Ninth grade English students had a choice of texts for a fall project, and one of the texts was a favorite novel of mine, Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn. Students read and discussed the story in small groups, and when they shared questions they had at the end of the book and things they wish they could ask the author, I put on my detective hat and tracked down Mr. Dunn's email. He generously invited me to share my students' questions and detailed answers arrived, thrilling the students and me alike. Enjoy this insider look at the writing process of this special book. (SPOILER ALERT - Does include some plot point information.)
Q. How long did it take you to write the book?
A. I actually wrote the first draft in a very intensive two weeks. It was important to keep all the bits and pieces of the book in my head as I was moving forward, in terms of what letters were disappearing and the various ways that people were dealing with everything. Also, I was eager to find out what happened next myself! Once I got the first draft down, I was able to rework later drafts.
Q. How did you deal with losing letters and removing them from the book? Did you write it backwards?
A. I didn't write backwards but it's interesting that this is the only book or play I've written in which I had to know how it ended before I could finish the rest of it. I needed to know how Ella would end up saving the day and if I would be able to convey this to the reader with so few letters left for me to use. The last thing I wanted to do was to step away from the epistolary construction of the book and insert myself as the author with the luxury of having all the 26 letters of the alphabet at my disposal -- that just seemed like cheating! Also this is the kind of book that can write itself off a cliff if you don't know a narrative way to pull it back from the brink.
Q. Did you ever have to start over because you realized you'd removed an important letter too early and couldn't get around certain things?
A. I did realize that I couldn't have the letters dropping in reverse order of their appearance in our language -- especially if we were all to believe that there was no rhyme or reason to their falling. That's why I decided to go for a big one -- the letter D -- in the fourth place. But that proved to be the biggest challenge of all, since it kept me from using the simple past tense for a lot of words. And the days of the week ... and a lot of other things!
Q. We loved that because it was an epistolary novel, you had to stop using certain letters and that's what made it a lipogram, but besides that, were there any limitations or challenges that resulted from choosing that style?
A. I realized that it was going to be very hard for my characters to keep communicating with each other, so that is why I came up with allowing them to use sound-alike letters and letter-combinations to take the place of the ones that were removed.
Q. How did you imagine and create a total history for the fictional island of Nollop?
A. I have a reputation for creating different worlds for my characters to inhabit. My novel UNDER THE HARROW takes place in a secluded valley where everyone talks like Dickens characters. Also, when an author creates his own world, he gets to do far less research into the real world, and that lazy part of me really enjoys that!
Q. Did you ever consider a sequel? How do you think Nollop & its residents are doing now? A few students felt like it ended a little abruptly, and wondered if we weren't meant to know much about the aftermath...
A. I've thought about it but can't come up with a plot line that would come anywhere near the lipogrammatic one. Don't you think they've learned their lesson and will try not to get themselves into trouble again?
Q. What made you interested in pangrams?
A. I love having fun with language. For a while I thought about writing something based on all the infinite digits of pi. Each word in sequence would have the same number of letters of the numerical sequence of pi. I played around with it for a couple of hours and then threw in the towel. That challenge is much too big for my brain.
Q. Did you find all the pangrams and work them into the story, or did you make them yourself?
A. When I was working at the New York Public Library in Rare Books and Manuscripts, I found a little book in the stacks that was only pangrams, and so many of them I'd never seen before, so I decided to work them into my book. If I'd had to come up with all of them on my own, the book would have taken a lot longer to finish!
Q. We liked a lot of the made up words that appear in the book - how did you come up with them? Were there some words you thought were just fun and used, or was it all a matter of what you really needed?
A. I wanted to show that even though the Nollopians wrote and spoke in English, theirs was a version of English which over the years had started to incorporate some of their own words. This skill the Nollopians had for coming up with new words came in very handy when they found the letters of their alphabet disappearing.
Q. Who was your favorite character in the novel?
A. It's hard not to put Ella at the top. How she hung in there was very inspiring!
Q. How did you keep track of how to make the different characters sound and write their letters differently?
A. That's a basic for writers -- finding ways to make distinctions between how characters express themselves. On the other hand, as the letters began to disappear I lost the ability to make a lot of those distinctions, but in my other work, I find things (favorite phrases, different syntactical ways of using language) that keep characters apart. It's one of the hardest things for new writers to do -- keep their characters from sounding alike, especially since when you're first starting out, all of your characters usually just sound like you!
Q. Was it extra difficult to write as one particular voice?
A. At some point the circumstances of the story hijacked the book and I got to the point of struggling just to make what people were saying to each other make sense to the reader. I didn't want anyone to read a letter and wonder what in the world the character was trying to say.