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Q and A with Danielle Dutton

Danielle Dutton, who will lead the workshop "Dwelling in Uncertainty: How Uncertainty is Productive to Writing" at the Writer's Block Festival from 1 to 2:30 p.m., answers some questions about her writing, art and publishing.

1) Your workshop is about dwelling in uncertainty. Can you explain how uncertainty can be a productive starting-off point for writing? How has dwelling in uncertainty helped you in your own work?

Donald Barthelme has this great essay called “Not-Knowing” in which he argues that not-knowing (call it writer’s block, call it staring at the big blank white) is essential to making, that art in fact comes out of that (not-quite) empty space. “The writer is one who,” he writes, “embarking upon a task, does not know what to do.” Contrarily, I think I decided to focus the workshop on this idea because uncertainty is actually often a very frustrating place for me. The other side of the freedom and potential of not-knowing is the frustration. Perhaps it is a necessary frustration, necessary to freedom. In the workshop we’ll talk about embracing the void, channeling frustration, and also about different ways to begin.

2) Your latest book is Here Comes Kitty: A Comic Opera, which combines your text with comic book pages by Richard Kraft. What was it like for you to collaborate with an artist on a written work, compared to writing on your own?

It was liberating. It’s really Richard’s book—he’d long been working on the collages when he asked me to contribute the text—and I found it totally delightful not to be steering the ship. Because, of course, in addition to not knowing what you’re doing when you start a new project, once you get going writing is such a solitary thing. I do like being alone—maybe most writers do—but I often wish I was something else—a dancer, a drummer—just something that made it possible for me to create in tandem with others. Working on Kitty felt at least a little more like that.

3) Your upcoming novel, Margaret the First, centers on seventeenth-century writer Margaret Cavendish. What drew you to this female writer in particular – what about her did you find arresting?

I’d planned something focused more loosely on the New Science and London during The Restoration, but Margaret is such an eccentric personality: painfully shy but also quite audacious, she wanted to be taken seriously as an author before women were thought capable of writing anything of value at all. I suppose at some point I felt so strongly for her—angry for her, embarrassed for her, defensive of her, critical of her—that I thought she belonged to me (which is of course absurd, but I think you have to develop an intimacy with any character you write, and it’s an especially peculiar bond when they were a real person). Anyway, she, in turn, took over my book.

4) You founded the indie press Dorothy in 2010, which focuses on publishing works by women. What draws your eye to a manuscript and makes you want to publish it?

Energy, a liveliness of thought and style in the prose.

5) You also designed many book covers for Dalkey Archive Press. What excites you about designing a book cover, as opposed to writing a story?

I suppose this takes us back to collaboration. It’s not that I ask for the writer’s opinion much as I work on a cover, but I do have their writing to work off of, and it’s almost always writing I love (certainly at Dorothy, a publishing project that’s always the case). So a cover is a real response. Also, it’s just fun. I don’t usually want covers that are especially literal, or illustrative, and I take a lot of pleasure in trying to respond tonally or spatially or energetically to a given book.

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