Portland author Katherine Dunn dies at 70

Katherine Dunn's novel "Geek Love" was a finalist for the National Book Award

COURTESY PHOTO - Katherine Dunn, noted Portland author (Via Portland Tribune)
COURTESY PHOTO - Katherine Dunn, noted Portland author (Via Portland Tribune)

PORTLAND, Ore. (The Portland Tribune) — Portland writer Katherine Dunn, a National Book Award finalist and author of the international bestselling Geek Love, died at her home on Wednesday, May 11, from complications of lung cancer. She was 70 years old.

Dunn first became well known in Portland in the a radio show on KBOO in which she read short stories and for her humorous and well-researched question-and-answer column in Willamette Week, The Slice. She also did a number of stories for the alternative newsweekly before becoming internationally recognized for Geek Love, a 1989 novel about a genetically-engineered family of circus sideshow performers that struck a chord among both serious critics and the emerging alternative community.

Dunn was also a recognizable figure in the Portland literary community for many years, attending many readings to show support for other writers, always with her course cut tobacco and rolling papers.

Katherine Karen Dunn was born on October 24th, 1945, in Garden City, Kansas. She was the forth of five children. Her mother relocated several times prior to settling in Oregon, where she married an auto-mechanic.

Dunn grew up in Tigard, Oregon, and attended Tigard high school. After high school she attend Portland State University and Reed College, where she met a young man that she would reunite with decades later, and marry.

After she left Reed, Dunn spent several years traveling in Europe. Her first novel, Attic, was published in 1970, and her son was born the same year in Dublin, Ireland. Her second novel, Truck, was published in 1971.

When she returned to Oregon from Europe, Dunn settled in the Nob Hill neighborhood of Portland, a neighborhood she loved, and where she would remain until her death.

Dunn faced challenges as a single mother. With the money from her first two novels gone and a young child to feed, she worked long hours, in the mornings as a waitress at the nearby Stepping Stone Café, and in the evenings as a bartender at the former Earth Tavern on Northwest 23rd Ave.

In the free minutes in between jobs, she took care of her son and continued to write short stories, poetry, worked as a boxing reporter and eventually formed the bones of a new novel. That novel would be the bestseller, Geek Love, which was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1989.

In addition to her fiction, Dunn worked as a boxing reporter, a columnist, poet, and on a number of nonfiction projects, including School of Hard Knocks: The Struggle for Survival in America’s Toughest Boxing Gyms for which she would win the 2004 Dorothea Lange-Paul Taylor Award.

Over the course of her career, Dunn also wrote for the New York Times, Vogue, The LA Times, Playboy, The Oregonian, and many others. She wrote a regular boxing column for PDXS, another Portland alternative newspaper, in the 1990s, in which she criticized Evander Holyfield’s sportsmanship in his controversial fight with Mike Tyson.

Dunn took up boxing training in her 40s, and in 2009 she made the news for fighting off a mugger less than half her age.

In 2012, Dunn reunited with her Reed College boyfriend, and they were married. They enjoyed four years together.

Dunn is survived by her husband Paul Pomerantz and her son Eli. Condolences can be sent to 25 NW 23rd Pl. Ste. 6 PMB 249, Portland, OR 97210. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations be made in her name to National Public Radio (NPR). Funeral arrangements will be private.

The Portland Tribune is a KOIN 6 News media partner.

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