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A Literary Punch: Talking with Oregon author Katherine Dunn about boxing, writing and human nature 

Katherine Dunn demonstrates that some poses are just eternally cool. It's been 20 years since Portland author Katherine Dunn published her quirky novel, Geek Love,

click to enlarge Katherine Dunn demonstrates that some poses are just eternally cool. : Katherine Dunn demonstrates that some poses are just eternally cool.
  • Katherine Dunn demonstrates that some poses are just eternally cool. : Katherine Dunn demonstrates that some poses are just eternally cool.
Katherine Dunn demonstrates that some poses are just eternally cool.
It's been 20 years since Portland author Katherine Dunn published her quirky novel, Geek Love, a book that is still widely read and loved for its weird depiction of a family of circus freaks. Dunn's fans also know her as one of the country's most accomplished boxing reporters and some of her most memorable pieces on pugilism now appear in a new book, One Ring Circus: Dispatches from the World of Boxing. We caught up with Dunn before her pair of appearances in Central Oregon on July 15 to chat about, well, mostly boxing. Makes, sense, right?

When you were putting together One Ring Circus, was that sort of a walk back through your entire career as boxing reporter?
Oh, absolutely. It was definitely a trip down memory lane for me. One of the things, of course, was that almost all of the pieces were written for general interest publications, not for boxing publications. Although I did write and continue to write for boxing publications, these seem to be the most consciously designed to reach out to people who were not necessarily boxing fans and to try to engage with people who might have even negative attitudes toward boxing, of which they are a larger number of, unfortunately.

Would you have been able to write this much had you become fascinated with, say, tennis or baseball?

You know, I'm afraid I'm not really in a position to say because I know so little about those other sports. I've been such an obsessive one-trick pony that I really know very, very little about other sports, at all. It was this sport that caught me. I have to say that I suspect that wherever humans are involved, you're going to get the full human megillah. The azalea growers probably have a bizarre subculture, too. The rose breeders and the designers of CB radios, who knows. The thing about boxing is that it's all right there on the surface. Everything is so open and available because it is a subculture that's built around violence, devoted to violence, dedicated to the creation of more and more violence and yet it is so completely human in so many ways, so friendly and so kind.

What piece in One Ring Circus do you feel most encapsulates your boxing reporting career?

I have to admit that on different days I might say something different. In general, my perception of the sport, my big picture thinking on the sport, is probably best represented by the initial long essay in the book "School of Hard Knocks," which is about the boxing gyms and the culture of the gyms. I think a lot of people would be very surprised by what that culture is. I didn't quite understand it myself. It took a while for me to realize what was going on there.

Do you think there are some ugly parts to the boxing world?

This is something that's more than 5,000 years old, so anything that can happen has happened in boxing. There's plenty of skullduggery, shenanigans and downright violence, no question about it, but in general, so much depends on your general perception of what human kind is. My perception of human kind is as an animal, and as a very aggressive and dangerous predator with some very strong social needs. So that capacity for aggression and violence is extremely necessary and useful to us as a species. Our social contract, as we like to think of it, is defiantly critical in that working, too. I think that humankind over the eons has developed a lot of mechanisms for containing and channeling that necessary tool of violence and I think boxing is a kind of a stove that keeps that useful and necessary fire safe.

Would you ever move on and start writing about something else?

Well, I don't think I'm ever going to start covering tennis matches, but who knows what the future may bring. Boxing is certainly something that continues to fascinate and surprise me.

I'm sure everyone asks you this, but what is the status of your next novel, The Cut Man. Where are you with that?

Well, I'm working on it. There were 20 years between my second novel and my third novel, so I'm actually on track, as far as my schedule goes. But I've also done a lot of other kinds of journalism and written a lot of short stories and had those published, so it's not like I've taken up some other kind of hobby.

Right, I think, One Ring Circus is evidence that you haven't been just sitting around.

That's very true. This book is really meant to act as a kind of snapshot, eyewitness history of the last 30 years of the sport in this country, and certainly with selected kinetoscopes, but nonetheless, I think it does kind of operate in that way. Or at least I hope it does.

This year marks 20 years since Geek Love was originally published. When you wrote that book did you have any idea it would have this sort of impact and staying power?

Honestly, when I wrote it, I thought, "Nobody is ever going to publish this. I'll be lucky if this comes out as a Zebra original paperback." Really, I had no idea and I'm eternally surprised that people continue to find enjoyment, joy or shock in it, or whatever they're finding and I'm eternally grateful for that.

Katherine Dunn
Wednesday, July 15. 1:00pm: La Pine Public Library 16425 1st St., La Pine. 6:30pm: Bend Public Library, Brooks Room, 601 NW Wall St.


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