Richard Burgin is the founding editor of the nationally renowned, Boulevard Magazine, and the author of The Identity Club: New and Selected Short Stories and Songs. He graciously presents his story "The Endless Visit" for our first issue.
We include a copy of a recent interview with Per Contra editor Miriam N. Kotzin, originally published in ASK Magazine and the Per Contra Review of his newest book.
You can find more information about his work at his website, including past book titles and music CD's.
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Richard Burgin, An Interview by Miriam N. Kotzin
MK: At the beginning of your career you conducted two book-length interviews with two of the 20th century's greatest writers, Borges and Singer. These works are still standard sources for people interested in Singer and Borges. What are the most important lessons you learned from your conversations with them? What kinship do you feel with them as writers? Which of your stories or novels seem to you to be most related to their work?
RB: Jorge Luis Borges was the most intelligent human being I have ever met and probably the only genius I have ever known. He was also a gracious, gentle and unusually modest person. I was only a 20-year-old senior at Brandeis University when I tape recorded my interviews with him that resulted in Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges and I had a mere 6-1/2 hours of tape recorded material so I had to make every minute count. His enthusiasm and trust in me--he never involved himself in the publication process of our book--along with my extreme youth (for once it paid off to be young and too naïve to be scared) gave me the confidence to do it. The way he treated me before, during and after our book, served as a model of how to treat people in professional, collaborative situations, as well as how to treat people in general.
Isaac Bashevis Singer is undeniably a great writer but he was sometimes in the grip of dark and tempestuous moods that could make him an unpredictable and, at times, difficult man. He could be controlling, suspicious, precious to himself, but he could also be touchingly thoughtful, perceptive and a world class charmer. At one point he tried to get out of finishing the book after we'd already spent five or so years on it. What began in 1977 wasn't published until 1985--although I will say it's a better book than the Borges one which took only half a year to finish.
With Singer, we have to remember he was an exile from Poland, who had family killed by the Nazis, who arrived in America with very little money and a vocabulary of only a few words of English, and who for years was denied the recognition he deserved. Singer is a model for not giving up, for fighting for what you want. That's the main lesson I learned from him.
As for the last part of your question, the poet and critic David Shapiro described my work as a kind of synthesis of Borges and Singer. Personally, though I'm flattered, I think that's taking it a bit far, though I can't deny each has influenced me. Borges wrote more poetically, more persuasively and more pervasively about infinity and its effect on human identity than any other writer before him or since. His ideas about time and human destiny have influenced my vision of the world profoundly though at this point not so much my actual writing. When I was much younger I made the inevitable mistake of imitating him but fortunately did so only in two or three stories.
Singer influenced me as a model for developing suspense and drama in his plots à la Dostoyevsky--the greatest master of this technique. Singer also influenced me, especially in my novel Ghost Quartet, in the way he uses dialogue to develop his story, as well as to reveal his characters.
MK: When did you start writing fiction? When did you realize that you'd be thinking of yourself as “a writer of fiction.” How do you balance your life--you're doing so much: writing fiction; composing music; editing a major literary journal; teaching; being a father?
RB: I began writing little stories and poems when I was 7 years old, about the same time I also began composing short piano pieces. Since then I always knew I'd be a writer. As for balancing my life, that remains the relentless challenge I face every day. I don't have any original advice to offer but I will say that I follow one rule: my son (now 8 years old) comes first before my work because being kind to people (especially someone you love) will always be more important than your work as a writer.
MK: You've been a magazine editor for decades--for twenty years Boulevard--and before that Boston Review and New York Arts Journal--giving voice to writers. It's an incredibly generous act because it takes time away from your own writing. Yet, clearly, it's important to your life. And what aspects of editing Boulevard do you find most rewarding? What are the most frustrating aspects of being the editor of one of the most prestigious magazines in the country? Do people stuff manuscripts into your pockets at parties?
RB: In each case, I founded the magazines that I edited so I had the fun of inventing them, as well as editing them. Of course you don't invent a magazine the same way you invent a book or piece of music, which are essentially one time propositions. To stay vital a magazine generally has to develop and evolve over its lifetime. At Boulevard, for example, in recent years, I expanded the essay section, used better paper for the art inside the magazine, initiated our ongoing symposium feature--a different single, controversial question each issue dealing with some aspect of the arts and society that a group of people of varying perspectives weigh in on. We began our Short Fiction Contest for emerging writers eight years ago and now have a similarly successful contest for emerging poets. We have also, as of two years ago, completely redesigned the magazine. These developments and improvements along with the thrill of discovering new writers who are creating exciting original fiction or poetry are the most rewarding aspects of Boulevard. The anxious, tedious but inevitable pursuit of money from the grant and foundation agencies along with doing the income taxes each year is the most dispiriting.
MK: Your latest collection of short fiction is accompanied by a CD. That's unusual. You've written music most of your life. Why now are you joining your music and the fiction in one package?
RB: Because I was asked by my editors Joyce Carol Oates and Raymond Smith. Joyce has been contributing work to Boulevard almost since its inception and for a number of years I'd been sending her tapes of me playing some of my piano pieces and later some self-produced CDs of my songs and pieces ("In All of the World," "House of Sun," and the CD I co-produced with Gloria Vanderbilt "Doll of Dreams.") When Joyce wrote to me suggesting that Ontario Review Press (run by Ray Smith, her husband, and herself) would be interested in publishing a collection of my new and selected stories she also suggested a CD of the best of my songs be included in the book, hence the book's title: The Identity Club: New and Selected Stories and Songs. Of course I was thrilled by her offer and later by the work she and Ray did in helping me select which stories and musical compositions to include. The Identity Club contains 20 of my best stories and 20 of my best songs and has given my music its widest exposure to date. For that, and many other things, I will always be in their debt.
MK: In terms of the creative impulse--when do you write a story and when a song? What starts your writing a piece?
RB: I have never been able to write a novel or story about a woman I've loved, whereas a number of my songs were inspired and sometimes are about women I've been in love with. My 8-year-old son has inspired more songs and pieces by me (including my first song "You're My Eye") than anyone else, but I've never really attempted to directly capture him in fiction. The characters in my fiction are a collage of my experience and imagination--perhaps 60 to 70% imagined, 30 to 40% based on some part of my experience. My songs are a much more direct _expression of personal experience and of the people I've tried to love in this world.
MK: Your work sometimes includes multiple points of view within a single story. That doesn't happen by accident. Would you be willing to mention one of these stories and share the decision-making process that led up to including more than one point of view?
RB: I have never understood, nor accepted, the unwritten taboo against multiple points of view in a story. For a long time readers have marveled at the intricacy and richness of the multiple points of view in the novels of Faulkner and Joyce. Why can't this technique or any so called "novelistic technique" be used in a short story if the material merits it? After all, a novel is just a long story.
One story where I use this technique is called "Mercury" which is included in my latest book The Identity Club. "Mercury" is, among other things, a satire of the literary world and almost the entire story takes place at a literary party attended mostly by a group of struggling, middle aged writers. One exception among the guests is Kenneth Alters, a handsome, young best selling novelist who's become a kind of literary sensation. To show the effect his presence has on the various guests of both sexes and the way they and Alters try to manipulate each other I needed to tell the story from different points of view. Obviously, many stories and novels benefit from a single, sustained point of view but other fictive situations don't. "Every sin is a collaboration," Stephen Crane writes in "The Blue Hotel." To show that, and the full complexity of any complicated act or situation one sometimes needs to show it from more than one perspective.
MK: You've often had women as your central character, where you're writing from a female point of view. Do you think that's riskier for a man to do now than it was in the nineteenth or even mid-twentieth century? Why?
RB: Because of political correctness, the most noxious literary disease of our time, I guess it is riskier for a man to write from a woman's point of view and vice versa. One of the most terrible effects of political correctness among writers is that it leads to self-censorship and to writers shutting off whole areas of their imagination. But if writers stop trying to imagine people other than themselves, consider the alternative: If men are afraid to write about women and women are afraid to write about men our books will only be about half of humanity. I suppose if whites should be afraid to write about blacks, then shouldn't adults be afraid to write about children or Americans about "foreigners" etc. One can't help but wonder about the ultimate consequences of this absurd reductionism in the name of "state encouraged sensitivity," a.k.a. political correctness. If you stop writing about people who are different from you, you stop understanding or attempting to understand them and you gradually exclude them from your world. Maybe that's why Americans are increasingly fragmented and so separated socially into apartheid-like groups.
MK: Do you think that being a father has changed your work? If so, how? Do you ever write thinking about how your son will react to your stories writing when he's old enough to be reading them? Do you ever tell him stories about your family?
RB: As I said earlier, my son has inspired a lot of my music and also my first song. I was taking a walk with him when I started spontaneously singing the lyrics that eventually became my first song "You're My Eye." Before that none of my music had words. Since that day the majority of the music I write does have lyrics that I also write. My son, Ricky, has also greatly enhanced my understanding of children which I find myself including a little more often in my fiction. I recently wrote my first story from a child's point of view called "Duck Pills" which will be included in a forthcoming collection of stories about a year from now and will be published in the next issue of the literary magazine Witness. As for the last part of your question, right now the stories he cares about are the ones we tell each other (and sometimes write) about our imaginary animal characters who live on Walnut Island--characters with names like Baby Claw, Tail, Happy Hedgehog and Natalie Naïve Claw. If some day he wants to know a different side of me, my books will be there. If he never chooses to, it won't really matter to me very much. What matters is the strong, mutually loving relationship we have right now and that I want to keep for as long as I can.
MK: Many reviewers have noted the powerful, haunting, dark elements of your work while ignoring the sense of humor that sparks your work. If you could change that, would you? How important is it to you that the lighter side of your writing be recognized? Do you have any theories about why it is given less attention than the darker qualities?
RB: I have been lucky to have gotten mostly very positive reviews about my work but reviewers mostly do tend to focus on the dark part of my vision. Of course I wish they would comment on the complete picture--it's only human nature to want all parts of us or our work to be recognized and appreciated. In my case there may be two reasons that account for it. I do write about human weakness, fear and loneliness (though also about strength, self discovery, transcendence and love). I try to give as honest a picture as I can of the world I know and how the people in it talk or think. I don't think we get anywhere in art or in life by flattering others or ourselves, so I do reveal a dark side of man and because that may be somewhat unusual or shocking (one thinks of T.S. Eliot's line "human kind cannot bear very much reality") that's the easiest thing reviewers can seize on to try to sum me up in the limited space they have. Also my humor is not slapstick, it's more like wit, sometimes subtle, although the humor and social satire in my novel Ghost Quartet and in stories like "My Black Rachmaninoff," "The Most Honest Person," "The Identity Club," "Jonathan and Lillian," "Vivian and Sid Break Up" or "Mercury" is hard to miss.
MK: Do you worry about your characters being "likeable"--or is that an over-rated criterion? Can you imagine a character flaw that would keep a character from being a protagonist in one of your stories? Now that you've imagined it--are you going to go write a story in which that character appears as the protagonist?
RB: The "likeability" of a character is only important in literature or in theater or film from a marketing point of view. If that worry flits across my mind it is always after I've published something and I worry that it won't get good reviews because my protagonist isn't "likeable" enough. Aesthetically such a concern is of no importance and since my commitment is to making art not money I will never alter a character for that reason any more than I'd try to write a "catchy tune" so I might have a hit song.
MK: Can you describe your composition process--for writing and for your music? You always handwrite your work. Have you ever considered moving to a computer?
RB: I write in the early mornings before my son wakes up and I have to get him to school. I compose at my piano whenever I can. I have not considered writing at a computer since I do not even know how to type and am a true mechanical idiot but I may not be too old to change. I've learned not to rule out anything in my life except intentional cruelty.
*This interview first appeared in ASK: The Journal of the College of Arts and Sciences of Drexel University