Megan Dunn's memoir meets essay collection, Things I Learned at Art School. Photo / Supplied

How Novel! 6 Books That Made An Impression On Megan Dunn

The acclaimed Wellington author recommends books filled with zest, self-help and "bonkers behaviour"

Megan Dunn wishes she'd read essays sooner. "It took me a while to get over the fact that I wasn't a novelist," she says, "because I started out reading so many novels, but the world's libraries are long and various."

Her latest collection, Things I Learned at Art School, has only cemented her as a master essayist and memorist, a writer attuned to the whip-smart and the wonder of everyday life.

A book I couldn’t put down
So many. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson is a short novel I first read as a teen and loved. It is about Jeanette, a young girl, adopted by a zealous Evangelical mother. Jeanette is devout, and speaks in tongues — she loves God — but she also loves women, and that becomes a major problem. The book is full of wit and zest and is a wonderful portrait of her iron-willed Mother. I loved the fantasy sequences, a daimon appears in an orange, and speaks to Jeanette in her moment of darkness. I watched the BBC drama too starring Charlotte Coleman, with a bright orange bob cut. Iconic. A perfect novel, adapted to perfection on screen. I also love to reread lots of David Sedaris, I like to be entertained by a humourous voice.

A book that changed my perspective
Playing Big by Tara Mohr. It's essentially a self-help book for women in leadership roles but don't let that put you off. I found it on my Mum's bookshelf and couldn't put it down. Tara understands a lot about the societal load women carry, all those subtle forces and doubts that hold us back from creating and being counted and seen for who we really are. It helped me understand that playing bigger in my writing was going to mean being really honest about my own very small, humble fallible life. Read Tara's Ten Rules for Brilliant Women here

A book that influenced my writing practice
As above. But the starting point for me was Julia Cameron's best-selling tome The Artist's Way. It's a deeply uncool example of self-help ideology but this book and the writing exercises in it got me started years ago when creating anything seemed impossible. So many blocks to creativity, to writing, are really within your own psyche. I still write on a timer when the going gets tough, a technique I adapted from Julia's idea of the morning pages. She recommends writing three stream of consciousness pages first thing every morning.

A book I gift to friends
I buy bespoke, each book chosen to match the wiles of its particular reader. However, for writers, I always recommend The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. You can never have too much style as a writer. I also fully endorse Writing Tools and Help! For Writers by American journo Roy Peter Clark. His books are packed with practical no-fuss insights into the bullshit you come up against daily as a writer, most of it self-generated. I wish he was my best friend so I could call him every day on the phone and get a personal pep-talk. Help!

A book I wish I had read sooner
The best books are kids' books. As a mum, I've been overjoyed to reread the Meg and Mog series. A stick figure witch and her cat and owl travel the world on her broomstick, casting back-firing spells and getting into adventures. Every book ends with the trio in a circle waving "Goodbye." Timeless.

A book that’s under-rated
I don't know that it's under-rated, but I do so love Cookie Mueller's slim edition of collected stories, Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black. Cookie was a total character, she starred in several John Waters films, was the muse of Nan Goldin and wrote art and advice columns in the East Village. In 1989, she died of Aids, aged only forty, but her stories are total crackers, full of bonkers behaviour, that as a fellow member of the ongoing worldwide art scene, I find completely relatable. Reading her makes me feel better. I'm glad she was alive. A brief shooting star in our hedonistic galaxy.

Find Things I Learned at Art School (Penguin, $35) at all good bookstores, and read Megan Dunn's interview with Lorde in the latest issue of Viva Magazine, on newsstands now.

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