Interview with Author Gerry Burnie

Find out more about Gerry on his website (here)
I am a writer of Canadian historical fiction from a gay perspective.

The type of history I refer to is seldom found in textbooks, and yet it
is very much part of the Canadian experience. I call it “pioneer social
history” because it deals with the lives and times of ordinary
citizens. However, since these stories usually went to the grave with
them it is necessary to reconstruct their lives from journals and
fist-hand accounts.

This, then, is the function of historical
fiction: ‘historical,’ because it is a reasonably accurate
reconstruction from existing records; and ‘fiction,’ because it is a
composite of the lives and attitudes of the times–both the good and the
bad. It also serves to mark a lifestyle that might otherwise be
forgotten.

All these elements are certainly true of gay
pioneers because, quite understandably, there are few published diaries
or first-hand accounts of them. Not only was it an extremely dangerous
thing to do, but most GLBT men and women were not ‘out’ to their
families or friends. Moreover, they were even loathe to reveal a
lifetime of secrets after death–often directing that their personal
papers be destroyed by a trusted friend.

Without historical
fiction, therefore, this very real and important aspect of pioneer life
might be overlooked and forgotten, and along with it many of the
contributions these individuals made–including the recognition of
homosexuality as a fact of life.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

What
made you decide to start writing?
Writing is something I have always wanted to do—I
wrote my first book when I was seven—but it wasn’t until I retired that I found
the time to devote to it at a serious level. Even then it wasn’t quite as
simple as knocking off a book in one go, for it took me over twenty drafts and
five years to produce my first novel.
How
did you come up with the characters in your books?
In my first book, Two Irish Lads, the story came first. That is to say, my initial
intent was to write a history lesson in the form of a novel, but as I was
writing the Two Lads started to emerge as compelling personalities. Moreover, they
soon took over the story and were quite insistent it be told their way.
In my second novel, Nor All Thy Tears: Journey to Big Sky, the main character, Sheldon
Cartwright, bears a striking similarity to me, and so the story evolved around
him. It is not an autobiography, of course, for it is mostly fiction, but the
focus is character driven.
In my forthcoming novel, Coming of Age on the Trail, the plot is loosely based on a real
cattle drive, and so it is a fifty-fifty sharing of plot and characters. In the
end, however, it is the two main characters, Cory and Reb, who emerge
predominant.
Do you
relate to any of the experiences in your books?
As I have mentioned, I relate to all of
them to a greater or lesser extent. I don’t think you can write a story in any
other way. That is not to say you have to have lived it. It simply means that
you must relate to the story, either by experience, imagination or research, in
order to make it credible.
Another aspect of relating to a story is
empathy: The degree to which you can identify with the characters and
circumstances encountered. The better you understand these, both the good and
the bad, it will come across in the story. It is, I think, the element that
makes the difference between a mediocre story and an inspired one.
Which
book did you enjoy writing the most?
Without a doubt, I enjoyed writing Two Irish Lads the most. I am deeply
Irish by heritage, and gay, and so I could relate to these two characters at an
emotional level. Likewise, I grew up in a very small, rural community, which
still used many of the implements and techniques used by the Lads in 1820, and
so I had a familiarity with these as well.
The writing of Two Irish Lads also had a mission, which was to acquaint modern
readers with what our ancestors went through to build a nation, and also the
difficulties encountered by gay pioneers; for it is an aspect of pioneering we almost
never hear mentioned.
How
do you like living in Canada?
My first recorded ancestor arrived in
Quebec in 1615, and so my roots run very deep. Moreover, I am a cultural
nationalist. I have made a conscious decision to write stories exclusively set
in Canada. It is not the most marketable setting compared to many others, but I
am hoping to change that in some small way. As my bio reads, “Canada has a rich
and colourful history that is waiting to be discovered.”
My approach is to choose an historical
event or period and build a story around it. I am also working my way across
Canada. So far I have covered Ontario, Saskatchewan and British Columbia, and
my next novel will be set in Alberta.
You’ve
jumped around in different jobs for a while, which one was your favorite?
Yes, [*smile*] as I jokingly say, “I have a
short span of interest”—or so it seems. It is simply because life is short, and
there are so many interesting things to do. For example, I’ve done everything
from teaching dancing to sitting in judgement as a magistrate. As far as a
favourite goes, I don’t think I have one. I suppose being a college professor
gave me the greatest satisfaction because I was able to launch the careers of some
very successful people today. However, it was just something I did for a time,
and now I am a writer.
What
is your favorite place to go to write?
The nice thing about writing is that it can
be done anyplace. Presently I am in Florida where I like to come for the winter
months. It is an ideal place to write because I don’t have the distractions of
snow and inclement temperatures. Moreover, at the hotel everything is
contained: The restaurant is only steps away, my room has a view, and the
housekeeper looks after that end of it. So I eat, sleep and work for the most
part.
Otherwise, at home, I have a screened in
gazebo in the backyard that is ideal for writing in the summer months.
Do
you read a lot?
I maintain a book review blog, “Gerry B’s Book Reviews,” and so
when I’m not writing, I’m reading. I learn much from my fellow writers—both
what works and what doesn’t—and at the same time I give them some exposure they
otherwise wouldn’t have. Moreover, it is a vehicle by which I can promote my
own books. Altogether, therefore, it is a win-win situation.
To put a number on it, however, I read at
least 52 novels a year.
What
is your favorite type of books to read and authors?
I tend to favour frontier stories first.
That is the Canadian wilderness, authentic stories of the American frontier,
and Civil War stories. Of course, the ones with a gay content take the head of
the line in each category. However, I avoid erotica. Too often erotica takes
the place of a plot, and the characters are merely marionettes being moved from
on bed to another.
I hasten to add that I am not a prude, and
erotica that is well written with a plot and well-developed characters is quite
enjoyable, but regrettably these are few and far between.
As for favourite authors, there are far too
many out there to mention a few. However Mary Reneau has to be my sentimental
favourite. Besides being one of the great writers of the 20th century, her’s
were the first gay-content novels I discovered in my youth.
For non-fiction I would vote for Jonathon
Katz, Gay American History: Lesbians
and Gay Men in the U.S.A.,
for it is, in my opinion, the definitive history of
gay life in America.
You
also went to school and got a couple of degrees, which one was the hardest to
get?
I returned to school after quite a long
stint in the working world, and so I was a mature student in fact as well as
category. I was returning on my own ticket too, so there was no fooling around.
When the other students were out carousing I was cracking the books and writing
60-page essays, but because I was older nobody questioned it (that’s one of the
advantages of age that I continue to enjoy today—at 76.) Therefore, I can’t say
that one degree was harder to get than another, if you are willing to work at
it.
Do
you have any hobbies?
Writing is my hobby as well as my business.
It has to be my hobby, because as a business there is damned little money in it!
However, in my varied careers I have been an actor, singer, professional
dancer, and artist.
If
you could go anywhere in the world where would you go?
I think that I would go to the cradle of
civilization—one of the Greek islands to write. I visited Greece once, as well
as Corfu and Crete, but now that I am curtailed to a walker—on account of an
accident—my options are limited. I would also like to visit Ireland to see the
home of my ancestors, but I fear that is not to be.
If
you could spend the day with someone who would it be? (Dead or Alive)
Alexander the Great, I think. I’ve always
been enamoured with him—or his image. He was undeniably brilliant, though, and
I have always admired people like this. I would also like to discover his
burial place just to satisfy my own curiosity.
Otherwise, I think I would like to spend a
day with Will Rodgers (the famous cowboy comedian), or perhaps Charlie Russell
the self-taught artist who had quite a wit himself.
What
advice would you give to other people who want to become adult industry writers
or advice people?
I’m not certain what you mean by “adult
industry writers,” but my advice to any aspiring writer is to sit down at a
keyboard and do it. Writing is like any other endeavour, you get out of it what
you put into it, and you’re story won’t get told unless you write it. After
that it’s one word at a time and sticking with it—the ‘sticking with it’ part
is probably the most important aspect. My first novel took me five years and
over twenty drafts to complete, but it was eventually published with my name on
it. That’s the reward, the crowning moment, for most writers.
So if you want to your name on your own work,
the entrance fees are hard work and determination. There are no shortcuts.
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