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Author Interview with Novelist and Screenwriter Claire Ross Dunn
We talk to Claire about writing first novel at 57 after a long career in TV and film.
Claire Ross Dunn works as a writer, story editor, and producer. Her first novel, At Last Count, was released by Invisible Publishing in June of 2022.
Tell us about At Last Count and why you wrote it.
At Last Count started out in a very different way than it finished. I started a writers’ circle with two old friends around 2005. My goal in joining a writers’ circle was very purposely to write for myself, and not for other people, as I do on a regular basis as a screenwriter. The world of TV and film can be very stressful, with big deadline pressure, a lot of money at stake, and having to deliver your writing to all sorts of people (executives, broadcasters) who are higher up. I was looking for a way to get back to the pure joy of writing, and to remind myself a bit what my own voice, and taste, were like: What I thought was good, or what was fun to write.
So I started work on a short story about an introverted, anxious woman who fell in love with a bookstore clerk. We three writers in the circle decided that we would submit our writing to the Ontario Arts Council literature grant, and I was lucky enough to get that grant, and then I got a second grant from the Toronto Arts Council, which was equally wonderful, but it also meant that I needed now to write a novel! Something I had no idea how to do.
Eventually, many drafts later, around 2012, when I was ready to submit the book to publishers, I realized that somewhere, deep, deep down, I had been writing about my own childhood experience with OCD, or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. This was a revelation to me—and made me very worried about being ‘outed.’ I thought that if people found out I had struggled with OCD, they might not hire me again—something which I can safely say has not happened. But these fears are real, and justifiable, given I’m self-employed.
It took me another eight years to come to terms with what the book was really about (it’s not just about OCD either—it’s a work of fiction about one woman’s efforts to find a new home, and deal with her past, and the complex romantic relationship that helps that happen). But looking back, I can see that that was what the book was meant to be for me, even if I didn’t know it when I set about writing it. The creative process is a mysterious, wondrous thing.
Give us a little glimpse into your writing life. When, where, and how do you write?
I write, almost without fail in the mornings. I like to get up, get myself a Diet Coke (yes, I drink Diet Coke in the mornings, because I hate the taste of coffee but Lord knows I need the caffeine boost), and then I try to get right to the writing—no checking email, social media, or succumbing to any of those distractions. I write first thing so that the censor doesn’t have enough time to wake up, and so that the writing gets done, whatever the day holds. Mornings are my absolute freest, most prolific time.
For years, I wrote in McDonald’s or Tim Horton’s first thing in the morning. My husband would cover breakfast with the kids, and I’d be back in time to help walk them to school. This was a way for me to get out of the mayhem of a house with young children, get the writing done, and have a bit of time to think. Some find it funny that I would write in those places and not a place like Starbucks or a fancy coffee shop. But I always found those places too pressured. It seemed to me that every person at every tiny table was writing a screenplay or a novel, and I could just never feel fancy enough. At McDonald’s and Tim Hortons, it’s just me, the retired folk and the nannies, and I like the vibe.
During Covid, I stopped going to those places, obviously. And I was very unused to writing at home in the early mornings, but I was lucky enough to find out about an online writing group, PJ Writing, run by Sue Reynolds, who is a writer, editor, mentor, publisher, and writing workshop leader. She started PJ Writing during Covid as a way to support her writing community, and has continued it ever since. It is free and available to anyone to sign up. We meet from 7:30 to 8:30 am every morning over Zoom, Monday to Friday. We chat for two minutes until 7:30 am on the nose, and then everyone writes together, in silence, for an hour. Many mornings there are 35 writers in attendance, many of whom are women my age and older, from across Canada, the United States, and elsewhere. It has been an incredible resource for me.
I started because I’d asked an editor friend, Nathan Whitlock (who was one of the editors of At Last Count) why I was feeling so anxious about having my book published. He normalized that experience—said it was very common—and suggested that the best way to deal with the stress of publishing my first book was to immediately get started on a second book. I did that in PJ writing, and within a year of writing one hour a day, I’d finished the first draft of my second novel. That to me is a testament to the power of daily practice.
What writing advice would you give other midlife writers?
1) Prioritize yourself. Life to me now, at the age of 58, is about dealing with a constant onslaught of administrative minutiae, for myself, my family, my work, my ageing parents… The list goes on. It is incredibly easy to not take care of ourselves—creatively, physically, psychologically. Especially if we’re women. I think we have been socialized to put others first, to be the nurturer, even though a very important person we need to nurture is ourselves. I don’t know if you have seen that meme on social media that goes like this: adulthood is just saying ‘but after this week, things will slow down a bit’ over and over until you die. For me, that couldn’t be more true. It can be incredibly hard to carve out 7:30 until noon every day and say this is the time I reserve to write. It’s not for online banking, or registering the kids in a program, or visiting my ageing mother in long-term care, or taking phone calls to gab with an old friend. It is about trying to remain in the creative zone and write. Get those words down on paper, because in the end, you cannot edit a blank page. You cannot sell a book or script that is not written.
2) The second piece of advice that I have discovered really only in the last couple of years is the power of getting up and going for a walk if the writing is not flowing. Sometimes I assign myself one question about a writing problem I can’t solve. And as I walk, an idea starts to form, and then I dictate an email to myself and allow myself to ramble as much as possible. When I get home, I might not have the ultimate solution to my writing problem, but I’ve broken the back of it, I’m on my way. This is an incredibly efficient way to solve problems. And also, importantly, get in some exercise, which is easy to forget when I spend so much time sitting at a desk.
3) Get yourself an accountability buddy who you really trust, and who you also think is a better chess player than you. This last year, I paired up with Ann Douglas, writer extraordinaire who has published 26 non-fiction books, and is currently working on a novel. In many ways, Ann is vastly more experienced than I am. But we also share the ambition to write more fiction, so we are in the trenches together. We are also about the same age, with adult children, and partners, so she understands all of the daily pressures and the juggle. She and I correspond by email every Friday, to touch base about how we are promoting our last book, and how we fared that week with writing the next one. We cover off both the administration and creativity of being working writers. We are good sounding boards for one another. We goal-set, we problem solve, we’re each other’s cheering sections. It’s so excellent and I have found this a much more productive and tangible way to meet my goals than just doing a big goalsetting brain dump at the beginning of the year.
4) Work on a writing manifesto for yourself. A document that you revisit at least a few times a year, a collection of everything that you deeply believe: your professional and personal values. When you feel that you’re drowning, go back to this document, and remember why you were doing what you were doing, and what you believe. For example, here is something that I can see on my own manifesto: make things, and think things, that help the world, not hinder it. That, for an example, is something that anchors me when I’m deciding whether I should take a job.
5) And lastly Seth Godin, the marketing guru, has a saying: real artists ship. This has always been an incredible motivating mantra for me by which to live and work. Real artists don’t just play in their study. They make things, they finish things, and they ship them to an agent, a publisher, a magazine contest, a production company. Let us respect ourselves, and our work, enough to ship. We are worth it.
What are three books, TV shows, movies, or songs that were formative to you as a child or young woman?
An album—Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life. This double album gave me all the feels. I was 11 when it was released in 1976. I used to listen to it upside down on the couch, reading the liner notes and lyrics. Or dancing around my living room, singing along at the top of my voice. If you want to get into an emotional or joyous headspace, all you need to do is listen to this album.
A book—The Mayor of Casterbridge. I read this book in Grade 11 or 12 English and fell head over heels with it. I’ve probably read it 5 or 6 times since. Originally I just loved the Victorian melodrama and hook-y nature of the writing…but since then, I’ve also thought about its thematic territory which, to me, feels meaningful. Thomas Hardy asks, is character fate? Meaning, are we doomed to do certain things because of our personality—or can we overcome our own deep foibles to improve our situation? I think about this a lot. The agency we have over ourselves and our lives.
A movie—I will never forget the effect “Sophie’s Choice” had on me. That movie came out in 1982. I’d read the 1979 book by William Styron—I would have been 15 or 16 when I’d read it. The book, and the subsequent movie adaptation, put me on the rack. Meryl Streep won the Academy Award for best actress, which is unsurprising. I went to theatre school a year after the movie came out—I feel like it had an impact on me, made me want to take an audience on an emotional journey and feel transformed by story.
What’s the hardest part about getting older for you? What’s the best part?
The hardest part: my deteriorating eyesight. It’s so dumb! We have readers all over the house. My husband, Kirk Dunn, who is an actor, writer and knitter, often knits with two pairs of glasses. We used to laugh about this, but now it’s a common occurrence for both of us. I find this small thing, when I’m a writer, very irritating.
More broadly, I’m frustrated by ageism. It happens in the TV world quite a bit. (Sexism, too, but that’s another story.) All these decisions by others about who we are, and what we are, and aren’t, capable of doing. It’s part of what has made me drive more of my own projects. That way, there are fewer gatekeepers. We are capable of so, so much.
The best part: There is power in self-acceptance. Accepting that I am imperfect and have a bunch of non-life-threatening flaws, has enabled me to stop investing so much time in self-flagellation and get on with the things I really care about. I’ve also grown confident in my skill and my craft, and I’ve survived some hardship which has made me more resilient. I remember seeing this on a sign: Apparently you have survived 100% of your days. The older I get, the more days I have survived (and hopefully better than just that).
Claire’s first novel, At Last Count, was released by Invisible Publishing in June, 2022, and is available at bookstores around the world. At Last Count was named a Globe and Mail Best Book of 2022, a Summer Reads pick by the Toronto Star, a CanLit book club pick by Zoomer magazine, an Editors’ Pick by 49th Shelf, and has been featured on CBC’s Ontario Morning, Global TV, the Kingston-Whig Standard, Amherst Island Radio, Mix 97, and elsewhere. Claire has presented the book at the Manitoulin NorthWords Festival and at the Vancouver Writers Fest alongside authors Elif Batuman and Meira Cook. An audiobook is available.
Claire has written several movies for TV, including Love at Look Lodge (Hallmark), Cupids on Beacon Street (City TV) and the story for Ice Wine Christmas (Lifetime). Claire was Executive Producer and a writer for the new comedy ZARQA on CBC Gem, and Supervising Producer for Nickelodeon’s “Make It Pop,” writing many of the show’s episodes. Claire’s other TV writing credits include "Little Mosque on the Prairie, Degrassi: The Next Generation for which Claire earned The Alliance for Children and Television Award for Excellence, The Smart Woman Survival Guide for W and Cosmo TV, and Wingin’ It, earning Claire a Canadian Screen Award nomination for Best Writing in a Children’s/Youth Program. Claire has received Canada Media Fund funding to develop At Last Count into a one-hour TV drama.
Learn more about Claire at her website.
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