Scotiabank Giller Prize Spotlight: Nina Dunic

September 23, 2023

Nina Dunic's headshot beside the cover of The Clarion

Nina Dunic’s novel The Clarion has been longlisted for the 2023 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Nina Dunic is a two-time winner of the Toronto Star Short Story Contest, has been longlisted for the CBC Short Story Prize four times, won third place in the Humber Literary Review Emerging Writers Fiction Contest, and was nominated for The Journey Prize. Nina lives in Scarborough.

What inspired you to write The Clarion?

I had this vague idea and feeling about the phrase “clarion call” — I always thought of it as a very beautiful and pure thing. The idea of collective belonging — this moment of everyone being called together, united to a great purpose. It’s a very innocent and hopeful idea. So, when my agent urged me to write a novel, I knew it would be about that somehow, and that’s what I titled the manuscript: Clarion Call. My agent later changed the title to The Clarion, which of course was brilliant.

I didn’t want to make this idea into a plot, so I made a person instead. My character Peter longs for this collective belonging; he feels lonely and adrift without it. It was lucky I’ve loved the trumpet for a long time, and clarions are trumpets from the Middle Ages — so I made Peter a trumpet player. And then I explored Peter’s life — where he works, how he lives, what he thinks about, how he feels — based on a sensitive, empathetic, innocent person like that. A person who longs to disappear in a crowd and be part of something bigger than himself. What are his rituals of connection and belonging?

Then I created Stasi, his sister, as a counterweight. She would be everything he is not. And I really enjoyed exploring her character as well — ambitious, individualistic, accomplished, aloof. And what does her life look like?

What do you hope readers take away from The Clarion?

I hope readers think about unity and empathy, humility and connection — how these things express themselves in their lives. These are things I’ve been feeling a lot in my life recently. 

 I think we pour a lot of energy into romantic relationships, and then families, and then also finding our chosen families. We want to find communities of people that make us feel as if we’re home. Those are powerful, meaningful moments and connections. 

But I also thought about something greater than that, too. What if you felt that way about all people, everywhere? If you could feel connected, in some way, to the whole? I was wondering if that was even possible. A clarion call would be this one note, this one vibration, that everyone could feel. With my character Peter, I was just wandering into this idea.

Where is your favourite place to write? What is your process?

I write outside on my porch, I sit on some cushions and wear large headphones. I live on a major road in Scarborough so I watch cars driving by, and people and families walk past. The music gives me energy and emotion, which are combustible for me. When it’s too cold or raining, I sit in the front room with the record player. 

Is there an activity you do to help inspire writing?

Loud music, absolutely. Writing is so interior, just my mind and imagination, so I need the physical stimulation of powerfully loud music to keep me going.

I do my best thinking while walking, on trains or streetcars, or in cars. Also in the shower. After a lot of thinking, then the writing begins. 

What’s a book you recommend others read and why?

I think it had been 20 years since I’ve read The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and I just reread it last year and it broke my heart all over again. How does Duddy do it? He is terrible and awful, chapter to chapter, each one getting worse, but somehow my heart is always breaking for him. It’s as if I want to save him from being him, as if there’s a struggling soul in there. And half the time it’s almost written as a romp. Anyway, it’s brilliant Montreal urban Jewish coming-of-age underdog literary realism. I wish I could do a tenth of what that book does — the brutal heartache and empathy for this striving boy who hurts everyone around him.

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