Monday, December 16, 2002

Dunn's word game has something to say
By Pat Craig

QUIET, SELF-EFFACING, and with the sort of politeness that inspires grandmothers to bake a special batch of cookies, Mark Dunn isn't the sort of literary type you'd expect to find infused with the red-hot political spirit of, say, George Orwell.

Of course, he doesn't see himself as anything near Orwellian, either. Just a guy with a few concerns about civil liberties.

He's a bookish, bearded Southern man who switched, at least temporarily, from playwriting (he's written 25 plays, including "Five Tellers Dancing in the Rain," which was produced in 1997 by Pleasant Hill's OnStage Theatre) to novels, spent his career, until recently, working in the rare books and manuscripts division of the New York Public Library.

"I wrote a relevant novel by accident," says Dunn, who isn't the least bit disappointed when people point out the similarities to Orwell's "1984" in his "Ella Minnow Pea." "Orwell may have influenced me. But I wanted something that might appeal to a younger audience."

Some critics have called his work Orwell-lite, but, in truth, Dunn's relevance is due as much to timing as anything else. He did want to write a piece about censorship, civil liberties and freedom of expression. But it is probably the fact that the hardcover edition came out at about the same time as the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center that is creating the attention.

The hardcover edition became a cult hit, but hardly a best seller. But when the government began talking about some of the possible restrictions that the homeland security process might place on liberty, people began reading a lot more into what is essentially a novel within a word game.

And, in turn, the paperback rights touched off a bidding war, which meant that Dunn was a literary force to be reckoned with -- and that, for the first time, he wouldn't have to hold down a day job.

"It was funny, really; some of those bidding for the paperback were the same publishing houses that turned me down the first time," he says. "It has changed things. For example, I've made more money at this than from all of the plays I've written."

The book, described by Dunn as "an epistolary lipogram," is a direct result of his work in the New York Public Library, and a huge fondness for words. The epistolary form -- a collection of letters -- is not that uncommon a literary device. A lipogram, a story written without the use of one or more letters, is a bit more rare. But at the library, Dunn found himself reading about lipograms and decided to challenge himself by writing one.

That was the birth of Nollop, a fictional island town off the coast of Charleston, S.C. The town was named for Nevin Nollop, who is credited with coining the phrase "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog," a sentence that uses all the letters in the alphabet.

After some years have passed, the Z drops from the monument to Nollop, leading the town council to ban the use of that letter by citizens. In rapid fashion, other letters fall off, leading to more letter bannings

Dunn's challenge was to continue writing the epistles, minus the newly forbidden alphabet letters. He does that quite masterfully and manages to tell the story, complete with the council's threats of punishment -- including flogging and banishment -- and the battle of Ella Minnow Pea to restore civil liberties to her island.

"I knew how it was going to end, obviously," says Dunn, "But as I wrote it, it got harder and harder. It was a mental challenge beyond the story itself."

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