Back when I was getting my MFA through the University of New Orleans, I work-shopped a story by a fellow classmate, Kevin Fortuna, about an Atlantic City landlord dealing with his crazy tenants: a hedonistic rap star and a couple of Russian tiger trainers (who are keeping the tigers in their apartment). Now, nearly six years later, the polished version of that memorable story can be read in Kevin’s debut collection, The Dunning Man.
The characters in the six stories of The Dunning Man are real people — flawed people –but they are all searching for redemption. The collection, published by Lavender Ink, has gotten positive reviews from Esquire, Vanity Fair, and Kirkus, among others. C.W. Cannon of Ask Men calls it , “a great new exemplar of hard-boiled serious literature. Gritty, boozy, fast-paced … Fortuna’s characters careen and collide their way through eventful nights and somehow remain standing.”
I reunited with Kevin recently at a mutual friend’s wedding in New Orleans and asked if I could interview him about his new book. Naturally, he said yes.
Kevin, you are, at least in my mind, an entrepreneur, business man, and real estate mogul. How does writing figure into the mix?
I became interested in writing in college, where I majored in English Literature and tutored fellow students at [Georgetown’s] Writing Center. After graduating, I started the full-time MFA program at UNO but dropped out to pursue a career in business. I never lost interest in writing but decided it wasn’t the right “day job” for me.
Eventually I ended up working in the high-tech start-up world, and that’s what I’ve been doing for the past two decades. Along the way, thanks to some good friends including Bill Lavender [owner of Lavender Ink], I had an opportunity to go back and finish my MFA through UNO’s low-residency program. It’s been really great, kind of a “bucket list” thing, and I’ve been really lucky to get the support of some phenomenal writers and teachers.
I remember reading the title story in an MFA workshop class I took with you. When did you write the others?
All of the stories were written during my MFA. In fact, the book is basically a revised and expanded version of my thesis.
You’ve gotten a lot of great press. What’s your marketing secret? How did you get your book into the right people’s hands?
I live and work in NYC, so I’ve got access to some great contacts in media. Unfortunately that doesn’t count for much. My friends and contacts certainly helped with advice and introductions, but I owe a lot to my publicist, Louise Crawford, who has been a tireless supporter of the book. She has been amazing.
To me your collection has an overall masculine vibe, and yet two of the stories are told by female narrators. What inspired you to write stories from the female perspective?
Well, to be honest, one of the stories, “Flogging Maggie,” was inspired by the fact that I had a great friend and writer named Amanda Boyden as a workshop instructor. I have immense respect for Amanda and her talent, and she and I were classmates together at UNO back in the nineties. When I came back to finish my MFA, Amanda was supportive but also justifiably skeptical. She knew I’d become a capitalist of sorts and wondered if I’d take the writing seriously. So when I learned that I’d have her [as my workshop leader] I wanted to do something different. I wanted to show her I had some range and could write from a female perspective. It was really gratifying to me that she didn’t hate the story.
Many of the stories in the collection are gritty and alcohol-soaked, often populated with tough, Irish-American characters. Would you say that there’s a single theme that could tie all of these stories together? If so, what is it?
I think the theme is redemption. These characters definitely march to their own beat, but they’re all searching for meaning, to find something worth seeking. Ultimately, I think the stories are very hopeful. Also — the title story, “The Dunning Man,” is almost half the length of the book, and it’s a very positive, even uplifting story. It’s not dark, and it’s not about drinking. It’s not even a very Irish story. It’s really a love story at its core.
Tell me about your experience publishing with Lavender Ink. What was the process like?
Bill Lavender has been absolutely amazing. I’ve worked with some very driven, professional people in the Internet industry, people who routinely work 15 hours a day and run through walls to achieve personal and company goals. The competition for jobs is fierce and the standards high. And I would rank Bill at the very top of the list of people I’ve worked with in terms of intellect, commitment, work ethic and an ability to get results. He’s a great champion for his writers and his books.
What are your future plans for your writing? A novel, perhaps?
Right now I’m totally focused on producing the movie version of “The Dunning Man.” My writing partner is fellow UNO graduate, Michael Clayton, who wrote an amazing adaptation of the story. We’re hoping to shoot the movie this summer in New Orleans and Atlantic City. I think the movie will be my focus for the year, but after that I might try my hand at a novel.
Awesome! Okay, last question: What is your favorite piece of writing advice?
Hmm… I like what Tim O’Brien said: stories should be about extraordinary things happening to extraordinary people. I tried to make sure my stories were fun to read, and the best complement I’ve gotten about the book is that people wanted to keep turning pages. I’m not sure how much light I was able to shed on the human condition with this book, but I’m glad that people don’t think it’s boring. That’s good enough for me.
I totally agree.
A big thanks to Kevin for doing this interview and waiting so long for it to go live. Be sure to get your own copy of The Dunning Man here.