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Santa Rosa writer Dani Burlison’s ‘revenge fiction’ draws on many of her own experiences

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It’s a little past 5 p.m. at Jack and Tony’s Restaurant and Whisky Bar in Santa Rosa. At a round table in the back, Dani Burlison’s Friday evening “Pens & Pints” writing workshop is getting started. To kick things off, Burlison has asked each of the dozen participants to state the nickname and astrological sign “of your worst ex.”

One cites “Crazy Spice,” a temperamental Sagittarius. Another recalls a high-feeling Capricorn she dubbed “Sensitivo.” Laughter fills the rear of the restaurant.

For Burlison, a Santa Rosa writer, author and teacher, revenge is a dish best served between the covers of her just-released book, “Some Places Worth Leaving.” Published by Tolsun Books, it is a collection of 13 short stories, a good number of which fall into a category she calls “revenge fiction.” The book’s launch will be celebrated at The Imaginists in Santa Rosa with what the author describes as a “goth-themed performance/reading party” on Feb. 29.

The revenge in Burlison’s book takes various forms. In the deeply satisfying opener, a woman tortures a narcissistic English professor on a Lost Coast camping weekend by subjecting him to the silent treatment. The protagonist of another story, “Shark Week,” lets an unkind, violent lover paddle out on his surfboard at Dillon Beach, choosing not to tell him she’d just seen the dorsal fin of a great white. A sniper topples a government, circa 2045, in the grim, dystopian “Election Day,” which evokes Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

Like the author, the women in these pages have passed through gritty, hardscrabble circumstances. Burlison is one of nine children raised in a small town outside of Red Bluff, 130 miles north of Sacramento.

“My parents divorced when I was young,” she said. “My Mom got involved with a pretty terrible person” — the inspiration behind the greasy-haired, freeloading character named Creep in the short story “Worth Leaving.”

Creep has long been out of the picture, and Burlison, 46, has a strong relationship with her mother, who still lives up north.

As young girl, Burlison wrote lots of “tragic, bad poetry.” Some of those works, submitted by her mother at the Tehama County Fair poetry competition, won prizes.

Her early passion for writing was sidetracked. After twice dropping out of high school — she eventually graduated by “home-schooling” herself — she moved from Red Bluff to West Hollywood at the age of 18.

“I look back and think, ‘Did I truly live there? Did I spend time at parties with Jane’s Addiction?’ ”

She did. Her fictionalized version of those drug-infused months, which she describes as “an ABC Afterschool Special with a really bad ending,” appears in the short story “West Hollywood.”

After visiting a brother who lived in Santa Rosa, Burlison moved here in 1994. Having set her writing aside, she picked it up again, contributing to various ‘zines and the newsletter of the Peace & Justice Center of Sonoma County.

She dove in to environmental activism, working with Earth First, Food Not Bombs and other groups. Burlison earned her undergraduate degree in activism and social change — and later her masters in humanities — at the New College of California, in San Francisco.

Activism was an outlet, she said, for “unresolved anger about my childhood, and different negative and traumatic experiences.”

Her personal life was often turbulent. She had a son with her first husband, whom she married at 21 and divorced at 23. Four years later Burlison had a daughter with a long-term partner, who later took his own life.

While putting herself through college as a single mother in 2002, she and her children — then two and 6 — were homeless for five or six months.

“It was terrible, and really depressing, but it wasn’t the worst situation,” she recalled. “I had a van, and was able to do some couch surfing.”

In 2009, while working at a nonprofit for homeless veterans, she took a journalism class at Santa Rosa Junior College, and got an internship at the North Bay Bohemian.

She decided to spend a year trying to make a living as a writer, saying “If this doesn’t go anywhere, I’ll go back to school and get my PhD in anthropology.”

Ten years later — following stints at The Press Democrat and Pacific Sun in Marin County; after being invited to contribute regular columns to the literary journal McSweeney’s and the Chicago Tribune — she’s a prolific, versatile writer. Her work has also appeared in Ms. Magazine, Yes! Magazine, Earth Island Journal and many other outlets.

In addition to holding workshops, she’s spent the last six years teaching memoir-writing for Santa Rosa Junior College’s Older Adults program, which she calls “the most fun thing ever. I love my students so much.”

“They don’t know how dark I am,” she said, with a laugh, “because they haven’t read this book yet.”

She did not set out with the intention of composing revenge fiction. That theme just kept bubbling up from her subconscious.

While Burlison enjoys crime shows as a guilty pleasure — “The Fall” starring Gillian Anderson is one of her favorites — something about the genre bothers her on a deeper level.

“The story line is usually: A woman is victimized, often murdered, and now somebody else, usually a man, comes in and solves the case, after they’re already dead. Somebody else has to do the work for these women to get justice for them.”

In this collection, Burlison said, she is changing the narrative of women who’ve been “assaulted or hurt in some way.

“They are taking control, and solving the problem on their own. That feels more empowering to me.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com.

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