’Nathan Burgoine grew up a reader and studied literature in university while making a living as a bookseller – a job he still does, and still loves. His first published short story was “Heart” in the collection, Fool for Love: New Gay Fiction. Since then, he has had over two dozen short stories published, including Bold Strokes titles Men of the Mean Streets, Boys of Summer, and Night Shadows as well as I Do Two, Saints and Sinners 2011: New Fiction from the Festival, The Touch of the Sea, Saints and Sinners 2013: New Fiction from the Festival, and This is How You Die (the second Machine of Death anthology).
His first novel, Light, has just been released by Bold Strokes Books.
Gavin: Hi, ’Nathan! Thanks for talking to Out in Print!
‘Nathan: It’s great to be here. I love what you’ve done with the new place.
G: To start, I’ll guess that psychic abilities are important to you since you place telepathy and extra-sensory healing or empathic abilities in your writing, even beyond Light. What do you think makes those meaningful themes to you?
‘N: Well, I have a knack for just plucking odd things out of the air, so I’m biased. It’s not exactly useful – the most consistent thing is accidentally referring to people I don’t know by their first name before I’ve been introduced to them – but it definitely fed a curiosity on the outside of normal. I’m pretty good at finding things, too. Sometimes when someone tells me they’ve lost something, I just blurt out where it is. I’d love to be able to do that more often, but, like the name thing, it seems to be stuck on “random and rarely.”
Then again, that’s probably for the better.
I’m also an unrepentant pagan, so elemental and magical themes often pop up quite a bit, but my love of magic or the paranormal in any form is just something I’ve always had. I guess I never outgrew “make-believe.” Like Kieran’s mother says to him, “I’d like there to be magic in the world.” I happen to think there’s already magic there, but in fiction you can draw it out and play with it.
As a theme, I think anything beyond the normal physics of the world is an easy marriage with queer writing. We live outside the norm already, so magic or telepathy or ghosts can be an extension of that feeling of not-quite-belonging, or help create that sense of community that isn’t the usual. I loved the X-Men because they were different and born to parents who weren’t. That made them a perfect read for me as a young gay kid. They found each other – thanks to Charles Xavier’s telepathy and empathy – and made their own way, together. In a way, Gaydar is a different version of that same empathy that helps us find each other. Assuming you have it, because frankly my Gaydar was always hopelessly out of synch with my Wishdar.
A character who can see or sense things that others don’t – and interacting with those things – invokes that same feeling of being in (and coming out) of the closet. I guess for me, there’s nothing quite as queer as the idea of magic or telepathy or healing or any other ability based in “otherness.”
G: I just read above that you grew up a reader. Can you tell us if there was anyone who inspired you to read and about your favorite books from childhood? When did you decide to be a writer and were there any people in your life help lead you there?
‘N: Part of growing up a reader was imposed upon me by my parents. They believed that for every hour of mindless activity (read: watching television) I needed to have “paid up” with two hours of reading. There were times that was a frustration for me, but looking back it really did shape me into a reader. I also moved a lot when I was younger, so the reality was books were a constant companion where other kids were not.
The first book I can remember reading all by myself – and understanding – was “Danny the Champion of the World,” by Roald Dahl. There is a scene in the book where a large baby carriage is being used to smuggle unconscious pheasants (listen, it makes sense in the book, okay?) and they start to wake up, but there’s a baby in the carriage, too, so all these pheasants are bursting out from under the baby and flying away and I just lost it. I cried I was laughing so hard. That was the book, and the very scene, where I realized how much I loved reading. My love affair with all things Dahl – and any book that would make me laugh – began after that.
Writing sprung from my love of reading. I did a lot of it in high school, where I was lucky enough in two different high schools to have two amazing teachers work with me and offer guidance. I wrote almost non-stop while I was in high school, and then, when I came out (which was a familial disaster) and was on my own, it sort of dropped to the wayside while I managed to figure out rent and a job and part-time university.
I tried to get into a creative writing course in University, and the prof of the course said my sample writing was “trite and common.” By this point, I was working part-time at the bookstore, and I was very alone, young, and angry enough about pretty much everything to have a snarky comeback on the tip of my tongue at all times. I told him his criticism was very comforting, since I knew how well trite and common books sold. He wasn’t amused. I didn’t get into the course.
I kept reading though. Partly because of my bookstore job, and partly just because I knew from being a bookseller how hard it is to get the word out about a good book, I also became a very prolific book reviewer. When e-tail really took off (did I just date myself?) and reviews online became a “thing” I transferred them there, and wrote new ones as I read books. I also discovered fun gay books (something I’d never known existed from my earlier readings of queer stories) when I stumbled onto The Night We Met by Rob Byrnes.
I wrote a review of The Night We Met and sent him a gushing e-mail at some ungodly hour (I’d been reading the book long into the night) – and he replied! I was stunned, since that hadn’t happened before. I asked him if he had other books, and he told me he was working on another book, but if I liked his book, I should try Timothy James Beck.
When I read, and adored, and reviewed, and then e-mailed Timothy James Beck, I got four replies (since it turned out Timothy James Beck was four people). That started a dialog that made everything I’ve ever done in the writing world happen. Half of Timothy James Beck (Becky Cochrane and Timothy J. Lambert) were putting together a book (originally called “Moonlight and Roses,” though it eventually became Fool for Love.) They asked if I’d like to give it a shot. I gave it a shot. And they liked “Heart.”
That’s when I decided to actively try and be a writer. So if anyone is looking for the person to blame, it’s Rob Byrnes.
G: I know Light is more of a how-done-it or, actually, how-will-he-do-it instead of a who-done-it, but I’m having trouble thinking of other mysteries possessing such high stakes or pacing without a murder. How much of that was a clear goal and how difficult did you find it?
‘N: I knew I wanted to frame the book in the sense of a countdown, and I also knew I wanted Kieran to be running most of the time. The poor guy wasn’t really going to ever catch a moment’s breath. It’s the potential for a really bad event – in this case, a whole lot of bloodshed and death – that keeps him motivated to do whatever he can to try and stop it from happening. That was always the plan. The reality of some of my initial versions of the story was that having only that one major issue (though it’s a pretty major issue) made it hard to maintain the pressure on him. So I sat back and wondered what would make his life even more complicated, made a list, and decided to do most of them. The end result was almost every level of Kieran’s life becoming complicated all at once – his best friend and his family intersect in a way that makes him very uncomfortable, he meets a fellow he’d potentially like to date and starts to screw it up from almost the first step, the police are interested in him, and there’s still that big problem looming up ahead that he knows isn’t going to get solved by anyone else.
Once I had so much on the plate for him, the actual plotting and writing fell much more in line, and the draft went much smoother. I still screwed up a couple of things – have I mentioned how everyone should hug their editors yet? – but ultimately making his life more complicated than anyone should ever have to deal with was kind of fun.
G: Could you tell us about the process you used to develop your hero, Kieran?
‘N: When I was at Saints and Sinners this year, I got to hear the amazing Jess Wells talk about theme. It’s not the first time I’ve heard her speak on the topic – I’ve been lucky enough to go to a couple of her master classes and panels over the years, and it’s something I’ve heard her mention before. I wanted Kieran to be a fun and enjoyable character in a fun and enjoyable book, but I also wanted him to be independent and capable and more-or-less together. Everything about Kieran was put through the filter of his personal philosophies: Every problem has a solution, and everything can be handled. He can be a bit dense, and he’s definitely not flawless, but writing Kieran was a bit liberating since his life was really nothing like mine. I’m pretty sure it was Greg Herren who gave me this advice about character building: you start with the kind of character you want – the core strengths and weaknesses of who this person is – and then you imagine the history that would be needed to create that character. How did Kieran learn to be the way he is? Well, it occurred to me that Kieran needed a great (if overprotective) family dynamic, a job he enjoys (most of the time) and a life that he’d made for himself on what he probably thinks is entirely his own merit, not realizing how much the support of a strong group of people has helped him.
I built Kieran backwards using Greg’s method. Whenever I wanted Kieran to make a choice, I tried to come up with at least one situation in his past that would have coloured his thoughts on the decision ahead of him. I ended up with more backstory to Kieran than I could ever use in the novel, but everything shaped him. I was incredibly comfortable coming up with his reactions to whatever was thrown his way. It might have been a lot more work to do it, but it’s a fantastic way to end up “knowing” your character, and ultimately I feel like Kieran “makes sense” because of it.
G: The dog in Light, Pilot, is a loving, energetic giant, and a hero on his own. Easter the cat also adds a lot of personality to the book. It’s internationally known, however, that you’re a cat person and your husband, Daniel, is a dog person. Subsequently, there appears to be an international movement to make you a dog parent. Pretend the gossip journalists have their microphones in your face, the cameras are flashing, and you’re on the spot: “How do you feel about this situation, Mr. Burgoine?”
‘N: “I have been advised by my lawyers not to speculate at this time. However, I would like to take this opportunity to ask all sides in this conflict to please consider being rational adults and reaching some sort of compromise before any of this gets further out of control. Also, get off my lawn.”
But seriously, the “Dan and ’Nathan Need a Dog” movement is incredibly organized, and – yes – international. The movement is also very good at emotional warfare. Ottawa dog-owners “drop by” with cute puppies. I come home from work and learn we’re “dog-sitting” for friends. The neighborhood walks my husband and I take most nights often seem to end up with dog-owners asking us when we’ll be adding a puppy to the family. Even the dogs of Houston are in on it. But Pilot came from a very real place. Friends of ours adopted a Russian terrier named Pilot and he’s freaking adorable. He’s huge, but definitely a gentle giant. I have a picture. For reference, I’m six foot three.
Easter is modeled after a cat I grew up with – a Turkish angora rescue who had such a rough start she never quite recovered from being afraid of people. She would, however, snuggle with you in the dark. I’d go to bed early some nights just so she’d crawl up onto the bed and purr in the crook of my arm. She was really loving, but she was incredibly timid. I love cats, and am definitely a cat-person, but I’d say I’m more of a dog-person than my husband is a cat-person.
Damn. That sounded like capitulation. Then again, I’m pretty sure the final scene with Pilot in Light is going to lose me the war for good.
G: You mentioned you’ve been a bookseller for a long time. Can you tell us about any obscure novels you can’t believe weren’t huge breakout hits and deserve to be?
‘N: That’s such a hard question. I’ve worked in the store long enough to know that there’s an elusive “something” that happens to launch a book to be a breakout hit – sometimes it’s as simple as the right celebrity endorsement, sometimes it’s a movie, sometimes it’s just a word-of-mouth that works. If a book is wonderfully written and tells an amazing story, it’s still no guarantee that it will do well, and that always makes me sad. But some books in specific? From a selfish point of view, it kills me that Rob Byrnes’ Lambert and La Marca capers aren’t HBO or Showcase’s next big television series. They’re clever, they’re fun, and they’re so damned sharp. Ocean’s 11 with a New York cast of characters who aren’t quite as capable and whose plans go south a lot. They’re GLBT capers, but they’re not a story only GLBT people would enjoy. My in-laws, for example, adored them. Most importantly, if they were breakaway hits, Byrnes would write more of them and I’d get to read them. We’d all win. (If you haven’t read them yet, they’re Straight Lies, Holy Rollers and Strange Bedfellows.)
I also think Anjali Banerjee deserves some major props. I love her stories – they’re my favourite blend of magical and romantic and she has a lovely turn of phrase. Haunting Jasmine and Enchanting Lily should have been the next Mistress of Spices or Practical Magic.
Can I also talk poetry? I recently read Jeff Mann’s A Romantic Mann, and someone needs to hand that man his Lammy already. Also the Griffin Prize – they hand that out internationally as well as to a Canadian, right? Poetry is amazing to me, but usually it’s also damned hard work to interpret. When someone can show that level of lyric mastery and still let the reader in without making him feel like a dullard? Magic.
And if I’m tossing my opinion around anyway, I’m going to finish off with Bookweird by Paul Glennon. It’s the first in a kids series about a boy who manages to offend a book spirit by nibbling on the corner of a book while he’s reading, and the spirit punishes him by throwing him into the books his family is reading. The boy ends up in a fantasy book, his little sister’s pony series, and his mother’s rather dark murder mysteries – and then the stories start to get all messed up and mixed together and he has to work his way out without ruining everything. They’re fantastic, and they never seemed to get as much notice as I wished they would.
None of those are “obscure” exactly, but they’re not where they belong on the top of bestseller lists or on the winner’s list of major awards.
G: You’ve written dozens of short stories. Which do you feel proudest of?
‘N: Every single time I get an acceptance I’m a happy guy. There’s nothing like getting a “yes” to send me over the moon. It doesn’t get old.
I’m quite proud of “Filth,” from Night Shadows because it was a horror piece, and I really had to struggle to write horror. I nearly didn’t try, but I’m glad I did. It didn’t come easily, it definitely isn’t a headspace I find comfortable, and – with a lot of help from the editors – it turned out well. On the flipside, I just had “Struck” accepted for Foolish Hearts (releasing next year) where I tried – and hopefully succeeded – to be actively funny.
I’m also really proud of “Elsewhen,” from Riding the Rails, edited by Jerry Wheeler, because I let myself write the rough draft in one core dump from the moment the idea clicked into my head until I was done. It’s the story where the initial emotional cue remained exactly what I wanted it to be – thanks to Jerry, who got what I was going for right away.
But I think the short story that I’m proudest of right now has to be “Old Age, Surrounded By Loved Ones” for This is How You Die. I’m proud of that one because it was the first – and only – thing I’ve attempted to write for a non-gay anthology, and for a publisher and editors I’d never met or spoken with. There were thousands of submissions, and I made it through. The launch and release weeks were almost surreal. I had complete strangers calling me “bastard!” for days.
G: You are officially at the point where you can give writing advice. What were the most important tips you were given? What advice would you give writers starting out now?
‘N: I’m at what point now? Oh man. Okay. Sure. Tips.
Best tip I was given was this: Treat the Call for Submissions as a job interview. Put even more simply? Obey. Don’t whinge, just do as you’re told. Times New Roman 12 point font might not be your favorite. You know what? That doesn’t matter. “No Reprints” means “no reprints.” This isn’t rocket science. And if you have a question you want clarified, phrase it as a question, not a demand or a complaint.
Second best tip I was given was this: Write what you want to write. Zombies are hot right now (I think. It’s been an hour since I was at the bookstore, so for all I know, now it’s unicorns.) but if you don’t want to write a zombie story, don’t write zombies. Writing to the market for its own sake is just not worth it. Also, the market changes. A lot. Without warning, even. If you’ve got a story about a gay telepathic/telekinetic massage therapist inside you… Well, keep it there, because that’s mine right now. At least wait six months, okay? But say you’ve got something else just as odd in your head, then let it out. Some of the best books I’ve read have been the best books because they were so unique, or took something I’d seen before and did something fresh with it.
Those are probably the two best tips I was given.
As for advice, I’d say the single greatest piece of advice I would give new authors is this: find a good editor. I’d be nowhere without my editors. I know in this day and age of “do it all yourself!” fame that is happening to a (very) few people, it seems like you can skip steps, but editors are the unsung rock-stars of the publishing world. And if you find a great editor (for a handy list of great editors, look at any anthology in which I’ve been lucky enough to be included) let go of your baby. I’m not saying you don’t stand up for things that are important to you, but when it comes to – oh, let’s give a completely random example – your blatant codependence on commas? Be graceful. Editors know their stuff. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve pushed back about an editor’s suggested change, and I think most of those were because of Canadianisms that needed more clarification – which meant I hadn’t done my job right as an writer, not that the editor wasn’t “getting” my story. When an editor suggests a change, I am 99% likely to accept it after reading their version. It’s almost always better.
G: The genie question – one wish with the standard fine print about no wishing for more wishes or world peace. What would you choose?
‘N: The danger of wishes has always made me wary, but if I was sure I was dealing with an up-and-up genie, and not one of those “you’ve wished for rain so now the whole planet will flood!” types, then I’d probably go with some form of instantaneous travel. I’d love to be able to open a door, and have it connect to any other door. Then I could pop by and visit my vastly scattered friends around the world whenever I felt like it.
Also, I’m pretty sure there’s a door on Chris Hemsworth’s shower.
G: Last, what are you working on, what achievements are you looking to “unlock” next, and what are you looking forward to?
‘N: I’ve started working on a novel featuring the three fellows from my Triad stories. Luc, Curtis and Anders (especially Anders) garnered the most feedback from any of my short stories apart from “Heart” and I have a three-part idea for them. So I think the next achievement might be “trilogy” which is terrifying, but it’s nice to have goals.
I’m also diving happily back into short fiction, which is where I think I will always be most comfortable, and definitely the kind of writing I look forward to. I adore short fiction, and would love to see it grow more mainstream and get more noise – I think the world of the e-reader can help, here. I have an idea for a novella or two, as well as a series of connected short stories. We’ll see. Mostly, I’m just going to watch the calls and enjoy the inspiration that sparks. If I had the skill set for editing (which I don’t) I think I’d really enjoy coming up with anthology themes, but that’s a goal quite a way off as of yet.
Oh, and I’m probably going to give in and get a dog.
G: Thanks, ’Nathan!
‘N: Thank you, Gavin! It was great to be here.
Keep up with ’Nathan on the web at redroom.com/member/nathan-burgoine.
©, 2013, Gavin Atlas