An Interview with Paul Burman, Author.
Born in the UK, Paul and his family emigrated to Australia in the late 1980s to pursue a new life. He has lived in Port Fairy for many years and worked full time as an English teacher whilst writing in his spare time. He has been writing since the age of 6. After the success of his first novel Paul now works less hours and spends more time devoted to writing. The Independent wrote that The Snowing and Greening of Thomas Passmore "reveals an inventive, passionate and insightful writer."
Paul, it’s a long, hard track to publication and you’ve been writing since you were a child. How did you overcome all the obstacles and keep yourself motivated?
I’m stubborn. Well, that’s the easy answer. I guess it’s also a matter of identifying so strongly with an idea – a belief or something you want to achieve – that it becomes a part of who you are and, after a while, it’s impossible to give it up (partly because you’ve invested so much of yourself in it that giving up would be too big a defeat). If that makes it sound like an addiction, then that’s probably true too, and I can’t pretend that it hasn’t been accompanied by long periods of darkness and self-doubt; especially when I couldn’t get sufficient interest from publishers or agents. What’s kept me motivated is that I’m very self-critical and, when returning to a piece of writing after six months, if I can see ways of improving it then I feel as if I’m moving forward and making progress; I’d probably have given up if I felt I wasn’t getting anywhere.
What did it feel like that very first moment you held a copy of The Snowing and Greening of Thomas Passmore in your hands?
Unbelievable. As if I might wake up any moment. It probably wasn’t until I saw copies in book shops and began to read reviews that it began to seem real.
The Snowing and Greening of Thomas Passmore is very much about life, loss and ultimately rebirth. You emigrated from the UK to Australia back in the 1980s; I’m wondering did the novel in some way act as the final catharsis for leaving your home country?
I’m not sure if I properly understand your question here, Jane, but if you’re asking whether the writing of Snowing and Greening was a way of coming to terms with that whole process of emigration, then it probably wasn’t. I had few doubts that emigration was the right thing for us and the benefits have outweighed any regrets. However, if you’re asking about the catharsis involved in writing generally, I’d have to confess that because the characters and their stories come to exist so strongly in my head it’s a tremendous, cathartic relief when I feel I’ve finally told their stories in the way they need telling... and I can let them go again.
Is there anything in particular you miss about the UK?
Decent strawberries (that taste like strawberries) and, occasionally, the alignment of the seasons: expecting it to be spring in March rather than September! Old friends and family members can seem far away on occasion, but Facebook, Skype and cheaper international travel have helped overcome that to a small extent.
Your latest novel The Grease Monkey’s Tale is entirely different from The Snowing and Greening of Thomas Passmore. Whilst it still very much your “style” in the use of description and bringing an almost rhythmic quality to your writing it is quite different in concept. I would classify The Snowing and Greening of Thomas Passmore as “literary” but The Grease Monkey's Tale as a “literary thriller.” Was this planned or do you go wherever your imagination takes you?
Both. I planned to let my imagination go wherever it wanted... as long as it went somewhere different. I was determined to avoid writing a similar novel to The Snowing and Greening. Similarly, I hope that Number Three, which is shaping up to be more of a literary horror, will be different again.
The Grease Monkey's Tale doesn’t have what I would call a “traditional” style thriller ending which was very much suited the novel. However, were you worried that with no obvious “happy ending” the book might be considered a bit risky?
It was one of the things I knew about the story before I’d put too much time into it, and that to try and write it any other way would be a mistake. While I was unsure how the ending would go down with readers, the success of Snowing and Greening (in terms of editorial feedback and reader responses) gave me the confidence to stay true to that.
The Grease Monkey's Tale has strong undercurrents of traditional fairy and morality tales. Your protagonist, Nic, loses everyone he loves but not his life. How would you sum up the moral of your story?
That there is no moral, only moral ambiguity. I think Katherine Mansfield said it best: “What the writer does is not so much to solve the question but to put the question.” Hopefully the book raises a whole raft of questions about the nature of truth, lies, the significance of stories, trust, loyalty, love... as well as primarily being an entertaining yarn.
Both your novels and your short story At The Rawling’s Place have strong themes of love and loss. Of course, all the best books are about the feelings that touch us the most – but I also know you have a sharp wit. Do have any plans to write something lighter/humorous or do your revel in your dark side?
Number Four looks like it’ll be lighter, but I’m not sure yet whether it’ll be humorous. I doubt it. However, I’m not far enough along with it to have all of the voices established in my head and so I wouldn’t completely rule it out either.
How or where do the ideas for your books come to you?
There’s something wrong with my brain! Random thoughts and impressions come from all over the place, at all times of day and night. The only thing I’m sure of is that certain conditions help nurture these thoughts and impressions into ideas I’m able to work with: steeping myself in the Arts – music, literature, painting, dance – along with good discussions, food, wine, plenty of exercise, a stunning environment... and a refusal to seek medical advice when the symptoms persist.
I know you often work on several stories at the same time which helps to keep you fresh and focused. I can imagine that many authors would feel uncomfortable with that method though. How did you discover this method suited you?
Quite by accident. I used to persist with a piece of writing until I thought I’d finished with it, and would often run into all sorts of difficulties along the way. Some people might call this Writer’s Block, I guess. Anyway, half-way through one particular project, instead of agonising about such a difficulty, I returned to a former project and discovered that not only could I considerably improve what I’d already done (for being absent from it for a while), but that, when I returned to the project I’d been half-way through, a way of resolving the difficulty there readily presented itself to me too.
Writing can be a lonely business, perhaps even more so when one writes about loss. How do you deal with exploring such emotions? Do you have a large stack of tissues next to your key pad?!
I have a sponge keyboard. All I have to do at the end of a session is wring it out. It’s also useful if I have a cold!
You're also an English teacher. How do you feel about the way the English language appears to be changing?
Love it. Language is at its richest when it’s experiencing periods of great change. This, I believe, is what made Elizabethan and Jacobean literature so rich – it was growing under the influence of world exploration and improved communication. The same thing is happening now. Political correctness is probably something of a problem when it attempts to censor or eradicate words. I’m all for language growth, am opposed to anything which reduces it. Down with Newspeak!
Has your role as a teacher affected the way you write?
Being exposed to literary texts I might not otherwise have read has been a boon, as has the opportunity for regular discussions about books with my students. I’ve learnt a lot from them and from being obliged to more carefully consider and articulate my own ideas. As for grammar, I went through schooling during a period when grammar wasn’t taught in much depth (a passing understanding of adjectives, verbs and nouns was about all I had) and so, again, I’ve developed a greater understanding about the way language works from having to teach it. That aside, the only thing that shapes the way I use language is the narrative voice, and this knows no rules except to be honest to it.
You achieved a life time’s ambition with the publication of The Snowing and Greening of Thomas Passmore. Do have any further ambitions?
Literary-wise, the moment I start working on another project then the successful completion of that becomes my ambition. On top of that, it’s my aim to increase my readership and, possibly, to earn a small enough income through writing so that I can spend more time on it.
I know you’ve read many books. What’s your desert island book?
Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five is one of my many favourite books. But, if I was stuck on a desert island, then maybe I should take a bigger book and one that I didn’t enjoy very much first time round, like War and Peace. At least, I’d be happy to light a fire with that if, after a couple of months of struggling with it, I still didn’t enjoy it.
Thank you Paul for taking the time out to answer my questions and good luck with The Grease Monkey's Tale!
You can find my review of The Grease Monkey's Tale here on The View From Here.