Writer’s Block: Nina Dunic

Two-time winner of the Toronto Star Short Story Contest, Nina Dunic—whose debut novel The Clarion (Invisible Publishing) is longlisted for the 2023 Scotiabank Giller Prize—shares with us how she came to writing on a dare, why her pen is a protective instinct, and some of her writing rituals.


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All Lit Up: Which writers have influenced you or had the most impact on your own writing?

Nina Dunic: D.H. Lawrence and Alice Munro. Lawrence sometimes has a bit of plot or dialogue and then spends twice as long ruminating over it — I’ve definitely picked up that habit. One page of action, two pages thinking it over. He is also physically present in the bodies of his characters and I’ve always been drawn to that aliveness. I think both these influences are felt in The Clarion.

Munro is effortless. Ordinary people, ordinary lives — we’re in the same terrain but she’s a panther. Every step is silent and sure. You don’t even see her or feel her. I also want to “disappear” behind the writing but I don’t think I’m there yet. I reread her often.

ALU: What are you working on now?

ND: I’ve started a new novel. I know the characters and have a vague idea of the story’s arc, and I wrote chapter titles to determine the structure — similar to The Clarion, where the chapters guide the story. Maybe that’s my crutch. I also have a collection of stories coming out with Invisible in 2025, so I will be polishing those very soon.

ALU: What’s the toughest part about being a writer?

ND: Feeling exposed. I am a private person and I wrote the novel in solitude, hoping it might be published, it might sit in a book store one day, it might be picked up by a stranger. I imagined it very far away from my life, read only by strangers, and that perhaps most people around me wouldn’t even know I had written a book. You know, maybe once in a while someone would google me and find an old article and say, Oh you wrote a book? And I’d say, Yeah. And that would be the end of it. Using a pen name was a part of that protective instinct for me; I wanted it separate from my real life.

Instead the opposite happens — everyone knows. I emailed everybody I’ve ever met during the pre-order phase, because I was hoping for some support, some momentum early on, so that maybe The Clarion would have a chance to find its readers by word of mouth. It’s my first book and I’m unknown in publishing; I was relying on my network to hopefully start the wheels turning.

Everybody has been so supportive, obviously, but I guess I’d hoped it would be my secret identity.

“My photo is deliberately unglamorous, because I feel the reality of writing is often repetitive, tedious and stressful. I took the photo while I was waiting in a walk-in clinic to get some beta-blockers for a live radio interview — I was terrified — and I was reminding myself that courageous people aren’t born, they are made, usually by saying yes to something that scares them. I didn’t end up using the beta-blocker, I just took a couple shots of cognac.”

ALU: Do you have any rituals that you abide by when you’re writing?

ND: Loud music. Always. If I’m sitting in the room with the record player, I’m playing records. If I’m out on the front porch, or in the library, or at a bar, big headphones. I get physical responses from music — emotional swells, body rushes. It makes writing feel visceral for me.

And I like collecting photos of real people to represent my characters — this physical reality helps me imagine their expressions, their gestures, how they talk, how they might sound. For The Clarion, I used a local piano player for Peter, a vintage shot of Geena Davis for Stasi, and then a handsome man that I found by googling “Italian rugby player.” I don’t even know his real name — he’s Mateo in the book. And I’ve already found faces for the new novel I’ve started.

Photos of Peter (top), Geena Davis (bottom left), and “Italian rugby player” from a google search (bottom right).

ALU: Why do you write?

ND: Honestly, I’m not quite sure. It started with winning a short story contest I’d entered on a dare, which gave me a free mentorship, which led to getting an agent. It seemed to have its own momentum and, early on, I was meeting deadlines, doing what everyone told me to do.

But I did feel as if I was engaging with a part of myself that hadn’t been alive yet. Almost as if I was waking up. This was in my mid-thirties. Before then, I never thought I could be an author — it was almost this mythical thing, nothing I could even dream about. I was a welfare kid, a bright student who dropped out of university. I had been freelancing and working part-time jobs here and there for years. I just thought authors were on another level — cerebral, sophisticated, educated, well-spoken.

When my agent told me to write a novel, I wrote a novel — and now I have The Clarion. I’m as curious as anyone to see where all of this goes.

“I put cushions on my front porch and I sit there with my laptop, writing and watching people pass by on the street. My dogs often sit out with me.”

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Nina Dunic is a two-time winner of the Toronto Star Short Story Contest, has been longlisted for the CBC Short Story Prize four times, won third place in the Humber Literary Review Emerging Writers Fiction Contest, and was nominated for The Journey Prize. Nina lives in Scarborough. Find out more at ninadunic.com.

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The Clarion is available for sale here on All Lit Up, or via your local independent bookseller.

For more Writer’s Block, click here.