadie to New Plymouth for a show, where a pair of middle-aged art men made fools of themselves. "If she wasn't a renowned photographer she could have been a hand model," Dunn writes of Todd, whose art features on the book's cover.
"I was in a small scene and we were very avid about contemporary art and what we were doing," says Dunn, who compares her success to "the one year when you had your dream body, that one blip in the middle of your whole life".
After graduation, Dunn worked at the massage parlour Belle de Jour for nine months, serving drinks to men in the softly lit lounge where they mingled with the working girls. She went there looking for good stories and life experience she could use in her art. Also validation and revenge.
"I wanted to feel good about myself and be in control in some way with men," she says. "The daughter of that mother who ran after the man with the van wanted to rain some punishment down on some middle-aged men. And middle-aged men are very susceptible, they do open themselves up to this particular kind of torture. And what can we do as young women but help provide it?"
When it comes to contextualising the sex industry, she defers to her friend Holly, a working girl at Belle de Jour with whom she was close.
"I just remember her comment, 'Who wants to be taxed on f***ing?' and I thought that is true. We can pretend we are being progressive but what I saw is not a job just like any other job.
"That does sicken me, the fundamental inequity at [the heart of the sex industry]. I want more for us all as women but I don't condemn the choices, and it also doesn't mean there isn't all sorts of frivolity and capers and other things to be had [in that environment]."
After Belle de Jour, Dunn worked at Showgirls, planted behind the bar in sparkly hotpants, further observing the "weird yo-yo effect of female sexuality", the way it can be both empowering and disempowering at the same time. It was the early 2000s, a period we are now revisiting with a sense of regret about the way famous young women were exploited. Take Britney Spears, for example, says Dunn.
"There's a genuine reckoning but also if we peel back that reckoning, she became famous dressed as a schoolgirl singing 'hit me baby one more time'. Why don't we start talking about that?"
Dunn's first book, Tinderbox, came out in 2017. It was also deeply personal, traversing the end of her marriage and a failed writing project, but because she framed her observations around Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 she didn't feel as exposed as she does now.
Releasing a book into the wild can be a dicey situation.
"With Tinderbox I felt okay because I was jogging alongside Ray Bradbury and he's important," says Dunn. "I could sidle up beside him and make a comment. It's very naked to tell your own story. It's not a story about climate change, it's not a story that changes the world. It's a story about a woman in a linear edit suite at night. Intellectually there remains an innate snobbery and belittling of people who write from the perspective of the 'I'. That remains true."
Things I Learned at Art School is out on August 24. Megan Dunn appears at WORD in Christchurch on August 28.