Author interview - Gerry Burnie
This month's guest is the lovely Gerry Burnie; author, reviewer and all round good egg.
So Gerry, what's your genre?
I have chosen Canadian historical fiction from a gay perspective.
Canada has a marvelously interesting and colourful history that for the most part is waiting to be discovered. Not the dusty, too often cited names and dates, but the accomplishments of ordinary people who contributed their talents and brawn to build a nation.
Among these unsung individuals were GLBT men and women, almost certainly, but because of the prevailing homophobia of the time virtually nothing is known about them, and this strikes me as being patently wrong. Moreover, it is a distortion history. I have therefore made it a mission to open the historical closet by including gays in all my stories. Even if this is done fictionally, it is some recognition of the fact that they once lived, loved, and contributed in a very real way.
Do you write solely about Canadian history?
Yes. It is the context that I know best, and in spite of a widely-held misconception, Canada has … or had … quite a unique culture. Until fairly recently it retained many of the pioneer values of a strong community, cooperation and caring. I grew up with these values as an everyday practice, so in a way I’m a living history.
What inspired you to start writing?
Writing is what I always wanted to do throughout my various careers, but I somehow got sidetracked by being an actor, singer, dancer, politician, magistrate, and professor before I got around to it. (Did I mention that I have a short span of interest?) However, I suppose all of these contribute to my writing in some way—especially the professorship because it included history.
As far as actually starting to write, that happened rather suddenly. In 2002 I was sitting in my favourite pub, enjoying a pint with some of my friends, when I announced that I was going to write a novel. No one took me seriously, of course, until five years later when the Two Irish Lads was “born.”
I got the last laugh, though, because all their names are in it.
Do you have a schedule or a routine to your writing?
Yes. It’s not a conscious schedule so much as it is a routine. I’ve learned that routines are a convenient way of freeing the mind for more important things, like creating. So my routine is to rise at 8:20 AM, breakfast and appointments follow until 1:00 PM, then it’s writing time until approximately 9:00 PM. After that I read in preparation for my weekly book review until 11:00 PM. Next day, repeat. It’s not an exciting life, but it works for me.
Do you have a background stimulus, like music, or do you prefer to work in solitude?
I can’t work in solitude, audibly or visually. When I’m writing I listen to classical music exclusively. It’s not as though I don’t enjoy other music genres, but classical music is the least intrusive, and when I’m not working in the gazebo … my cottage in the back yard … my work station is slam-dunk in the middle of the living room window.
There is a funny story about that, too, because coming from a small community I automatically wave to whoever passes by. For the first few times people look at me rather askance, but after that they seem to look forward to a wave and a smile. It’s remarkable how contagious neighbourliness is if you give it a try.
What do you find to be the most difficult aspect of writing?
Hmm. Short of a thousand answers to that question, I’m not big on ‘poetic’ descriptions. I consider myself a ‘nut-n-bolts’ writer—“just the facts, ma’am.” Albeit I admire those who can make a scene come alive with description.
I find writing graphic sex scenes rather boring, too. After all, how many ways are there that haven’t been written about already? So, while these are pretty well a requisite, m torrid scenes are rather short.
What did it feel like watching your first book fledge and leave the nest?
I was like an expectant father! In fact, after five long years of writing I was positively paranoid that something would happen before it got into print. I had five backup copies—one of which I carried with me at all times, one on my sister’s computer a hundred miles away, and one on my FTP server.
Altogether, I believe I wrote twenty-one drafts, but right up until I submitted the final draft I was still fussing over their commas and pronouns before I let them out the door.
They still are very dear to me.
Are you character or plot driven? What do you do if one of your characters starts developing at a tangent?
As a writer of historical fiction, I believe you have to be plot driven. That is, unless you are writing about a specific character, i.e. Alexander or Achilles. Two Irish Lads was a historical fiction because Sean and Patrick interacted with history, whereas my second novel, Nor All Thy Tears: Journey to Big Sky, is merely historical content because, being a nostalgic look at the 1950s and 60s, the primary focus isn’t history.
Admittedly, it’s a debatable point, like: What constitutes a ‘romance’?
As for the second part of the question, I don’t block my stories beforehand. Perhaps I should, but I’m always too anxious to get writing. Therefore, when my characters start heading off in a tangent I generally tag along. Sometimes I have to backtrack, but not often.
It also depends on what sort of affinity you have with the character, or characters. You will know what I refer to here because of your relationship with Jonty Stewart and Orlando Coppersmith in the Cambridge Fellows Series. Very often these characters write their own stories. My Sean and Patrick were the same. It was as if they had actually lived and loved, somewhere in time, and wanted their story told their way.
It was uncanny.
If you were to have an intimate dinner-date with any one of your characters, which one would it be and why?
Hmm, I think it would have to be Colin Scrubbs in Nor All Thy Tears. I mean, who wouldn’t go for a guy who is 6’-3”, ruggedly handsome, and has a few oil wells in his back yard? But, more than that, he is also my type of personality; independent, zany—in a positive way, loyal, and caring.
I particularly like his practical formula for settling partisan, political issues: “You agree with me on some things, and I’ll agree with you on some things, and we’ll discuss the others over a few beers. Last man standing wins the point. What d’ya think of that?”
He is also a romantic, wanting to return to simpler times at “Big Sky” (with running water, of course), but with his wealth—particularly for the 1970s—he could certainly do otherwise.
Yes, I think Colin would be a fun date.
If you had no constraints of time and a guarantee of publication, what book would you write?
Well, being retired is about the same as having “no constraints of time,” I suppose, but I’m so busy writing and marketing that it’s really a fulltime job. My average writing day is roughly ten hours, and after that I read for my next book review on Gerry B’s Book Reviews.
However, the one time constraint I can’t avoid is my age. I will be 76 this month (October), and I have at least three more novels in mind, so it’s a race with the Big Timekeeper upstairs.
I would like to write a light comedy, though. I’m finding most GLBT stories to be rather serious, even gloomy, and I’d like to lighten it up just a bit. The title I have in mind is, The Brit, Kid Cupid, and Petunia, where “Petunia” is a skunk.
Are any of your stories based on personal experience?
Yes, both of them to a lesser or greater extent—even Two Irish Lads, which is set in 1820. Many of the implements and working methods used by the lads were still in use when I was growing up. Moreover, there were still log cabins standing that had been built in the 1850s, so these sorts of things required very little researching.
Regarding Nor All Thy Tears, it is about thirty percent autobiographical: Growing up in Pefferlaw, attending the one-room school house mentioned in the story, arriving in Toronto at age fifteen, living at the Central Y.M.C.A., and eating .15¢ soup to conserve money. These were all very real indeed.
I don’t think it is possible to write a story involving human beings with injecting some part of yourself into it.
What's your next project?
I am presently working on the third draft of a new novel, Coming of Age on the Trail, which I hope to have published in the spring of 2012. At the moment, however, it isn’t cooperating.
I don’t believe in a so-called, “writer’s block,” but as one gets older the grey matter slows down so that it takes longer to get the creative juices flowing. Nonetheless, the compensating factor is that one develops more patience—well, some, anyway—and so this novel will necessarily take as long as it takes.
What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of writing a novel or short story?
Very simply put, inspiration consists of sitting down at a keyboard and starting to write. After that it is one word at a time and sticking to it. The latter bit being what will make the difference of whether it will ever be published or not. After all, you can’t even self-publish an unfinished story.
So start with a single sentence, and then add another to it. If you get stuck, keep going. A way will open up. The two “Ps” guarantee it, i.e. “patience” and “perseverance”.
Write for yourself, primarily, but keep your audience in mind as well. There is an ongoing debate about this point, but I think it is merely a matter of degree. An author (as opposed to a writer) doesn’t last very long without readers, and readers can’t read without authors.
And finally there is the matter of grammar and punctuation. Nothing will put a reader off a story like ‘stubbing a toe’ on typos and awkward words and phrases. Nevertheless, I think that a writer’s main focus should be on creativity. Editors can tidy up the syntax and grammar, but they can’t—or shouldn’t try to—write the story.
Find out about Gerry at his website.
It's Gerry's birthday tomorrow (he's 29 or so) so I'll be raising a glass to him.