Tinderbox: Strikes Back

Last week I had a Wellington launch event for my first book Tinderbox at City Gallery. Thanks to all who attended. If you weren’t there here are the speeches. First from Robert Leonard, Chief Curator of City Gallery and then below from yours truly…

Robert’s Introduction

I’m introducing Megan Dunn … because she asked me to. I’ve known her for over twenty years. I first met her in 1997, when she was in her early twenties, at Elam, and running Fiat Lux gallery out of the front room of her Hobson Street flat. I had just returned to Auckland to direct Artspace. I was only in my mid-thirties, but to the Fiat Lux people I must have seemed ancient. I liked them because they were ‘the kids’. There was a new energy there. Fiat Lux represented a break in attitude not only from Artspace but also from the older kids’ gallery, Teststrip, with its half-ironic, half-pompous ‘international advisory board’. While I made Artspace into a white cube, Megan painted her tongue-and-groove gallery walls dark blue. While I wrote artspeak press releases, Fiat Lux issued smart-arse, in-joke, parish-pump newsletters, with insightful observations, such as ‘Charity—like madness—begins in the home.’

Back then, Megan made collage videos, frothy little pop-art epiphanies. They would have tormented Julainne Sumich, her high-minded no-fun Intermedia lecturer, who really was from another generation. Megan’s videos superimposed, recut, and intercut mainstream movies, TV ads, and art. They cross-referenced Fantasia, Nine-and-a-Half WeeksWild OrchidWatership Down, and Labyrinth; the Kate Moss Obsession ad; Dali and Magritte; adding soundtracks by the Doors, the Cure, and Ultravox. There was always an uncanny fit, like these disparate things were meant to go together, were calling out to one another through space and time, and Megan had been the only one to spot it. The subtext was often the intersection of innocent childhood fantasy with knowing adult sex-and-violence. These works could only have been made by a woman in her twenties. Art people could see that Megan’s superimpositions related to the metaphorical overlays of Francis Picabia, Sigmar Polke, and David Salle, but also that this didn’t much matter. Her trick was making the work look intuitive, effortless, even lazy, yet unexpectedly affective. Her videos became a staple in the Artspace programme. (She also introduced me to her best friend, Yvonne Todd, whose work shared her generational reference field.)

Off the back of reading the Fiat Lux newsletters and a few of her exhibition pitches, I asked Megan to write art pieces for Pavement, where I was art editor. She turned out to be a natural and became a regular contributor. These days, she may be embarrassed by her Pavement juvenilia, but so much of what she has become, as a writer, was already there, in embryo, in those pieces. I loved the way she wrote. She didn’t come on like an art critic or historian, but despite this—or because of it—her writing was studded with unexpected insights. She had her own voice, her own map; she had cut-through.

Megan decamped to England in 2001 and we lost contact. There, she abandoned art in favour of creative writing; reinventing herself. Courses, courses, courses. Writing, writing, writing. When she returned to New Zealand in 2010, her ambitions were tied up with becoming a novelist. But she also relapsed into art criticism—doubtless because it was writing that people would pay her to do. When I came back to Wellington in 2014, Megan was working for Booksellers New Zealand, writing art criticism, and working on a novella—a female-perspective reheat of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Unfortunately, her attempts to get it published would be thwarted by the Bradbury estate. The bastards. To get around the lawyers, she reconceptualised it as Tinderbox. And here it is, her first book. And I love it.

But I’m not sure what it is. It’s not a novel—it’s non-fiction; non-fiction about writing fiction. It’s not exactly a memoir—that would be too pompous. It is more like a big personal essay. It shows how Megan has been able to expand her short-form writing—pieces like Submerging Artist and The Recipe for a Frosty Pussy—into book form. Tinderbox is a meta-book, a book about books. It switches back and forth between accounts of Megan struggling at writing her Fahrenheit 451 cover version and accounts of her day job as a manager at Borders Islington, flogging other people’s books—always at the coal face. It makes some kind of analogy between Fahrenheit 451, as a book about book burning, and Borders, as a book-selling empire in freefall—but I’m still not clear on the upshot.

Tinderbox is a book about a writer reading and about a reader writing. It foregrounds Megan’s techniques and toolbox—her NaNoWriMo course, her timer, and her dependency on SparkNotes, YouTube, and Wikipedia. It’s a time-capsule account of the way writers write these days, not in a bubble, but with their browsers open and someone playing video games in the same room, contrasting that with another time—Bradbury using a coin-operated typewriter in the basement of the UCLA Library.

I like Tinderbox because it’s so Megan. It’s multitasking Megan, hectic Megan, procrastinator Megan, neurotic Megan, masterful Megan. Somehow, she has transmuted her endearing admissions of failure and frustration into a racy page turner.  Having known Megan since the early days, I find her book has a lot in common with the sense and sensibility of her old videos and Pavement reviews, both being about her discovering ways to express herself through other people’s art. I like to think I was there at the beginning. I’m grateful for this book and proud to know its author.

Megan Says 

Many years ago I was at Verona on K’rd with Robert Leonard who was then the director of Artspace. Robert told me I was good at writing and suggested that it could be a career. (Good advice given that I was a video artist at the time.) But I said I didn’t know if I could make up stories. Robert said I didn’t have to, I could write about things I liked and it would be all about how I see the world. I remember thinking well, that will never fly.

As with most things Robert was right. Controversial, but right.

I wrote Tinderbox after a few misfires and it is nice to have an event at home where I have more people to thank. Not least of all Harry Ricketts and the CREW 257 course which I attended in 2013. That’s where I struck on this idea to write a book about why I couldn’t write the book I had tried to write. If the class hadn’t laughed and thought it was funny I never would have continued with what I knew to be a deeply unfashionable work of meta-fiction or meta-non-fiction that was also like me often ironic. Does any word other than irony have a worst public profile in the arts right now? You can be anything – righteous, sanctimonious, merciless and hateful – so long as you’re not being ironic.

The first thing most people tell me when I explain Tinderbox is about my attempt to rewrite Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 from the perspective of the female characters is that they have not read Fahrenheit 451. That’s heartening. I never expected anyone to read my book described by one fan as an “obscure memoir” and by another person as “quite bonkers”, but the good news is you can write a classic and heaps of people won’t read it either. Even Kim Hill off air started by saying “disclaimer: I have not read Fahrenheit 451.” But she has read Tinderbox and that’s the main thing.

I have also had the good fortune of being endorsed by the poet Hera Lindsay Bird. There have been other surprises from the New Zealand literary aristocracy too: a fan letter from Tilly Lloyd and being called out by Bill Manhire on Twitter for proofreading. Being read by Bill Manhire.

Thanks also to my parents – my first muses. Rich and even my daughter Fearne, though she refused to sleep through the night for 2 years. Thanks to friends: Jenny, Yvonne, Kushana, Helen, with special mention to Eve Armstrong who offered solace in my first year of motherhood – when I started to rewrite Tinderbox. And to allies: Creative New Zealand, Galley Beggar Press and City Gallery Wellington who have given this errant soul a paycheck for the last 2 years. Thanks also to local booksellers Unity and Volume and to critics like Kiran Dass who have read and supported this sly little box of tricks.

A male art writer wrote to congratulate me on the book recently, saying “it seemed to dominate your life for a long time.”

So here it is “The Dominator.” Read it for pleasure, at your leisure.