Broken Asides with Mari Ellis Dunning


When did you first feel like a writer?

This is such a tricky question because I don’t think it’s happened yet! When people ask what I do, I often tell them I’m a PhD student, or that I teach part time at the university, and then sometimes tag on that I write. I recently read a blog post by Natalie Ann Hoborow about this issue, in which she gives permission to anyone that writes to call themselves writers, so I’m trying to hold that in my mind!

What’s the most interesting thing that has inspired your writing and what was the result?

I’m not sure ‘interesting’ is the right word as it’s so commonplace, but becoming a mother was a huge source of inspiration for my second collection, Pearl and Bone, (Parthian) Having suffered with mental health issues all my life, I’d always written as a way to process difficult emotions, and I think I worried that recovering, and finding happiness, would curb that creative spark, but it hasn’t. There are endless sources of inspiration in life. For me, motherhood & the changes that brought about physically, emotionally, and mentally drew lots of new poems from me. It also prompted me to consider, in more depth, issues that have always been important to me and my writing process – women’s reproductive rights, bias in healthcare, the rights to choose not to become a parent, and violence against women, amongst other things. As a result, Pearl and Bone explores my own experience of becoming a mother for the first time (amidst the COVID pandemic no less!) alongside the experiences of other women and mothers through history.

Paint us a picture: what does your writing process look like? Do you write in coffee shops at night or only on an old type-writer?

This is another way motherhood has influenced me! There’s nothing romantic about it – I write as and when I can, snatching moments when my little boy is napping or preoccupied to scribble notes on my phone or on spare scraps of paper. One thing I have noticed is that I procrastinate much less now – if I have a writing window, I have to seize it, there’s no time for doodling or staring out the window!

Describe your ideal reader: who would your work speak to?

My ideal reader would be anyone that the work can speak to or touch in some way. I think my forthcoming collection will speak to mothers, women generally, people with an interest in the 60s (there’s a series of poems about Christine Keeler) and anyone with an interest in female representation and violence against women. In light of the overturning of Roe vs Wade which was, devastatingly, announced earlier this week, I do feel like the body of work is, sadly, all the more pertinent now. I was actually surprised to have so much of a male readership for my first collection, Salacia, (the editors at The Broken Spine, in particular, really championed the book!) as I assumed my work would appeal more to women, and that’s something I’m grateful for and which I hope continues with Pearl and Bone.

Who’s an author you’ve changed your mind about and why?

I’m not sure there’s a writer I’ve specifically changed my mind about, but my perspective on other writers has definitely shifted over the years. For example, I have a group of writers that I connect with regularly, and find the writing community really supportive and useful. Since my time as a Hay Writer at Work in 2019, I realised that other writers are just people, and often have the same worries, insecurities and uncertainties as I do. (This may be particularly true of poets!) Working collaboratively with Natalie Ann Holborow on The Wrong Side of the Looking Glass (Black Rabbit Press) and then delivering a series of workshops with her through Tŷ Newydd, was a fantastic experience. It goes to show that collaboration and mutual support are so much more beneficial than competition or jealousy, in all aspects of life. As writers, as well as as women, we need to support each other.

If you could interview any other writer/artist, who would it be and why?

My answer to this question probably changes day by day, but my first thought at the present moment is Margaret Atwood. There’s been a lot of discussion about the way in which The Handmaid’s Tale has shifted from science fiction to reality, but with a lot of suggestion that this is coincidence or unforseen, but of course that’s not true at all. The most frightening dystopias scare us because of their proximity to reality, and because they could happen. I think Margaret Atwood has always been ahead of her time, publishing The Handmaid’s Tale in the 80s. I’m not sure what I’d interview her about but I would just love to sit and have a drink with her!

What motivates you to keep writing?

Finding motivation can be difficult at times, particularly when we’re feeling doubt over our work. This is something I’ve experienced a lot with the novel I’m currently working on, a historical novel set in 16th century Wales – each time I hit a stumbling block, I feel like walking away from it! I’m currently partaking in a brilliant series of workshops focussing on historical fiction, led by Imogen Hermes Gower, so that’s been helpful as a source of motivation and inspiration.

How do you deal with writer’s block or being overwhelmed by the writing process?

Walking! My current WIP involves a lot of research, especially because 16th century Wales was quite different to 16th century England, which there’s a lot of information readily available about, so it’s been tricky to navigate seamlessly. Plotting the novel in advance was a useful exercise for me. When I come across knots or I’m not sure exactly what needs to happen in a scene, I grab the dog lead, put my toddler in his pram, and head off to walk along the coastal path, letting the details and conversations percolate in my mind while I walk.

Where would you like to see yourself in a decade? A creative writing teacher? As a best-seller?

I teach part time at Aberystwyth University as part of my PhD at the moment, but I would love that to become a permanent position in future. I also facilitate creative writing workshops and that’s something I’d like to keep doing and to build on. And hey, who doesn’t want to be a best seller!?

What has your work taught you about yourself?

That I can use art to make sense of, or at least to convey my feelings around, certain situations. When there was first speculation about the overturning of Roe vs Wade a month or so ago, the fury and hurt and injustice I felt were too great for me to express anything eloquently or coherently, so I wrote a poem instead. It said everything I felt I needed to say, and I felt it was easier to do this through drawing on imagery and individual experience rather than trying to tackle what is a huge & complex issue through an essay or an article.

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