Author Interview: James Roderick Burns

How did you come up with the title for your book?

Chopped Liver is an odd, somewhat grumpy book of short-form and prose poems with a food theme running throughout.  The notion of chopped liver – being always a side dish, never the main course – seemed appropriate to both subject matter and tone!

How long have you been writing or when did you start?

I began writing seriously in my early twenties, with short stories.

I started trying to write Japanese short-form poetry – which constitutes much of Chopped Liver – after returning from the US to the UK in 1999, while waiting to start a civil service job and looking for something to occupy my time.  I saw snow falling through telegraph lines, thought it looked like a kind of reverse musical notation, and a few lines occurred to me which reminded me of a haiku.  Having read English, I was vaguely familiar with haiku, but after reading up on Japanese short forms, I began writing them in earnest, and have been doing so ever since.

What, to you, are the most important elements of good writing?

Voice, pace, urgency and originality.  You must find your own voice to write the things that are urgent, and meaningful, to you, in the way they have to be written and which could only be written by somebody with your own unique set of circumstances.

What risks have you taken with your writing that have paid off?

Learning Japanese short verse forms – which have a superficial ease and simplicity, but are subject to surprisingly rigorous internal rules – felt risky, if interesting.  I’ve found that they repay far more than the time and effort put in.

Writing long-form fiction, particularly novels and long stories, is also a considerable risk.  No one writes a novel in less than a year, realistically, and there’s every chance the world will shun it, unpublished, or if published, roundly ignore the fruit of your labours.  Carrying on because you have to tell the story is a fabulous risk in itself!

At what point do you think someone should call themselves a writer?

Anyone who writes seriously is a writer, I’d say.  They may or may not get published professionally, may or may not get paid for that published work, and may or may not be able to make a living from publishing their writing.  (Except for poetry – clearly no one has ever gone into poetry to make a living!)

What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?

I write very slowly, editing while I go, and undertake less final editing than most people, I think.  I’ve never been able to adopt the ‘write furiously and produce 10k words, then edit it down’ approach.  Mine’s more snail-like – a haiku a day, perhaps, or 300-400 words of fiction.  I can also edit while listening to music, but not write a thing!

What authors did you dislike at first but then develop an appreciation for?

My wife bought me a copy of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, and at first I hated it – it seemed incredibly mannered, laboured southern gothic stuff.  I put it on the shelf, then years later took it down again and was instantly absorbed.  I don’t know what had changed in me, but it is now one of my favourite books.  Perhaps it actually subverts the qualities I first thought it had; I’m not sure!

Conversely, I was obsessed with Virginia Woolf’s writing in my twenties, but on going back to it later, I found it unreadable.  Too dense, treacly and littered with fussy semi-colons!

What advice would you give to a writer working on their first book?

Write the best possible book you can, obsessively, as though you might die in the morning and it’s the only legacy you’ll ever leave.  The real work is in getting it published – which might never happen – but the book itself will be the best it can be.

Do you prefer ebooks, printed books, or audiobooks most of the time?

E-books, every time.  Printed books are fine, but not as convenient, and I have never listened to an audiobook.

Have pets ever gotten in the way of your writing?

Never!  They are a constant reminder of the world outside ourselves, especially in Japanese short-form poetry, where human subjectivity is often discouraged, but can be smuggled back in via the catflap!

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