Thursday, March 10, 2011

Interview with Neil Burkey, writer and blogger @

Neil Burkey was born in Champaign and raised on a goat farm. He received a degree in Fine Arts focusing mainly on the screen-printing of pillows and the production of trombonist documentaries. He has completed a collection of short stories called Lessons in Botany (two of which have been published in the Dublin Review) and is currently working on a novel set in his homeland of rural Illinois.

One of his other identities is in the process of producing a book for the Bush Theatre in London (as recently featured in the Evening Standard).

We recently approached Neil about an interview, so that we could spread the news about the wonderful, quirky, intelligent meditations on words and language Neil has been delivering over at his blog, Knits a stinK, as well as his own writing.



Q: Your blog is enjoyable and unique. Could you talk a little about what you wanted Knits a stinK to give to its readers?


Well I'm happy to read you type that. It's a funny relationship, isn't it, between a reader and a writer? A person has to have a pretty heavy load of guff in order to convince his or her self that people will want to peek into their thoughts. If I were to be honest, I would say that I write what I write because I enjoy doing it. I don't understand those people who, even though they don't love writing, still sit down and try to force themselves to do it. What exactly is the point in that? If you're going to try and drive this particular camel through that particular eye of a needle, you're really going to want to be having fun while you're doing it. And I would be lying if I said that I had a specific audience in mind with the things I write. Getting back to that guff I was talking about back there, my policy is simply to trust that, odd as some of the stuff I jot down is, there must be a group of people somewhere out there that would enjoy reading it. What the heck? Why not?


The real difficulty is trying to find those people. Where the crap are they? How on earth are we meant to reach them? Because, you know, that legendary ringed fence around the ivory tower of publishing is no joke. One of the things I decided to do (how very 21st century of me) was to start a blog. Ah! I said, I'll erect myself a digital profile! That'll get their attention.


Hence Knits a stinK. It was born for purely mechanistic reasons. The thing was, I found that once I got started, I really loved doing it. Those restraints you have when trying to put together a short story or a novel just dissolve on the Web. You're self-published! Instantaneously! The options are limitless! And so I just throw out whatever comes to mind and see what sticks (after editing, editing and re-editing, of course), and after a while I started to consider it as its own entity, its own world.


I also discovered that both the content and the style I was writing it in was dictated by the medium: more satirical, more strange, more referential to this still-new idea of blogging. I found that, rather than writing about writing, I could go ahead and treat the blog as a piece of work in itself, although by necessity a fairly haphazard one. So alas, the things I write for the blog are significantly (or insignificantly, looking at the number of hits it gets) different from what I've written for the, eh, real world, and therefore this edificial profile I've raised is putting out false signals. Someone remind me: is this an example of irony or not? I would imagine that many people who have followed the blog (and again, these are not legion) would be somewhat surprised at how po-faced my other stuff can be. What a wicked world wide web we weave.


Oh yes, I forgot to say that the blog also allowed me to resurrect my dormant drawing skills (a word I probably should put in quotes), and use them for the depiction of bunnies. This makes me so happy.

Q: A lot of the writers that are part of Our Stories are looking for all the insight they can get about the writing process. Could you share a little about what moves you to write?


It's always going to be a good question, too, isn't it? Where the hell does this need to produce come from, and once we find a way of drawing it out of ourselves, what the hell do we do with it? It's a question I ask myself every time I sit down at the keyboard. So far I have developed a series of certain tricks, many of which stem from (and this is going to sound profoundly stupid) a simple love of words. I'm not a fanatic, mind you, I wouldn't be the kind of person to go deep into the science of etymology (am I allowed to call it a science? Anatomy is a science, right? What about history, is that a science? Well if the answer is yes, and if you consider words to have bodies, and to have a historical, familial trail that they leave behind, then yes, I suppose it is a science), but I like the winding paths that word play can take a person. I love a good digression.


For one of my short stories I started off by constructing what was essentially no more than a joke (and not a very good one at that). Next I took a closer look at the characters involved in the joke, and I started to breathe life into them. I thought about who these people might have been and what would have caused them to walk into this joke, and where they might have gone afterwards. Soon I forgot entirely about the joke, and just kept writing and writing, until the joke itself was little more than a shadow underneath a big, plump story. Sometimes a single word will pop into my head and just hang around, getting in my way, until I can't take it anymore and I start making a story for it to live in. Where these ideas come from I really couldn't say, but I am pretty convinced that everyone has these things, these lingering ideas and unattached thoughts, just waiting to be developed into some fabrication or other, some entertainment. The only thing that divides 'writers' from the rest of us is that they have developed the tools to do just this sort of thing, and have devoted the time to put those tools to work.


But this is just me. I'm the kind of person that prizes the mood, the setting and the characterization of a piece of writing over its plot, almost without exception, and so the way I create the things I create is (at least for the moment) unfailingly going to be born out of the tiniest little nugget or detail, the smallest idea, rather than a huge, arcing storyline. It's the rolling snowball technique of story telling. Start with something that interests you, no matter what it is or what reason you may have for finding it interesting, and just roll with it, inhibition-free. It seems that I am very much in the minority in my likings, but that's just one of those things, isn't it? Stephen King I'm not; J.K. Rowling I'm not. I never will be, either. And that suits me just fine.

Q: You're currently producing a book for the Bush Theatre in London and have put out a call for anecdotes and stories about it. How did the idea of harvesting stories and anecdotes about the theatre come to mind, and what are your hopes for the book?


I can't say that the idea was mine. I've worked at the same publishing house now for the past eight years, and they've been doing these sort of crowd-based story-gathering projects for various institutions since 2000. Usually they're done for behemothic places, universities or cathedrals, and this was the first they had done for a theatre (and an avant-garde one at that), and for some odd reason they chose me (who had never before had full control over a project) to run it. It's been a great experience for the most part. I've had the opportunity to work with some respected names, and most all of them have come up with pieces that are worthy of those names. There were a few baubles along the way, but then what would a book about a theatre be without a little bit of drama? Part of the fun of it is that it will have big fat illustrations in it, and so I've had the pleasure of going through their chaotic, dusty archive, which is chock-full of photos of presently famous people taken during their more tender years, as well as some really fantastic posters from the early days. It was a pretty radical theatre when it started, round about the prime of punk, and has always been as tiny as it is influential, so it's nice that it's getting the posh treatment with a bells-and-whistles book.

Q: What's next for you and your writing?


I finished a collection of short stories not so long ago and have managed to wrangle myself an agent, I think (is that right, James?), so we're currently trotting it out in front of publishers to see if any of them would like to saddle it up and ride it through the Ticonderoga Pass and into the Valley of Royalties. I started my novel pretty much immediately after setting down the collection, and am enjoying the challenge of the longer form. If the first book was a pseudobildungsroman in interwoven short story form, then this one will be a … what do you call a novel about someone turning thirty? It's that.


Oh yeah, and I'm going to keep on scratching that blog itch, too.

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