Being Jeff Bursey
By David Winner
anadian writer Jeff Bursey spent well over a decade trying to find a publisher for two novels he completed during the 1990s, a tedious and often demoralizing process faced by many first-time fiction writers. But the playwright and former parliamentary transcriber from St. John's, Newfoundland finally saw his persistence rewarded. Since 2010, Bursey, now 53, has published both books, which remain as original and bitingly relevant as they were 20 years ago.
The first, "Verbatim, A Novel" (2010), is composed entirely of fictional documents originating from the parliament of a fictitious (and nameless) Atlantic province. Starting in 1992, Bursey started transcribing the Hansard, a daily transcript of events of the House of Assembly, the governing body of Newfoundland and Labrador, the easternmost of Canada's 10 provinces (he took over its editing in 2003).
Stunned by the level of institutional ineptitude and by how "language was debased," he began work on "Verbatim," which is composed mostly of imaginary debates, letters, and emails that both illustrate and mock the ones he read while transcribing the Hansard.
Bursey's second book, "Mirrors on which dust has fallen" (2015), burrowed into the daily concerns of his fictional province's unusual inhabitants, often through fantastical leaps in sequence and logic. Sex scandals are plentiful, all too many involving children.
Bursey's family has deep roots in the Atlantic Coast of Canada. Bursey was born in St. John's and now divides his time between Prince Edward Island and Britain. Like his father, who still has a local radio show well into his 90s, Bursey worked in radio. He has written plays that have been performed in Charlottetown, on Prince Edward Island, while publishing criticism and scholarly articles in print and online periodicals in Canada, the United States and Britain. Bursey talked to David Winner about his life and work.
How did growing up on the Atlantic coast of Canada influence your writing? At some point early on I decided that the usual elements of fog, rock, ocean, sparseness, and so on, found in so much writing, even shopping lists, from writers in that region, wouldn't be part of my work without a very good reason. It's too familiar, and it's too easy to substitute a description of nature for a stronger idea.
How did you come to work for Hansard? In 1990 I heard of a job opening as a transcriptionist at Hansard, which is something like the Congressional Record. At the time the position opened up I was working in radio, and it was a long commute. Hansard paid better and was physically closer.
By 1993 I had heard enough from the Members of the House of Assembly to want to get their language and concerns, as well as my concerns, into fiction. How was the question. Then I realized it had to be told in debates and letters, and a list of the members of my fictional legislature. Everything fell into place and I started writing. Finished the novel in 1995 and it came out in 2010.
In "Mirrors on which dust has fallen" you sketch Bowmount, the fictional capital city of your fictional province. Did you plan these stages? Having created a fictional city in this unnamed province I thought it would be economical and fun to use the same setting to talk about the people who might be affected by what their politicians decided.
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