Q&A with author Jeff Bursey

Jeff Bursey was born in St. John's Newfoundland and Labrador. He lived for a time in London, England, and now lives in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. His plays have been performed in St. John's and Charlottetown, his fiction has appeared online and in print, and his scholarly articles and literary criticism have been published in many print and online journals in Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States. His first book, Verbatim: A Novel, was published by Enfield & Wizenty in September 2010. It takes place in a fictional legislature in a fictional Canadian province in the 1990s, and is told in lists of members, letters between bureaucrats, and debates. Recently Arts East spoke with Bursey about the book.

What inspired/motivated you to put this book together?
Verbatim: A Novel came to mind in the fall of 1992 when I worked as a transcriber in the Newfoundland and Labrador Hansard. Every day, looking at the finished document--the Hansard, as it’s called, the public record of what’s said in the House that’s open to everyone to read--thoughts came to me about how to capture the way we govern ourselves, and how discussion goes on in a legislature. What gets into any day’s Hansard is a massive number of issues, some with the life of a firefly, some that are perennial. The stuff I drew from, as well as from Hansards elsewhere in the country, shows the language being debased, and that people we vote in don’t always address the topic in the most fruitful ways. Anyone would have a reaction of some kind if they visited their legislature several days a year.

Did the work come together quickly or did you really need to work at it?
In November 1992 I had that middle-of-the-night grasp of the form. We’ve all been taught that form and content are different, but that didn’t seem right. Material swirled around, but how could I organize it? A few years ago I came across a remark, by the United Statesian writer Gilbert Sorrentino, that form determines content. That was my experience, exactly. To talk about what politicians say, and the rules they go by, as well as what they do in our names, the book had to look like a Hansard document. After some more note writing, I started in earnest in early 1993. I finished it in mid-January 1995.
As I wrote, the federal legislature changed its complexion, with the BQ becoming Her Majesty’s Official Opposition and the PCs dying their slow death. The times were interesting, federally and provincially.

What was the most challenging aspect of the process? What was the most rewarding part of the experience?
The most challenging proved to be the most rewarding. I’d set up obstacles to jump over, to keep myself interested. Two examples will do, the first of which was to write a book filled with the talk of over 70 characters without once representing their inner thoughts. We’ve had novels, movies, television shows and plays where the minds of politicians and bureaucrats are explored, so why do that again? It’d be as tiresome as reading another novel where the main male figure is thirty-three years old. What Gabriel Josipiovici has recently called the ready-made narrative was another thing to avoid, where the form is a dinged old vessel someone unimaginatively pours their concerns into. Second, often in books you get sentences like “The sun set amidst darkening clouds, and Charles felt misgivings about tomorrow’s stockholders’ meeting,” or dialogue tags such as “she said knowingly.” Let me be clear, it wasn’t hard to leave those things behind, but I wanted to get points across in an entertaining way about a subject that many think dull without having a narrator guide the reader, as if he’s an idiot, through the events. As you know, there are only three formats in the novel: lists of members, letters by bureaucrats and the Speaker, and the political debates on the floor of a legislature of a fictional province in Canada.

What did you learn during the process?
At that time I’d only heard bits and pieces about Oulipo, but later I came to understand that their thoughts of working within constraints had applied, in some way, to my work. Obstructions keep you from easy story-telling. Your mind will adapt. Or fail, I suppose. In 1994, say, I didn’t think in those terms, but I did know that the only way to say what I wanted to say had to be on strict terms. So I also learned more about solitude when writing something that people thought uninteresting, or too much like the real thing, or not what people would buy.

Did you go through some sort of mourning or grieving process once you were done?
Not being a sentimental writer, no. When I finished in mid-winter I did feel incredibly fatigued. Like a fever had passed. I didn’t look at the manuscript for about a month. My day job contained some of what I had written about, so in a sense it never left me, but in February I took time off work to recuperate, and that took the form of reading books by John Cowper Powys and making notes for the next novel. Fatigue and relief were predominant, and pride in having completed a book that did what I wanted and looked as I wanted it to look.

What has the response to the work been like so far?
Most people didn’t think the subject matter would be workable. Now that the book is out, some folks find it a lot more enjoyable than they expected. Not necessarily hopeful, but funnier. An early reader called it relentless, and that pleased me, as does its lack of resolution. The publisher and editor both understood the book, for which I’m grateful. I think critics may be cautious when engaging with something new. You can write a review of an Atwood book purely on automatic pilot, while reviewing a younger writer like my friend Michelle Butler Hallett demands more original thinking. But so far, for me, I’m glad that the Winnipeg Free Press critic saw that one of my interests is where edited debates and truth veer away from each other.
The public response at readings has been encouraging. There’s the opportunity for audience participation--they’re encouraged to call out “Hear, hear!” and “Oh, oh!” when they agree or disagree with what’s said--and they’ve gotten into it. Theatrically speaking, the rules of legislatures sustain the role of the chorus. Why not get the audience to take that part? It may be the closest they’ll come to being legislators, and it might even be cathartic to call out in agreement or disagreement. It also involves them in the reading.
On PEI the community of writers is strong, with a lot of poets and a few novelists. Thankfully, a number of them took parts at the launch in October, which saved the audience from listening to me alone, and made for greater variety and a fun night.

Do these opinions matter to you?
When you write in a void, as I did most of my time when living in St. John’s, the opinions of others rarely enter the picture. In those years I had one friend who I could talk writing with, and that was terrifically helpful. But you have to write your own way, or you imitate others. Other opinions can be interesting, or provocative, but I’m not an impressionable kid, so they don’t affect me negatively.

What happens now? Are you working on something new?
I’ve got a second book that talks about sex and religion, and uses the setting of Verbatim: A Novel in a different way. Also, one novel I’m writing is set in a Charlottetown of my own devising.

What made you want to be a writer?
Reading, and then acting, made me think it would be fun to do things with words. Being a terrible actor, I realized writing the words to a play might be more fulfilling, and would definitely be less painful for the audience. So I started as a playwright, and not necessarily a very good one, but you begin somewhere. Writing is a communicative act, so I must have felt as I do now, that I had something to say, in some fashion or other, that was more than getting out a coming-of-age story. We all have our obsessions, and compulsions, and writing is both for me.

What books or authors have most influenced your life?
It depends on what stage of my life, or what aspect you mean. Maybe there’s an author who’s influenced me that I don’t even suspect. I didn’t get along well with the curriculum at university, and it was a lucky day that I read about Henry Miller and, soon after, saw Tropic of Cancer for sale in a used book store in St. John’s. Nothing had prepared me for such writing, and I was seventeen or eighteen, just the right age to be, as I mentioned, impressionable. His work granted me, as it must have done to others, the absolute freedom to believe I could say what I wanted without worrying about literary conventions and traditions. Blaise Cendrars is another, who I can only read in English, but nevertheless, the vivid nature of his prose and the fantastic conceits he has are incredible. My copy of Moravagine is marked up so much I can barely read certain passages. Later came the incomparable William Gaddis, especially his books The Recognitions and J R. Joseph McElroy and Josipovici for their humanity and technical finesse, Sorrentino for his sharpness, reminiscent of Wyndham Lewis, and Mati Unt, an Estonian writer whose works are slowly entering the English language. None of these are what you’d call realists. Nor do they write miniature works. Some can be quite rude. You won’t find them on a syllabus too often. They influenced me with their freedom of expression and thought, and for their exploration of fictional forms, as well as their writing style. I also like Larry Fondation, who’s writing short, piercing works about the poor and the homeless.

What makes a good book?
A lively and restless intelligence interested in originality more than novelty, resulting in a book where form and content aren’t capable of being divided.

What are your thoughts on the current state of Canadian literature?
I read some in the early 1980s and found it very gloomy. Not the fault of the writers--they write as they felt--but a professor thought a bunch of nineteen-year-olds would get turned on by The Mountain and the Valley. Not being of a downcast or fatalistic mind, I found myself out of sympathy with that and other works, and writing my Miller thesis introduced me to various United Statesian writers. From there I moved to Lewis, Lawrence Durrell, and on to Robert Musil, some Russians, Balzac, and so on. Much of what I read now is translated. When I finished university I left behind every obligation to read this or that book, and I go where my tastes lead me. Besides, life is short, and you can’t read everyone.

Why do you think that Atlantic Canadians enjoy such a vibrant literary culture?
We’re all Canadian writers, first off. What would our national discourse sound like if we called Margaret Atwood an Ontarian writer instead of a Canadian writer? What would that deny her, or say about her audience? But people will label Wayne Johnston a Newfoundland writer, or an Atlantic Canadian writer. Why this is is beyond me. That wasn’t your question, I know.
The creative work of writers from everywhere in the world enriches our country as a whole, and that includes individual writers and larger communities, and thus adds to the vibrancy of our national literature. More specifically, every part of Canada enjoys a vibrant literary culture, though at times it may be more active in this or that place.

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Ignore what we’re told the marketplace wants, and instead be yourself. Look for literary inspiration in unexpected places. Most of all, read those who you aren’t told about regularly, and read outside your normal range. Stamina is important, so try and cultivate that.

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