In Conversation With: Tony Burgess

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A few weeks ago, I was sitting on a patio when a gentleman, back lit by an early-summer sun, approached my table to boast that he recognized me from the back of my head. I shaded my eyes, Tony Burgess coming into view. "I recognize you from the front of your head," I (may have) replied, and he settled in with us for the duration of our stay. I quite liked his company. My only other dealings with Tony have come in late hours in the form of Facebook messages that read like non sequiturs. He's a prolific creator across genre and form, a master at drawing discomfort from the reader and one of the more truly interesting characters you'll have the pleasure to meet.

For my first interview as Host of Canadian Bookshelf, I hope you'll enjoy our get-to-know-you banter. I guess it's true that books really are the social object around which readers converse.

Julie Wilson: A friend recently told me of a dating site in which members are asked, alongside other questions, how they feel about horror films. Seems this is a huge signifier in terms of compatibility between prospective mates. Come to think of it, the first time I saw you from afar you were covered in fake blood at the opening party for The Scream in High Park. What's your relationship to violence and gore? Are you less censored than others, or is the violence a signifier of something deeper?

Tony Burgess: Blood AND feces, my friend.

The gore and violence, well, it's like this. The gore and violence isn't in and of itself meaningful. It's native to my imagination for small reasons. It is a neutral medium. Any story I tell is told in it. Sometimes it crosses over to change the story and sometimes it's something the story has known and adapted to for a very long time. It's as if you committed your life to writing people who yell all the time. The shock and tedium of it push at lives in a meaningless and extreme way. The commitment is important. I haven't done the thing yet that I keep imagining, that is, build a non-violent narrative entirely out of extraordinarily violent pieces. It's tricky to fix completely. Does the strain break it? Does it rise or fall? I need to go for at least 30,000 words to find out what happens. There's much left to do.

As for the small reason violence is native to my imagination, I have always had a fairly sharp sensation that everything is screaming, that if you tap the illusory condition of things, bump the frame slightly, you will be mindlessly and mercilessly preyed upon by the way things are. It's madness, I know, schizophrenic, really, but I have learned, with much practice, to not talk myself out of it and to live quite well anyway. I'm not even remotely interested that it become meaningful, in fact, combining with meaning only weakens it, makes it the illusion instead of the other way around, usurps it as a perception. The howling face streaking at you from nowhere shouldn't be slowed and unpacked. Your reaction should be to lower your head—close your eyes and plug your ears.

JW: How then would you describe your relationship with your editors? How do they handle the screams? I'm guessing they don't endeavour to ease them.

TB: Well, as I say, the screaming is small and curb-trained, so never anyone's problem directly. | have good relationships with my editors. I tend to stand firm on certain irregularities in my books (sometimes without knowing why) and that leads to lively discussion ending with me cross-legged on the floor holding my breath. It's quieter than screaming but still effective with the grown-ups. Good editors, like the one's I've worked with, have a sense of adventure and can tell the difference between an irregularity you are nurturing and one you really should drop. I remember in Fiction For Lovers the word "type" appeared twice as "type type" in a sentence. It was a mistake but it was a bit mesmerizing. My editor at the time, Jen Hale at ECW—and quite excellent—thought it was wrongness to leave an unintended typo in the book, but she let me sit with it for a while. We discussed how the type type had created a crease in the story around which you could fold the story in half. It was an uninvited mechanism, a mystery figure, that changed everything and, as luck would have, the story supported this in time. My relationship with Michael Holmes at ECW goes way back and over a number of books and he knows how to smack me on the head pretty good. Brian Kaufman at Anvil is a wizard, Brett Savoury over at ChiZine is an awesome cowboy. And Corm, (who Jesus sent us) is my constant ingredient. These relationships have been, for me, much more fascinating than, say, script notes from far and wide on film projects.

JW: Your book trailer for People Live Still in Cashtown Corners is evocative, sensual, shocking. In fact, if memory serves, I recall seeing a Warning message once, as if to say readers are not used to such imagery. You also feature in the trailer. You are both creator and character. Tell us a bit about the trailer, how it came to be, and why you're part of the mise-en-scène.

TB: Well, Julie Wilson, there's a story behind that. Before I even started Cashtown I thought about the trailer, or at least the people in it. I wanted to have actual people in the book whose images I could use somehow. So I built in characters I based on pictures I had, people nearby who I knew I could call up. I put those pictures physically in the book, to sort of really press down on the fact that they are here, they are real, I can call them. And when the opportunity to shoot a trailer came up, I did and, god love 'em, they came. There's Ed/Jeffrey Lerner (he's a in few of my books) and Jayde (Patty Lerner). They were part of the Wasaga Community Theatre. Amber (Helen Lerner) is standing in for my wife Rachel, who couldn't make it that day, and the great Charlie Baker(Charlie Baker) is a high school teacher up the road here who plays a high school teacher up the road in the book. I'm Bad Bob Clark 'cause I had the pictures but I also wrote the book so gave myself the lead! It's part of a on ongoing Untrue Crime puzzle in the book. I think it is a ghastly image and a bit ridiculous.

Click here to watch the trailer.

JW: Tony Burgess, if that's really your name, what's the most mundane aspect of your writing life? The writing life? Either? Both?

TB: Well, Julie Wilson, if I can call you that, I'd have to say staring. Which is a bit obvious. It's mundane to look at me stare. I do stare a lot. And make faces and talk and stuff, which actually sounds kind of exciting now, so. And it scares the family sometimes. So staring is the least mundane aspect of my writing life.

JW: I often stare and make faces at no one, which, actually sounds kind of exciting, so. I'd say it's useful research to inhabit a face or two. What's the last face you wore? As a non-cannibal. (Forgive me my presumption.)

TB: I started this interview with a tall, furrowed face and a deep dense voice (go look). Now I'm, like, skippin' stones with Julie Wilson, having a good day. So my face is kinda crinkled a bit, wonderin', but happy.

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JW: Maybe it's our shared love of nachos and Luis Bunuel, but I feel like I see you better now that we've had the opportunity to meet. Do you think about, or even care about, being understood/misunderstood as a writer, to connecting to the reader? Do you feel that chasm? There's definitely a camp of readers out there who are frustrated that the mainstream hasn't tapped into your work.

TB: To be honest, I find most people to be sharper than me and if I find one who isn't, then I quickly befriend them for life. Derek McCormack is a good example. He's numb as a hake. Or is it queer as dick's hatband? (Interviewer's note: Insert loud laughter here.) One of those. A good friend. And thank you for saying such nice things, but we can never be friends (see above).

I don't really write to a reader. I either write with the reader or to something non-human. I sit on the page, with the reader and we look off wondering what reads us. As far as caring, that's so hard to figure. I am chronically inconsistent about this. Sort of an angel-and-devil-on-the-shoulders answer. I suppose I'm ambivalent about being misunderstood/understood but hope to sell a book to a reader who then enjoys it. I think pop rascal Pink would answer it this way too.

JW: Don't you get me started on Pink. I'd argue she's getting formulaic. Hey, can you share any anecdotes from the 80s? You were once the opening poet for Lydia Lunch, is that right?

TB: Oh, there's a anecdote alright. I was in a band called The Ether Brothers at the time and as a nasty consequence a 12 inch section of my intestines blew up. Like, literally. I ended up in the intensive care ward (cue Alice cooper song). After two attempts to be seen, the first ER doctor thought the haemorrhage was from funny business—it was the 80s and I had the make up (think Richard Gere and a hamster). Anyway, after a few days in the ICU under strict quarantine, they pull me up to a room and jack me up with high dose steroids. I get a call from Elliot Lefko (art rock promoter guy) who asks if i'll open for Lydia Lunch. I say sure and leave the hospital a little prematurely and get on a bus the night of the show at Hotel Isabella. Having nothing to read or perform , I write a quick account of my last few days and show up. Me and Dave Howard (The Dave Howard Singers) get a little tipsy and try to burn the hotel down by lighting paper on top of all the tables. I do my bit and Lydia comes on and we wrestle on stage for a while, have some lunch-style fun and then off everyone goes. 'cept, now I'm banned from the hotel and charges are considered. There was a thing in the Globe about the night. And Elliot still books me for some gigs but has a guard on me. I remember backstage at a Johnny Thunders show, (a friend was opening for him) and Elliot had assigned someone to stand between me and the giant on/off power switch I was staring at. Anyway, the intestines where tricky for a couple years but did eventually hold up and, I'm happy to report that Lydia was a sweetie.

JW: And how do you think "the scene" has changed as a performative space over the past few decades? What's different?

TB: Was the scene different then? Yes, of course. I mean you had all this stuff pouring out of art colleges—bands, performance, poetry, video art, poster art, zines—that had a shared ethic and aesthetic and lifestyle. There was a real sense that when you did something you added it to a very large mythos that was being rewritten every night. And what fueled some of the fire was the sense that any night might be its last. That became, in a way, its apocalyptic theme. The last pogo, punk is dead, the never-ending destruction of the Miss General Idea 1984 Pavillion and on and on. You went out every night to chase it. And CanLit was nowhere to be seen, save, maybe, someone like bp nichol. Anyway, I say different, but I don't think there is less inventiveness now, because how would i know? I live in a field. But, I have no doubt that tonight, someone, somewhere will be putting on new things and stepping out the door to meet up with a new way of doing everything.

JW: Testify.

About Tony: Tony Burgess is a Canadian writer born in Toronto and currently residing in Stayner, Ontario with his wife Rachel and their two children, Griffin and Camille. He's the author of Pontypool Changes Everything (ECW Press), Ravenna Gets (Anvil Press), Idaho Winter (ECW Press), Caesarea (ECW Press), Fiction for Lovers (ECW Press), The Hellmouths of the Bewdley and People Live Still in Cashtown Corners (ChiZine Publications) as well as screenplays and musicals.

Note: Publicists, yes, your authors, too, can have fun in an interview. Contact Julie at host@canadianbookshelf.com for details.

June 9, 2011
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