Q and A with Michael Burke about his story collection What You Don't Know About Men
Friday, January 29, 2016 at 12:10PM
Christine Sneed

Some of your stories, e.g. “The Jonquils,” “Eddie Doyle Says Life’s Been Good,” and “Keepers,” are written in sections – with headers/titles or with lines of scripture interspersed in the narrative. Did you begin each story with this structure in mind or did it evolve as you wrote? 

“The Jonquils” was an intentional attempt to craft a story using multiple points of view. So I used the headers to change gears as the narrators changed.

“Keepers” started as a parody of Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” but quickly shifted to a dying young man’s painful soliloquy – and then was rounded out and much-improved when combined (at the good suggestion of an excellent teacher; Dale Heiniger, Columbia College Chicago) with another separate story I had been writing simultaneously about an old man looking back on his life. So that structure definitely evolved.

I added the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount to “Eddie Doyle Says Life’s Been Good” about halfway through the writing of the story. I always had wanted to appropriate the Beatitudes because, for me, these blessings reside in the Literary Pantheon of Great Speeches (along with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, Dr. King’s Dream speech, and Noah S. “Soggy” Sweat, Jr.’s infamous “Whiskey” speech, in which the Mississippi state lawmaker passionately argues both sides of the Prohibition question.)

Plus, the more I wrote about Eddie Doyle, the more I found myself liking him, or, perhaps, feeling sorry for him. So I thought the Beatitudes might make for a provocative counterpoint to poor Eddie’s rather dreary life in Bridgeport.

One great joy of writing short stories is the fact that you, the author, get to play. You conjure a handful of characters, discover their secrets, and shape the events that strike you as most compelling to offer a reader. Along the way, you have the happy opportunity to play with the form of your storytelling – using a header to shift points of view, inserting lyrics or other quoted lines to help pace the storytelling or to deepen a reader’s understanding of a moment, and so on.

For me, it’s like dimming the lamps and lighting candles for a dinner party. Or, adding just a touch of basil to bruschetta. Or, serving tonight’s particular guests the 20-year Tawny port rather than the 10. Different people, different evenings, different parties require different special touches. So does each story.

You might know David Lodge’s excellent book, “The Art of Fiction.” Actually, there are several excellent books with that same title. Lodge’s is the best book on literary forms. I often revisit it for inspiration.

A final thought: I’ve so often used these literary effects (headers, quotes, etc.) that I now worry they’ve become a crutch. “If you were just a better writer,” the Nasty Voice of Self-Defeat whispers wetly into my right ear, “you wouldn’t need such tricks! You could just write.”

Your stories frequently feature characters who are Catholics or lapsed Catholics, and at the same time, some of these stories are sexually frank. I’m curious about how this duality affects some of your readers (and family members) – how have people responded to your stories?

After “Eulogy” was published in TriQuarterly, I mailed my parents a copy to read. The story features unemotional three-way sex, drug abuse and auto-erotic asphyxiation. After reading the story, my mom and dad telephoned me. This was in the Time Before Cellphones, so Mom was on the wall-phone in the kitchen and Dad was on the extension in their bedroom. “We read your story,” my mother said, her voice drooping with concern. “Are you okay?”

I laughed then and I laugh now, but I get it.

My story “Stations of the Cross” was rejected by a couple of magazines and never found a home until I published it in my collection. Stations tells the story of a young man who goes to a sex party and falls in love with a man who is not right for him. The narrative is interspersed with the Stations of the Cross, which depict the story of Christ’s crucifixion. So, was the story rejected because of its subject matter, or was it just not up to par? I’ll never know for sure.

I’ve never been especially religious. My Brother and I were raised Catholic (Dad was Catholic; Mom, Lutheran). We stopped going to church soon after my Confirmation in my teen years.

It surprises me that my early Catholicism pops up so frequently in my writing. But unlike a couple of masters – I’m thinking of Graham Greene and Flannery O’Connor – my Catholicism is more of a cultural touchstone for me as an Irish-American living and working in Chicago than as a subject for spiritual or moral exploration.

 

Labels are trapdoors and I’m about to tap dance lightly across four of them: I see myself as a Gay, Irish-American, Chicago, Progressive writer. When I grow up, I would like to discard such labels and just think of myself as an Artist. But, for now …. Here’s the good news: Though I’m nearly 57 years old, I feel there’s still time for me to grow beyond the self-imposed limits of my self-proclaimed identity. I am, like the locust tree, a late bloomer.

Roy is a brooding, recurring character with what I’d call self-destructive tendencies, and I noticed a few other recurring characters – from the beginning, did you know you were going to include them in more than one story?

Roy first appeared in “Keepers. “ As I started “The Jonquils,” I realized he’d be perfect to be the friend and one-time lover of the recently deceased Jordan Collins. Roy then makes a cameo appearance in “Stations of the Cross.” I added him in as I was finishing that story.

I’ve an idea now for a new story revisiting the six characters from “Things That Matter.” In the new story, the three couples rendezvous again over a different weekend and this time swap ghost stories.

When I was tweaking “The Wedding” to be the final story of the collection, I realized one of the grooms, Brendan, was the son of Dick Sullivan, the world-weary salesman from “Happy Hours.”

Having a few of these recurring characters helps, I think, to pull together the collection. But such threads are far from essential in every collection of short stories. Some characters just seem to have more to say, more life to live.

One additional tweak I made in the final editing of the collection was repeating the numbers 4-3-5 in several stories. The price of Dick Sullivan’s highball is $4.35 in “Happy Hours.” Father Daniels’ hospital room in “Amen” is number 435. Wayne steals $4.35 to make pay-phone calls in “No More.” And David is aboard flight 435 during most of “How Do You Like Me Now?”

In the editing of the collection, I came to see these numbers as a literary talisman, a good luck charm I was planting throughout my book to acknowledge that, as a Chicago writer in the 21st Century, I stand on the shoulders of giants. So 4-3-5 was my clumsy (and easily overlooked, hardly decipherable) tip of the hat to James T. Farrell, whose “Judgment Day,” the third installment in his Studs Lonigan novels set on Chicago’s south side, was published in April (4) 1935 (35) … Thank you for letting me confess! (Catholics always need to confess.) And this secret was so obscure and so buried that I almost forgot it myself. 

You also write plays – did you begin writing fiction before or after you started writing plays? Do these two forms complement each other creatively, in your view, when you are at your writing desk?

When I was 13 years old I knew I wanted to write stories.

For my birthday that year, I asked my parents for a typewriter; they were kind enough to buy me a used, portable, manual Corona. I taught myself how to type the old-fashioned way: through trial-and-error and constant practice. After that, I figured writing would come easy.

I experienced many false starts banging away on that old Corona and many years when I neglected the Corona entirely, not writing stories at all. Writing stories, much to my surprise, did not come easy. I instead focused my attention on non-fiction writing, in journalism, politics and public relations.

As my 30th birthday approached, I realized once again how much I wanted – in fact, needed – to write stories. I bought a computer and began writing – teaching myself how to write the old-fashioned way: through trial-and-error and constant practice.

Now that more than another 20 years have passed, the stories still do not come easy, but I am still writing. The wonderful – and difficult – fact is I cannot not write.

When we were kids growing up, my Brother, Joe, and I would make up short skits to perform in our garage for other kids in the neighborhood. Our first smash success was a murder mystery in which I played Sherlock Holmes and Joe played a criminal mastermind named, oddly, Christopher Wren. (Joe was three years older; had he been studying 17th Century English architecture?)

But I didn’t start writing plays until I had been writing stories for a number of years. I’ve had two plays performed – “Wama-Wama Zing Bing,” at Strawdog Theatre, and “Let’s Spend Money,” by OverBored Productions. I’ve written a couple of additional plays that have been rejected and not performed.

I would encourage all writers to try playwriting, to try poetry, to pursue journalism. First, it’s fun. Second, the conventions of each are demanding and educational. Personally, writing plays teaches me a lot about conflict, dialogue and structure. (Eureka, I always seem to have to learn and relearn, there must be a beginning, a middle, and an end!)

… By the way, I have kept the old Corona, using it today as a reminder: We are all given gifts, but it is only through trial-and-error and constant practice that we learn to master that which we are given.

How long did it take for this collection to come together?

Years. I sorted the stories in a few different ways and submitted the collection to a few different agents and contests, but never got very far. I kept writing new stories and re-ordering the collection. Finally, since many of the stories already had been published in magazines and literary journals, I decided to simply self-publish the collection through iUniverse.

Then it all became a true labor of love – one in which I was delighted to work closely with three dear friends. Ilene Slonoff copyedited the collection. I met Ilene back at our college newspaper, The Northern Star, at Northern Illinois University. Ilene was my first copyeditor. (One of her best pieces of advice: “If it’s ‘needless to say,’ don’t say it.”) The exceedingly talented graphic designer Sheila Sachs, who I also met back at The Star and who worked for years as the designer of the Chicago Reader, created the cover imagery and designed the text. And the filmmaker Michael Caplan made the author photograph. iUniverse prints the book and handles distribution.

In the end, the entire process to create the book took several months – but flew by. How lucky am I to have such friends? 

What are you working on now if you don’t mind telling us? And do you see yourself writing a novel about any of these characters?

Only the better writers don’t like talking about their current work. Me? I’ll talk forever (as evidenced by my windy answers to your good questions!)

I’m writing a new story (the ghost story with the couples from “Things that Matter”), a new play, and a novel. The characters in the play and the novel have not appeared before though they are Irish-Americans living in Chicago, and the protagonist in the novel is gay. So I’m not straying too far afield. But I will say, the idea of tackling a novel is daunting. Wish me luck.

“What You Don’t Know About Men” is Michael Burke’s first short story collection. The book can be ordered through your favorite bookstore, Barnes & Noble, or Amazon.

 

Article originally appeared on Christine Sneed (http://www.christinesneed.com/).
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