Writing About Music: An Interview with Kayt Burgess

Heidegger Stairwell Book Cover

Kayt Burgess is the author of Heidegger Stairwell. She is a writer, musician and classically trained operatic soprano. She studied publishing at Humber College in Toronto, classical music at the University of Western Ontario, and earned her Master’s degree in creative writing from Bath Spa University in the UK. Kayt was born in Manitouwadge, Ontario, grew up in Elliot Lake, has lived in New Zealand, England and Scotland and now lives near Toronto. Find her online at www.kaytburgess.com.

Kerry Clare: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” So said... somebody. Once. Would you be inclined to disagree? What drove you to write a novel about an indie rock band?

Kayt Burgess: On one level, I do agree that music has a direct line to our emotions, one that writing about music generally doesn’t. There is efficiency in the way music activates our emotions—it bypasses natural human language, our default communication mode, making it incredibly powerful.

However, the quote suggests that writing about music is in some way absurd, or unnecessary, which is ludicrous. Just because writing about music doesn’t replicate music’s effect on us doesn’t invalidate its merit. We have long since intellectualized music and, as other arts, it continues to exist as a two-headed entity: in its sensory form, and in the interconnected jargon through which thought, discussion and critical consideration occur.

Writing about music can be its own type of music. The rhythm, the prosody, and the onomatopoeia; the terminology of musical theory has auditory power, words borrowed from multiple languages to inform a universal one. It’s no wonder writers rely so heavily on these terms for sound imagery.

I chose to write about an indie rock band because the musical genre is open and inclusive, reflecting the group of characters it would take to nurture a personality like Evan Strocker. It has an odd pedigree steeped in quiet revolution, feminism and experimentation, and the genre takes pride in being outcast.  Indie music allows for both small acoustic environs as well as vast soundscapes; it draws from a hodgepodge of musical, literary, artistic and cultural influences; it is experimental and open minded but rooted in Western tradition; it doesn’t have a firm identity and is defined more by what it isn’t than what it is.

A rather Canadian genre for an unabashedly Canadian book.

KC: Your protagonist Evan Strocker is fascinating, like few other characters I’ve ever encountered in fiction. First, he is such an unabashed trouble-maker. And then that he’s a transgender man whose transgender status, while important to your narrative, is really secondary to the story itself. You don’t see a lot of that. How did you settle on a character so out of the ordinary? And was it Evan or the band that was the seed of this story?

KB: The band was the seed. I’d been meaning to write a novel about a musical outfit for years and decided that the 3 Day Novel Contest would be the perfect outlet for me to get it off my chest. Not that there was much to get off my chest since the phrase “novel about a musical outfit” pretty much encapsulates my entire plan going into the contest.

I didn’t know Evan was going to be transgender until hours before the beginning of the contest. Every time I considered the faceless humanoid that was my narrator, I couldn’t help but imagine the character as male; however, I wanted the protagonist to be a woman. I waffled over this for what seemed like hours and then had my “Oh, shit” epiphany. Evan knew he was transgender before I knew he was. As I wrote him into existence, he continued to surprise me, becoming the trickster of the Heidegger Stairwell pantheon.

KC:When you decided to participate in the 2011 3 Day Novel Contest, did you have an inkling that you’d be the winner? How different is your edited novel from the draft you’d come up with by the end of the 3 days?

KB: Pessimism manages my expectations. I always hope to win everything (else I wouldn’t participate), but I never let myself expect it. I don’t mind being proven wrong if it’s in triumph. Two simultaneous blows to the ego are a little harder to stomach.

However, I seem to have a knack for these sorts of endeavours as I won a similarly-formatted novella contest a few months earlier. I work well in mania, but also appreciate the time constraint as it helps me rein in my epic-operatic tendencies. 

The first draft didn’t have an ending. Like, at all. So that’s pretty different. 

KC: How did you settle on your novel’s unusual structure? (It’s a novel in the form of manuscript, an exposé-in-process completed with editorial notes by those who are being exposed.) What kind of polish do you have to give a book that’s supposed to seem a bit rough?

KB: Originally I wrote the book as a clumsy biography of the band written by Evan and co-opted by his self-absorption. In the second-draft it settled as a memoir. But once I decided the narrator would also be playing reporter, I realized the book would be in manuscript form, and then I saw the opportunity for annotations, which I love in fiction. Once the band’s social dynamic manifested and the personalities developed, the colour commentary began to flow.

The veneer is polished. Having superficial indicators of a manuscript draft would’ve been too gimmicky. The roughness is in the gaps, the clumps of summary, the brutal honesty, over-sharing and conflicts of interest. Both book and narrator have a polished facade—it’s the content that’s messy.

Kayt Burgess

KC: So you’ve got a musical background and you’re from Elliott Lake ON, having just written a book about a band from a former mining town called Emmett Lake. Are we right to assume that your narrative contains elements of the autobiographical? Does a question like this make you bristle?

KB: No bristling, as I’ve grown accustomed to the question. The truth is, while I’ve used autobiographical elements in the details of various characters and plot points, the overarching story is fiction. All the characters are amalgams of people I’ve known and observed, blended with imagination and research.  And while many aspects of Emmet Lake have been cannibalized from my hometown, the two places aren’t identical. In the recreation I took liberties which strayed just far enough from the essence of Elliot Lake to allow my characters to exist naturally in the environment.

But, I did have a musical childhood in small town Northern Ontario, surrounded by talented musicians and big personalities. We just didn’t become Heidegger Stairwell. Instead, we became doctors, farmers, teachers, bureaucrats and singing authors.

KC: If you were going to create a soundtrack to Heidegger Stairwell, what real-life songs would be on it?

KB: Funny, out of all the questions this seems the most personal. I’m loath to answer because it feels too telling—I’d prefer the reader formulate their own soundtrack. The book mentions several bands, so there’s a start. Otherwise, I imagine it being chock-a-block full of 2000s Canadian indie goodness: Arcade Fire, Dan Mangan, The Cliks, Hey Rosetta!, Stars, Broken Social Scene, Tegan and Sara, Karkwa, The Besnard Lakes, Metric, Constantines, Rufus Wainwright, and a slew of others.

KC: What are your favourite books about music?

KB: Some great works that explore music are Coming Through Slaughter (Michael Ondaatje), the works of Alejo Carpentier,  A Visit from the Goon Squad (Jennifer Egan), The Loser (Thomas Bernhard), and Masterclass (a play by Terrence Mcnally). Most of the musical non-fiction I read is technical or pedagogical.

KC: What advice do you have for writers thinking about chancing the 3 Day Novel contest next year?

KB: I’m afraid I have no truly illuminating advice. I didn’t go into the contest with any outline or map: I just bushwhacked my way through all seventy-two hours and eventually emerged on the other side with a story.

So, all I can say is this: do it. There’s freedom in the communal bondage of the 3 Day Novel Contest. You only have three days write a novel, yes, but you also get to have three days to write a novel. Entering the contest buys you a badge you can flash at all your loved ones, a badge that says “I know there are dishes to wash, there’s garbage to take out, kids to chauffeur, dog shit to pick up, pants to put on, and sundry other responsibilities I’m supposed to attend to. But there’s this crazy, impossible thing I’m doing, and it’s happening all over the world and only at this time, and I need to maintain a superhuman level of focus, so I need a life-moratorium for three days, as well as your unconditional support, thanks, I love you I love you I love you, bring me coffee every two hours. Door slam. Type type type.”

KC: What projects are you at work on now?

KB: I have several works languishing on my hard-drive at about 80-90% complete. These include a short story collection that revolves around the theme of “hiding”; a novella written as a song-cycle about an accompanist torn between serving young artists on the cusp of greatness (or ruin) and following her own music; and a novel with graphic elements that explores the psycho-social landscape of online gaming.

I also have a short novel called Connection at Newcombe, set in the 1920s, about a Northern Ontario town that comes together to dupe the government into running the railroad through their village. This one is actually ready for me to peddle around. I’m not sure I’m ready, though. Apparently I’m a clingy mother.

KC: And what’s on your bookstand at the moment?

KB: I’m a terrible binge reader and can’t recall ever finishing a book by reading fifteen minutes here or there, but that’s all the time I’ve had available lately. I keep grabbing new books off the shelf for my bus commute in hopes that a minor, non-fatal disaster will strand me on Yonge Street for just enough time to finish the novel. But some of the titles I’ve started (and hope to finish soon) include Half-Blood Blues (Esi Edugyan), The Footnote (Anthony Grafton), Blonde (Joyce Carol Oates), iQ84 (Haruki Murakami) and The Sworn Sword (James Aitcheson).  If it weren’t for short fiction, I’d never see the end of any story. Right now I’m picking at the latest Pushcart anthology, and carrying around Found Press Quarterlies on my Kobo.

November 29, 2012
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