Kristyn Dunnion
Profile by Dave Jenkinson.

Born on August 6, 1969, in Kingsville, ON, Kristyn lived there until she was in her late teens. Describing her natal community, Kristyn says, “Kingsville’s a small town, and it’s not as rural as it used to be. It’s unique in that there’s farmland, but there’s also the lake, Cedar Beach, where we spent some summers. I’m the eldest daughter and the second oldest child. I have two sisters and a brother, plus we had foster brothers living with us at different points, and so it was always like a big family. Add to that, the dogs or cats running around, and there was quite a bit of chaos. It’s so funny when you look back on your childhood because we all have these different lenses that we wear. Kingsville was like the idyllic sort of small-town-growing-up-setting, but then, as you become a teenager, it felt quite stifling, and leaving was really wonderful.”

“Sometimes it felt very despairing to be a teenager in Kingsville. You had to drive to go anywhere. There was no fast food drive-through, no movie theater, and people came up with their own fun and got into trouble and stuff, but that’s all part of growing up. It’s a very different experience now. I live in Toronto, and I look at teens who have access to so much, including public transportation. They can be exposed to so many things. They can go to an art gallery, a movie, or an all-ages punk show. We were starved for things like that, well, some of us were. We had small town fairs, including tractor pulls, which I now find really entertaining, but, at the time, I just thought that they were deadly.”
“My parents always encouraged us rather firmly to plan to go to university, and they didn’t care where we went, nor did they necessarily care what we studied. My dad was very strong about saying, ‘You’re going to live on your own, and you’re going to learn to pay your own bills,’ and that’s a really important transition to make. I was lucky that my parents were behind us having other experiences, and so in the summers we were encouraged to work at summer camps or attend different programs just to try different things and meet people from other places. My dad had grown up in Toronto, but he gave it all up when he married my mom. Because of his growing up experiences, he really wanted us to have a more international look or bigger picture.”
“I don’t remember specifically wanting to be a writer when I was a child, but my mom says that that was one of the things I used to say. I do recall wanting to be a rock star or a detective, like Charlie’s Angels. I wanted to be a movie star or something glamorous with costumes. In my teens, I really thought that I was going to make films, and I went to McGill University in Montreal thinking that that was what I was going to focus on, but I got distracted with a lot of other interests.”
“Both my parents were teachers, and they both coached basketball at Western Tech. That’s how they met and started their courtship. They were very athletic, with my mother always being big on group sports, something which I always hated. Even as a little kid, I would do anything to get out of them. I would fake illnesses and try to make myself throw up. I would create a high temperature by putting the thermometer on light bulbs. I’d fall on the floor behind our car’s front seat and make my mother drag me out of the car. I particularly loathed softball because I was frightened of the ball. I would bring books to the games and read while I was in left field. If I had been born a boy, I would have been the biggest Flamer ever.”
Kristyn’s reading in left field was not just a way to avoid baseball. “I loved reading. I read a lot, and, as a younger kid, I just remember eating up series like the Laura Ingalls Wilder books and L. M. Montgomery. Going to the library was a big part of Missing Matthew because I recall how important it was to go off on these pilgrimages to the library, taking a wagon, losing books and having to pay the fines, and all that drama.”
“As a teenager, I started listening to CBC radio at night, specifically Brave New Waves and Nightline, and I swear doing that saved my life because I was feeling pretty isolated. Those radio shows really brought me this magical world that I didn’t know existed. There were new underground bands and people that had different ideas. I didn’t necessarily like everything that I heard, but it all sounded different to me and different from Detroit rock radio, which I still feel nostalgic about. It was great to hear about people doing projects across Canada and to get a sense of a national identity which had totally escaped me previously. We didn’t ever have cable in our house. We had CBC TV and that was it. All the other channels were American.”
“During my teen years, I think that my sexuality was a loaded issue. It probably would have been a very different story for me if I lived in a big city or if I’d known other kids that were kind of feeling the same thing. Consequently, I think that was an area I certainly didn’t let myself explore and didn’t let myself think about too much. In a lot of ways, I feel like I’m a late bloomer. I remember trying to do a research project on homosexuality when I was in high school. I really thought that I could research the topic and no one would wonder why I had chosen it. My mother asked, ‘Why do you want to study that?’ and I replied with something like, ‘Oh, I’m just curious about other people’s problems.’ I remember looking in the encyclopedia, and this one encyclopedia had David Bowie and Janis Joplin listed as examples of homosexuals!”
“Looking back, what I was doing with that project was really very transparent, and, if I had been the instructor for that course, I would have probably put two and two together and realized that this was an issue that the student was struggling with, but that didn’t happen. Students laughed at what I was doing. I did things like making surveys, and I was seriously trying to interview students anonymously. What was I thinking?!”
“I always assumed that queer youth had it so easy in cities, but when I meet teens now, especially through things like writing workshops, I see that’s not necessarily the case. It really depends on the school culture, the neighbourhood they’re in, and the teen’s family and/or cultural background. Some people do come out very young and have a really wide support network through places like alternative schools, community centers. I’ve also met kids who have been really bullied and terrified, but they do have the option of switching schools which is the advantage rural kids don’t have. It really intrigues me to imagine what it would be like to be ‘out’ and not to be stuck on that initial coming outness – like, you don’t really know who you are, but you know who you are attracted to, and then take it from there and run with it and still have all the other struggles that every other kid has.”
Following high school, Kristyn went to the McGill University in Montreal, and while part of her motivation in choosing that institution was its being some distance from home, she also notes, “I was really intent on learning French, something my parents had encouraged. When we were in about grade 7 or so, some of us kids went on a couple of Quebec exchanges. Later in high school, I went to a bilingual camp north of Montreal where I worked as a counselor for a few years. It was an all-girls camp, and although it didn’t deliver love and romance in the way that I probably hoped it would, it was pretty exciting, and it was a way of learning French. I was so excited to move to Montreal, and I still love that city and one day hope to move back again.”
At McGill, Kristyn studied English and theater, and she says, “That’s where I really started to get interested in children’s literature. One course project was to write a children’s story. I really got into it. Somewhere at my parents’ house, I still have this epic watercolor series and the story that I wrote. I loved really getting into the history of children’s literature and treating it like the valid subject it is. It was that experience that made me want to go to the University of Guelph where Professor Mary Rubio was working.”
“In the MA program at Guelph, the critical theory was challenging, and, at first, it just seemed like a lot of jargon to me. Initially, I thought it was really just creating something special for some people to feel good about themselves, and there was a bit of that, but it was very good for me to have to try and challenge myself academically because I hadn’t really at McGill. I did well there, but I have the feeling it was kind of a fluke because I happened to pick classes I enjoyed. Consequently, it was really good to go to Guelph and meet all new people, to start fresh and to challenge myself academically. I loved the program, and I loved working with Mary Rubio. She’s done incredible work with the L.M. Montgomery journals. I took some courses with her and got to write a few pieces for the journal CCL. That’s how I was able to interview Brian Doyle. I was really nervous, but he was lovely on the phone and became my first living author crush.”
“After I left Guelph, I came to Toronto and just assumed it would be easy to get a job here. Even though I had my MA, I was tired of school and thought that there couldn’t be anything much worse than sitting in a library for the next six years or however long it takes to get a Ph.D. I ended up working at a café. Because of the vague phrasing in the job posting, I didn’t realize it was actually a job training program for psychiatric survivors. As I recall, the wording was something like ’employment challenged adults.’ When I saw it, I thought, ‘What the hell does that mean?’ I figured, ‘I’m employment challenged – I have all these skills and all this great experience and two degrees and no job.'”
“Actually, working in this program was very interesting. I worked with all kinds of folks who were out of the work force temporarily due to mental health issues. It was a café, but people would come in with varying degrees of kitchen experience. We’d put out the menu and do catering and stuff. It was challenging in a lot of new ways and also fun.”
“The past few years I’ve worked as a housing worker for a nonprofit group. I’m a tenant advocate for people, a lot of them seniors, all living with mental health and poverty issues. They live in boarding homes all over the city. I go and visit them, mediate conflicts with the landlord, or go out for coffee or go play pool with them in order to get to know them. A lot of it’s recreational, but it’s only when you get to know people that they’ll then start asking you things like, ‘I haven’t been to a doctor in 20 years, and my foot hurts. Will you come with me?’ I’ve met a lot of amazing people, and I love it.”
Despite not wanting to go on to formal doctoral studies, Kristyn admits that “there’s a certain part of me that loves learning new things, and I started taking just one course every few months through continuing education programs. For instance, I did a tap dancing class, martial arts, and later I came across the George Brown calendar and saw Peter Carver’s ‘Writing for Children’ course and thought, ‘Maybe that’s what I need.’ I had all these stories I’d started, and I had piles of drawings. Back then, my thinking was that I’d be doing both illustrating and writing. However, when I got into the course, Peter was like, ‘Oh, no, no, no. That’s not how these things work. You have to pick one.’ I didn’t like hearing that, but Peter said, ‘I think your writing’s pretty good. I think you should focus on it,’ and so I did.”
“Getting involved in Peter’s class and finally seriously starting to work on writing caused me to realize how difficult writing is, and how different and removed it is from this textual analysis process that the academic part of me loved. Peter’s class really forced me to focus on things and to develop some of the ideas or projects I’d started. My first book, Missing Matthew, grew out of one of the exercises we did in class which was remembering the childhood neighborhood where you grew up. The funny thing was that I had blocked so much of it out that it was very hard for me to do these exercises. It’s not like I had intense trauma as a child or anything, but I had really forgotten a lot.” Missing Matthew
“Thinking about the neighborhood reminded me of a really great friend that I had at that time, and things started coming to me bit by bit. Missing Matthew is set in a town like Kingsville, although I redesigned it for my purposes. Some of the scenes are definitely influenced by my memories of family life at that time. Much to their chagrin!”
“The teacher’s having Freddie rewrite her class pieces in Missing Matthew is not something I remember being specifically being told to do as a kid. In the book, I was using the essay writing as a device for Freddie to be able to express herself freely and also to bring out the teacher’s personality a bit. I love the first person narrative. It’s wonderful, but it’s also tricky because you can be really limited in what you present to the reader. Freddie’s essays, I’d hoped, were going to give more insight. I wanted to solidify Freddie’s voice and have her mull over this friendship. Because it was the friendship that I wanted to develop in the story, the power dynamic, without hitting people over the head with a sledgehammer.”
“I think I have an authority figure problem. An old boss I had at that time was someone I hated so much, and so one of the teachers in the book is him. It was so wonderful to be like, ‘I’m totally getting you back,’ but it’s not his name or anything. It was great to consciously do that with a couple of those mean adult characters. It was like payback.”
“I have been in Peter’s course for several years off and on. The people in that group are impressive and intimidating. You’re sitting beside this nice mom with curly hair, and then you find that she’s got something like 10 books published, but nobody really toots their own horn. They’re really serious about crafting and about workshopping, and sometimes it’s brutal. Some people are fresh to the courses, and some people just don’t take to it and don’t come back. At a certain point in your writing project, it’s vital to get feedback, and when you have that advantage of having heard people’s work and their feedback to other people, you start to gauge whether those comments are going to be useful to your project or not. It’s hard at first.”
“At the time I was working on Missing Matthew, I had already started Mosh Pit. Missing Matthew went into a drawer for at least a year, and actually it was Peter who asked, ‘What happened to that story?’ and I said, ‘Oh, I finished it. It’s in a drawer.’ And he said, ‘What in the hell is it doing there? Send it out!’ I had done some mailing out with my picture books from the Montreal days but was easily crushed. At the time, I didn’t know how to gauge a good response. Such as, if someone wrote you a rejection letter by hand, that was good. I had no context for understanding the publishing process, and I wasn’t very consistent with mailing out. I am still not great at it, but I’m working on it.”
“Mosh Pit is more where I ‘live’. But as far as I knew, there was no one else in the writing group going to punk shows or staying up all night and partying. So Mosh Pit was a different world for them, but, as writers, they had excellent feedback which I found very useful. They’d say, ‘Either this character is taking me through this unknown world or she’s not. I don’t know what a mosh pit is, so you can’t just name it. You have to describe it.”
“The ‘Suicide Girls’ web site is an online community of alternative pinup girls; they choose their own photos, post in community groups. They also look different to the norm – there’s the piercings, tattoos and coloured hair. That’s where I came across Lily, the woman whose photo ended up on Mosh Pit’s cover. When I saw her, I was like, ‘She’s so Cherry. She’s so much trouble!’ I suggested Red Deer Press use her photo as the cover, partly because she was really supportive of the project. She is also a writer – a very good one, I might add. I was actually nervous to send her copies of the book because I wondered what she would think of it. She’s been very positive all along, even interviewed me for the web site this past summer. She said, ‘I represent the most bad-assed character, Cherry.”
Kristyn says she’s had a lot of email feedback from girls on Mosh Pit. “I want to know what they like about it and what they relate to, and so I have a bunch of 15-year-old girls that are now my friends on line. It’s amazing to have this girl from San Pedro, another girl from California and someone from Florida emailing me and saying things like, ‘I read Mosh Pit. I found it at Barnes & Nobles, and I loved it. I’ve read it 50 times this month exclamation point, exclamation point.’ I think, ‘Wow! That’s so amazing.’ First of all, it blows my mind that they got a copy of it, then that they read it, liked it, and that, via modern technology, two seconds later we can be chatting on line.”
“Those that respond have different things that they really focus on in Mosh Pit. Its contents are definitely the reality for a lot of people. When we talk about broken homes, we’re not just talking about one parent missing. We’re talking about a real void. I’ve been asked if the job I’ve had for the last few years affects my writing, and I always think ‘No.’ However, in retrospect, I think that it has filtered into my writing in some ways without my realizing it. I didn’t realize it until much later that Matthew’s father is someone who’s really lost. He’s full of grief, and he’s grieving in this terribly heartbreaking way.”
“In Mosh Pit, again, it’s the adults that really need their own recovery, or maybe it’s too late for them. I wanted to have different types of families in Mosh Pit. Carlotta’s family is interesting, too, because it’s very typical of a lot of families, especially Latin American families where there’s an extended family in one house, or people who have experienced huge atrocities in their country of origin and are struggling on these different levels – poverty, homelessness, racism. People fill in where they have to. In Carlotta’s family, you see people filling in where they should, with the teens keeping the household running while their mothers are off working. I know it’s a reality for many families. I also have friends who are teachers and they see the tip of the iceberg with a lot of their students, and it’s overwhelming for them.’Mosh Pit
‘In terms of addiction, I find it heartbreaking. I’d been wanted to write about this, but I couldn’t write from the perspective of an addict. It’s something I have trouble understanding. I really struggled near the end of the editing process with Mosh Pit to try and have Cherry’s voice be a little more autonomous. That’s where her live journal blogs came in, and I found them really fun to write. Those sections are something that teens really relate to because so many of them have blogs. It’s great that Cherry could speak for herself without Simone as the narrator trying to over-explain anything, like her motivations, or to try to guess at what she feels because it wouldn’t have worked. It’s a big mystery to me, and it is a big mystery for Simone.”
“I’ve lost friends and have seen other people lose their friends through addiction. It’s a terrible thing to watch and to not understand, to not be able to really have an answer for it or be able to do anything. You can’t, and so I had the characters in Mosh Pit try to grapple with precisely that because, as much as it’s a kind of a party scene book, it’s also the hangover aspect too. I didn’t want Mosh Pit to be a Go Ask Alice kind of morality tale. I wanted it to be within the scene, not judging the elements of the scene, but being able to discern between what’s OK and what’s harmful to yourself or to others, how to steer through this obstacle course. So you have the character Hank. I wanted there to be some older guardians in the book that were going to totally relate to the kid characters. My mother said, “I was so happy when Hank got in there. I was really relieved, Kristyn.’ Her comment is hilarious because, if my mother met a real Hank in person, she would probably be hiding her purse.”
“People wonder if Mosh Pit was autobiographical, and it’s not at all. Those are characters, and I purposively set the kids someplace where I didn’t have my own teenage experience. Some of those things happened to people I know or to myself, but that certainly wasn’t my exciting, glamorous teenage life. No, as I said, we were going to tractor pulls. When I grew up, everyone was a rocker with the feathered hair and the big makeup whereas I would have some dorky haircut, like a rattail, and I’d be wearing men’s pyjamas with big brooches, or a kilt with a ripped jean jacket. I really used to wish we had school uniforms as it might have saved me some grief. Luckily in high school, I had some great friends who were all into their own style.”
A number of reviewers have compared Mosh Pit with SE Hinton’s classic, The Outsiders. About this comparison, Kristyn acknowledges, “I’m thrilled. I loved that book and the movie. One of my original goals was that I actually wanted to write a female response to The Outsiders. Pretty early on in the project, I realized that was not going to happen. It was going to be more a matter of building this community in Mosh Pit. I almost think of it as a foster family. I loved that sort of wild dog pack mentality that Hinton created. The boys are all different, and they all bring something to their foster family. I wanted to have that, but the female version. Then I realized, ‘No, it doesn’t have to be all female, but dominantly.’ I just wanted a queer punk pack because that’s often how kids live, especially when they’re living on the street or if they’re squatting or living outdoors.”
In responding to the observation that Carlotta is either among the first or is the first transgendered adolescent character to appear in Canadian YA literature, Kristyn replies, “I have a lot of transgendered and transsexual friends. Carlotta was one of the characters I was worried about in a number of ways. People might think that I had just casually decided that the cast of characters needed a transsexual and so, ‘Oh, I’m going to put one here.’ I was also worried about the reactions of my transsexual friends. ‘Are they going to read this and feel tokenized? Because I’m not transexual, should I be writing this character?'”
“But some people who’ve read the book said things like, ‘God, I wished I had read this book years ago. I wish this book had existed.’The Crying Game is tired, and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is a joke. There’s very little teen representation of alternative gender roles and partly for good reason – because people are afraid to go there or they don’t even know about it. The book’s characters really just sort of presented themselves, and they developed over time, but Carlotta was always there. At the beginning, I had a different nickname for her, but in my mind I knew who she was, how she walked and sounded. She is amazing, and I love her. I have met kids like her. Some kids really identify with Carlotta.”
Given Mosh Pit’s contents, Kristyn did not expect that the book would be embraced by most school libraries. “What’s funny is that I’ve had a lot of support from schools. I get invited to high school writing classes though it’s usually the teacher or librarian who likes the book and brings me in. The administration isn’t necessarily aware of what’s going on. I’ve actually received quite a bit of support that I didn’t expect, such as librarians ordering Mosh Pit for their high school libraries. I never thought that would happen.”
In describing her approach to writing, Kristyn says, “My work space is an antique writing desk, and my work style involves sticky notes attached to my computer, the wall, drawings all over the place and photos. I daydream a lot and listen to music while the scenes take hold. I don’t work from a plot outline, and, in fact, I had to shove a plot into the rewrites of Missing Matthew. It was terrible and also a wonderful learning curve. I really love writing scene by scene, and so I explore the characters through those dynamics. I think that comes from my theatre background. What to me is a scene usually ends up becoming a chapter, more or less. I thought Mosh Pit was going to be an action book, and, therefore, the plot would work itself out. But, as I found, action doesn’t equal plot. So I’m still learning. I keep asking, ‘Is this advancing the story?'”
“I’m hard at work on my next book, a speculative YA novel called ‘Big Big Sky.’ I work full-time, and so I get up with like two minutes to spare, race to work, and try to sneak home early. My goal is to write every night, but it would be a real lie to say that I do. I write for as long as I can, which is a few hours in the evening, or I stay up really late, which then means I’m really really late to wake up the next morning. As well, I’m doing performances as Miss Kitty Galore and hosting parties and stuff like that. Lately I’ve cut those other things down, and it’s been good to focus on the writing. Right now, I just really want to complete this manuscript and get it out in the world.”
Kristyn refers to ‘Big Big Sky’ as speculative fiction, explaining, “I’m not sure if it’s true science fiction. I think SF’s developed with a very specific sensibility and aesthetic for people who are really immersed in the world of science fiction. I don’t know if ‘Big Big Sky’ will necessarily meet all of those requirements, and so that’s why I call it speculative fiction. The book is, in part, a response to the war that we find ourselves in. I really wanted to write about it, but I didn’t want to write an essay. I have some performance art pieces that deal with war, the military, recruitment, and those sorts of things. These are not cut and dried issues but are very complex, and it’s hard to explore them in a five or 10 minute piece, but I like to try and make people think beyond ‘We hate/love the war and the military.’ It’s like, ‘Whoa! Think about all the ways in which we do hate it and all the ways that it affects us. Think about how some of us have the privilege of not having to choose to be affected by it directly in terms of who gets recruited.”
“Also, I was also very angry about the Pit Bull ban, and so, in my mind, this book is about that too. It’s related – the militaristic attitude about training and creating the perfect weapon/soldier, and then later on, after they’ve served their purpose or in the case that they become too difficult to control, not having any use for them. The characters in this book are predominantly female, and they are all genetically altered. They’re bio-pioneer settlement warriors, assassin scouts, and the society that created them has just declared an extermination policy on them. There are some love interests, too, so it’s a queer futuristic novel. I’m really excited about it.”
“I’ve also been diverting time to work on short stories. I’ve really enjoyed them because there’s that sense of completion that makes you feel so good. In addition to some YA short stories, I also have a collection of adult stories I’m working on called ‘Dirt.’ I have some short stories in different anthologies for adults. Not all of them are erotic. Some are science fiction, some horror, and some are gritty urban tales. I try to divide my time between those smaller projects and the novel. I feel really excited about the novel, but sometimes it’s still hard to sit down and write. I have to say to myself, ‘I’m not going to check my e-mail or visit or any of those other colossal time wasters. Once I’ve written for an hour, then I’m allowed.'”
Among the short stories that Kristyn has written is “My Name is Kyra” which appears in The Horrors: Terrifying Tales edited by Peter Carver who had solicited the book’s contributions. Kristyn admits, “I wanted to be part of the book, but I was wracking my brain for a story. The archetypes of things like vampires, werewolves, witches, ghosts or poltergeists have been done so many ways that it’s really hard to reinvent them and still be fresh. I love horror, but I often hate horror movies. I’m a big wimp. I started thinking, ‘What’s the scariest thing?’ And I thought, ‘Religious fundamentalism.’ American fundamentalism, that religious fervor, terrifies me. I’m not against people feeling devout or practicing their faith, but there’s a certain sort of thug mentality that can go with fundamentalism. As well, I’d seen a TV special about the BC community of Bountiful. There was a scene where all these little girls are lined up and are singing that song to their ‘daddy.’ I thought that moment was the creepiest thing I had seen since The Shining. That image and the sound of their voices and their demeanor are what prompted me to write. I was trying to think how a typical teenager would feel if she was suddenly put into that setting which, to me, is an alien culture. I’d be terrified.” Kristyn Dunnion
As previously mentioned, Kristyn sometimes adopts another persona, Miss Kitty Galore. “She comes from my theatre background and an unsatisfied need for glamour. The day job is useful, but you don’t wear high heels or a lot of glitter. There’s got be room in life for false lashes, and so I’m part diva that way. As Miss Kitty Galore, I host parties for things like drag shows or cabarets. I really like the power of having the microphone and hopefully channeling wit. It’s not standup comedy at all, but there’s a strong comedic element in the timing. It’s complete improv. I’m allowed to participate and have my vitamin B shot by being on stage without having to put in all of that intensive work that you do for most staged theatre pieces.”
“When I began traveling to promote the books, I had a real identity crisis because I didn’t want the adult entertainment aspect of my life to ruin the children’s writing part, but I wasn’t going to quit being Miss Kitty Galore. Writing is a relatively small part of my life, albeit a growing one, and I’d like it to be a little more integrated with the rest of me which is working full time, entertaining, going out to parties and punkshows until three or four in the morning, getting in a nap before and after work and also having a home life of sorts. I’d kept the writing side of my life kind of closeted actually. I still have friends and social acquaintances that go, ‘You wrote that? I didn’t know you were a writer.’ The worlds are all colliding now. It’s too late. My parents can Google and find out all kinds of things that I didn’t really want them to know about, and kids can too. I don’t know what the worst thing that can happen is, but the best thing that could happen is that kids can get a fairly well balanced picture of me.”
Books by Kristyn Dunnion
Missing Matthew. Red Deer Press, 2003. Grades 4-8.
Mosh Pit. Red Deer Press, 2004. Grades 9-12.
This article is based on an interview conducted in Toronto, ON, on February 12, 2006.
Visit Kristyn Dunnion’s website at

Categories: Reviews


Kristyn Dunnion is an author, arts mentor and mystic. A self-anointed Can Lit Doula, she births your stuck manuscript to its astounding next draft with skill and compassion.