THE BUSINESS END OF THINGS: A Conversation with Dina Dwyer & a Folio of New Work – curated by Vi Khi Nao


DINA DWYER is an interdisciplinary artist: photographer, poet, and fiction writer. She earned her BA in English from University of Iowa, with emphasis in creative non-fiction. She has an MA in Education from Stanford. She loves desserts and the desert. You can find her at https://www.dinadwyer.com

VI KHI NAO: You have been working on “Sea Breakers” for quite a while and after editing it, you felt quite happy about it. Can you speak about this happiness?

DINA DWYER: I wrote the story several years ago and revisited it earlier this year. It was like seeing an old friend. I feel that way when I’ve finished something that I’m proud of. The characters and places are instantly familiar and they come alive. If that doesn’t happen, then it’s no good and I scrap it. I think that’s one of the greatest joys of writing – seeing your ideas and dreamworlds come to life, and they’re always there, whenever you need them.

VKN: Were you unhappy with it before the revision? What happened in your life that inspired you to revisit it?

DD: The earlier version had a bleaker tone, almost one of hopelessness. I was in a darker place when I first wrote it, and I’m not any more. I feel like the tone matches the ending better now, and the whole thing is more cohesive and full of the joy I think I always wanted but didn’t have the space inside to create. I’m not sure if there was a definite moment where I suddenly felt lighter or less down, I mean, depression is a tricky thing. I remembered the story and Flo and Hank and wanted to give them something more than what I had written already.

VKN: In your opinion, what are some of the quintessential conditions/traits required in the creation of a great story? Especially in coeval time, in the technological age where readers’ attention span has been vulgarly reduced?

DD: I don’t buy into the hype that people don’t have the same attention span for reading as they once did. When I taught high school, I saw first-hand that all it takes is a spark of sincere interest to catapult a young person (or anyone) into a story. But as for what ignites that desire – that’s another thing. Sometimes it’s the subject matter, but not always. I feel like the core of a good story has to be universal – we talked a lot about universal themes throughout the school year. And upon that, you need believable characters, someone you can relate to or feel like you have known. And upon that, the setting needs to inform the story in some way. This all sounds really basic, but that’s the point. When I read something, I need to have someone to root for, and they must undergo some kind of change, for better or worse. Even in flash fiction, something needs to happen to a character that makes them change in some way. That’s why I have a lot of respect for good flash fiction – that change is hard enough to do with a short story.

VKN: Although fiction is fiction or autofiction. Do you feel that the best stories are the ones with more embedded, concealed, coded autobiographical portraits (emotionally, ontologically, metaphysically) of their authors than the ones pulled from an intellectual landscape devoid of empathy and ones filled with psychological detachment or desertion from contemporary culture? Can you talk about depression? Do you think writers/artists experience it more (due to the distribution of their interior composition: writers spend a lot more time in their heads therefore they are more likely to experience psychological accidents in the freeway of their consciousness and therefore die from those frequent collisions–like a truck drivers who are on the road a lot – they are more likely to experience more car accidents and their life expectancy decreases) or do you think it’s an ontological facet of life that all forms of being endure universally throughout the course of their limited existence?

DD: I think it’s impossible not to embed parts of yourself when writing, for after all, it’s you writing the piece and not a machine or someone else. One of the most interesting things about being alive is the myriad emotions and mental states you can experience over the years. I believe detachment and desertion have their purposes – we need those stories to relate to in times of despair and desolation; we need them as a mirror of our current states (inner, political, interpersonal, etc.)

I don’t know statistically if artists suffer more from depression than, say, financial analysts or veterinarians. It’s definitely more of an archetype (tortured artist, depressed writer, brooding poet, etc.) but I know most people that I’m close with and that have revealed their struggles to me have experienced it on some level. I think it most definitely is a part of being alive, like anything else. I used to have very dark periods – Bad Days at Black Rock, I’d call them – where everything seemed hopeless and pointless. Why create anything ever if it’s just going to end up forgotten in a few years after you die (or sooner)? That kind of question used to follow me around like a shadow, always there, always ready. It’s still there, of course, like my shadow is, but I’ve learned to live with it and use it instead of letting it get the better of me.

VKN: You also excelled in the art of photography. There is a timelessness and eloignic humor in your visual work. Did photography shape the landscape of your narration of “Sea Breakers”? The scene where Flo is driving Hank (without giving too much away) towards the end feels quite photographic in the sense that you were able to capture the atmospheric urgency of the situation.

DD: I like to juxtapose photography with writing, though which comes first is hard to say. Sometimes I write to a scene I’ve either captured or created, and sometimes it’s the other way around. It’s hard for me to separate the two. Whenever I’m writing a new story, either I go out and take photos that reflect my ideas and emotions, or I recognize that a series of photographs I’ve already taken are haunting me and I develop a narrative around them. “Sea Breakers” is a mixture – it started with some photos, then took on a life of its own, and then came back to a few more pictures to really bring home some scenes such as the one you mentioned.

VKN: Which writers do you think excel in landscape writing? Better than some of the most famous contemporary landscape photographers? And, why do you think they excel so well in their depiction, defying the form itself? Like you know how a painter can paint hyper-realistic objects and portraits better than photographs themselves. (I can’t think of these painters at this moment)

DD: I think that transcendent quality of creative works is Wallace Stevens’s idea of scratching at thingness – we’re all trying to describe what we think and feel inside but the best we can hope for is to merely scratch at those ideas and feelings. Some use words or paint or employ dozens of other modes of artistic expression, all trying desperately to connect, to transmit, to dispatch.

The first author that comes to mind when I think of landscapes is Gretel Erlich. The Solace of Open Spaces had a profound effect on the way I looked at my surroundings when writing. And Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping – there’s a story where the land is a character as much as anything else.

VKN: I agree with you. I think Robinson’s Housekeeping has unworldly photographic/cinematic sensibilities. You once told me that you were working on a mystery novel? Did photography influence your love for this genre?

DD: Naturally! I am working on that one as well as a science fiction/espionage/romance novel. I also design and write murder mystery parties each year around my birthday. I think the suggested/implied nature of abstract and dramatic photography is inextricable from the rest of my creative interests.

VKN: Can you talk about this photograph? Where were you? The iron cord briefly reminds me of the some of Eva Hesse’s sculptures/installational pieces. What kind of camera did you use? What is your relationship to an iron? Is it intimate? Complicated? Purely practical?

DD: That was actually in “Santa Madrona” when I lived there, years ago, and I took it with my old Fujifilm DSLR that is long defunct. It was one of the last in a series of iron photos I took (though I have returned to them recently), and we do have a complicated relationship. It served as an ever-present antagonist in my self-portraits, always in the house or apartment. If I was traveling, there it was in the hotel closet, waiting. Irons are formidable, on or off, though I’ve always secretly enjoyed the housekeeping task; it’s very satisfying to wrest chaos from a shirt.

VKN: You have drifted drastically away from being a high school English instructor. You are a freelance editor now, yes? Can you speak more about your current vocational passion/ entrepreneurialship? How is that coming? What aspects of the editorial work bring you the most fulfillment? What is your ideal vocation? A writer and/or photographer full time? Or something else entirely?

DD: Editing keeps my wits sharp in regards to structure and grammar, and I enjoy the unique challenges from my clients. The projects I love to work on are the creative ones, of course, from poetry to novels and everything in between, with a specific desire to work on the developmental level. I’m a lover of the big picture and after years of teaching creative writing at the senior high school level, I can spot issues quickly and ask the author useful questions. It brings me great joy to watch a story morph into something wonderful over time and to see what the author does to address the dilemmas they face.
My ideal vocation would be if someone handed me a suitcase full of money and said OK go travel and write and don’t come back until you’ve got something great. Maybe I’d never come back. Maybe I would always be in transit.

VKN: Where would you like to travel? Have you ridden on a camel? What do think of this biblical phrase: “It is easier for a camel to walk through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven?” Can one apply to literature? The vocation of a writer?

DD: That metaphor most certainly applies to the arts. Just like money, you can’t take your ideas with you. I think that circles back to that shadow-question that used to haunt me. Eventually I came to counter its mission of despair with one of creation – if I don’t tell the stories in my head, no one else will. I had an instructor in college who said “If you keep telling other people’s stories, you won’t tell your own, and you’ll never be free.” Give it away, give it all away. While I don’t believe what I create absolutely needs to be acknowledged by anyone else, I do think it’s better to get it out and into the world than to let it expire when my cells do. Is that vanity? Desire for a legacy? Maybe. But the shadow says it’s all meaningless and forgotten after a few hundred years, so I think the importance of art and everything creative lies in the here and now. If someone can connect to something I’ve written or photographed, then I’ve scratched at that thingness as much as I could ever have hoped for.

VKN: What is your favorite food, Dina?
DD: Sweets. Also sushi.

VKN: If you someone were to give you 5 umbrellas and 2 cans of olives, but you badly thirsted/craved sweets/sushi. Would you take those other things or would decline them?

DD: Umbrellas are useless. I reject umbrellas. I enjoy getting wet. I’ve not yet come around on olives. Perhaps someday. Did you know that some very large umbrellas are used in olive harvesting? Maybe there is a story in this.

VKN: I understand. Inutility and futility. What would you choose the eye of the needle? Or the point of the needle?

DD: The business end. I like getting things done. This colder weather frustrates me as I’d rather be out doing something in the yard or beyond. I’m watching the beginnings of a giant snowstorm start to come down here in Seattle. It’s madness. The grocery store shelves are bare. No one has any salt.

 

 

A Folio of New Work by Dina Dwyer

 
Sea Breakers

 
 
 
Vi Khi Nao is the author of Sheep Machine (Black Sun Lit, 2018) and Umbilical Hospital (Press 1913, 2017), and of the short stories collection A Brief Alphabet of Torture, which won FC2’s Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize in 2016; the novel Fish in Exile (Coffee House Press, 2016); and the poetry collection The Old Philosopher, which won the Nightboat Books Prize for Poetry in 2014. Her work includes poetry, fiction, film and cross-genre collaboration. Her stories, poems, and drawings have appeared in NOON, Ploughshares, Black Warrior Review and BOMB, among others. She holds an MFA in fiction from Brown University.