Interview by Nathan Leslie
Richard Burgin is a giant in the world of literary fiction. The author of three novels and nine short story collections, Burgin is also the publisher and founder of the acclaimed literary magazine Boulevard. In addition, Burgin has produced several interview books—one with Isaac Bashevis Singer and one with Jorge Luis Borges. He has collaborated with other authors, musicians, and artists, with a resulting short film, All Ears, co-composed with his son Richard Daniel Burgin. Burgin has won numerous literary awards and prizes over the years. I have long admired his short fiction, in particular.
Nathan Leslie: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me. I continue to be so impressed by your productivity. Your latest collection of short fiction, Don’t Think, is a tour de force. Talk a bit about the genesis behind the title story, if you could. It’s breathtaking.
Richard Burgin: Usually my fiction is about 60% imagined and 40% drawn from my own life. In the title story, “Don’t Think,” I reverse those percentages. While the specific incidents in the story are made up, the characters of the father and son are very much autobiographical. Happily, it seems to be the favorite story for most of the book’s readers.
NL: I notice you are still quite actively exploring the possibilities inherent in point of view. How do you decide upon a point of view when you are crafting an initial draft of a short story?
RB: I see no reason why 99% of stories are written in the first or third person. Why should the novel own that particular literary technique? When I write from multiple points of view I feel like I’ve achieved an ambiguity and richness that I can’t convey any other way. Establishing a point of view is however, often the hardest thing for me to decide on.
NL: Why the short story? You have written novels as well, but I find myself particularly immersed in your short stories. What draws you to this form especially?
RB: I began as a novelist and did manage to publish three novels: Ghost Quartet, Rivers Last Longer, and The Memory Center (which is found in the book Hide Island). But after a number of my novels got rejected, I found that I needed more publications to beef up my resume as a college professor seeking tenure. I realized I could publish four or five stories in the amount of time it took me to write one of my novels. Probably because I started as a novelist, I have numerous characters and scenes in my stories, a number of fully developed themes, and different points of view. Though I achieved more success as a story writer, the form is not as natural for me as a novel.
RB: I write generally in the morning when I first get up and I’m at my strongest.
NL: Which contemporary writers inspire you?
RB: Since I’ve edited a literary magazine, Boulevard, for thirty-one years, you can’t really expect me to name two or three favorites, can you? I can say three of the authors I haven’t published but would like to are William Trevor, Alice Monroe, and John Fowles.
NL: How about music? What have you been listening to recently?
RB: Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Bill Evans, and Elvis Costello. I’m also working on compilations of my piano and vocal music (two of the albums, The Trouble with Love and Cold Ocean are available on YouTube).
NL: Do you find yourself reading reviews of your work?
RB: Sometimes, if it’s a very good one, I’ll give myself that little treat, like someone giving himself a dessert after a perfectly satisfactory meal.
RB: Yes, it’s a shame. The smaller the press, the more a writer becomes an unpaid employee of the company.
NL: Any thoughts on the current reading fees controversy? So many literary magazines now charge $3 or so for authors to submit their work, justifying the expense in one way or another. What do you think?
RB: I can understand the resentment of things being done a new way, but honestly it seems more of a win-win to me. The writer gets his or her work to its destination more quickly, it gets read and responded to faster for basically the same price.
NL: You have been at the helm of Boulevard for many years now. Is it still rewarding? Talk a bit about where you see Boulevard going.
RB: There’s nothing quite like the excitement (admittedly rare) of discovering a new unpublished talent. It doesn’t quite make up for any of the significant horrors of the world, but it’s still something. In addition to running a magazine and poetry and fiction contests, we have plans for the Best Essays of Boulevard anthology. (We’ve already done a best-of anthology of stories.)
NL: What is next for you? What are you working on?
RB: I’m focusing most of my attention now on a big book of my collective stories as well as putting my own instrumental and vocal pieces into CD form. That should keep me occupied for a while.
Visit Richard Burgin online.