‘A gothic western about an evil vampyric typewriter’ – JM Burgoyne on Writer
JM Burgoyne talks to her editor Sam Ruddock about her debut novel Writer, the challenge of writing a book with a soul, and why she has always wanted to be a writer.
Sam Ruddock: Tell us about Writer
JM Burgoyne: I usually describe Writer as a gothic western about an evil vampyric typewriter which grants wishes, and then realise that I may have made it sound somewhat funny. So, to be clear: this is not a funny book. Nor it is a happy book. I can’t tell you the whole story of how it came about, because that involves major spoilers, but I am afraid its origins were (a bit of a cliche) in a broken heart. I fell in love with a guy – long distance. It never really came to anything, and generally made me miserable. The first scene of Writer then came to me: the protagonist Luke asking to erase ‘her’ from his mind. He can’t remember who ‘her’ is, but he remembers the pain he felt before he made his wish. This is something which writing is for me – a way of exploring and escaping my own feelings. In this case it was pain. And Writer grew from there. Somehow, thirteen years later, here it is!
The books I write – and the books I most like to read – are the ones which I think of as having a soul. I like writers to explore a feeling, idea, or issue. That is what I try to do. Writer is about exploring pain, and wanting to do everything you can do avoid it.
SR: Luke is an engaging and intriguing character. But he isn’t always particularly likeable. How do you relate to him?
JMB: It wasn’t until some of my test-readers commented on Luke that I realised some people might find him unlikeable. I was wrapped up in his emotions, his sadness and his fear, and so I sort of forgot about his impact on other people – and so did he. To me, he is never deliberately cruel, but I can’t deny that he treats Danielle badly, continually leaving and returning. Some of his views on women are also pretty awful. When I was proof-reading, I came across the odd phrase that made me take a sharp intake of breath, but I decided to keep those in, because they were his words. He is a kind person, being ruled by fear. And I think that the twist at the end helps the reader see this.
SR: What is your favourite scene from the book?
JMB: Writer is unusual in my writing because it came to me visually. There are loads of scenes which I love, and I would often not be able to get to sleep at night because I’d scared the crap out of myself writing it. But I think my favourite scene is where Luke has found out that Rafe – his best friend – is gay. Rafe runs off and gets drunk, and Luke comes and talks to him. Most of the novel is hauntings and fear/pain – this is a scene with tenderness. I’m often cynical about romantic or physical love, but the love between friends, to me that is what pulls at my moth-eaten heartstrings.
SR: What was it like writing a gay character in a nineteenth century wild west?
JMB: To me Rafe is the most likeable character because he is the thing I value the most – the perfect friend. I would not have written through the eyes of a gay character as I’m not part of that community, but Rafe and Luke’s friendship – accepting each other as they are – is, for me, the gold of the novel. I think I was probably altering history a little, having Luke accept Rafe so easily (see, he’s not all bad!), but this unconditional love was one thing I wanted to show. I would say that this is what Luke and Danielle have too, it’s just that theirs is poisoned by his fear. When the book talks about love it is often very negative. It thinks about the power love has over you, the hurt it can cause, and the ways in which it can be misused and can make you do the stupidest things. Rafe and Luke (and possibly Luke and Danielle, in spite of their dysfunctions) tell the other side of this.
SR: Writer ends with one of the most unexpected twists I’ve come across. Was that always in your mind as you developed the novel, or did it come about through the process of writing?
JMB: No. That’s the one-word answer. I can’t tell you the story of how I got the ending as it would destroy the twist, but I can tell you this:
One of the reasons it took me so long to write Writer was I ground to a halt. I was writing mainly from my pain, and gradually I felt better until I stopped. Because I felt alright. I was going to say more there but I don’t think I can…Let’s just say that I lost that happiness again.
SR: What do you want readers to take away from Writer?
JMB: Writer doesn’t have a message. Or, not one single message. But I do talk a lot about love in it, and its different forms. I also talk about society, religion, freedom, all sorts of things. I don’t want to be telling people what their views should be, but if something you read in there makes you think, or maybe makes you feel less alone – that you aren’t the only person who thinks or feels that way – well I’m happy.
SR: What one tip would you give to writers?
JMB: This one is easy: do not be afraid.
Also, ignore the ‘shoulds’. I think we are all natural story tellers – we tell our friends and family and colleagues stories every day of our lives and make them laugh or feel sympathy or any number of things. But when we think about writing it down we suddenly think we can’t. I think this is because there is an aura built up around writers – we think you have to be a genius to be a writer. (This is probably partly a result of the way we market books to get people to buy them, and partly because if we idolise writers then we will pay lots of money for creative writing classes). Then, when people pay for writing classes they want to be taught things, given techniques and tips, and that is how the ‘shoulds’ develop. You ‘should’ write in this way, you ‘should’ use a certain kind of language, you ‘should’ plan etc. There are things you can learn, of course, and I have done many creative writing classes, but I think it can make people afraid of getting it wrong. Add to all of this the fact that we are almost all afraid of being judged, and we think that our writing has to be perfect to have value. But ‘perfect’ isn’t possible. So drop the ‘shoulds’ and drop the fear. You never know, it might lead to you discovering a new way of telling a good story.