James Burr has
written stories and novellas for numerous magazines and anthologies. He
taught English in Barcelona for two years before gaining an MA in
Anglo-American literature at University College London. He now lives
Worcester in the UK, and is currently working on his first novel, Deus
with James Burr
How long did it take you to write all the stories in your collection?
James Burr: Over
ten years, all told. Although I tend to write in bursts, so I would
finish a story then let it sit in a drawer and it would be months
before I returned to it or started something new. That said, while that
suits my inherent idleness I think it's also a good habit to get into
as that period away from a story gives you a sense of objectivity when
you finally re-read it. Sometimes it's a genuine pleasure to read
something ("Wow, I wrote this?!"), but more often than not the flaws
and cliches and excess verbiage are all too apparent. But then, that's
a great position to be in when editing or rewriting, so it's always a
TSR: Did you
have a collection in mind when you were writing them?
JB: Most definitely. I
had the stories I wanted to include, and the order I wanted them to
appear, organised in my head before I had even written half of the
collection. I knew I wanted them to be linked by theme and often with
recurring characters. And like a good album, I knew I wanted longer
stories to follow the shorter ones; more light-hearted tales to follow
the grimmer ones. Similarly, I've written (and had published) several
stories in the last ten years that I knew were never going to be part
of the collection, despite the fact that I loved them.
TSR: How did
you choose which stories to include and in what order?
JB: As I wrote them
as a collection it just came naturally. I had the ideas for most of the
stories at around the same time, so they were obviously linked in the
way that they were the result of how I saw myself, my writing and the
world at that time. But even as I wrote them I knew I wanted the
stories to take place in the same world, even if the narrative voice or
style varied enormously between them. Then once characters started
appearing in other stories I also had to bear in mind the chronology
across the stories - when we meet a character later in the collection I
wanted it to be after the events of their story, which obviously
affected the order. In fact, the order is very important which is why
there is no Contents page. While the reader can dip in and out, I
really wanted them to read the collection in the "right" order and that
means starting at the beginning and reading through to the end.
TSR: What does the word "story"
mean to you?
and inexplicably underrated, form of prose." I love short stories and I
just don't understand why the publishing industry, and indeed many
readers too, look down upon them. In these times of multi-media
saturation and short attention spans surely the short story is THE
medium of our times! Surely, just being able to dip in and out of a
book whenever you have a few minutes to spare is the way we should all
be reading now? Yet stories continue to be seen as the immature,
less-devloped sibling to the novel, or worse, as a training ground for
aspiring novelists. In my opinion, a good short story collection should
always be superior to a good novel - the sheer range of narrative
voices that can be used, the variety of characters, the number of ideas
that can be explored.... Then again, while I don't write genre fiction
I come from a genre background, so I see a short story as having "a
point." When you read a story by Philip.K. Dick or Ray Bradbury or
Clive Barker there is a definite purpose to the story - it is complete
in and of itself. I wonder if the reason many people don't like reading
short stories is because they read stories that are essentially notes
for abandoned novels masquerading as "mood pieces" or half-formed
vignettes pretending to be "character studies." This is a failing I
often see in more "literary" short story collections, and it annoys me
intensely. A story should be complete in itself, whether it be 1000,
5000 or 20000 words long. It isn't just "a short piece of prose" that
isn't long enough to be padded up into a novel, nor is it just a
single, clever idea. That isn't a short story. That's a vignette, or
even, dare I say, a joke.
TSR: Do you
have a "reader" in mind when you write stories?
never. I write because I feel I have a story that needs to be told, and
I write it until it has been. So I never aim them for a specific market
or try to second guess what a potential reader may think. I write
entirely for myself. I think that's the only way to stay genuine, avoid
jumping on trendy bandwagons and avoid self-censorship. However, once
I've finished a story I may edit its word-length for a specific market
(if I can), but I usually see the unedited version as the "real"
version.... unless, as sometimes happens, the editing process actually
TSR: Is there
anything you'd like to ask someone who has read your
anything at all?
JB:I've met a few
people who have, and for some reason (perhaps because I do write for
myself and as such expose quite a lot of myself in my work) I usually
get quite embarrassed and just ask them something dopey like, "What did
you think of it?" or "Did you like it?" Ultimately, you'd like it to
mean something to someone, to know that it affected them on a deep
emotional level. But really, I don't care if they loved it or hated
it..... as long as it had some kind of impact on them. In my opinion,
"Meh," would probably be the most cutting thing someone could ever say
to me about my work.
TSR: How does it feel knowing that people are buying your book?
flattering. Especially when you get an email from someone who says how
much they enjoyed it. I still find it hard to comprehend that stories
that I remember writing are now being read by people in different
countries. And that they then take the time to contact me. It's
strange, but satisfying, too.
TSR: What are
you working on now?
JB:At the moment I'm
working on two projects, and flicking between them depending upon my
mood and circumstances. The first is a collection of two novellas and a
short story - all criticising certain aspects of contemporary life in
Britain. I've written the story, Shooting Stars and
I had written one of the novellas, Dawn of the Brain Dead.
Unfortunately, a computer crash last year meant I lost all my drafts of
it. However, twelve months on I feel ready to re-write it. The other
thing I'm working on at the moment is my first novel which I've been
outlining and researching for over a decade. I can't say much about it
except that it's a love story... albeit one with an Ugly Stories
TSR: What are
the three most recent short story collections you've read?
I have a pile of books next to my bed which never seems to diminish.
But occasionally, usually in the Summer when I'm not working at the
University, I get some free time and the opportunity to try and make a
dent in it. As such, I've just read the first volume of The Collected Stories of Richard Matheson. I'm a big fan of the old Rod Serling Twilight Zones,
and after Serling himself, Matheson was the next main contributor to
the series. It's a strange collection - there are some great ideas
there, but like so many "genre" collections that were written in the
50s when short story markets were hungry and plentiful, the prose is a
little basic and uninspired. I've also just finished Alexei Sayle's "The Dog Catcher." I loved Barcelona Plates
too, although I have no idea why I bought them. Sayle has a sneery
narrative voice, but he's both funny and insightful and his views on
London's Media-set are often spot-on. I'm currently reading Haunted
by Chuck Palahniuk, and enjoying it a lot, although (and perhaps this
is where being aware of the reader comes in) I sometimes feel like he's
trying a little too hard.