1:1 - Dot Dannenberg

Posted on: August 7, 2014

interviewed by Natasha Akery
Over the next few weeks, 1:1000 will take you behind the scenes with our core writing and editorial team. We'll show you more about what makes these writers tick (or maybe twitch). 

This week we’re interviewing Dot Dannenberg, an English professor with a knack for snark and shade. But don’t let her sharp tongue fool you; she’s sweet as a Georgia peach when she’s had enough shut eye. Let’s meet the writer between such stories as “Product Placement,” “The Good Stuff,” and “One Lucky Bastard.”

1:1000: Your education and work experience reveal a long and committed relationship with words. When did this love affair begin?

DOT DANNENBERG: When I was five, I had a wonderful kindergarten teacher who emphasized a lot of creative writing and sharing--we wrote and illustrated our own stories, then read them aloud in the "Author Chair." That year, one of my stories (about a cowboy who loses his cows) won a county-wide contest. At that point, most kids graduated to video games and sports, but for me, the whole writing thing got more and more out of hand. I got really pushy with my teachers, making them use their bookbinding equipment on all my "novels" (featuring, usually, giraffes in space). By high school, I was monopolizing all my AP Lit teacher's time making her listen to my horrible, vague, Sylvia-Plath-esque poetry during her planning period. I also grew up in what my friend Katie likes to call a "learning family"--my parents always encouraged me to read whatever I wanted. The only rule was "no books at the dinner table." The rest is history.

1:1000: You’ve said more or less in the past that you don’t really consider yourself a writer. So, what compels you to write? 

DD: Oh, I very much DO consider myself a writer! For the longest time, I thought in order to be a writer you had to have a laundry list of publications and do the whole submissions hustle non-stop. I used to beat myself up about not getting up at 5 AM to write and not always obsessing about my characters, like some of my writer friends do. But then I realized a writer is simply a person who writes. And I am a person who writes. I will admit, though, that I am a very deadline-oriented writer. I can get a massive amount done in a very condensed amount of time, but there has to be an end goal in mind.

1:1000: You were a poet first, correct? 

DD: True. Sorry, poetry. I am a giant traitor. I started writing poetry in high school and studied poetry all the way through college. Afterwards, I got my MFA in poetry from Pacific University. I was actually terrified when I was asked to join the 1:1000 team, because I had never written what I considered a successful short story. But I found that flash fiction actually has a lot in common with poetry, structurally. You have a limited amount of space to work with, and you have to use that space as a window into an entire world. Also, poetry and flash fiction both depend upon image. The image takes the place of the backstory, the exposition, and all the blah-blah-blah. I also think poetry and flash fiction have to do the same work in their endings. W.B. Yeats said a poem should "click shut" like a box--I think the best flash fiction also does that. It has to feel complete, despite its length. I can't see the future, so I don't know if I'll ever go back to writing poems. I think, as a writer, I tend to get bored pretty easily. Once I finish a piece, I'm over it and on to the next thing. So right now, fiction is what excites me.

1:1000: In your stories such as “Brothers,” “Be Great” and “Los Niños,” you present cultural perspectives that are almost certainly from direct experience. How do these ideas occur to you? 

DD: A lot of my inspiration comes from my students. I teach English at a career college, and most of my students are from different cultural backgrounds than my own. Through getting to know them and reading their writing, they tell me the most heartbreaking stories about their lives. I don't lift their experiences directly for my own writing--that seems wrong to me, as they have their own voices and the right to tell their own stories. But teaching has taught me how to see the world through their perspectives, and once I'm in that world, it doesn't take long for my own characters to begin to speak. I do have a student who got pregnant in Nicaragua when she was sent there as punishment, just like the protagonist in "Los Niños." But in real life, the girl didn't have an abortion. Her son is in elementary school now, and she's back in the states for good. The inciting image behind "Be Great" actually came from a Facebook post I saw--someone talking about eating food their late grandmother had frozen the season before. For that protagonist, Z, I had one of my students in mind--just his attitude, more than anything, but it's not his story.

1:1000: In addition to multicultural perspectives, you also dabble in evangelical Christian environments with stories like “In the Darkness,” but the events that take place are a little hard to believe to the unfamiliar reader. What’s your motivation with these particular stories? 

DD: I think you've nailed it, actually--I want readers to see that these mindsets and events really do exist out there. I grew up, off and on, in the evangelical church, and it took until I went to college to realize that some of the things I experienced weren't the norm, even for people who grew up Christian. I'm especially fascinated by the way "youth" church was done in the late 90s and early 2000s--the purity culture, street evangelism, the attempt to stamp out secular influence. Many people I meet as an adult are so surprised by my church camp stories--white boys in blackface (really), people throwing their entire CD collections in the lake, pudding wrestling. (True! All of it!) So, in part, I think I write these stories to surprise and delight unfamiliar readers and strike a nerve of nostalgia in people who do remember this crazy stuff. But there's also a layer of complexity that looms anytime you write about religion. I don't really reflect on my time in the church from a place of bitterness, but for a lot of people, there is that baggage. And I like that you can't write about religion, even in criticism, without acknowledging that it still hits on elements of truth--the quest for connection, what happens when we die, how should we approach shame and guilt.

1:1000: So, can we talk about your dog? 

DD: CAN we. My dog's name is Moses. He weighs 95 lbs (he's half Great Pyrenees). He has his own Instagram feed (@thechosendog). Right now, he's lying on my living room rug snoring. Someone once referred to him as my "child," and I realized that actually, he's more like the house grandpa. He doesn't have a job. He sleeps all day. He barks when strangers walk by the property ("get off my lawn!"). He really only wants to eat cookies. Periodically, he complains about going up and down stairs. He is one of the great joys of my life.

1:1000: When you’re not fielding submissions, editing stories, and writing your own for One for One Thousand, what can you be found doing? 

DD: Grading papers. A lot of my life gets eaten up by teaching. I had a professor in college who worried over me becoming a teacher, telling me that teaching eats up all the time for writing. And in part, that's true. But it also fuels the writing. It's a delicate compromise. I like to remind myself that I have the same amount of hours in my day as Beyonce does. I also spend a lot of time listening to audiobooks on the metro and discovering new restaurants with my husband (who would like me to ask readers for support as he embarks on a 30-day frozen yogurt cleanse). And I go shopping a lot. Oops.

1:1000: These days, it seems like “highly sensitive person” is the new “introvert.” As an HSP, do you see that play into your writing style or habits? 

DD: In some ways, it's a natural fit. HSP, for readers who are unfamiliar, in general means I'm very stimulus reactive. Not just emotionally, but also anything sense-related--noises, smells, visuals, whatever. I in part credit my HSP tendencies for making me hyper-aware--I can catch all the small details of the world, then drop them like little jewels into my stories. I also think it's an HSP thing to not play well with others and have a general disregard for the man. As writing is a pretty solitary pursuit (and one that should turn a questioning eye on society), this works out well. The only time I'd say the HSP tendencies don't jive with the writer life is that I really can't get my best work done in coffee shops. THE COFFEE SMELL. THE BAD SATELLITE RADIO PLAYLISTS. OH GOD, MAKE IT STOP. I also get really growly when people try to read over my shoulder when my work is still in draft mode. GO AWAYYYYY.

1:1000: Do you have a muse? 

DD: I think right now I have several. 1. Sleep. If I get enough sleep, I am a manic robot who can do EVERYTHING. And that's inspiring. 2. My student, Tiffany, who shakes my world up every day with her one-liners (The latest: "You know there's a season for people to get pregnant? Everybody has their season. Mine's winter, so this year I know I gotta zip my coat allllll the way up."). 3. Moody movies (especially French art house crap or Noah Baumbach-type films). It’s the triumvirate: energy, reality, cerebral fantasy.

1:1000: What words of advice do you have for your eight-year-old self? 

DD: Stop eating bread right now, and you'll save yourself from 20 years of misery as a fat person. Oh, and also, keep writing! Kickball is totally overrated.

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