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Interview with Allison Burnett
By Dana Mitchells


Allison Burnettís first novel, Christopher: A Tale of Seduction, was published in the spring of 2003 by Broadway Books. He is a graduate of Northwestern University (1979) and he was a fellow of the Lila Acheson Wallace Playwriting Program at the Julliard School (1981). His writing credits include Freckles (re-titled Role of a Lifetime), Bundle of Joy (Beacon Pictures, 2004), Perfect Romance (a Lifetime Original Movie, June, 2004), All-American Girl (Disney, winter 2005) and Red Meat, which he also directed (1997-1998). His stories and poetry have been published on various websites and he reviews books for Weekly Variety. He lives in Los Angeles, California, and his website is http://allisonburnett.com/

You've been involved in the film industry for some time. What made you decide to hit the book scene?

I started out as a playwright, then, in my mid-twenties, I turned to fiction. I wrote probably two thousand pages that never saw the light of day. At 30, I switched to screenwriting and, because I made a living almost at once, I never looked back. For ten years. Then, suddenly, I found myself, at 40, having made a fantastic living as a writer, but having seen my scripts either made into failed movies or, much more commonly, no movies at all. The only one I was deeply proud of was Red Meat and I had directed that myself. God only knew if Iíd ever get another chance to direct. To make matters more interesting, a Writers Guild strike was looming, or so everyone thought. It seemed a good time to make a bold move, to reclaim my origins, which were purely literary and wildly ambitious. I considered writing a play, but in the end I returned to the two thousand pages of prose I had written in New York City. I wondered if they could be reimagined in some way.

What can you tell me about your book, Christopher: A Tale of Seduction?

Christopher was the result of that reimagining. I find much contemporary fiction virtually unreadable-- slow, precious, middle class, earnest, and bland. I wanted to write a book that, love it or hate it, readers wouldnít soon forget. I intended it to be both literary and comic. I was well aware that in the American literary tradition, humor is not valued very highly. Maybe it takes the confidence of an old culture to give humor its due. While there is a long list of revered literary humor in English, European, and Classical culture, in the American canon, I think of Twain, Lardner, West, Vidal, Roth, Toole, and not many others.

In an article on mediabistro.com, you said, "When a character stands up and walks around, you don't question it; you type." Your character, B.K. Troop, was evidently very different from yourself. And even as you sat down to write his story, were you ever tempted to "question it" and what writing it might do?

Writing a gay narrator, let alone a chemically imbalanced one with bad teeth and plenty of dandruff, is a risk, but when I began writing in his voice, he was so alive to me that I never questioned it. I simply typed as fast as I could.

Was there anything that inspired the idea for this story? Or was it merely the sudden appearance of B.K. Troop telling you his tale?

It was the confluence of a wealth of autobiographical material from the 1980s and the appearance of BK. He was precisely the voice I needed to make something coherent and meaningful out of so much raw material.

Why did you ultimately write this book with a first person point-of-view? Couldn't it have worked in third person?

I think to write in the third person one must either possess a gigantic, rigid ego or believe in God. Neither applies to me. My boundaries are permeable. I am more of a chameleon, most comfortable creatively in the skins of others. I place no faith in omniscience and the notion of objectivity.

Your book has been described as "Oscar Wilde meets Nabokov meets something entirely new." What sort of other influences did you have as you wrote it?

None were very conscious, but I certainly thought of Nathaniel West and John Kennedy Toole. I also thought of Cervantes. I also found myself thinking about a maligned gem by the great Tim OíBrien called Tomcat in Love.

Why did you choose to set the story in 1984? And is there any special reason why you chose to set it in New York?

I wrote what I know. It was the city of my 20s, an unforgettable time of poverty, suffering, discovery, and hopeless narcissism. I set it in 1984 because it is a story about a boy being whose inner and outer lives are being constantly watched and monitored. Only itís not Big Brother doing the dirty work. Itís B.K. Troop.

I noticed in some parts of your book, you have B.K. saying, in his narrative, things like "Patient Reader" or "Dear Reader." Writers know how off-putting such references can be to the reading public and even as it is understood that this comes from B.K. Troop the character and not from Allison Burnett the writer, were you worried that including such references in your story would be frowned upon?

I didnít worry about anything. All Hollywood screenwriters do is worry. Every line you write is examined by a host of people who have the right to change the line. So you worry all the time about how to please them, or at least not to offend them. The luxury of writing fiction for me was the total freedom to tell the truth as I saw it, censoring nothing.

In your book, your character, Christopher, is struggling to write his first novel. Since this is your first book, did you relate to his struggles in any way?

Not really, I have never suffered much from writerís block.

As a straight man, was it a challenge to write from the point-of-view of a gay character?

No.

What kind of research did you do for your book?

I read every New York Times from 1984.

How did you go about writing your book?

I sat down and started and didnít look up for a year. I smoked too much. I felt psychotic at times. The real world didnít seem very real. The whole thing was like a battle with a serious illness. Yet, when it was over, I couldnít wait to do it again.

How did you manage to get your book published? Did you go the agent route first or...?

My film agent then was William Morris. (Today it is Endeavor.) I gave it to them, who sent it to William Morris New York to the great Virginia Barber, who sold it in about two months.

Is there a chance we'll be seeing anything more of B.K. Troop? He's such a lively character.

I have already written a sequel, narrated by B.K., called The House Beautiful, which Broadway Books will not be publishing. Even though they like it even more than they do Christopher, in the hard, cold world of modern publishing, selling close to 9,000 copies in the first year is not enough to warrant a second novel. My new agent is currently shopping The House Beautiful to smaller publishers. I am a third of the way through the third B.K. Troop novel, called Bowels of Mercies. B.K. Troop comes to Los Angeles and gets involved in a murder plot.

What are you working on right now?

I just sold a screenplay to Beacon Pictures called Bundle of Joy. I am now rewriting it for them.

What is your advice to an aspiring novelist?

Do not bore.

Dana Mitchells is the Internet pen name of the writer Dawn Colclasure. She is the author of the horror novel Novemberís Child, as well as the poetry chapbooks Take My Hand and Topiary Dreams. Sheís been published on and off the Web in magazines such as The Desert Woman, SUCCEED and Mothering, as well as sites such as Writing World (http://www.writing-world.com/basics/everyday.shtml), Worldwide Freelance Writer (http://www.worldwidefreelance.com/articles/rejdance.htm), Write From Home (http://www.writefromhome.com/interviews/367lyon.htm) and Writer 2 Writer. She contributes articles to the newspaper SIGNews, as well as the Web site The Shadowlands. She also reviews books for Crescent Blues EíMagazine. She edits and publishes her own E-zine, Burning the Midnight Oil Book Zine, which is based on her forthcoming book on writing parents. She is also a poetry editor for Skyline E-Magazine (http://www.skylinemagazines.com/). Visit her on the Web at http://dmcwriter.tripod.com/ .

 

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