Writer’s Block: Genni Gunn

Author of twelve books, including her most recent Permanent Tourists (Signature Editions), Genni Gunn joins us on the blog—sharing more about her parallel life as a musician, the classical history she carries with her as a result of growing up in Italy, and her restlessness for journeys into the unexpected.


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All Lit Up: Is there one stand-out moment or experience you had that helped you realize you wanted to become a writer?Genni Gunn: I’ve been writing for as long as I can recall, although I’ve also had a parallel life as a musician. As a child, I wrote and bound little books of stories, which my sister illustrated, and we sold these to our indulgent relatives, who praised us with unrestrained abandon. (Incidentally, my sister Ileana Springer is the artist whose painting is on the cover of my last novel, Solitaria.) As an adult, after a number of years of working as a musician, I returned to writing—not that I had ever stopped—but I returned to it with serious dedication. I did not want to spend the rest of my life in bars, playing music, but I could see myself writing stories forever more.ALU: Which writers have influenced you or had the most impact on your own writing?GG: I grew up in Italy until I was ten, so my literary models in those years were very different from ones people here have. I was raised on Italian fairy tales as a child, then more classical texts, such as Dante, Carducci, Petrarch. Roman and Greek mythology were forefront too—if you live in Italy, it’s hard not to relate everything around you to its classical history. As an adult at university, I discovered Andre Brink’s 1970s novels. He is a south African writer whose experiments with form really excited me. Here was someone who could tell the same stories in completely original ways. All his books of that time are intricate and original, as well as being very engaging. Other literary influences are probably not so specific—I’m an avid reader, always on the lookout for original works, interesting ideas, new forms, fascinating voices—everything I read influences me, not necessarily in terms of style, but in terms of possibility.ALU: What do you enjoy reading?GG: In 1985, I made a New Year’s resolution to read a book a week for the rest of my life. I have kept track of all the books I’ve read, though I admit some years I don’t quite make the 52. I read primarily literary works—and I try to find ones that are challenging and interesting in terms of writing. I love books that not only tell a captivating story, but contain layers and layers of meaning that go from the personal, to the social, to the political—forming widening concentric circles.

Genni’s best writing advice? READ!

ALU: What’s one book you always recommend?GG: I would have a hard time recommending only one book. There are so many categories of books, and I could pick several out of any of them. Too many books, too little time. However, having said this, here are six books that have stayed with me years past the reading of them: The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut, In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brian, Disgrace by Coetzee, The Body Artist by Don DeLillo, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood. The list of authors I admire is endless and eclectic, and constantly being added to. As well as those mentioned above, there are Meg Wolizer, Kazuo Ishiguro, Dacia Maraini, Elsa Morante, Carlo Levi, Alice Walker, Russell Banks, Dorothy Parker, Haruki Murakami, Alice Munro, Jonathan Lethem, Richard Ford, Toni Morrison, Jeffrey Eugenides, Richard Russo, Steinbeck, Elena Ferrante. etc. I could go on indefinitely…ALU: Who is your favourite fictional character?GG: This is a very difficult one. Too many to mention, but here are four: I love Lenù’s and Lila’s contrasting/converging lives in the Neapolitan Quartet by Elena Ferrante; the spunk and humour of Moll Flanders (Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe), the wallowing desperation of Judith Hearne (The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore); and the hilarious despair of Patrick Doyle (A Disaffection by James Kelman).ALU: Why do you write?GG: Writing for me has never been about something specific. I have always written, simply driven by my love for story and by the what if? surrounding me. I hear, or see, or experience something that intrigues me, or challenges me to further examination. My writing process is a journey of discovery, encompassing research, structuring, drafting and polishing. What I can say, overall, is that whatever I write about, it’s always something that is important to me personally—although I don’t mean autobiographical. Even if I were writing about something that happened to someone else a hundred years ago, the theme would have to be relevant to me now. The best work always comes from being passionate about the subject.ALU: Describe your perfect writing day.GG: I’m very disciplined, in that I write at least five or six hours each day. I try to stop mid-scene at the end of the day, so when I begin the following morning, the writing comes easily. In the first draft of a new novel, I give myself a three-page minimum to achieve each day, and I include notes and research in this count. Of course, not every day is a perfect writing day. So, when the writing is not going so easily, I find hundreds of banal things that must be done, such as tidying my desk, or alphabetizing my notes, trying out a new software program, weeding the garden or etc. And I’m perfectly capable of convincing myself that these things must be done now. I think we can call it an avoidance tactic. This seems to be germane to the creative process.

Genni’s at-home workspace

ALU: What question do you wish someone would ask you about your book? Let us know, then answer it here.GG: “Where did the title come from, given that your story collection Permanent Tourists is not about literal tourists?”I used the idea of “tourists” to signify people who are not fully committing to their lives, or experiences. The title comes from a P. K. Page poem in which she speaks about tourists who wander the world with bucket lists, taking photos of themselves in front of monuments,: Pyramids – check, Colosseum—check; Mona Lisa—check, etc. without really caring about, or understanding the history behind these monuments. So my characters are tourists in their own lives to some degree, not wanting to commit to other people, often running away to escape themselves. Many of the stories in Permanent Tourists are set in foreign locations, with Canadian protagonists in continuous movement, a kind of escape into the familiarity of alienation. To some degree, this reflects my own restlessness, my need for changing landscapes, for journeys into the unexpected, through which everything becomes new. 

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 More about Genni GunnI live in Vancouver with my husband Frank and a 21 ½-year-old polydactyl cat, in a lovely condo with a wrap-around deck, that has been miraculous during this very odd lockdown year. By this, I mean that we have been able to sit outside all spring and summer—weather permitting—and not worry about virus. I used to teach Creative Writing half-time at Kwantlen University, but now I’m happily writing full time and doing freelance editing. As to travel, well this has been something I’ve always done, even while teaching. So much of the world still to see, and so much research to do. My most memorable travel experiences were to Myanmar (formerly Burma) where my sister was teaching art for seven years.I have published twelve books: three novels Solitaria (Signature Editions, 2010)—longlisted for the Giller Prize 2011), Tracing Iris (Raincoast, 2001—made into a film, The Riverbank, and Thrice Upon a Time (Quarry Press, 1990) – finalist for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize); three short story collections – Permanent Tourists (Signature Editions, 2020), Hungers (Raincoast, 2002), and On the Road (Oberon Press, 1992); two poetry collections—Faceless (Signature Editions, 2007), and Mating in Captivity (Quarry Press, 1993) – finalist for the Gerald Lampert Award), and a collection of personal essays, TRACKS: Journeys in Time and Place (Signature Editions, 2013). As well, I have translated from Italian three collections of poems by two renowned Italian authors: Devour Me Too (finalist for the John Glassco Translation Prize) and Traveling in the Gait of a Fox (finalist for the Premio Internazionale Diego Valeri for Literary Translation) by Dacia Maraini, and Text Me by Corrado Calabrò. Web: www.gennigunn.comFB: https://www.facebook.com/genni.gunn.3/

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Thank you to Signature Editions and to Genni Gunn for joining us in this edition of  All Lit Up’s Writer’s Block!