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Anis Shivani

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Exclusive Interview With Award-Winning Fiction Writer Richard Burgin

Posted: 11/29/11 05:39 PM ET

Richard Burgin has long been a mainstay in American literary circles, as five-time winner of the Pushcart Prize, editor for more than a quarter century of the award-winning journal Boulevard, and author of numerous critically acclaimed short story collections. I recently talked to him over email about his career and influences, his famous books of interviews with Jorge Luis Borges and Isaac Bashevis Singer, his musical collaborations, and his views on the strengths and weaknesses of American publishing today.

Shivani: Do you come from a literary family? What was the first serious book you read, and how old were you? When did you know you were going to be a writer? What was your moment of worst doubt as a writer? Did you ever want to quit? Have you ever had a teacher of writing, or did you learn the art on your own?

Burgin: I come from a family of musicians. My parents were both concert violinists and child prodigies. In one of the few poems I've published, I wrote the line "I was born from violins."

More specifically, my father, Richard Burgin, was for many years concert master and associate conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and my mother was a soloist who performed all over the world under her maiden name Ruth Posselt. In part because of their success, and in part for various psychological reasons, I decided to devote the main energy of my life to literature (although I ultimately composed over 100 songs and pieces) despite loving music more.

In any event, from the age of seven, I was writing little stories and poems and also playing little piano pieces. I always knew that as far as work was concerned those were the only things I wanted to do.

While I never was part of an MFA program and didn't even know they existed, I did take several creative writing courses as an undergraduate with, among others, Ruth Stone, Howard Nemerov, Louise Bogan and Allen Grossman.

Grossman, with whom I took an independent study course was, shall we say, "brutally honest" about my work and his withering criticism of my efforts as a freshman led to my worst self doubt as a writer and to a desire to quit writing altogether. It may also account in part for why I always accentuate the positive as a creative writing teacher myself and make a point of always erring on the side of encouragement, rather than discouragement.

Shivani: Where did you go to school? Did school help or hurt your eventual career as a writer? What should writers study in school? What have been some of your deepest literary influences? Did you ever have to unlearn bad habits acquired from a writer who strongly influenced you?

Burgin: I went to Brandeis University in Massachusetts as an undergraduate and Columbia University, which I hated, as a graduate student. At Columbia I kind of self destructed and left it with a Masters but without a PhD.

Despite Grossman, I have many fond memories of Brandeis. My creative writing classes with Bogan and Nemerov were pleasant and I got to be quite close with Ruth Stone, whose daughter Phoebe became my first real girlfriend. Ruth was the only teacher I had who took a genuine interest in my writing, who encouraged me and gave me the feeling that she believed in my ability.

At Brandeis, my favorite professor, however, was Philip Rahv, the founding editor of Partisan Review, which eventually published an excerpt from my first book Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges. I took each class I could with Rahv, though he was certainly not the school's most popular professor, and I learned a lot about American and Russian literature from him.

I read a good deal at Brandeis (which is often a neglected part of our current MFA graduates' background experience). It was also at Brandeis that I encountered the work of Jorge Luis Borges in my Spanish class. The story we read by him was "The Aleph" and initially I thought of him as a science fiction writer. It was only a year or two later that I began to understand his literary genius.

Then, my senior year at Brandeis, I met Borges, who was a visiting professor at nearby Harvard (in greater Boston every school is near several others) and completed my book of interviews with him my senior year. Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges was published the following year while I was at Columbia. Finally, I should mention that I was the editor of the Brandeis literary magazine my junior and senior year as well, so all and all the school definitely helped influence my eventual writing career.

As for my deepest literary influences, I would say Proust, Borges, and Faulkner have influenced my vision of the world and Thomas Bernhard, Kafka, and Carver my prose, while Dostoevsky influenced both my writing and my vision of the so-called human condition. In my early twenties, I had periods where I tried to write like Borges, Beckett, and Faulkner. Fortunately, that didn't last too long.

Shivani: Do you decry the hegemony of theory in the humanities and literature? Have you had much interaction with the theory people at the universities where you've taught? How can criticism become reader-friendly again, yet serious enough?

Burgin: In general, I've been sickened by the hegemony of theory in the humanities and literature and consider it, along with political correctness, the most noxious literary disease of our time.

I remember at Columbia, when I asked a professor (we could just call him Professor Trendy) if he knew of any of his colleagues who were interested in Isaac Bashevis Singer, with whom I was then working on another interview book, he sneered at me and told me he couldn't think of a single one. The next year Singer won the Noble Prize and all of that academic resistance began to unravel.

Critics can be reader friendly again yet still be serious, by writing about books as they used to instead of the "theory" they think is behind them. Ditching their jargon and replacing it with well-made English would also help.

A writer like Gore Vidal, one of my favorite essayists, is a good example of this and "Plastic Fiction," his famous essay in The New York Review of Books about Barthelme, Pynchon, Gass, etc., is a good example of Vidal at his best as a literary critic.

Other critics I admire would include Philip Rahv, for his no-nonsense analytical abilities; Samuel Beckett for his wonderful book on Proust; John T. Irwin for his brilliant analysis of Borges, Poe, and Faulkner; and Robert Zaller for his remarkable range of work and the freshness that infuses all of it. Let's also not forget that Borges is a first-rate and original essayist and critic.

Shivani: It has lately seemed to me that the attack on middlebrow culture Dwight Macdonald mounted in the Partisan Review and elsewhere in the 1940s and 1950s needs to be renewed with great vigor for contemporary conditions. Middlebrow culture is deadlier than ever to art and literature. Do you buy into this criticism, and where around you do you see the worst manifestations of middlebrow culture?

Burgin: The worst manifestations of middlebrow culture are everywhere--you might as well ask where there are examples of bad air.

In part this is because of political correctness and the hegemony of theory that you asked me about earlier, and most importantly, the total concentration of the commercial presses (and many of the so-called non-commercial presses) on sales instead of quality. Our culture is saturated and controlled by middlebrowism like a kind of massive hypnosis. We have become a nation of middlebrow writers and middlebrow readers but also of middlebrow music and art as well.

It's a sad situation. With the economy the way it is, it's hard to know when things could get better in this regard without fundamental political and economic change.

Shivani: When did you start Boulevard? At what stage were you in your career? Did you worry about funding it? Was it easier because you'd already founded Boston Review earlier? Who were some of your early regular contributors, and do they still write for you? What is the single most important piece of writing you have published in Boulevard? You publish Joyce Carol Oates quite frequently in Boulevard. Do you think she comes in for some unfair criticism? Which writer are you most proud of discovering in the pages of Boulevard?

Burgin: I began working on Boulevard in 1984 and incorporated it in New York that year. We finished our first issue in late fall of 1985, though it didn't appear in bookstores until January 2, 1986. At that point, I'd published Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges and Conversations with Isaac Bashevis Singer but little else and no book yet of my own fiction.

In that first issue of Boulevard we published a new story by Isaac Bashevis Singer, which became the title story of his book The Death of Methusela; a long poem by Kenneth Koch; a conversation between the celebrated minimalist composers Steve Reich and Phil Glass; and an essay on John Dos Passos and the Soviet cinema. In many ways, it set the tone for the next twenty-seven years of the magazine.

Happily a number of contributors from our first three issues continued to write for us over the next twenty-seven years including Joyce Carol Oates, Jonathan Baumbach, David Lehman, Albert Goldbarth, David R. Slavitt, Stephen Dixon, Elain Terranova, and the fine poet Miriam Kotzin, who went on to found and edit Per/contra.

As I recall, we were too naïve to worry much about funding. It was also a lot easier to secure grants then. Our money worries came later after I started negotiations, first with Drexel University, which helped support the magazine through 1995, then with Saint Louis University, where I currently teach and which has been the journal's publisher from 1996 to the present.

One might think that because I was the founding editor of Boston Review (then called Boston Arts Review) and then New York Arts Journal 1974-1980, that I'd had some practical publishing experience. But while Boston Review was my idea, I lost a nasty power struggle with some of the other people involved and only edited its first issue. New York Arts Journal fared much better, lasting six years because of a lot of work from a lot of good people, one of whom, Holland Cotter (my old friend from prep school), later became the Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic for The New York Times.

That Boulevard has lasted so long (twenty-seven years) is also the result of good dedicated people doing a lot of work as well as our getting some much welcome good luck, most notably Saint Louis University's sustained support for which I am deeply grateful.

Shivani: When I get my issue of Boulevard in the mail, I first turn to the coolest feature--the symposium. When did you start the symposiums? Can you tell us the most surprising response you ever got in response to a symposium question? What is the kind of symposium response you least appreciate? That you best appreciate?

Burgin: Our popular symposium didn't start as a regular feature until our fall 2003 issue. In the symposium, I like strong, well-written opinions (ideally with some wit) and I like it best when many different viewpoints are expressed. Fortunately this is almost always the case as it is in our most recent question: Can creative writing really be taught? There were lots of different reactions to that one.

Shivani: What is the secret to keeping a magazine like Boulevard going at such a high level of accomplishment for as long as you have managed? Do you ever resent that editing the magazine takes time away from your own writing?

Burgin: If there's any "secret" to sustaining a publication for twenty-seven years, it's basically sustaining your level of commitment and bringing in new writers and new editors who see the world through different lenses.

I've been proud to have been the first or one of the earliest publishers of writers like Spencer Reese, Marc Watkins, Joe Haske, Renee Martinez, Josip Novakovich, Melanie Summer, Emily Fox Gordon, Dov Kafmann, Steve Diedrich, and Elisabeth Ornsdorff, among many others, including all the winners of our annual Short Fiction Contest for Emerging Writers, as well as our contest for emerging poets.

I know it's a cliché, but publishing the unpublished but deserving writers is my greatest kick with Boulevard and helps mitigate the occasional regret I feel about the time it's taken away from my own writing.

Shivani: Tell us some of your New York agent and publisher horror stories. What are the most important pieces of advice you have for a young writer not to repeat your mistakes, or alternatively to learn from the things you got right? What is the worst thing about American publishing? What is the best thing? Little good seems to have come out of the conglomeration of publishing that has been going on for decades now. Where do you see the end point? The logical result would seem to be complete commodification of the book, with no respect for literary values. Are we headed that way?

Burgin: I have enough New York agent stories to fill a new collection. Unfortunately, it would be a book of horror stories.

My inability to find one who was right for me is the Achilles heel (or certainly one of them) of my career. Either they were genuinely nice, intelligent people who lacked enough chutzpah to make much headway with the publishers or they were deceptive people of little conscience, all but bereft of literary judgment.

I must also add that due to my own insecurity and impatience I contributed my fair share to the dysfunction of those agent relationships. I know good agents who wisely guide their clients careers exist but I never found one myself. Typically, my pattern was tremendous excitement after the agent took me on and engaged in a long, soulful phone conversation and/or an in-personal meeting. Then increased excitement as they continued the phone relationship with me. Finally, their sending my book out to three or four publishers who wrote very nice letters but didn't think the book would sell well enough, followed by a curious inability of the agents to answer my ensuing phone calls. My advice to writing aspirants: as soon they stop taking your calls, look elsewhere.

There is no shortage of problems afflicting American publishing from the agenting system to the conglomeration of publishing. Small presses, university presses, and literary magazines offer a kind of alternative but too often, as soon as they become a little successful, they start to adopt the criteria of the commercial publishing establishment.

At bottom, the worst thing about the American publishing world is that it is almost completely about money. If you are a talented writer entering this world, you can either try to write work that sells (which usually involves compromising your integrity and ideals to some extent) or endure the frustrating reality of being an artist in a businessman's kingdom.

Ultimately, (in "democratic" societies at least) this is a global problem not just an American one, though in Europe, the writer is often treated with more seriousness and respect. I've been very lucky with all my American publishers, but my best experience in publishing was working with 13E Note Editions, a commercial publishing house in Paris who published a kind of "Richard Burgin Reader" in French called L'Ễcume Des Flammes in February 2011. It included a memoir, an essay on Isaac Bashevis Singer and on the jazz pianist Bill Evans and an excerpt from my Borges book, in addition to eleven of my stories. They flew me and my son first class to Paris and put us up at a good hotel for a week so I could give some readings in Paris and Lyon.

Several things struck me as different from the American literary scene while I was there. For one thing, the bookstores that I went to just sold books--no music or café for them à la Barnes and Nobles or the late Borders. The audience also asked very probing questions afterwards. Even more unusual, in fact unique in my experience, was the meeting my publishers had me attend to discuss my book with the distributors, which included at least twenty different booksellers. They wanted as much understanding of my book as possible before meeting with the bookstore owners who they hoped would carry it and so asked me all kinds of questions about my aesthetics.

From talking with other American authors publishing in French by 13E Note Editions, I discovered that my experience was typical. I should also emphasize that my publisher and editors, Eric Vieljeux and Patrice Carrer, were not only generous financially but more importantly with their time, energy, encouragement, and thoughtfulness. The result was a true collaboration and a feeling I still have that these people are my friends and that American presses or businesses of any kind would be wise to adopt many of their methods and ways of treating people.

Shivani
: How has your short fiction evolved over the years? When you compare your first book of fiction with your latest, what's the biggest difference that sticks out? Do you use more humor or less? Why is cruelty among men and women in relationships such an important part of your fiction? The cruelty often verges on the sadistic or barbaric or violent. Your newest collection Shadow Traffic has just been released by Johns Hopkins University Press. What story in the book most pleases you? Are you trying to break new ground in this book?

Burgin: In almost every respect, my most recent short story collections (The Identity Club, 2005; The Conference on Beautiful Moments, 2007; and most recently, Shadow Traffic, 2011) are superior to my earliest collections, Man Without Memory, 1989, and Private Fame, 1991.

Because I began as a novelist (though I've only published two; Ghost Quartet and Rivers Last Longer) my stories tend to be somewhat novelistic. They're generally somewhat longer than average short stories, the characters often evolve, a longer period of time goes by than is usual, and they are sometimes told from multiple points of view, a technique one rarely sees employed in short stories. The stories in my first two books were almost all first person monologues. Generally, I didn't handle the novelistic aspect of them as well as in my more recent stories. They were also darker with less emotional, tonal, and literary variety.

I think my just published book, Shadow Traffic, is my best collection of stories. It is also the best balanced. It has light as well as darkness, humor and playfulness as well as tragedy, surreal stories (for want of a better term) as well as realism and satire. It has stories that range from the point of view of men and women, aging people and young, gay and straight and in some cases, multiple points of view (a technique I've experimented with throughout much of my career). It has stories that are somewhat novelistic like "Memo and Oblivion," "Memorial Day," and "The House" but it also has stories that take place in an evening or part of a day like "Caesar," "The Interview," "The Dolphin," "Single-Occupant House" and "The Group."

One last point I'd like to make about writers' most recent work compared to their older work: if they've been paying attention, their understanding of humanity should have increased. My father once said to me "biology creates psychology"--in other words, from the vantage point of an older age, you have the opportunity to understand with more lucidity the various stages of man's evolving life. I like to believe that Shadow Traffic demonstrates that increased awareness.

My goal as a writer is and always has been to describe people as honestly as I can. If there is sometimes cruelty in my stories, especially psychological cruelty in the relationship between men and women, it's because I think it exists and happens far more often than society admits. Chekhov observed that all people have two lives: the public one they show society and the private one they keep hidden. I'm interested in both lives and as I've gotten older and become more aware of man's hidden life, I've chosen to explore it on occasion.

I think society in general is far more curious or ready to discuss a whole panoply of deviant behavior it wouldn't have forty years ago. That's why President Kennedy got a free pass and President Clinton didn't. Indeed everyone from Catholic priests to Michael Jackson is fair game for the media, and divorces, betrayal, and various kinds of abuse are more rampant than ever. How can a writer ignore this? There is a reason why wars and murder have been going on since the dawn of time. War is simply organized, state sanctioned cruelty encouraged in the name of patriotism.

In my first two collections there was virtually no cruelty between men and women. In Shadow Traffic it occurs in four of the twelve stories. That's because as I've gotten older, my awareness of it and my desire to describe it has increased. Has it increased to an unrealistic degree? I don't think so.

Shivani: Your book of interviews with Jorge Luis Borges is incredibly good, one of the best in the genre. It is definitely a young man's book. I doubt that you could have been so brash and open with Borges if you were any older. I get excited thinking about Cambridge and Harvard circa late 1960s when you interviewed him. For a while a Brazilian girl was accompanying you. Describe that milieu and what it was like to interact with Borges. What did Borges tell you he thought of the finished book? Now that you look back on it, what quirks of Borges stand out most for you? Would you still have been a writer had you not interacted so deeply with Borges at the time?

Burgin: It was a different world then--more open, more trusting, more innocent, full of ideas and hope. People didn't hide behind caller ID, and voice mail and unanswered emails. They answered their phone. High tech was the tape recorder, the size of a laptop on which I conducted the interviews. Also, I was young enough to be driven wholly by my enthusiasm for Borges. Had I been thirty or beyond instead of twenty and a senior at Brandeis University, I would have been too nervous to call and ask if I could meet him. Actually, it was my Brazilian friend Mosa Flo who made the initial call.

Ironically, my pretext for meeting him was that I wanted to write a book about him when all I really wanted was the thrill of meeting my literary hero whom I regarded as the Einstein of twentieth-century fiction. (In a way, it was like an extension of what I used to do as a sixteen-year-old in Brookline, Massachusetts when I'd make long-distance calls to New York and talk on the phone to some of my jazz heroes like Lennie Tristano and Cecil Taylor. After all, their names were in the phone book and more often than not they and others answered the phone and seemed to enjoy the questions I'd ask them.)

My meeting with Borges was magical in the way things could be magical then. He lived in an apartment on Garden Street near Harvard where he was Charles Elliot Norton professor of literature. Borges was kind and gracious and warm and said toward the evening's end, "I don't see why it has to end with one meeting."

I saw him again by myself soon thereafter and this time asked if I could tape record our future conversations simply because it was already torturing me that I had no memento of our meetings and as Borges observed, "our minds are porous with forgetfulness." He agreed "as long as you don't make me too aware of it." It was only after listening to my first tape that I realized, "My God, this man is talking literature." I then proposed the idea of a book of conversations. Again Borges agreed.

There was never a contractual agreement between us, nor did he even ask to see the finished manuscript before it was published. He simply trusted me. The thing about Borges was that he was not precious to himself. And then, as I said, it was a different world then.

Shivani: Your later book of interviews with Isaac Bashevis Singer seems like a different beast. You were more mature then. How was that experience different than interviewing Borges? Again, looking back at it from this distance, what stands out most about Singer?

Burgin: As easy as the Borges project went--the book was published by Holt Rinehart a year and a half after I had met Borges--the Singer project was difficult. In fact, what began as a formal interview book proposal, which Singer accepted in September 1976, didn't appear in book form until Doubleday published it in 1985.

At first he couldn't have been more charming. He was solicitous, gentle and funny. He asked me questions about myself and remembered the answers. He seemed to treat everyone that way from his wife Alma and his devoted secretary/assistant Dvorah to fans who came to visit him at his large apartment on West 85th street, where, except for a couple of sessions in his condo in Surfside, Florida, I conducted all the interviews.

As long as he wanted to publish the book he always was kindhearted, and I soon began to idolize him. We published excerpts in The New York Times Magazine (as a two-part cover story), in Vogue, in Saturday Review, as well as in literary magazines like Chicago Review, The Hudson Review, and Michigan Quarterly Review. But after Singer won the Noble Prize in 1978 he was inundated by the world's media. I think he lost interest in the book then and thus began a pattern of postponed meetings and work on the manuscript (which, ironically, was already nearly completed) that lasted for the next six years. At one point, he tried to get out of it altogether, but I had my collaborator's agreement.

Meanwhile, as one might expect, some of his charm disappeared. Once, after a mistake I made with the tape recorder, he yelled at and insulted me. I was strongly tempted to quit, but I'd already invested so much time, energy and credibility and I knew its publication would help me get a job, so I kept going. That meant calling for more appointments while he kept postponing and delaying them. I noticed his temper extended to other people, including a number of his contemporaries that he felt were vastly overrated. Though he preferred Tolstoy, Singer was definitely a Dostoevsky character.

I prefer the sweet memories, and they are numerous, I have of his kind and generous self and try to forget the others. Two final points: I would never deny his formidable talent as a writer that could rise to true greatness, and I will also concede that Conversations with Isaac Bashevis Singer was a better book than my book with Borges. Incidentally, my interview book with Singer got many good reviews, was published in paperback by Farrar Strauss, and subsequently was published in six foreign-language editions.

Shivani: You are a composer and songwriter as well. Your father was a very famous violinist and conductor. In what ways is music important to you? Tell us about your experiences with your most important collaborators in music. What was it like working with Gloria Vanderbilt?

Burgin: Perhaps because writing and composing are such solitary activities, I have always enjoyed collaboration for the exchange of ideas and mutual devotion toward the same goal.

I met perhaps my best-known collaborator, Gloria Vanderbilt, by sheer chance in 2001. I was on the phone, close to ending my conversation with the late Ray Smith (the editor of Ontario Review and Ontario Review Press and one of the wisest people I ever met in publishing). We'd been discussing one of my stories he was going to publish, when his wife, Joyce Carol Oates, suddenly got on the phone and told me about what a good artist her famous friend Gloria Vanderbilt was and how, if I asked her, she might do a cover for Boulevard. Joyce, who has always been a good friend in addition to being an amazing writer and woman of letters, gave me the contact information. I screwed up my courage with a drink or two and called Gloria. We hit it off on the phone and became friends.

Gloria and I eventually collaborated on a small book called Stories and Dreamboxes (2002), featuring three of my stories and her accompanying artwork (i.e. her visual interpretations of my stories). She threw a big party for the book at an outdoor restaurant in New York near her home on the East Side. Through Gloria, I eventually met quite an array of New York-based celebrities ranging from Woody Allen, Richard Avedon, Gorden Parks, Martha Stewart, Judy Collins, the composer Ned Rorem, Al Hirshfield, Dominic Dunne, Steward Johnson, and Tuesday Weld. Besides the fun of it, especially for a life-long introvert like me, it provided me insight into a strata of society I would otherwise not have known and which helped me subsequently when I wrote about similar social gatherings in my novel Rivers Last Longer.

Shortly after our book, Gloria asked me to write and produce a CD of music to accompany a doll she had designed for the Doll Expo in Washington DC. I was thrilled as it represented the first national exposure for my music and my first pay day as a composer. The song and CD I wrote was called Doll of Dreams and improbably enough, I appeared on the Home Shopping Network with Gloria to help promote the doll and its accompanying CD.

In addition to Doll of Dreams, I've composed the music for five other CDs including In All of the World (mostly jazz ballads), House of Sun (more of a classical music album), Cold Ocean (mostly jazz) and Don't Go There, a twenty song CD that accompanied my book The Identity Club: New and Selected Stories and Songs (Ontario Review Press) edited by Ray Smith and Joyce Carol Oates, who helped make it a tremendously fulfilling experience, and gave me the most exposure my music ever received.

Because of my technical limitations, I worked on my first five CDs with the renowned composer, arranger and director of The Pennsylvania Boy's Choir Joe Fitzmartin, and because I'm not a singer (on my CDs I perform only six solo piano pieces) I worked with the talented vocalists Matthew Cloran and Paul M. Eaton and his wife Dora D. Eaton.

For my most recent CD, I wanted a more minimalistic, blues based, alternative pop sound. Through a mutual writer friend Phyllis Galley Westover, I heard a CD by a California singer/song-writer Chris Cefalu. We exchanged CDs and he accepted my proposal for him to be the vocalist and multi instrumentalist on my CD, the only CD one can currently hear now on the internet through CD Baby and iTunes, called "The Trouble with Love." Chris and I did the CD over the internet and through a lot of phone calls and it got some very strong reviews, including one from the brilliant writer and critic Colin Fleming in Jazz Times. Incredibly, Chris and I never met until I went to Grass Valley, California, after the CD to visit, yet I consider Chris (who's also a first-rate fiction writer) to be a close and lifelong friend.

When you think about it, everything in life is a collaboration. The elements collaborate to produce life on this planet, men and women collaborate to create and perpetuate human life, people collaborate to raise and keep their families, businesses of every kind, from restaurants to sports teams, are all collaborative efforts as is the process of education itself. Writers need readers and vice versa. It's the same with teachers and students and with every extracurricular relationship as well, from friendship to lovers.

The truth is we constantly collaborate to sustain our sense of reality. If we stop collaboration, the price we pay is severe and probably lethal. It may be true, in a certain sense, that we are born alone and die alone, but it is also true that everything in between (including actually both birth and death) is the result of a collaboration.

Shivani: Tom Wolfe has written periodic manifestos pushing American writers to deal with bigger chunks of reality. Do you think this is a worthwhile goal? If yes, why do you think we haven't seen more of it?

Burgin: Everything that humans do or think is part of reality. War is not more real than a love affair (many times soldiers enlist to fight because of the absence of love in their lives) so I'm not sure what Wolfe meant. If he meant a writer should describe more of the modus operandi of society in general as Tolstoy did, for example, or Dos Passos. I would say that may be a worthwhile goal for some writers but there are many ways to be a great writer besides creating a broad, "realistic" canvas of contemporary society. Writers are not journalists, after all. Did Beckett, Borges or Kafka follow Wolfe's dictum and offer us "big chunks of reality"? Would they have been greater writers if they had? I doubt they would have.

The truth is every writer is after reality, or more precisely, their corner of emotional real estate that they truly understand. That private emotional real estate will be tiny compared to the whole earth but if, like Faulkner or Thomas Bernhard or Jorge Luis Borges, you can make it come to life, it will be quite enough.

Shivani: I think good writing is not fundamentally about self-expression. Do you agree or disagree? If it's not, then what is it about?

Burgin: I agree that good writing is not fundamentally about self-expression but rather the creation and exploration of the writer's own emotional territory. If the writer concentrates on populating his world mainly with images of him or herself, his writing will be narcissistic and fail. The self is expressed in good writing but subtly or secondarily as a byproduct, as it were, of their created world.

Shivani: What is the single most self-destructive thing a writer can do to harm his or her growth?

Burgin: Don't get addicted to any drugs and don't listen too much to anyone from a "school" of writing who tells you there is only one way to write well. As Isaac Singer said "small fish swim in schools."

Anis Shivani has just finished a novel, Karachi Raj. His other books are My Tranquil War and Other Poems (May 2012), The Fifth Lash and Other Stories (2012), Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies (2011), and Anatolia and Other Stories (2009).