canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Tony Burgess

Tony Burgess lives in Stayner Ontario, with his wife Rachel Jones and their son, Griffin. He is the author of The Hellmouths of Bewdley, Pontypool Changes Everything, and Caesarea. Pontypool has been optioned for a film by Bruce McDonald. Michael Bryson interviewed Burgess by email in January 2004.


TDR: In the past number of years, you have published the Pontypool Trilogy and a new short story collection, Fiction for Lovers. Have you always wanted to be a writer? Tell us a little bit about your background and how these books came to be.

TB: So I recognized early that something was wrong, I was definitely not having the same experience as other people around me, which would just be what it was except there was this peculiar making in the middle of it. Is that sensible? I may just be describing a creative impulse or something, however, I remember (and am aware of it still) being terrified. These were the beginnings for me. Being preschool age really, and feeling that the world was flinging itself to pieces but also noticing that it wasn't. I used to draw at this age, horrible violent, busy pictures that my parents would hide from people and worse. So for me all the elements, the project had begun then, later it became extreme lifestyles (hello) and, you know, lots of very, very disorganized living.

Writing these books is a relatively recent thing for me. They have all the elements that I remember clearly from a young age. In fact, I would have to say, I didn't properly come up with what I write, but I have been vigilant about the space where they are produced. It's a primal, rapid and feral place. Very quick, very awake. Scare the shit outta me. That much is true. Whether and how I can make it meaningful to anyone is another question. I can tell you I have failed miserably trying to make myself here at times and have paid direly for trying. I have a duty to ensure that readers don't understand entirely what I write in order to remind me and them that the book isn't really for us in the end.

Later, later you think about what formally you may have done, or who is thinking like you, you work in the family resemblance, you pretend it's behaving like literature cause you are roughly playing in that puddle. But the project hasn't changed at all for, like, ever. It was always this thing exactly. No content to speak of. The content (which includes style; who separated those two anyway?) degrades pretty rapidly, all of the books are phatic noise.

TDR: I was trying to think of an adjective to describe your fiction, and I couldn't think of one that suited. Your work has elements of slasher films, post-apocalyptic nightmares, science fiction, horror, and high-minded literary styling in the vein of William S. Burroughs. In your work, zombies haunt small-town Ontario and the populace is infected by an language-borne virus. I see much of this as a metaphor for frightening unseen forces that may or may not be influencing our lives and our world. There's also much humour; I want to make sure I don't forget to say that. Were you surprised to find yourself writing stuff like this ... or has this always been your modus operandi? (and how do you make sense of it? what are you '"up to"? if that isn't too blunt and reductive a question).

TB: No, no surprise that I write like this. Oh wee. Each of the elements you mention matter to me...except, you mention metaphor in your question and I don't really think in terms of goes to this: metaphor is a device (distracting) for looking at this world, and usually about the experience of being a person. Well, neither of those things are particularly interesting to me. I'm not what you'd properly call a person. When I'm writing I grant myself exceptional powers. Sometimes I want to write in a substandard fashion but have the occulted ambition to physically change the immediate vicinity of the book. Now, you might say "so what? You're fuckin nuts!" but I'm now going to be curious to see what I end up writing. This is partially what I've learned from badly made horror films. There are places that realize the unrealizable. We just don't notice it because it looks like failure.

Do this: rent "Phantasm" or "Tool Box Murders" or something and suspend your disbelief like you never have before. Believe that it is the world, not an incompetent version. (You will, because it matters to you, believe that somewhere along the process you'll meet your world again anyway, right? So don't worry, metaphorization is a stable insidious program.) Then that forks off for me this other question: if I'm not making metaphors, then what exactly am I dragging back here? Here's an intense experience that yes, did happen in the world, but it is alien to the world, so please, what can we do with it? Put it this way: I came by those books I wrote honestly.

TDR: I wonder if you could tell us about a couple of writers whose work makes you howl at the moon and what you like about them. What kind of work do you find yourself drawn to?

TB: The writers who made the biggest impression on me I read as teenager: Jarry, Leautreamont, Apollinaire, Genet, Robbe Grillet, Gide ... I also enjoyed modernist manifestoes, futurist, dadaists etc. I was young enough to hear in them a tall clarion. now I read, really, physics, but only physics that's over my head. I also like occult memory technicians: Ramus, Fuccini, Bruno Lull ... Later on I did a major in semiotics and enjoyed it lots. I think mostly of Genet, though. Everything is in Genet.

Also: Charlotte Bronte: Shirley. Because it starts out so stable then distorts in mysterious ways ... characters vaporize and duplicate, dog bites infect out of the dark, people slip into narcotic winters ... very nice.

TDR: I saw David Cronenberg speak at Ryerson recently. He spoke about how he was fascinated with insects when he was a kid, how complex and strange they were. He said you don't need to go into outer space to find alien life forms. They're right out there in your backyard. He said one of his themes is making the gross seem beautiful (not just "seem" but "be beautiful"). Making people see more of the world immediately around them. This might be a odd lead-up this question, but here goes: What do you think of the photos NASA is beaming back from Mars this week? does it look anything like your backyard?

TB: Of course, the first thing you think looking at those pictures, is well, um ... sorry NASA, but I coulda taken that shit drab picture with a week and winnebago (which is a bit like complaining at the gallery that your four year old coulda painted that Pollock). It's interesting listening to the adjectives, `amazing' `stunning' etc. as if the thing itself must be actualized using terms that are greatly different than the thing we see. It is `dull' so call it `astounding'. keep the distance between these two words growing and we will come to understand it is merely a vast space that makes this meaningful. 3D glasses to view a desert? Iíve attached pictures of my back yard [winter] [summer].

As for making the gross beautiful, yes, there's lot's of reason for doing that ... one is to shake off readers you don't like. It's a good vetting process.

TDR: Do you have a question you'd like me to pose to you?

TB: Ask you questions about the books ... or? gimme a clue.

TDR: I guess I mean, is there something you'd like to talk about in particular? I could ask you a question about [whatever it is] ...

TB: Iím thinking ... 

In the meantime, look at this photo of me as a child on an Italian man's small pony in our backyard in Bramalea.

TDR: While you're thinking, maybe I could ask you about that complicated relationship: the book review, the book, the author, Virginia Wolfe's "ideal reader" (or maybe in this case ... the difference between Tony Burgess's ideal reader and Tony Burgess's actual readers). What has been the general reception of your books? How do you feel about the reviews of your work? What's your relationship with your books like once you've handed the manuscript to the publisher for the last time?

TB: Well, there's two exclusive experiences - writing the book then handing the book over (I insist that they are exclusive and they behave so). Writing the book is peculiar, private, hermetic and ... hmmm ... how do I put? ... naive. Handing it over is climbing up into the general desire not to have a bad experience today. Those are two very different things - I assure myself while Iím writing that no reader will ever touch it, and if they do, they will never get the copy Iím writing, they'll get their own smelly book bought copy. The ideal reader is never human. (There are things I insist on and I write to those things. I know insisting doesn't make it so, but it definitely changes the behavior of the book). 

When the book goes away from me, it's pretty simple; it kinda ceases to exist...the book I wrote has already been received perfectly, it is already enormously popular and extremely funny to its intended reader (not me) ... so when it goes out, like I said, it's this other thing, this me searching daily for not bad experiences. `Oh, you read my book?' `Can't imagine you liked it' and, then pleasantly I discover they did. If they didn't they're just going to be nice. 

Reviews have been a bit surprising. I'm surprised by the people who seemed to enjoy them as much as they do. That helps me terrifically to have a not bad day. If I get a bad review, usually someone saying I'm foolish and offensive, it bothers me less than I expect it to. I probably am foolish and offensive. I remember once being interviewed for Ponty and I was doing this bit at the time about how much I exploited my own incompetence to do all these fantastic things. I had a fairly sound shtick running at the time and was trotting it out with ponies for the fella. When the review-interview came out he said I was an incompetent writer. At first, I'm like, ouch, then I thought, hmm ... ok. That's pretty funny, as I read on, I realized that it was a fairly good review and the jarring use of the word `incompetent' was possibly meant for me to read. It also stood as a critical word, how could it not?

I don't read or look much at the book when it's got covers. Feels a bit alien and there's little I can do about what it does. I look for good conversation and friendly people. I like to think of someone finding the book in a cabin where they're staying, shoved on a small book shelf with five other books. In time, they are forced to read it and when they come back to work they can't forget this unsound little read and finally have to ask somebody, "have you ever heard of this...?" and the somebody says "no" and the person spends weeks trying to privately shake this book that, as time goes by, they're not sure they ever read at all.

TDR: Fiction for Lovers is a slight deviation from your previous work. For one thing, it features you and your family as characters. I enjoyed the new book a lot, by the way. I was curious that your narratives had moved closer to home, if in fact they have. There's some wonderful tender moments in the new book. Tenderness isn't something I remember from the others. Are you becoming more domestic? How do you feel your work is changing? What are you working on now?

TB: Hmmm ... well ... I'd like to oblige, but several of the more homey stories were drafted up before I wrote Pontypool ... All the books to me have always been about first home - that's whole bigger matter that tracks through to this one. Funny you should say that though, because I was thinking that Lovers was the coldest of the books. I'll catch up with this question later.

TDR: Cool. I'm interested you hear you expand on this....

TB: ... I think that this, Fiction for Lovers, is the coldest of the lot ... but I couldn't really say ... The others have themes of strange home, leaving home, trying to return home and making, like Satan, a home out of yourself, but in this one the me is actually at home, so a signal is automatically sent. And that signal is, ok, now we will finally deal with ourselves and it will be good for us, i.e., the stabbing and the feeding of people to dogs. 

Also, it is the point in the music where I should say hi to Corm. I'll probably give him a shout later this mornin' ... but I'm sure he'll like the `hello'. Hello Corm! He secretly despises me, but I don't care. In fact, I like his books so much, get this, and this is true, when I went to Wales recently I had him promise that if the terrorists get me, that he'd write a book and publish it under my name. I made him swear and seeing as it's a death wish, he's gotta honor it, right? Doesn't have to be a good book, just get it out fast. So, hey, since you know about the pact, you pressure him to do this when the terrorists get me. In fact, fuck it, he should have one ready to go, don't you think, just in case? You're right. I gotta call Corm. 

p.s. Corm is Derek McCormack.

Michael Bryson is the editor of The Danforth Review.







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