Joseph Haske: Your forthcoming book, Hide Island, contains both a novella and a collection of short stories. It seems these collected pieces share several thematic bonds, one of them being relationships that are sometimes unfulfilling. Could you describe those bonds between the characters in Hide Island?
Richard Burgin: Relationships of one sort or another are the inevitable theme of all fiction, even if done in an “abstract” way as with Samuel Beckett, or, with Franz Kafka, in a metaphorical way. We can no more escape from writing about relationships than we can escape from being part of our own species. So, really it’s a question of what one focuses on, what aspects of human relationships one concentrates on in a given work. I would say that the stories in Hide Island deal a lot with family relationships: mother-child, father-child, as is the case, for example, in “Atlantis” and in “Hide Island.” That would also be the case in “Cold Ocean,” where the son is trying to deal with his mother’s death and that becomes a barrier against getting close to the woman he meets on the beach. It’s kind of an unconscious act of fidelity on his part to his mother—though she’s dead physically, she’s still alive in his mind—and that’s what makes him, ultimately, rob the woman he sleeps with as a way of punishing himself for betraying his mother. So sometimes it isn’t as obvious what aspect of a relationship I’m writing about because a lot of times we do negative things to people as a way of proving our love towards other people, especially our parents. Similarly, in “A Letter in Las Vegas,” while there’s a lot of dishonesty and narcissism in the character’s actions, it’s ultimately a story about two brothers coming together. While there’s a lot of darkness in the story, I would say that it ends on a somewhat optimistic note. And certainly, the most overtly warm or positive story is “From the Diary of an Invalid,” where the closeness of the father and son is pretty transparent throughout.
JH: Although there is a positive ending to some of the stories you’ve mentioned, you do typically take on darker, often taboo, topics. Even in some of the stories with happier endings, there are sometimes unhealthy sexual relationships, Freudian complexes and so on. Do you believe that this book pushes the envelope more than your previous books?
RB: I’m aware that it’s a little darker than previous books, but some of these stories aren’t necessarily representative of a new direction in my writing because some of them were written years ago, they just didn’t happen to be put into books for one reason or another. But yes, I think you’re correct: the overall effect may be darker and edgier than previous collections. Still, sometimes, almost as often as not, stories end in a somewhat optimistic way. For example, in “Atlantis,” the first story, there’s certainly a lot of cruelty and darkness but it ends on a positive note of forgiveness and the lovers mutually demonstrating more empathy toward one another. It reminds me of a line in a song that I wrote, “Love is darkness that you see through.” I think these stories, about half of them, have that kind of hopeful ending. “The Escort” is another one, where the man becomes friends with the prostitute at the end of the story.
JH: Speaking of your more recent work, let me ask you about another of your collections, Shadow Traffic. I’ve heard a great deal of positive feedback from readers regarding that collection as well. It seems to me that “The Memory Center” in Hide Island is a continuation of the story, “Memo and Oblivion,” from Shadow Traffic, correct?
RB: Yes, definitely. I don’t know if I’ll go on and develop that material into a novel as I had originally planned to do. It’s hard to foresee that at the moment. Sometimes I’m asked why I concentrate on darker themes such as those in “The Memory Center,” but I think that writers, in a sense, don’t choose their subject matter, it chooses them. That is, at a certain point, you have to be yourself, put very simply, and what’s ultimately going to come out is inside of you and you can’t really worry about whether it’s dark or light or politically correct or in vogue. Your writing is not going to work on the most authentic level unless you live by the words of Polonius, “to thine own self be true.” You can’t really manipulate the way you perceive things and your attitude towards them. If you intentionally try to, it’s like dodging who you are, and it’s going to show in the writing. It won’t be as convincing or powerful, although it may be more commercially accepted work. So, you really can’t avoid who you are in your writing, nor do I think you should.
JH: Your fictional world tends to be one in which writers, academics, and other upper-middle class and upper class characters meet up with the so-called “underworld,” and it’s one of the things that I thoroughly enjoy about your writing. You often treat topics such as prostitution, drug and alcohol abuse, issues that many politically correct writers avoid at all costs and that some critics despise. Do you think some academic types, critics, and readers in general, might distance themselves from your work because of the subject matter? Has it been a problem, staying true to yourself?
RB: A long time ago I made the decision to always be true to myself in my writing, and so once you’ve done that, you have to accept the consequences. Yes, I don’t think my subject matter has necessarily increased my popularity. But, as I said previously, at a certain point, you can’t help being who you are, and if you aren’t, it won’t work artistically. I mean, Samuel Beckett couldn’t worry that he didn’t have any “realistic” characters or situations. It’s kind of amazing that people have read him to the extent they have since the usual things one can hang one’s hat on like a plot, characters, or a love story, are missing in Beckett, yet he managed to be a great writer when all is said and done. If he had he tried to write about the fashionable subjects of his time, in the approved style of the day, in the commonly used language of the day, the world would have been deprived of Beckett. The same thing is true of Borges, Celine, Proust, and Bernhard—you can go right down the list of great modern writers. I think you just can’t worry about whether or not subject matter coincides with what the general populous wants to read and what appeals to them in achieving popularity or sales. One is lucky when the two things coincide, when you write about things that are topical or in the news and it really comes from your inside, your true self. If not, there’s not much you can do about it. If you’re trying to write literature, you can’t write someone else, you have to write yourself.
JH: It seems that political correctness has found its way into academia. Perhaps it’s always been something akin to the acceptance of the masses, but now it’s invaded academia as well, and it seems that many writers tend to be safer these days. We all know that the great writers have always tended to offend the masses, but now we have a situation where most writers, critics and scholars are squeamish about so-called “taboo” topics and it’s rampant even in many MFA programs that are producing writers who are taught not to offend, to perhaps, not be true to the nature of what they are. It all seems rather anti-literary, infecting the very institutions that have traditionally served as safe-havens for literature, wouldn’t you agree?
RB: Yes, I agree, and I’ve actually written about this. Specifically, my characters have thoughts quite similar to what you just said in both my novels, Rivers Last Longer and Ghost Quartet. Yes, I agree, I think political correctness is the most toxic literary disease of our time.
JH: Many literary writers don’t become a household name, gain mainstream validation within their lifetime in most cases, if at all. I know, in your case, you have many admirers among fellow writers, critics, others in the literary community, myself included. How would you describe your legacy thus far and your contribution to American letters?
RB: I couldn’t possibly do that objectively. I’m going to have to plead the Fifth Amendment on that one. We’ll leave that one to the people whose job it is to decide.
JH: Who are some great writers, then, who have influenced your work?
RB: There have been a fair number. Dostoyevsky, I love because he is able to dramatize ideas, to write about ideas, which is something you don’t get a lot of in American fiction, to put it mildly. Also, his understanding of the neurotic sensibility of the underground man is extremely impressive. Actually, he coined that term, “underground,” in his wonderful novella, Notes from the Underground. Dostoyevsky is a big influence on me. Proust is also one of my favorite writers, and Remembrance of Things Past, one of the world’s great books. He’s also a profound psychologist and a great social satirist. He’s able to combine so many different elements in his fiction and he was one of the first writers to write about so-called “sexual deviancy” in the last part of Remembrance of Things Past. Faulkner has also influenced me a lot, especially his conception of time and Thomas Bernhard, the late Austrian writer, and author of the brilliant novella, Concrete, has influenced me as well. His tone of voice and his mix of humor and dark psychological exploration is really amazing. Well, those are some influences who immediately come to mind. There’s also Borges, of course, with whom I had the honor of collaborating on my first book, Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges. In that case, he influenced my view of the world more than my writing style. He’s the first writer, since Dante, anyway, who has written about infinity and who really has a metaphysical as opposed to a psychological approach to his work. More of an influence on my world view than my actual writing, but you can’t really separate the two, so I’d name him as well. That’s a reasonable list, I think, although one could go on.
JH: Well, I look forward to the release of Hide Island this fall. Any final words about the book?
RB: Well, what can I say? It may be a little darker but it’s not about despair. Some of the characters are in a world of darkness but eventually they see through it. Even the character in my quasi-science fiction novella, “The Memory Center,” experiences freedom and reunion and release at the end, so I would hope that it would be read in that spirit, because that was the spirit I intended it.
Richard Burgin is an American fiction writer, editor, composer, critic, and academic. He has published sixteen books, and from 1996 through 2012 was a professor of Communication and English at St. Louis University.
Joseph D. Haske is a writer, critic and scholar who teaches literature, creative writing and other courses at South Texas College in McAllen, Texas. He is the author of the novel North Dixie Highway and his fiction appears in journals such as Boulevard, Fiction International, the Texas Review and Pleiades. His poetry and fiction are also featured in various anthologies as well as in French, Romanian and Canadian publications.