Lee Dunne is a [prolific] novelist, short story writer, playwright and radio scriptwriter. He lives in Dublin with his wife Maura and has spent almost all his adult life scribbling stories. He leapt to fame in the mid-sixties with his novel, Goodbye To The Hill, followed by A Bed In The Sticks. He’s written twenty novels in total! Dancers of Fortune is his latest book. A few months ago he signed a contract with Northern Ireland Film for his screenplay of Sent By An Angel, adapted from the book of the same name by Kevin Skelton and Yvonne Kinsella. Next week at the Irish Writers’ Centre (20th – 22nd) he performs a week-long lunchtime run of his delightful one-man-show, No Time For Innocence. After going down a storm at the Peregrine Readings last November, he’ll dramatise his warm and funny material from Goodbye To The Hill and other works, meshing it all with musical memories. A natural performer, Lee’s show promises to amuse and delight (and possibly make you cry out your nose, so bring tissues). Thanks to the fabulous Bibliofemme website for this insightful interview where Lee talks about being labelled a ‘nutcase’, abseiling through the Manhattan years, bibles, blues, writing through the night and how not to pop your clogs.
Did you always want to be a writer – or did you fall into it? Yes. From the time I was seven-years-old I knew I wanted to be a writer. Originally it was screen writing that captured my interest. Being part of the Picture Generation (I was seven yrs old in 1941 – just after the Ark sank!) I got to the movies even when I had to steal (literally, the four pence required to get you in without having to climb through the lavatory window which happened more than once) I fell in love with Movies and noticed that what someone had written was what took place on screen – it didn’t just happen, like! I really was into reading the credits as a young boy – and of course, being gabby little me, I told one and all “I’m going to be a writer” which got me the label ‘nutcase’ as far as the family were concerned. Didn’t stop me – I knew what I wanted and whatever I did from then on, it was with a view to finding a way to make a crust out of scribbling.
What made you to decide to write this book? I didn’t decide to write Dancers of Fortune. God bless it, this lovely book just happened to me and I am thrilled skinny to have been part of whatever process produced it, for I certainly didn’t write it after saying “I’m going to write a historical type story” or whatever. I suppose I should explain a bit more – Dancers – the germ of it, first happened to me in the 80s. I was living in Manhattan and Harper & Rowe gave me an advance on an outline to write a book that I was calling Ethics of the Fathers. I wrote this bodice ripper that they didn’t like (thank God I didn’t have to return the bread) and I put the MS away and forgot all about it. Not because I’m blasé or anything like that – I just get so many ideas that I rarely get bogged down if something doesn’t work. In 2003 I got this urge to write Dancers. It was a sprouting of something that had been in Ethics but I’ve no idea how much it owes to that first draft. Because it was 23 years since I’d looked at that MS and I never bothered to go back to it. Not difficult because Dancers was soon writing itself and anyway, I had no idea where the original MS had gone to. Dancers was like a gift to me from some loving scribbler gone before who decided to give me a break, a chance to make some pension money and get some good reviews, before I pop my clogs. I’ve read it since it was published and I have to say I found it wonderful, a terrific story well told with lots of interesting characters and many good story lines with all the ingredients to make some kind of bestseller. Now you couldn’t say something like that about a book you thought you’d written – it was a gift and I cherish it and that’s the total truth about Dancers.
This book is based in Dublin in the early 1900s. What level of research did you have to do before writing it? I read a lot anyway, and when I find something of interest that I didn’t already know, I make a note, cut out a clipping, whatever – in this way I was compiling stuff without even thinking about where it is going. So it was basically reading research and my wife Maura made time to find things I needed but couldn’t be bothered to look for. I talked to some men who had lived back then, remembering stories my mother and grandmother told, and that was about it.
Is the character Sam Sweet based on anyone? (great name by the way!) Sam Sweet is based on myself, I suppose. All the characters get some bit of you – the good guy gets your good guy, the bad guy gets your bad guy. Even the women get a bit of me out of my feminine side which I have never been afraid of – and even less so now that I am an OAP though personally I think 70 is the new 50. The name Sam Sweet fell into my lap while I was working (illegally) for a legal firm in Manhattan. This older lawyer, 85 and still dapper each morning as he came to work like a man in his late 50s. I came to love the guy and we were pals and I used his name in honour of his memory and I just know he’s delighted up there in some Jewish heaven that Sam has such a good and active and healthy sex life in the book!
Did you know how this book was going to end before you started writing it? I didn’t know how the book was going to end at any time during the writing. Eight pages from the end I could not have said how it was going to close. I would swear to this on a stack of Bibles – the revelation at the end was such a surprise I felt sure it would satisfy even the most demanding reader. It seems I’ve turned out to be right, nice change! I’m only messing! When I write for the screen I have a good idea of how it will end – not necessarily details, but a good broad understanding of where it’s going – with books, never, not even in a thriller.
You have written so much, fiction, non-fiction, plays, television series – what do you enjoy writing the most? Most of all I enjoy the book writing process. I love to have the time a novel demands to watch it simmer and cook away and be there with a new aroma in the morning. I write questions of the characters most days at work’s end. “Hey Sam, where are you in relation to this latest bombshell?” – this kind of thing. Yes, I love book writing most of all.
How long does it take you to write a book? I’ve written quickie books in the past in as little as seven days – they were funny sexy books about London cab drivers. I would just sit down and go and trust that the story would happen. It did. Five of those were published in the UK and I never had to rewrite a line. They were fun to do but I began to get worried when the 5th novel took 13 days. Barleycorn Blues and Dancers really happened to me at the same time. I was into BBs early in 2003 and the next thing I know Dancers is knocking on the door. I tried to ignore it but it wouldn’t quit so I began tapping that out so many days a week, before going back to BBs. As it turned out the two books wrote themselves in that same year and I gave both of them to Poolbeg in October 2003. It was a great and happy creative time but I will say I did punch in the hours, day after day for seven or eight months, the stories waking me at 4am and such. Several nights my wife Maura, who is a late night lady, found me getting up and she was getting into bed. That’s exciting when a story wakes you up – it might be just a note you need to make one night – but mostly in 2003 the need to get back to the development of the books was the sweetest alarm clock a guy ever heard.
What was the last good book you’ve read? John McGahern’s Amongst Women. What a writer! Wow!
If I banished you to a desert Island for a month, what five books would you bring with you? Dancers of Fortune, The novels of James Lee Burke, Prizzi’s Honour – Richard Condon, Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy and Look Homeward Angel – Thomas Wolfe.
What advice would you give to someone who is trying to write? Make a comfortable space (even a corner in your bedroom) that is all yours. Sit down and start writing. Aim for three pages a day. Don’t analyse, don’t criticise, just write. It doesn’t matter what it is – just write and write until you develop the start of a writing habit. Write down, right now, that Lee Dunne is talking hay here. Like I have something to write about. You don’t. Just start. Use me or anybody to get words on paper. When you have done this for a month, and have lost the urge to produce a bestseller or a great work of art (you should live so long) – then start to write a story based on the things you know about. Write everything, the caveat being that nobody but you sees it. If you write in fear of what your mother or critics or Gang Busters will think of it, you are not writing but you are becoming a tailor and will no doubt make good suits. Write it all out, even the things you wouldn’t want anybody to know. When you have a good section of your story written – like, say, a couple of hundred pages – then you can go back and edit. But only you get to do this at this stage. I’ll bet you won’t edit half as much as you thought you would when you were writing. So go for it and don’t listen to anybody that you couldn’t possibly write. Get some pages down – doesn’t matter what is it, then stop and look at it, and good or bad, it is writing. If it must be bestseller writing, forget about it.
What’s next for you? Are you currently working on the next novel? Right now I’m writing the sequel to Dancers – working title is Seasons of Destiny – which Poolbeg want to publish next spring. It covers the years 1920 to 1939 (I believe there are four books in the overall saga) and it’s going well at the minute. I do lots of other things too. I review books for the Sunday Independent, am now a columnist of Local News and sometimes sing with a real orchestra, doing all the standards of Gershwin, Kern, Porter, Arlen, Berlin. Songs I have loved all my life.