In the beginning was her laugh, low and loud, like cello strings strummed by a nicotine wind. I heard the sound one morning in the summer of 1986, and when I looked up, I saw a long, slender hand offered to me.
"Katherine Dunn," she said. "Indeed a pleasure."
I was 24 and had just started at Willamette Week, and Katherine Dunn was the one person at the newspaper I most wanted to meet. She wrote about boxing and the arts, and each week produced The Slice, the column in which she provided funny and thoughtful answers to readers' questions about every possible topic. Most columnists working in Portland played the roles of gossips, intellectuals or street toughs. Only Katherine Dunn wrote with the confidence of a close friend whispering in your ear.
She was not at all what I expected. I had imagined someone flamboyant, punk, young. The woman before me might have been bringing up cobwebbed reference books from the stacks. Her blond hair was pulled back, save for fugitive wisps at her temples. She wore porthole glasses that magnified the creases of trial and worry around her enormous eyes. She inspected me with a grimace, and then smiled with tall, iridescent teeth—choppers, a noun she used with wicked effect in the opening of Geek Love, the novel that would soon make her famous.
She wanted to know everything about me—where was I from? What was I going to do at the paper? Was I going to deliver big things? I fumbled even the easy answers, I was so nervous. After a few minutes, I interrupted her to tell her how much I admired her writing, and then asked her about her background. She smiled. "We will talk again," she said, and slipped away.
To know Katherine Dunn in those pre-Geek Love days, before the world discovered her, was a gift. To be clear, the post-Geek Love Katherine was hardly any different than the one who came before: generous, resilient, mischievous. It's just that fame had not yet found her, and the world had not yet dropped its jaw at the traveling Binewskis and their mutant children.
In the nascent writing colony that was then Portland, Katherine was queen. She spun the crown around her finger just to show she didn't take herself too seriously, but she carried the burden that came with the throne. Katherine became a force in defense of local writers. She put together writing groups, organized workshops and even arranged for group dental insurance. She understood why she had this authority—no one could match her talent. But she rarely talked of her own skill. A former colleague recalls only once hearing Katherine speak about her standing. "I don't really fear any writer in this town," Katherine said. Her one exception: Oregonian columnist Steve Duin—"maybe."
When I joined WW, Katherine worked strictly as a freelancer. But she felt a sense of ownership of the paper and made herself part of everything we did. At 40, she was the oldest among us, even older than the paper's editor and publisher. In news meetings—as elsewhere—she had no patience for bullshit, turned her back at insincerity and relished her natural antipathy toward authority, especially at WW itself. She was the only person I ever saw intimidate editor Mark Zusman—no small feat. Still, she appreciated the opportunity the newspaper had given her. In Geek Love, she introduces a police detective who investigates a murder. "Don't tell anyone," she said to me not long before the book appeared, "but I've named the cop 'M. L. Zusman.'" She meant it as an honor.
She spoke in a measured sentences, never too fast or loud. Her diction was crisp, her choice of words precise, and her voice tinged by smoker's fuzz. Her self-control and formality gave her words more weight, her humor more bite and her frequent use of fuck more punch. Her manner allowed her to tune in to others' emotional frequency. "She was excellent at mirroring the people she met," one of our colleagues recalled last week. "Pugnacious with pugnacious people, polite with polite people." It was her way to express empathy, but also to navigate the world. Katherine wanted to know exactly where she stood with you—and you with her—before revealing any part of herself.
She usually connected to people through the work. The right words from Katherine inspired a faith in yourself as a young writer that you could not summon alone. She praised moments in your stories that she loved. Then she'd point to where your writing had disappointed her, and she'd tell to do better next time, kiddo.
Most of us drawn into Katherine's circle found it was still an outer ring. We knew she worked extra jobs to support herself and her son, but you shouldn't ask how things were going. She reacted to unbidden inquiries about her past by pretending she didn't hear the question. If you didn't take the hint, a curtain fell—more like a Venetian blind dropping like a guillotine blade. Another colleague told me this week that the name of her column was fitting. "We never really saw," he said, "more than a slice of who she really was."
Rumors about her past swirled, and many turned out to be true. Over time she confided things about her past, but you never wanted to suggest you knew anything for certain about her. I once blundered by telling her that, given how interesting her life must have been, she should write a memoir. She glared at me in silence until I had to look away. That conversation was over.
Occasionally, Katherine invited me to her walk-up apartment on Northwest 22nd Avenue, and we'd sit at the tiny table in her tiny kitchen and talk journalism and politics and the latest newsroom intrigue. And she would smoke. She smoked like an oil tanker ablaze. She wanted a pure hit from each drag. Even unfiltered Camels wouldn't do the trick, so she rolled her own. It was ritual in the way she stretched airy tobacco strands onto the paper, roll each cigarette with tight twists at each end, and light up with gusto.
She acknowledged with defiance that she would someday pay for her addiction. For several years at Christmas, I'd bring her a blue tin of Three Castles, a premium tobacco she adored but rarely had the extra money to buy. I did it because it delighted her, but once told her I felt guilty for feeding her deadly habit. "I would still be breathing in my lovely poison," she said, "with or without your generosity." Katherine would roll one for me, even though she knew I didn't smoke. Reluctant to deny her anything, I puffed away, and she loved watching me pretend that I enjoyed it.
I arrived one day—I'm pretty sure it was in early 1988—and found her cross-legged on her living room floor, papers scattered everywhere. She held a cigarette in one hand while using the other to scribble in a spiral notebook. It took a few minutes before she looked up. "An auspicious moment for you to arrive," she said. "I have just written the last word of the last page of my novel."
"You're writing a novel?" I said. I might have been the last person around her to know this—probably not. "What's it about?"
"A couple in a circus who intentionally breed deformed children so they can have their own sideshow act."
She said this as if reading instructions on an aspirin bottle. She watched for my reaction. I smiled a plastic smile, thinking, God, I hope she's not disappointed when no one wants to read it.
In March 1989, WW threw a launch party for Geek Love at Key Largo in Old Town. She signed books with her knowing mischief. ("To Brent—A secret smoker. Oops.") The novel gave her a financial security she had never known. As time went on, I didn't hear her refer to Geek Love by its title. Instead, she called it "The Geek."
Death sows regret among the living, but mine about Katherine began long before lung cancer killed her last week. A journalist in a hurry, I didn't look back often enough after I moved on from WW as reporter in 1990. Katherine and I stayed in touch, but not as before, not as we should have—and that was all on me.
When I returned to WW as managing editor for news a few years ago, I tried to woo Katherine back. Would she write for us again? Nothing doing—she didn't run in reverse.
She still had things to prove, mostly to herself. She faced years of questions about "Cut Man," her unfinished novel that she feared would not live up to The Geek. I knew better than to ever ask about it, but one day in 2009 I did. It's just not ready yet, she said. She opened up about her struggle. We talked about the weight of expectations she carried, how the arrival of her next work of fiction would be treated as a literary event. That only made the writing more difficult.
So she had another idea. She told me that she had agreed to allow The Paris Review to run an excerpt of her elusive novel. She liked the idea of slipping the excerpt quietly into an august journal without fanfare. Problem was, she had neglected to ask permission from her book publisher, fearing that she'd be told no. The publisher, she says, was not happy.
"I suppose I should have told them earlier," Katherine said. "But I have always dreamed of having something published in The Paris Review." She shrugged—and then laughed a smoke-scarred laugh. "So now I will."
That Katherine told very few people that she was terminal was perfectly in character—death on her own terms, no one should make a fuss. And, as in her best writing, she knew how to stun.
After the initial shock from the news of her death, I took Geek Love off the shelf and read whatever page fell open. If you want to know Katherine, you'll find her here. The need to create a family, to survive the mutant extremities of childhood, to accept the ways in which each of us is our own kind of freak—that was all part of her.
If it's true that we are all the people who appear in our dreams, then in the fictive dream of Geek Love she is everyone: Oly, Arty, Chick, Elly and Iphy, Al and Crystal Lil.
Or maybe not. It's Katherine Dunn, so I shouldn't presume to know. She did tell me once that she loved the Binewskis, every last one. That's all that matters.
Brent Walth was a WW staff writer from 1986 to 1990, and managing editor for news from 2011 to 2015. He is now an assistant professor in the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication.