Friday, October 16, 2015

E-interview with 'Nathan Burgoine

Further to my lead up to Naked Heart: An LGBTQ Festival of Words, starting tonight, I am posting an e-interview with fellow reader, ‘Nathan Burgoine.

In July 2014, I had the opportunity to do an e-interview with Ottawa short story writer and novelist, ‘Nathan Burgoine. He was charming, affable, thoughtful and prompt. In the publishing business, it is always a particular pleasure to meet a gentleman, and Burgoine certainly qualifies as one. And besides, l learned a helluva’ lot. But read it and see for yourself, true believers.

JKM: I like your writing. How long have you been writing?
Photo from dearteenme.com

NB: I’ve been writing for as far back as I can remember, but I didn’t try to write with the goal of being published until 2007. I was given the opportunity to pen a short fiction piece for a potential gay romance being put together by R.D. Cochrane and Timothy J. Lambert. Unfortunately, the publisher went under. Fortunately, the editors were tireless and championed the collection to Cleis Press, and ‘Fool for Love’ made it into the world in 2009.

JKM: What would you like my blog readers to know about you that they might not read in your author bio (Sometimes dozens are served daily, as the saying goes...)?

NB: The one question I get asked a lot after people read the acknowledgements is “Did you end up letting your husband do that thing he wanted to do?” That’ll make sense if you’ve read the acknowledgements, obviously. And the answer is “Yes. Yes, I did. And the result is exuberant and large, but awesome.”

JKM: Tell me about how your first novel, Light, came about. What were you thinking when you sat down to do the first draft?

NB: “What the hell am I doing?”

Seriously. I write (mostly) short fiction. Writing a novel seemed like an insane idea for someone who enjoys writing pieces that are 3,000 to 5,000 words. I had zero confidence and the sketchiest of outlines and a deadline. That last thing was likely the only thing that kept me going.

I was also thinking that I wanted to make people laugh, and hoped that they’d pick up my book and then look up and realize time had gone by and they were smiling. That’s the ultimate goal—to entertain.

JKM: How long did it take to pen the first draft?

NB: About two years.

JKM: Speaking of which, how many drafts did you do of Light?

NB: I said “about two years” but I tend to re-write and re-write while I’m making progress, and I jumped all over the place from beginning, middle, and end while I was writing it, so I’m not sure exactly when there was a complete draft. I wrote the epilogue before I wrote anything else, actually (and then re-wrote it about a dozen times). I think there were probably less than twelve drafts of the whole shebang, but key scenes definitely had up to (or perhaps more than) a dozen versions before I sent it in to my editor.

JKM: How did the deal come together with Bold Strokes? Please tell me about this. How did you find the market, etc.?

NB: I’m a short story writer first and foremost and hadn’t really thought of being a novelist. For short stories, I went looking where I was already reading. Open calls for submission aren’t always plentiful, but I stuck to it, hunted, and watched my favorite publishers for any openings I could find. Short stories are a great way to “meet” a publisher and editors, as well as a way to work on your skill. I’ve been really lucky to work with some awesome publishers and editors.

NB: After “Heart” (my first story with R.D. Cochrane and Timothy J. Lambert), I went to the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival in New Orleans. I met some amazing people there—some I already “knew” online, others new to me—and those connections stuck.

NB: In fact, I can trace pretty much every success I’ve had in writing back to people connected with Saints and Sinners. Most of my short stories were sold to calls from people I met there, or through degrees of separation.

Photo from the Bold Stokes Books website.
NB: I’ve worked with some amazing editors through short stories, and I’ve always tried to be as professional as I could. Greg Herren, my editor for Light, was my editor for a half dozen short story collections first. One year (at another Saints and Sinners Literary Festival) he flat-out asked me when he’d be seeing a novel from me.

NB: When I said, “But I write short stories!” [I] was met with a slow eyebrow raise that made me rethink the statement. Sure enough, I’d had ideas that just wouldn’t work for short stories, and I’d just been too dense to realize that they were too big for a short piece. Light came from that pile of ideas that I couldn’t quite make work for an anthology.  

NB: Bold Strokes is amazing to work with. Every step of the way I was involved, and at no point did I feel like I was floundering without a net. Even better, like the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival, BSB has the feel of a community of people out to support each other.

JKM: You have a charming, witty narrative voice in your novel Light. I was also astonished and impressed with the very Canadian setting of Pride week in Ottawa. Was the Canadian locale something you pushed for? Or was Bold Strokes fine with such Canadiana from the start?

NB: It’s funny you mentioned that. I try to put Canada in my stories—Canada is a wonderful piece of my life, and often setting is as much a character as the characters themselves. It’s only occasionally I’ll set a tale elsewhere (in one case, I had a story set in the States since I wanted to touch upon ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’), and only once has someone asked me to remove the Canada from a story. With Bold Strokes, I didn’t have to push at all—I think Light would have been a very different tale if it was set somewhere else (even within Canada), so of course it was a relief when I realized there wasn’t going to be a problem with the setting. I know Ottawa pretty well—this city is the longest I’ve lived anywhere—and there are few other places in the world I’d feel confident setting a novel-length tale.

NB: There were some fun back-and-forth questions, of course. “What the heck’s a loonie?” became kind of an in-joke or short-hand for Canadianisms. I’ve almost always worked with publishers from the States, so I already my list of things that I knew to look out for (colour vs colour, for example) but writing a novel certainly added to the list.

JKM: Did you have any particular inspiration to create a gay hero? Please expand either way.

NB: I was a huge X-Men geek growing up. People who were born different to families who were otherwise “normal,” and hated for it? Gee. I’m not the first person to make the connection to the LGBT experience with those of Marvel’s mutants, but it was a powerful thing for me as a kid. Also, they were the closest thing I saw to an example in fiction of someone like me—this was before cable T.V. and the internet, and in many of the small towns I lived in, there was no hope of bumping into any representation of an LGBT character.

NB: Things have changed—even in the X-Men, there are quite a few queer characters—but I wanted to write a story of a gay superhero in a gay setting. Kieran came from that. In a way, he’s the X-Man I always wanted to be.

JKM: I like your hero, who can bend light. In many ways, they are a superior version to the Marvel Comics character, Dazzler, who merely shoots light or makes light shows to confuse her opponents. Was this a conscious tribute?

NB: Definitely a tribute to the X-Men in general, but not Dazzler in specific. Also, rainbows and gays are so wonderfully interconnected that when the idea struck me, I couldn’t let it go. On the surface, Kieran’s powers aren’t that amazing in the grand scheme of superhero traditions. Telekinesis, sure, but only thirty-odd pounds or so. There’s the light-bending thing, which isn’t the most useful tool until you get very creative with it. His telepathy has been more of a hindrance than an asset. He’s an everyday guy—again, that nod to the X-Men—but he’s been born different twice. Gay, and super-powered.

JKM: ‘Nathan—I should add that it’s also such as funny book. The whole subplot with people voting to name the mysterious hero Rainbow Man, I thought, was hilarious. Well done.

NB: Thank you! I really struggled with whether or not to go for the laughs, actually. I have a reputation for being more of a “bittersweet” writer, but I love to laugh, and my favorite books always seem to have a slice or humour to them.

As for the “Name the Superhero” contest, I tried to imagine all the worst things that could happen were an anonymous superhero to show up, and it occurred to me that the name would be picked by the press or the community at large. And in this case, the gay community in particular.

Personally, I like “Disco.”
Burgoine, a hero in his own right.
Photo by Daniel Smith Photography. 

JKM: You would! Let’s talk Ottawa Pride. Why did you choose Pride Week in Ottawa as a setting?

NB: I wanted to tell a gay superhero story, and I wanted to highlight the gay community. Pride felt like the best setting for that. Also, Kieran’s joy at being gay — that was absolutely something I wanted to make certain came through—would be best represented in settings where he was wholly free to be himself (well, except for the superhero stuff).  

JKM: Would you consider Pride Week an influence on your writing? It’s a great backdrop for a story, BTW. I’m a little jealous. But more impressed with your great story and compelling characters.

NB: I’m actually quite an introvert (like many writers, I’d say), so having safe spaces like Pride or Saints and Sinners or the Bold Strokes Writer’s Retreat are huge to me. LGBT people often have to make our own families, and Pride—and the various events thereof, and the organizations that make it happen—were where my “chosen family” was found when I came out and ended up flying solo.

NB: Being myself and not having to care at all who might see is a big deal, and Pride exemplifies that. I try to live my life very openly in the every day; if someone mentions their husband or wife, I’ll mention my husband, and to heck with the social awkwardness that can sometimes follow. I remember being a kid and never seeing any examples of who I might be as an adult (which was actually the whole point of a piece I wrote for Bruce Gillespie’s nonfiction anthology A Family By Any Other Name.)

NB: From the point of view of the novel, it also gave me a reason to have Kieran stuck to a timeline he couldn’t control, and a flashpoint for the villain of the tale.

JKM: What’s your experience with Ottawa Pride? I could tell you were writing from it.

NB: I love Pride, though I have to admit working a retail schedule often means I have to miss key events on weekends or evenings. When I was in university, it was my favorite celebration. As I’ve gotten older, I still love getting to the parade if I can, but I’m more likely to be at the brunches or art shows or plays.

If that makes me sound boring, I’m okay with that.

JKM: My opinion of you thus far is the opposite of boring. However, would you consider Ottawa an influence no your writing—a muse of sorts? Do you agree or disagree? Please expand on this for me.

NB: Ottawa was the first place I’ve ever really felt was my “home.” I moved a lot growing up, and didn’t really settle anywhere until I came here for university (and even then, I’d intended to move on after graduating). Instead, after coming out, I stayed here. I really think this is one of the best cities in our country, and I love the way Ottawa is a city that doesn’t overwhelm like Toronto does.

NB: I’m not sure if Ottawa is a muse, exactly, or just the first place I’ve ever felt confident about. I can write Ottawa and know and see the places in my mind. I could do that fairly well with a few other cities, but not with the same surety. 

JKM: I also thoroughly enjoy your character’s ability to sympathize with others by feeling their thoughts physical pains and aches. This does, however, make me wonder why he is perpetually single.

NB: Kieran’s telepathy hasn’t really helped him out much, eh? Without spoilers, I’d say that’s more to do with his own flaws than being able to read minds and feel what others feel. There’s a joke I heard somewhere: what’s the only thing worse than not knowing what someone thinks about you? The answer, of course, is: knowing what someone thinks about you. Kieran has definitely set up his own barriers there, but at the start of the book, he’d blame the telepathy.

JKM: On that note, do you have any idea where the inspiration for your charming hero came from?

NB: Other than always having something snarky to say, he’s not much like me, that’s for sure. I’m nowhere near that confident. Kieran was born from a “What if?” and some advice I got from my editor, Greg.

NB: The “What if?” was simple: what if someone had these abilities, and that someone was a fairly regular gay guy? What would that look like? How would that shape his life. 

NB: The advice from Greg was this: if you need a character to act a certain why, what sort of life experience would they have needed to have to make them think that’s the way to act? So, I worked Kieran backwards a lot. He likes to think he can handle anything thrown his way, cares about others, values family, and sees the value in the Pride and the support it creates. I needed him to think and feel that way if he was going to handle the potential disaster ahead of him, and worked backwards from there to make him make sense.

JKM: I also like how the protagonist has a thing for a leather guy in the book. Where did this leather man character come from?

NB: Sebastien is the most “made up” character of the bunch, I’m afraid. I am lucky enough to know a few people in the leather community, and they were really helpful with my questions. With Sebastien, I wanted to finally make Kieran consider trusting someone.

NB: Granted, Sebastien was also a lot of fun to write as he’s a big ol’ hunk with a tongue stud. He’s also very full of himself and incredibly forward and if I met him in real life I’d probably want to take him down a peg or two (assuming I could work up the nerve to say hello to him).

JKM: In both your superhero villain story and in Light, you refer to homophobic right-wingers. Might this be your peccadillo or recurring theme? If so, where is coming from?

NB: I actually find the casual and systemic homophobia of the world more of a fear than right-wing zealots. Right-wing zealots fit the idea I had for the novel, and the super-villain short story, “Lesser Evil” (from ‘The Lavender Menace’) suited them as well. Superhero stories are often over-the-top, and I wanted to play on that trope a bit.

NB: Over-the-top groups like the Westboro Baptists are obvious in what they do—they’re visible, loud, obnoxious fonts of hate. Those are easier to fight than the quiet hatreds, or the people who can make bigoted notions seem reasonable. The man thundering from a pulpit doesn’t scare me half as much as a legislator quietly amending (and restricting) women’s rights to birth control, or a teacher claiming that a LGBT support group might cause a backlash so it should probably be tabled at the 
high school for another year.

NB: Worse, we’ve got our own infighting. The queer family can be pretty cruel to itself, especially the more outward you go from “mainstream” (whatever that is). Some of the worst biphobia and transphobia I’ve seen has come from within.

NB: So, no—while I went for the loud hate-mongers in Light and “Lesser Evil,” they’re not something I’m specifically targeting or a theme I’ll likely be exploring elsewhere.

JKM: What do you like best about your novel, Light?

NB: I made people laugh. I love to laugh, and I love being caught off guard and laughing out loud in 
public. Let me be a bookseller for a second here and tell you I think Rob Byrnes is brilliant at this, and you should read his awesome LGBT Caper series, Straight Lies, Holy Rollers, Strange Bedfellows. When readers started to tell me they’d laughed out loud, I was so damn happy.

JKM: Great to hear. Now, what was the hardest part about writing the book?

NB: Writing a novel is obviously a lot more work and takes a lot more time, but the big piece that left me nervous was how much more I had to commit before I showed anything to anyone for feedback. Short fiction is a very different animal, and the feedback cycle can be much simpler. I had to wait for a significantly longer chunk before I felt right sending off a piece of Light to someone for feedback. That was daunting.

JKM: What was the best?

NB:  The best part of writing Light was probably the daily game of “What would I do?” I played. I tried to think of one instance every day (be it at work, or at home) where I’d have used Kieran’s powers if I had them.

NB: I am not a saint, and there would be some people who would find their shoe-laces mysteriously tied together when they started to leave after being rude to other retail clerks. Also, a lot of cigarette butts that were tossed out of car windows would be telekinetically hurled back into the car. The world is not an ashtray.

JKM: Your character endures a lot of embarrassing moments in the story. Have you endured any embarrassments that have informed your writing? Please tell me about them. I promise not to share too much with readers.

NB:  I think everyone has had those moments, and half the fun of writing fiction is to sublimate those moments with something even worse.

NB: That said, I’ve worked at a bookstore for years, and there was this one time a man asked me to help him find a book about an animal. I took him to the nature section, and he looked confused, and explained he was looking for a city version of this animal. I explained we didn’t have a book that about a city-specific regional variety of animal, but it might be covered in one of the larger books. He then explained it was a sports team. So off we went to the sports section—where he was on the cover of the book. I’m pretty sure he thought I was an idiot.

JKM: As well, I am sure our readers are curious about your trip to the Lambda awards. Want to comment briefly on your first Lammy award experience (I read your blog post about it and am now a proud owner of  Justin  Hall's No Straight Lines: Four Decades of Queer Comics, as a result.).

NB: The Lammys were magic! Being nominated on my first novel was terrifying. I didn’t write a speech, sat with my Bold Strokes Family (my plus-one was actually Rob Byrnes) and spent a good while feeling star struck before I shook myself out of it and started to actively mingle. Everyone was brilliant and welcoming, and it reminded me again of just how wonderful the LGBT community can be.
The cover image of Burgoine's next novel,
also from Bold Strokes Books. 
NB: I’m about half-way through No Straight Lines—it’s fantastic. If you like graphic novels and sci-fi, you also need to pick up Artifice by Alex Woolfson. (Sorry. That’s twice, isn’t it? You can take the bookseller out of the bookstore...)

JKM: Now here is good question. Do you have a question that a journalist has not asked that you yourself would ask if our roles were reversed? If so, what’s the question?

NB: I rarely get asked about being a bookseller as well as an author, and I think that’s been a valuable experience. I have been a bookseller for years, and part of my day-job has always been to talk about books and try to find the perfect book for right person at the right time. I’m a voracious reader, and was always quick with a positive word when I found a book that spoke to me. I’m very aware of the value of a positive review—and the damage that a negative review can do.

NB: I also know—from years of working with books—that there’s no such thing as a book everyone will love. What one person loves, another loathes. And thank goodness for that. There’s so much out there, and there’s something for every taste, and that’s a great thing.

NB: If I enjoy a book, I try to boost that book’s signal as much as I can. I write reviews, talk about it online, tweet it, whatever I can do to give it a bit of noise. And conversely, if a book wasn’t the right fit for me, I take a long look at why. As a random example, I’m not a fan of gore. I’m easily squicked out by blood and guts. But I know full well how many people enjoy what I’d consider very gory books—horror, medical thrillers, even some mysteries are pretty blood-splattered. I’ll happily connect people who enjoy that facet of a story to more books that are the same, but I’ll own that the book wasn’t for me.

NB: Which is a longwinded way of saying I don’t really write “negative” reviews, so much as I try to point out the strongest themes of a book if it didn’t work for me, in hopes to connect a reader who likes those things to the book. They’re likely a better fit than me.

JKM: Do you have any other projects on the go? Please tell me about them.

NB: I’m working on short fiction right now—it’s like comfort food. I think I’ve got five pieces I’m working on, but nothing was promised. They’re for open calls, which gives me a bit of freedom to not panic if the story isn’t working before the deadline.

NB: I did write a novella-ish length work for Jerry L. Wheeler’s On the Run: Tales of Gay Pursuit and Passion and I loved the format. I wrote a story about an editor who learns he’s dying of brain cancer, and decides he needs to make something right with the first man he ever loved before he dies. But—like in most things I’ve written—there’s also a little something “extra” happening, and the same tumors that are robbing his sense of time and memory might also be giving him a unique opportunity. I loved writing that story—there’s a great freedom to the “middle length” of a novella. Also, the other three stories in the collection (written by Hank Edwards, Jeff Mann, and Dale Chase) were awesome. I love being in such great company.

NB: I’m not sure what novel (or novella) I might work on next, but I’m not on a contract, so until I pitch an idea and it’s picked up, I’m willing to stick with short fiction.

NB: I do have scratch notes for a sequel to Light, but I’m not sure that’s what I’d do next.

JKM: Who do you like reading?

NB: Got an hour? Let’s start with fiction by authors whose names start with A.

Okay, in all seriousness, let me talk LGBT authors. Rob Byrnes is pretty much my writing hero. The man writes the most hilarious capers—think Donald E. Westlake, only with an LGBT crew of even less capable con artists and thieves. I love anything Timothy James Beck writes, which includes anything the four people who make up Timothy James Beck write, too; R.D. (Becky) Cochrane, Timothy J. Lambert, Timothy Forry and Jim Carter are all wonderful writers. I’m also an addict for both Greg Herren mystery series—the Scotty Bradley mysteries and the Chanse MacLeod mysteries are two very different types of books but both are great. And lately I’ve been diving into a lot of LGBT YA books—if you didn’t read Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan, Cub by Jeff Mann, Tristant & Elijah by Jennifer Lavoie or The Unwanted by Jeffrey Ricker, you’re missing out.

NB: And of course, I’m a giant fan of short fiction, especially speculative fiction. Pretty much any Lethe Press anthology is going to be awesome on that level. I’ve been lucky enough to be in a couple of their collections and I’m always stunned at the company I’m keeping.

JKM: What inspires you as a writer?

NB: Generally speaking, other authors. I’m lucky enough to have found this incredible group of authors through Saints and Sinners and Bold Strokes Books, and I get genuine happiness from seeing their work get recognized. I also find myself reading amazing books and putting them down after and feeling inspired to try something new, or to work harder on my writing skill. I mentioned a lot of books earlier, and each and every one of them does something—often many things—better than I can imagine myself ever doing, but it sure makes me want to try to improve what I can do. 

JKM: Is there anything you want to add that I might have not asked you about? If so, mea culpa.

NB: Not at all! Thank you.

JKM: You’re welcome. My pleasure conducting the e-interview.

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