NL: First of all, thank you for taking the time to chat with me. As a longtime fan of your work, it’s an honor and privilege. When I think of your fiction I think, first and foremost, of characterization. You have created so many different and interesting characters. I’d be curious to hear about the process by which you arrive at the characters for your stories.
RB: Thank you for your kind words. The process by which one creates characters is as mysterious as the process by which one chooses friends, lovers, or people one is interested in in general. In my case, sometimes people I meet in my life become the models, or point of origin for my characters, whereas other times they appear to me to be wholly imagined. Of course (as they say in football) upon further review all characters are projections from their author’s psyche and contain in part their creator’s tendencies and contradictions, however well hidden and removed from the world of objective action those contradictions may be. Dostoyevsky, for example, could create a believable murderer not because he himself ever committed a murder but because he felt similar impulses or at least enough hostility to imagine the leap to murder which he mercifully allowed Raskolnikov (and not himself) to commit.
NL: Some critics have focused on the theme of isolation in your work. What do you make of this? Do you think this description is warranted or that you have been "typecast" as a certain brand of writer?
RB: I think it’s partially warranted as long as they also mention that I often write about it with humor. I do write about loneliness, isolation and fear—which I think are underrepresented emotions in literature—but that’s hardly all I write about. For example, I also write about love and family and ambition and a fair amount of social satire and think some of my best writing involves groups of people, such as in my novel Ghost Quartet, and my stories "Mercury" in Fear of Blue Skies, "The Horror Conference" and the title story of Identity Club, "Jonathan and Lillian," and the title story of The Conference on Beautiful Moments. Let’s also remember that one can be lonely or feel isolated in a marriage, a family or especially at a party. Since I write about people, I feel I must write about loneliness because there’s so much of it in the world. As McCartney says, "All the lonely people, where do they all come from?"
NL: You also have an obvious interest in the possibilities of point of view. I’d love to hear more about your approach to point of view in short fiction.
RB: There is a belief held by many aficionados of the short story that the point of view in a story should never change, and indeed, in the overwhelming number of stories it never does. To these writers and readers it is accepted as a "law" of writing as unquestionable as the law of gravity. I have never accepted that law, never understood why a story can’t use to its advantage the technique of multiple points of view that adds such richness to the novels of writers like Joyce and Faulkner, as well as to many films we admire from Kurosawa’s to Welles’. To the proponents of the single point of view law we must know whose story it is—as if the story should be regarded as the protagonist’s private property. But from my point of view, some situations equally involve more than one person and it gives the reader a different vision of life to read about an experience from different points of view. Isn’t that why we have political debates or the chance to read more than one newspaper? I do want to add that I have never used this technique (or any other) gratuitously just to appear "original," but only when it seemed the best way to tell a particular story. For example, in my story "Vivian and Sid Break Up," one of my more comedic stories from my current collection The Conference on Beautiful Moments, the temporary break up in their relationship affects both Vivian and Sid equally and also the unsuspecting woman whom Sid next goes out with. Finally, I’d like to mention that though I’ve published four story collections that contain multiple point of view stories, beginning with Fear of Blue Skies in 1998, reviewers have almost never commented on it one way or another. This strikes me as odd since I believe I have published more stories that use this technique than any other writer I know of; in fact, the only other story I know of that’s written from multiple points of view is Robert Coover’s wonderful "The Babysitter."
NL: You have a new book of stories, The Conference on Beautiful Moments, just out from Johns Hopkins University Press. How do you think these stories are different from those in your previous collections? How has your approach to fiction grown or changed over the years?
RB: My first collection of stories, Man without Memory, consisted of eight first-person monologues and one story in the third person. In my current collection, The Conference on Beautiful Moments, there is one first-person story, three third-person stories and six from multiple points of view—so obviously over the years I’ve moved away from the single ego story. My stories now also feature more dialogue than my earlier stories. Dialogue, of course, is yet another way of giving the character a sense of independence where he or she seems less author controlled. In general, my stories since Fear of Blue Skies have become more dramatic, funnier, and, I think, better.
NL: Your collection The Identity Club (Ontario Review Press) is particularly impressive. Not only does it include twenty stories, but also a compact disk of your compositions. Can you talk a bit about the genesis of this collection?
RB: For a number of years I’d been sending Joyce Carol Oates and her husband, the editor Raymond Smith, tapes of me playing some of my piano pieces (I’d previously published a number of stories in their magazine, Ontario Review, and had seen Joyce and Ray a number of times before I left Philadelphia for St. Louis). I continued sending them tapes and then when I began writing songs, sent them my first three self-produced CDs—In All of the World, House of Sun and Cold Ocean. They always wrote me warm and enthusiastic letters about my music, which was extremely gratifying to me. Then one day in September 2004, I believe, Joyce wrote me a letter saying that Ontario Review Press would like to publish my new and selected stories and to include, as part of the book, a CD of the best of my songs and pieces. Naturally I was thrilled. In preparation for the book, they read through all my stories, which was an honor in itself, and together the three of us selected the stories and the music to be included in the book which was titled The Identity Club: New and Selected Stories and Songs. Along with my novel, Ghost Quartet, it’s the book I am most proud of.
NL: You had a chance to interview both Jorge Borges and Isaac Bashevis Singer extensively. How have these experiences influenced your own writing and/or your editorial career?
RB: My tape-recorded interviews with Borges and Singer resulted in somewhat similar books—Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges and Conversations with Isaac Bashevis Singer—but the experiences of doing the books differed greatly. With Borges I was only twenty years old but he entrusted me with the entire project. I also had only 6 ½ hours of total time interviewing him, so every word had to count (that’s why it’s much shorter than the Singer book). Yet the experience and the success of the book were almost magically easy and pleasant, or so it seems looking back on it. The Borges book was done in about a half a year, the Singer book took over seven years. Singer was totally involved in the book and proved to be quite the perfectionist. He had some wonderful qualities, but he could also be a difficult and temperamental person (in contrast, Borges was not only the most intelligent person I’ve ever known, but also one of the most gracious). Though it took a lot out of me emotionally, I will say that the Singer book is not only longer but better in almost every way. As far as my being influenced as a writer, that happened by reading them without "knowing" them, although I learned a certain perfectionism and devotion to clarity from my collaboration with Singer (not to mention the need for patience and diplomacy) that proved to be even more valuable as a life experience than as a literary one.
NL: You also edit Boulevard, a topnotch literary magazine. How has editing Boulevard affected your own writing?
RB: As far as affecting my own writing, Boulevard has been a mixed blessing. On the negative side, it takes away time and energy from my own writing. It may also have fed into the (I believe) misguided feeling that if you’re a good writer why are you an editor as well, although almost every literary magazine editor is also a writer or poet. In our society of specialists, people have trouble believing someone can be good at more than one thing. On the positive side, Boulevard has opened some doors for me professionally and I’ve never regretted doing it.
NL: As someone who has devoted much of his writing career to the short story, I’d be curious to hear your take on the contemporary state of short fiction.
RB: Like most things, the state of the contemporary short story is a mixed bag. With the explosion of MFA programs, there are certainly more people teaching and studying the short story than ever before. There are probably also more print (and now online) magazines and small presses publishing them, as well. On the other hand, there are fewer big circulation magazines publishing short fiction, and fewer story collections coming out from commercial publishers than ever before. When I investigated the situation a few years ago, I was astonished to discover that only four literary agents in America even wanted to consider representing short story collections. This coexistence of two different literary worlds—especially with respect to the "serious" short story—is one of the unique cultural phenomena of our time. As far as the quality of the work being produced—a good short story is about as rare as it ever was.
NL: You are also a composer and musician with several CDs. You are also clearly interested in music as a theme in your own work (especially in stories such as "The Identity Club" and "My Black Rachmaninoff"). How do you think your work as a musician has grown and developed over the years?
RB: For most of my life I’ve composed and/or improvised piano music which I tape-recorded in a very crude manner. Then about eight years ago when I was out walking with my then two year old son Ricky, I began singing a song to him that I made up as we walked along called "You’re My Eye," which became the first song I ever wrote. Since then the majority of what I’ve written and recorded has been songs. I think my music has continued to improve and the most recent of my five CDs, Cold Ocean, a mostly jazz CD, is my best. Incidentally, I’ve discovered an immensely talented musician in California named Chris Cefalu and via the internet (we’ve never met) we’re collaborating on my new CD. He is the singer I’ve been searching for for eight years and I’m very excited to be working with him. I think he’s going to take my music in a new direction and to a higher level as well (if anyone is interested in my music, by the way, please visit my website www.richardburgin.net).
NL: Your work is quite dialogue-driven. Has your musical ear allowed you to better create dialogue that "rings true?"
RB: Faulkner said, "Every novelist is a failed poet." I think there’s a lot of truth in that aphorism—it’s true of me at least, and might partially explain why I eventually tried to wed lyrics to music. I think I have a pretty good ear for language—at least I’m very aware of the sounds of words in my prose though I never thought of it in terms of my dialogue per se, which, if it’s realistic dialogue, would be the least musical part of one’s fiction, I would think.
NL: Many of your stories revolve around couples—particularly men and women at odds with each other—and of course, you give your own individual Burgin-esque spin on relationships. What drives your curiosity in this particular subject matter?
RB: Every writer is after reality or at least tries to illuminate a part of it, they just do it in different ways. If I write a fair amount about the tensions between men and women—the so-called battle of the sexes—it’s because that’s a war that’s been going on all over the world since the dawn of time and it’s touched my own life as it has virtually everyone else’s. Is there a more universal subject than our quest for love and all the obstacles one encounters during that quest?
NL: Finally, I know you are working on a new novel. What can you tell me about it?
RB: I’m pretty inarticulate when it comes to describing something as big as a novel. I can say it’s a love story—not only between a man and a woman—but examines other kinds of love as well. That it involves a murder and so is a suspense story, in that sense. That most of it takes place in New York and Philadelphia and that there’s a good deal of comedy and social satire particularly about the art and literary world and the world of movie stars, as well. I don’t have a title yet, so I’m using the working title Barry and Elliot because it centers on these two very different men who are lifelong friends and who reunite after a six year break in their relationship.
NL: Thanks for talking with me today, Richard.
RB: Thanks for your kind interest in my work, Nathan. I appreciate it.