April 21, 2018 | Rome, Italy | °C

Jeff Bursey

By David Winner
Published: 2016-03-05

"Verbatim, A Novel" (2010) was Bursey's breakthrough, after nearly 20 years.

Growing up I used to hear my mother say there were three things not to talk about at parties: politics, sex, and religion. I knew "Mirrors" would deal with the latter two, as well as show people working, so I decided to populate Bowmount and make the two volumes companion works. I could use some of what was referred to in "Verbatim: A Novel" if I wanted, but both books can be read without knowledge of the other.

I started writing "Mirrors" in 1995 so it's close in time, creatively, to my first published novel, and I finished it in 1998 while still trying to get a publisher for "Verbatim: A Novel." By then I thought I had two quintessential Canadian novels, but from this perspective that looks to have been ignorance talking.

You wrote plays before you wrote fiction. How did writing novels come to pass? Writing plays showed, to my delighted surprise, that I had some facility with dialogue. Plays require serious collaboration with other artists, and in 1984 I had a terrible experience with a troupe in St. John's, Newfoundland that quenched my desire to persist with that form.

Then I moved, there were changes in my thinking, and short stories came next. Novel writing came about when a project seemed quite large, and I've always preferred reading novels to stories.

Canadian provincial politics figure in your work. Do you have strong feelings about Canadian national politics, as the Justin Trudeau era begins? Not so strong that I want to voice them publicly, considering that I work in a non-partisan legislative environment. But in a general sense, I could say that one of the motivations behind writing "Verbatim: A Novel" was to show, in an entertaining way, how we govern ourselves and allow people to draw whatever conclusions they wanted. That might make them more conscious of the process, and the process is more significant, ultimately, than whoever might be in charge.

How do you place yourself within the world of Canadian literature? I try and leave that to others. Some people have called me experimental and difficult, and if that puts me more, to use a simplistic U.S. example, on the [William] Gaddis side rather than on the [Jonathan] Franzen side, that would be fine.

You've just been on an extensive reading tour, and there's a wonderful monologue on your web page. What role can performance play for writers? It's risky, especially if they're nervous, uncomfortable or bad at it. If someone doesn't feel it's right for him or her, then it should be left to the side. Before I wrote plays I was in them, as a pretty poor actor, but I liked the performance aspect, and radio encouraged that. Now, when I get up to read, I simply try and embody the narrative voice of the novel or story. There's me, and then there's the "me" acting as something else.

If we think of how recently oral storytelling was highly regarded, and how it is valued in certain places today, then we have to accept that performance never dropped out of sight. It just might not be fashionable or something people get to see early on as much as when I was young. It can certainly enrich an evening. At times I've invited other writers to take part with me, read some dialogue, say. That changes the dynamic while giving the audience something else to focus on. [It becomes] more about the writing than me... and the writing is what stands the better chance of lasting. I should try and give it as much of a boost while I can.

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