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Dorothy Allison's Feisty Fiction: Truer Than Life
By Erin O'Briant
"At a certain age, you realize your mama was right: moisturizer is important," Dorothy Allison declares as we lean back on the leather couch in her Bernal Heights living room.
The author of the best-selling Bastard Out of Carolina and Cavedweller, Allison has opinions on everything from her sister ("a half-pint of irritability") to England ("the country is run by drag queens") to caving expeditions ("I always make friends with the female park rangers").
Allison's broad drawl and folksy truths-- often echoed by the characters in her novels -- coexist with an undeniable grit, a quality that must have paved the way for her current success.
After growing up in North Carolina, Allison launched her writing career in one of the grittiest places around: New York City. She started out as a journalist. "How else do you support yourself when you don't want to work waitress no more?" she asks.
"I used to write for the Village Voice, which pays enough to eat on. I also wrote a column for the New York Native, when it was still trying to be a lesbian and gay paper." She pauses. "The editor was an obnoxious sonofabitch. People who run gay papers are half the time crazy."
Despite her clear devotion to her bosses, Allison's career in journalism was short-lived. "I'm a terrible journalist," she admits gleefully. "I lie. If I'd continued to do journalism, I'd have been fired, because when you tell me a story, I think of a more interesting one and change it slightly." She laughs. "Me and the truth are not tied too tight."
Since her ill-suited beginnings, Allison has taught college courses, worked as a small press book editor, and published poetry, short stories, essays, and a performance piece. But her journalism roots have served her well.
"Writing a column is tremendously good for any kind of writer," Allison observes. "You've got a deadline, you've got to provide something, and you've got to turn it over in your mind really fast. You don't have time to agonize over the perfect sentence."
And what does it take to be a good fiction writer? "I'll tell you bluntly," Allison replies. "I think that people have talent for story or talent for language, but there's a lot of talent in the world. I think that writing well is largely a matter of talent to begin with, and then dedication to craft, and fearlessness. And sometimes luck. Getting the right kind of criticism, the right kind of encouragement, is enormously important."
Allison writes her own fiction as an antidote to all the "sanctimonious claptrap I see about class in this culture, and sanctimonious claptrap about lesbianism. I want to write what I think of as the true story. So I've got a lot of motivation, because I'm not seeing the true story that I know in the world very much."
Aside from her writing, Allison helps to raise money for causes she believes in, including cancer research and prevention. It's a disease that has touched her life deeply. "My mother started with cancer of the uterus when I was 7 years old," Allison says. "Over the course of 30 years she had cancer of the cervix, she had two mastectomies, she had lymphoma, and then she died of liver cancer. Every one of my aunts had cancer. They didn't all die of it, but they all had it," she continues. "It's an epidemic in my family."
Allison also raises funds to fight child abuse, bolster the small press industry, and help send working-class kids to college.
She and her partner moved to San Francisco in the summer of 1997, after five years in Guerneville, to find a school for their 5-year-old son. They first rented "the crazy people's house," as Allison calls it, at 29th and Castro in Noe Valley, but were soon booted out by an owner move-in eviction. Since then, they've been settling into their own home on the Bernal side of Mission Street.
Right now Allison is working on a third novel, this time set in San Francisco. "I started wondering, what would it be like if something happened, and you had no memory of your life up until then," she muses. "And this novel came from that. But I'm only halfway through, so I might change my mind."
So far, the book is about a woman who loses her memory and becomes crippled in an accident. As she begins to recover, she lives as a man. "It's about how she deals with her former lover, her parents, everything," Allison says.
Who knows, maybe a few Noe Valley references will work their way into the novel. We'll just have to wait and see.