Interview with Richard Burgin
with Courtney Chastine
Most people know Richard Burgin, the author of contemporary American fiction, short stories, and interviews; however, few people know Richard Burgin the editor, composer, and lover of music. Serving as the editor of the successful literary journal Boulevard since its inception in 1985, Burgin has experience from both sides of the publishing table. We spoke with him to discuss his new novel, Rivers Last Longer, his thoughts on the future of publishing, and his future plans for "staying sane".
CC: As a founder of a successful literary magazine, you must understand the struggles that one would encounter from the initial startup to publication. In the book, Barry and Elliot go through this process of starting their journal, naming it, defining what it will be, and soliciting financial and artistic contributions. Do their experiences reflect what you went through when starting Boulevard? Do you feel that it is a true-to-life depiction of what it would be like to start a journal in New York? Can you speak to how it might be different starting a journal now than in 1985 when Boulevard started?
RB: I certainly intended all the material in Rivers Last Longer dealing with Barry and Elliot's attempts to launch a literary magazine to be true to life and, of course, I drew from my own experiences in launching Boulevard. Incidentally, I started two other magazines before Boulevard: New York Arts Journal, a bi-monthly tabloid arts magazine based in New York City that lasted six years, and Boston Arts Review, also a tabloid, which became Boston Review and still exists (and thrives) to this day, though I've long since had nothing to do with it. Starting a print journal in today's economy would be much more difficult than it was in 1985 when it was much easier to get grants and when the grants were much larger. I also think fewer people today are interested in buying literary magazines from bookstores.
CC: Barry and Elliot are two very distinct characters who share a bond left from a childhood friendship; however, years of separation and different life experiences seem to have changed them drastically. While Elliot has become a simple, socially well-adapted man, Barry struggles with accepting the state of society and focuses on the flaws of others and their relationships. What did you take from your studies in communication to help in writing the relationship between these two men? Did anyone that you know specifically influence either character?
RB: Though I am nominally in the Communication department of St. Louis University (I have joint appointment with the English Dept.), I've never studied communication as a formal discipline. I did have "models" in mind for both Barry and Elliot that influenced, to a degree, my depiction of each character. My fiction works best when about 35 to 40 percent of a character is based on someone I know and the rest is imagined. It's kind of like a dance where imagination takes the lead and experience follows. That was the case with Barry and Elliot.
CC: The "police" in Barry's head act as his personal moral compass. How did you decide to use that part of his psyche as almost a separate character?
RB: I don't remember when I decided to use Barry's "Police" as his kind of internal judge that at times also functions like the chorus does in a Greek Tragedy. I rely a lot on spontaneity and instinct when I write and try to avoid too much analysis. If it feels right, I go with it.
CC: The extreme circumstances that Barry finds himself in throughout the book are rendered so vividly that they become intense scenes to read. Were they as intense to write, and do you have to remove yourself from your work in order to prevent a kind of associative depression coming on from writing such powerful material? Do you feel that these sorts of things have become more commonplace in our society, causing it to be harder to shock readers?
RB: I don't remember any scenes in Rivers Last Longer being more "intense" to write than others. Writing the whole book was an intense experience, including the comic satiric descriptions of Lillian's party or the comic beginning of Barry's meeting and interview with Lillian. To answer your other question, I do think that scenes of graphic sex, for example, are much more present in contemporary literary fiction than they were 100 years ago and that in writing such scenes it is now much harder to shock the readers of today that it was then. But the opportunity to shock readers in other, more important ways is just as great as ever. Today's writer can shock the reader with their depth of insight into their characters and their world, by the beauty of their writing and their aesthetic conception, and by the power of their vision of life.
CC: Barry seems to have a very handicapped relationship with his mother; she won't let him go, and as a result, he seems to be unable to stop her from having a controlling presence in his life, even after her death. This relationship causes him to be unable to have normal relationships with other women. He separates his sexual relationships from his strong emotional relationships, and if he does not, it causes ruin. The secual relationships that he does form end badly. Do you feel that this could have affected his relationship with Cheri? Would it have been able to succeed if things had gone his way?
RB: This is an interesting question, and one that I've never been asked before. Barry suffers from profoundly contradictory feelings about women. On the one hand, he yearns for them in every way possible, on the other, because of his overly strong tie to his mother, (which has only increased since she died) he often becomes angry with them once they start to give themselves to him sexually. The prognosis for any romantic relationship of Barry's, including one with Cheri would therefore not be good. I do want to emphasize that Barry's feelings for Cheri, though neurotically charged, were a profound breakthrough for him which is why he doesn't have sex with Louise Leloch, and why he doesn't hurt Cheri, or force her to have sex with him after he kidnaps her.
CC: In the book, Elliot thinks: "It was as if there was an all-pervasive, unspoken conspiracy...to not make honesty about human life a top priority in fiction or perhaps any kind of priority at all. Instead of devoting their art to describing how people really thought and behaved, the goal was to represent people according to what publishers thought the marketplace could sell." Do you agree with this statement? If so, do you felt that you represented human life honestly? If this represents your own view of the publishing world, why do you think this happens? What, if anything, should we do about it?
RB: Yes, I agree, for the most part, with Elliot's thoughts about the state of contemporary literature and of course, I try to be the exception to his "rule" when I write about the little part of human life that I chose to focus on in my book. Why does the literary world reward dishonest work? Because it's easier to sell politically correct books than ones that aren't, it's easier to "sell" stereotypes than real people, and easier to sell characters who are either heroes or villains than to deal with true human complexity, limitations, and ambiguities. If someone feels the way I do, the only thing they can do as a writer is to resist this trend in their own work, to not reward it by reading it and when the occasion arises, to raise their voice against it.
CC: You have published with commercial presses as well as independent and university presses. What have been your experiences with each? What, as a writer, do you most value from your publisher?
RB: The advantages of being published by a commercial press are you'll get more copies of your book printed, they'll probably be better distributed in bookstores, and probably be more widely advertised and you will be paid more money for it. The advantages of being published by a university or small press is you'll probably have more personal contact with your editor, you'll have more input into what cover is used and may well be able to choose your own. The book itself, while much less well distributed and publicized, will stay in print longer, and your chances of being published again will not be determined strictly by your sales figures. Of course, any writer would like to reap the benefits of both these worlds.
CC: Many of your readers might categorize Barry as psychotic after reading this novel. Would you label him this way? Why or why not?
RB: Since I didn't have an MD the last time I checked, I'm hesitant to label Barry's illness. If by psychotic one means minimal contact with reality, I'd say that only occurs after Cheri's escape from his Exton apartment. I would say he only has brief psychotic episodes before that, although he is clearly a deeply troubled personality. These terms psychotic or neurotic are so overused by laymen as to have almost lost their meaning. They are simply words used to try to describe a range of human behavior. Indeed, one of the themes of Rivers Last Longer is how slight the difference is between a sensitive person and a neurotic one, a self-sabotaging person and a destructive one, a societal hero and a villain.
CC: You have written fourteen books, won many literary prizes, started a successful literary magazine, and have a reputation as a great writer and respected professor. Is there anything that you would like to do that is out of your comfort zone? What other genres or areas of study would you venture into if you could do anything?
RB: I feel like my whole life has been out of my comfort zone and that more comfort and a sense of relative peace is what I'm seeking now, instead of the reverse. I'm a person who's moved over 30 times, who's a single parent, who's lived and worked in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Santa Barbara, Madrid and St. Louis. Who in his middle age tried to make it as a songwriter and composer and wrote the music for 6 CDs and who collaborated on book projects with such challenging personalities as Isaac Bashevis Singer, Jorge Luis Borges and Gloria Vanderbilt and who started, in addition to Boulevard, Boston Review and New York Arts Journal. Besides aging with some degree of grace, I don't need any more special challenges. Raising my son and just staying sane are enough.
CC: Along with everyone in the publishing profession, you must see the transitions toward digital publishing happening at an alarming rate. How do you see the role of literary journals evolving, if at all, especially in respect to Boulevard? What new avenues do you anticipate taking? What, if anything, do you fear for the publishing world?
RB: Virtually every literary print journal I knew of has been affected by the surge of digital publishing. At Boulevard we now accept online submissions, are in the process of making available the contents of all our past issues, have greatly expanded and improved our website and are now on Facebook, etc. How much this will all matter in the end is anyone's guess. I see no evidence so far that the internet will help create a new generation of exceptional literary talents anymore than television did. I worry about too much power being concentrated in too few well-moneyed hands in the publishing world which is the same thing I worry about for our country in general. I'm also troubled by the persistent sense that the younger members of the internet generation are not reading enough great books, like those by Tolstoy, Proust Dostoyevsky, and Faulkner. The literary world, because of its extreme commercialism, adherence to a political correctness and lack of education, is already suffering from a collapse of standards.
CC: Now I'd just like to know a little bit more about your development as a writer. We all know your qualifications and award history, but how did you come to write fiction in the first place? How do you see your work now, and is it any differently than when you first began writing? How do you decide what projects to invest a novel into?
RB: I began writing poems and little stories when I was about seven but I was also composing short piano pieces at that age as well. For me, the question was always should I become a composer of music or of fiction. To complicate things, my parents were both very successful classical musicians. Probably for that and other psychological reasons I chose literature, although I've always loved music more. Every life is replete with paradoxes and that is one of mine.
As for future literary projects, I have nothing planned at the moment (I'm pretty spontaneous when it comes to what I write) beyond helping to promote a Richard Burgin Reader that's coming out in France, in French, by 13 eNote editions called L'Ecume Des Flammes, my forthcoming story collection for Johns Hopkins called Shadow Traffic due out in fall 2011, and, of course, my just published new novel Rivers Last Longer published by the wonderful Texas Review Press.