Interview with October ’18 Craft on Draft Contest Winner: Andrew Burlile

On Tuesday, May 14th, 2019 at 7PM, Craft on Draft, a reading series developed by Grub Street’s Novel Incubator alumni, presents Writing Your Novel’s Murky Middle at Belmont Books, 79 Leonard St. Belmont, MA. We invite all to attend this lively night of craft discussion as authors Susan Bernhard (Winter Loon), Louise Miller (The Late Bloomer’s Club) and Whitney Scharer (The Age of Light) tackle the thorny issues of the novel’s middle.

At our last Craft on Draft event on October 16th, 2018, authors Stephanie Gayle (Idyll Hands), Brendan Mathews (The World of Tomorrow), and Belle Brett (Gina in the Floating World) discussed their work as we presented  A Writer’s Voice –How to Develop Yours and Your Character’s Voice. The evening’s writing contest winner, Andrew Burlile, agreed to answer a few questions for Dead Darlings.

Andrew Burlile holds an MA in Irish Studies from Boston College. He is a writer, a barista, and a professor of English at Bunker Hill Community College. His most recent project is a series of collected short fiction which interrogates whiteness and its relationship with history, language, identity, and agency in Appalachian Virginia. His work has been published in the Writers Without Margins journal and in his high school’s literary magazine, which features several poems he would like to forget having written. He lives in Allston with his wife.

The piece you submitted, “The Anvil”, was written in a very specific voice. How did you come to that voice?

I grew up in Virginia, and I did everything in my power to leave it once I realized I had some sort of agency. I was fairly successful–after all, I wound up here in Boston. But there was a point during grad school when I realized Virginia was more than a place where I had grown up, lived, and begun to detest. There were ways of speaking I dearly missed. Questions which were our politest inflections on demands. Everything in Appalachia becomes a narrative in one way or another. History. Morality. Forgiveness and the foundational narrative of indelible sin.

There’s a story for everything. And “The Anvil” began as a story about weather. A thunderhead forming out over the low valleys of Appalachian pasture. I’d been reading a lot of Faulkner, and I’d been writing about 18/19th century Virginia. The voice was an extension of necessity. I wish I could say it was something more algorithmic, but it was one of those numinous things which insist on their being. However, it was very rough when I first wrote it. I edited it for several hours (my wife having read the same 300 words about 10 times with only minor changes) until, with her suggestions, I finally settled on the right system of prepositions and metaphors. A good friend of mine in grad school once told me “prepositions are largely idiomatic;” since then I’ve found them to be some of the richest, most informative articulations of identity. The two phrases “I delivered from my shelter” and “For the first time in weeks I seen mud” I still remember and I believe they remains two of the best clauses I’ve ever decided on.

Is the piece part of a larger work? Short story or novel?

Although I wish I could say it was, no it is not part of something larger. Well, not really. The selection is from a 3-page experiment on how to write weather in an engaging way. The phonemes and the syntax try to reflect the growth and formation of the thunderstorm (e.g., focus on certain wide vowels at the climax, and plosives toward the margins) but you’ve read the best bit. If you didn’t like it, though, then you’re in luck–there’s no more! I agree with you, person-who-didn’t-like-it; it reads overwritten, and it is. I’m a habitual over-writer, and it’s one of my most frequent criticisms of my writing – of which I have many. However, “The Anvil” is a spiritual precursor to a larger project – one which I’ll discuss in your last question.

Which writers, past or present, have influenced you and why?

There’s something undeniably pretentious, and thus alluring, about James Joyce. He believed everything could be written. He was my guiding literary influence for several years, and I have learned–and still learn–much from his work. Despite my infatuation with his novels, I fell out of love with him when I began reading more empathetic, generous authors, like George Saunders, Toni Morrison, and Carmen Maria Machado. I tend to evade those authors whose careers are exciting, especially if they found success young, because I become envious. If I ever feel envious toward a writer (like I have with Philip Roth, Annie Dillard, and Claudia Rankine) I know I need to read everything they’ve written because it’s the only way I’ll learn. Over the past few months I’ve realized the list of authors who have influenced me is also a map of my jealousies. I used to be jealous over my ideas, only to discover everyone has already written them. That’s when I realized that my ideas were probably boring, or if they were still engaging then I was engaging them in a boring way. So contemporary authors especially have challenged me to uncover new narratives and to grapple with them in new ways. Where Ulysses once sat on my desk both Jesmyn Ward and Tommy Orange now stand.

Are you working on something right now?

The answer to that question will always be yes. I try to write every day. Failing that, I try to at least think about writing every day, even if it’s only in the capacity of remarking how I try to write every day. Most of what I write I discard. But I have two projects right now. The first is a novel, which I’ve put on hold to better practice my craft. Voice, narrative pacing, and generous and respectful treatment of multiple characters of varying narrative importance has been my primary focus. These experiments have precipitated in a collection of short fiction exploring white writers’ appropriation of others’ voices and articulations of white imaginaries.

The title work explores Algonquin tales of the wendigo. During my research, I found that Algonquin folklore often historically deployed the wendigo as a metaphor for American colonialism. I’m very interested in how stories survive through centuries of oral storytelling, and in how a narrative changes depending on who’s telling it. In the scope of “The Wendigo,” how does the wendigo change shape between a white speaker and a Native speaker? Of course, this puts me in the very same ontological trap of cultural appropriation that the narrative explores: how can you write a character’s voice – which is necessary – without appropriating the experiences and voices of historically marginalized peoples? Is it possible for a white writer to write a Native American character, or must this character be rendered solely by those who are if Native?

As of now, I’m on the side of #ownvoices. But I also acknowledge the important work which goes into imagining another person. I’m seeking advice, of course, from those who know Algonquin cultures and stories. (Additionally, if you or someone you know would like to share your opinion I would love to listen.) I’m still learning how to respect a character’s trauma, and, more, how to write characters whose experiences are shaped by the failings of history and government.

Though I know my voice is another colonizer, I want to explore whether or not there can ever be forgiveness for the immutable and indelible past; my past, yours, our communal history. I’ve written a first draft, which is about halfway between novella and novel length. I’m currently researching and editing. I would love to finish before the end of the year, but to presuppose I am capable of doing such, that such material can be parceled and shipped so simply and swiftly, is a type of authorial arrogance and a erasure of centuries of colonial violence. I believe I will practice writing about this material in one way or another for my entire life. And I will practice my entire life new means to write more empathetically, more generously, and more respectfully. To decolonize my own language. That is my project–today, tomorrow, and throughout all history yet to come.

Altogether, this reading and interview have been incredible experiences, and if I’m ever so lucky and privileged to actually make it as a writer I credit Craft on Draft and Dead Darlings with the beginning. So, thank you for reading, and I hope even if you haven’t liked what I’ve written it has offered you an opportunity to wonder and reflect.

Winning Entry

“The Anvil”

I swear on mama’s lonesome plot it gone and rode up the horizon like the ridge of a roan stallion’s mane. It loomed minacious even so far out over the yellow plains, over those oxroads where the rye wanders in the wind, where the seedheads sprout in the burdensome heat. Aint never afore seen somethin to inspire in me the wonder of Providence, which beholds in my bosom what I know to be His Awesome Works (Glory Be!) in this new country. On the horizon there hung clouds like flax linens strung to dry. The thunderhead, omnipotent and wrinkled with rain. The shapes known endless pilgrimage in all the waters of the earth. Our harvest is needful, our furrows chapped and languished. With clouds sinkin up through the sky and into the firmament the milky anvil bruised to a brooding blue.

Lo! – apace I heard the pat-pattering of rain. Now if papa aint buried right aside mama, I swear I felt the airs peeling from the clay. Oh, oh, and the pattering built to battering! The horses quailed, shoes stammering and hocks quakin. I calmed them as best a lone hand can but they foamed and bucked. A great susurrus rushed the rye and whistled like that big, leaden prospecting train out of Tuscumbia. Praise Be! For the first time in weeks I seen mud. In exaltation I delivered from my shelter and opened my mouth upward and wet my throat, I nourished in all the waters of the earth.

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