Arguably one of the most influential yet undetected literary voices in the Canadian small press racket of the decade, Tony Burgess is the author of The Hellmouths of Bewdley, Pontypool Changes Everything, Caesarea, and Fiction for Lovers. After a long hiatus from doing anything remotely new, he released three new books since the fall of 2010, including, most recently, the quasi-YA horror novel Idaho Winter. His dystopian, perverse and often monstrously hilarious work has been featured in numerous anthologies and magazines across the country. Tony was nominated for a Genie Award for best Adapted Screenplay for Pontypool, while raising two children with his wife. He lives in Stayner, Ontario, in a house many townsfolk have assured him is haunted.
The following interview was conducted via e-mail in Spring 2011.
Ray McClaughlan Jr.: Everyone must want to know what a typical day for Tony Burgess is like. Well?
Tony Burgess: um … okay … uh … I’ll just give you the answer to that one then: Up at 6:15 a.m. … make an espresso. Get kids up. Make two school lunches and two breakfasts while Rachel gets ready for work. Time it so kids are done eating, backpacks are ready just as Rachel comes down the stairs. Scoot ‘em all out the door. If I have specific deadline pressure I’ll start writing at around 7:30 a.m. and plow through till done. If not, I walk the house. I can do this for hours and not really know I’m doing it. I walk from room to room and stand still sometimes. I’m not sure what I’m doing when I do this but it can last a very long time and I’m just gonna assume it serves some purpose. Probably call Corm at some point and have lazy vulgar conversation. Do some exercises around noon. Make and eat lunch. Towards the middle of the afternoon try to remember something I did that day—usually bizarre, random, empty. Pull myself together before collecting kids and welcoming Rachel home. Best moment of the day, really. Have an intense Q and A with kids about their day (feel slightly dependent on news from outside) and avoid talking about mine. Rachel does home work with kids while I prepare dinner. After dinner play with kids (Wii, or tag or make up songs or games) read story to kids at 8 p.m. Then come downstairs and spend some time with Rachel. She’s a federal crown so has many more stories that I do. Soon, everyone’s in bed and I watch news while solving some problem I had earlier in the day with a story or whatever. Go to bed around 11 p.m. and as a reward I allow myself to imagine whatever I like as I fall asleep.
RM: You like to work with photography in your books. How has working with Bruce influenced your writing process?
TB: I’ve always thought pictures explode out of writing. I like discrepancy. The way captioned drawings in those old boy’s own adventure books would be slightly at odds with the text. I like competing veracities. The way R. Krauss tries to reconcile Miro and Dali … is a Dali a picture of a Miro? Is a Miro the text of a Dali? And which came first? Does one produce the other or is each its own reference to something neither are? I also like to take the pictures for the book. Makes them autobiography. I use people I know. Myself. I especially like pictures that aren’t of anything or representative of looking. Then it begins to feel like a disinterested record. That helps to hold the writing. The picture can be a ‘this is’ the thing we’re talking about or it can be ‘this is how’ the thing we’re talking about. A photograph reduced to a general idea about reproduction. This is place in the frame. The light came to it via the thing we should have said and now we have the marks it made in chemicals and we should figure out if we can or if we want to include everything that has happened just now or find the convention in what we should have said. Anyhow, yeah. Bruce and I had an interesting process. He sort of wanted me not so much to learn screenwriting but to figure out how I write a screenplay. Longer process. And yes, it made me realize that I’ve only ever written screenplays, which didn’t used to be true.
RM: What is it about life and death, the secrecy and exposure of murder that interests you?
TB: Well, the short, most direct answer to that is that we are all going to be murdered on our final day and we hide that in a huge menu of other explanations before our sudden disappearance at the end. There is no greater possession for a writer than an undiscovered and unexpected universal fact.
RM: What was it like being in the film Pontypool, and singing that song? That scene is a little comic relief but is not really over-the-top or zany. It’s a nice interruption.
TB: It was funny … Bruce and I had several casting discussions and decided firmly to only cast the right actors for parts, no cameos etc., so I go home and write myself a part. Ha. It was supposed to be The King and I … which I had done in Wasaga … and in fact, we used to go to the local radio station in costume and belt out a tune … so that stuff is exactly accurate (helps keep it sensible if it did actually happen—well, not sensible, but at least, as you say, less zany) … so we couldn’t get The King and I so I invented the Lawrence musical and the song … which the other actors learned in twenty minutes whereas I (writer of) couldn’t remember a single word … you’ll see me holding pages in the scene … anyhow … fun … and some odd reactions … had some people in Canada pull me aside to ask if I knew how offensive the scene was (brown-face, Arab rebel yell, etc.) but apparently in Turkey audiences thought it was keen satire of western perception … also, funny … Boyd Banks’s rebel yell at the end of the song was his own add and when I give him the evil eye in that scene I really was. When we cut I turned to him and said, “What the fuck is wrong with you?”
RM: Two books this past fall. Now another one this Spring. What has it been like promoting these titles, and for the first time in your career, with new publishers?
TB: I’ve enjoyed the experience … thought it was time to switch things up a bit … see how other presses do things, see if there are different readers to be reached, see if I write differently … and yeah I got all that … felt a little sheepish at times … wondering if the books would compete with each other and if the presses would see this as a problem, but at the end of the day, really, it’s all pretty small potatoes I bring to the market … and I’ve enjoyed the experience … met some new folks who are now good friends … so that’s always a fine thing and in the spring I’ll be happy to head home to ECW and hope they left a light on for me.
RM: You have a rapport with the small town folk you write about, in theory. You can control the tone and voice of one, and have to tolerate and interact with the other. Does this influence you in any way? Do you wish you could just say whatever you want to these town folk? You have told me that they tell you your house is haunted; is that not true?
TB: Well, my one rule is don’t ever ever write about my own town (Stayner). I do get mild anxiety about makin’ another towns folk appear rabid and insane … and there’s some evidence that they don’t all appreciate it … but that’s why I try to stay cool with my own … a little buffer … and there’s such an undercurrent of rivalry between towns that if I take the piss out of a village on the mountain it’s probably OK with my neighbours here in the valley.
and uh … yeah apparently my house is haunted … I’ve been told by lots of folk … the Stayner Historical Society even … there’s all kinds of tales … apparently there’s dozens of cats buried in brand new suitcases in my back yard by a old spinster who died in the ’30s and now stands in my son’s window and looks down on the town … also our kitchen used to be the funeral parlour for Clearview … we have an actual coffin window … and, in spite of not believing in ghosts for a second, I have heard voices in the kitchen.
RM: You wrote poetry at one time; I read it in an anthology called The Last Word. Have you written any more poetry? Do you want to try again?
TB: Well, I don’t write poetry because I don’t think I should. I think less people should write poetry. It’s impossible to keep track of what poetry’s doing right now if everybody’s writing it.
RM: What is the premise of your new YA novel? When did you start working on that?
TB: It’s more of a parody, really. Elements like the disenfranchised, exploited, orphaned, and abused child. And that weird, narrative voice whispering in your ear that assumes it knows what you’re thinking. The book’s own disingenuous surprise at events, as if it wasn’t making them up. Things like that and others, pushed to the breaking point until the book itself breaks, which is itself a tradition in young fiction. Although in this case it’s less a tradition and more a chronic condition.
RMJ: Canadian fiction is largely tame, yet people like Joey Comeau and Derek McCormack and a few others do weird things. Your recent work has a fascination with murder and excess and the mentality of cruelty. With Ravenna Gets it’s a cinematic montage of cutaways to a variety of apocalyptic murders. With the recent viral video from Vancouver of rioters ganging up on women to destroy their bmw as some sort of performance narrative about excess and gratuitous mayhem, how much for you is the writing of these insane killers and killings a performance? How far do you get into their psychosis, and for the victims, their finality?
TB: I’ve always liked characters (ideas, things, etc.) that are flying off the edge of something but still have just enough balance to keep swinging as if they’ll still be here when we swing back. It can’t be said of them that they’ll be ‘making a difference.’ I want to make ‘not making a difference’ elaborate.
RMJ: In one way perhaps, your new books changes the Home Alone child star as hero-complex into something bawdier and darker. What do you think? Were you playing with Sears’ catalogue archetypes of quotidian family values then messing them up slightly?
TB: Yeah, I like that, that Cashtown is a grown up version of Home Alone. I’ve always thought that Home Alone gets darker every year. A real nightmare maker as it ages (unwatched). The quotidian family values are there in Cashtown but there’s no one to read them. It’s not that they’re messed up, they are just composting.
RMJ: What was the story with the Australian zombie travel book and how can people find it?
TB: Turns out it’s a UK book actually, with Wild Wolf. An anthology called Holiday of the Dead. I got a story in there and the Pontypool Radioplay is in there as well. Amazon and things’d have it.
Ray MacClaughlan, Jr. is a poet and father. His first poetry chapbook, Shake Rattle & Roll is coming out with Ferris Press in 2012. He lives in Etobicoke with his wife Deborah Mills who is an aspiring painter.