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James Burr

Website: myspace.com/jamesburr

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 Ex Machina.

Short story collections

Ugly Stories for Beautiful People (Cortega Press/Lulu.com, 2007) 

Reviewed by Mithran Somasundrum

Interview with James Burr

The Short Review: 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 win-win situation.

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?

JB:  "Vastly, 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?

JB: No, 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 improves it.

TSR: Is there anything you'd like to ask someone who has read your
collection, 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?

JB: Very 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 slant.....

TSR: What are the three most recent short story collections you've read?

JB:  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.