November 14, 2005


AROUND TOWN:
Giving Thanks – A Self-Interview

Michael Burke: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Michael Burke:
I knew early on, with great clarity. I consider myself lucky – so many people spend their entire lives trying to figure out who they are, who they want to be.

MB: How young were you?
MB:
13 years old. For my birthday that year, I asked my parents for a typewriter; they were kind enough to buy a used, portable, manual Corona. I taught myself how to type the old-fashioned way on that machine: through trial-and-error and constant practice. After that, I figured writing would come easy.

MB: And did it?
MB:
Absolutely not! I experienced many, many false starts banging away on that old Corona and many years when I neglected the Corona entirely, not writing stories at all. Inventing stories, much to my surprise, did not come easy. So I instead focused on non-fiction writing, in journalism, politics and public relations.

MB: When did you get back to fiction?
MB:
As my 30th birthday approached, I realized once again how eagerly I wanted – in fact, needed – to write stories. I bought a computer and began writing – teaching myself how to write the old-fashioned way: through trial-and-error and constant practice. Now, with my 47th birthday approaching, the stories and poems and essays and plays still do not come easy, but I’m still writing. Almost every day. The wonderful (and awful) fact is I cannot not write.

MB: Do you still have the old Corona?
MB:
Oh, yes. What a profoundly influential gift from my parents! In fact, of all of the gifts Jerry and Gladys Burke have given me over the years, the Corona is the most treasured. Aside from their love, of course. The typewriter validated, in a very real and tangible way, my desires to become a writer. And today I still use the old Corona as a reminder: We are all given gifts, but it is only through trial-and-error and constant practice that we learn to master that which we are given.

MB: Why do you write?
MB:
To make the world a smaller place. I try to achieve this by depicting the hope and struggle of ordinary life, reminding people what we have in common with one another -- both good and bad. I hope my writing encourages people to take a second look at those around them, to take a second look at themselves, and to remember: We're all in this together.

MB: Do you write about a particular subject matter?
MB:
I find myself writing about two things: people coming together or people coming apart. This is not a deliberate choice; the very first flash of inspiration simply seems to suggest the emotional movement of one person into another’s arms – or out the door. In practical terms, this impulse manifests as writing a lot about sex and death, which, ultimately, is how people come together and come apart.

MB: You mentioned “influence” a moment ago. What, and who, have been your major literary influences?
MB:
Everyone I have ever met, everything I have ever experienced, everything I have ever read, every place I have ever been.

MB: Care to narrow it down?
MB:
No. I don’t mean to be flippant. But I do believe the key to being a successful writer – in fact, the key to living a successful life – is to keep opening yourself up, to keep broadening your experience. There is an encroachment – a narrowing – that is too common in typical life as one grows older. But, we were talking about “literary influence” and I know what you mean so I’d be happy to get specific.

MB: Then get specific.
MB:
Okay. Early influences, in addition to my parents: In those early years of writing, after reading one of my first typewritten stories, my brother, Joe Burke, handed the pages back to me and said, “People don’t talk in paragraphs.” This was my first lesson in craft – a lesson I still contemplate more than 30 years later.

MB: Slow learner?
MB:
Some lessons must be learned again and again. I’ve also always been grateful to my grandmother, Myrtle M. Burke, and my great aunt, Geraldine Kuehna. When I was growing up, they made sure I saw live theater, musicals and plays – at the Goodman, the old Mill Run and up in Lincolnshire. Thanks to these two good women, I learned that TV can touch your heart, but live theater can touch your soul.

MB: What about your early teachers? Who stands out?
MB:
In seventh or eighth grade, one of my English teachers, Miss Brown, was quite congratulatory about a short story I had penned in which Sherlock Holmes (borrowed from Conan Doyle, without permission but with many thanks) solved a murder mystery in a decrepit castle. Miss Brown was one of the first grown-ups I ever shared a story with and her wide smile of encouragement remains with me to this day. A few years later, my high school English teacher, a fireball named Fran McConnochie, taught me that writing should be relentlessly concise, concrete, compelling and convincing. Years later, at my college newspaper, Ilene Slonoff (her name was then Fleishman) reinforced the lesson. Ilene taught me if something is “needless to say,” don’t say it. This was when I fell in love with style.

MB: You’ve said before that you learned to write at The Northern Star, your college newspaper at Northern Illinois University.
MB:
It’s true. Had to. That was half the job, after all. But, of course, I loved writing and I loved having to write every day. I also loved spending many an evening and weekend afternoon with Jerry Thompson, a former newspaperman who worked as our faculty adviser. From time to time, Jerry and I would kill an hour or two by drinking a beer or two while reading words to one another from the dictionary, quizzing one another on various word-roots and definitions. That might sound goofy, but this was when I fell in love with words. Individual words. Their sounds, their meanings. At about the same time, the beautiful Vicky Pinney asked me, “How can you write if you’re not reading?” I had just fallen under Vicky’s spell and the thunderbolt of her question ignited my curiosity in reading more than three dozen teachers had been able to spark. So this was also when I fell in love with reading. I’d get drunk on cheap beer in downtown DeKalb – notice any patterns involving beer here? – and stop into the bookstores on the walk back to my apartment and return home with armfuls of books. Also at about the same time, a Chicago Tribune editor named Charles Hayes took me and three other summer interns to a business lunch. During lunch, Hayes noted that graduates from my alma mater were often faster hitting the ground than graduates from other, more prestigious schools because we had been schooled in the rigor of meeting daily deadlines. But, Hayes explained, the graduates from the other universities ultimately performed better over time because they had been schooled in learning. Their critical thinking skills were sharper; their curiosity more finely honed. So this was when I fell in love with learning – near the end of my undergraduate studies!

MB: What was that your brother said about people not talking in paragraphs?
MB:
There’s an exception to every rule.

MB: Well, as Al Gore once rather famously said, “There’s no need to get snippy.” Let’s move on. Who are your influences today?
MB:
My closest friends have the biggest influence. And my closest friends are artists and thinkers.

MB: I’ll name some names. You tell me what you’ve learned – or are still learning. George Savino.
MB:
I love George! I met George when I was 16 years old, so we’ve been friends for a long time. George is the single best storyteller I have ever heard. He’s a world-traveler and teller of true tales. His stories about living in Italy, spending the summer in Morocco and traveling for a month through India teach me that pictures can be drawn with words – that evocative descriptions are created with just the right words.

MB: Ed Underhill.
MB:
Ed and I go way back, as well – to 1980 or so. Ed is a lawyer and fellow playwright and story writer. I am, by nature, a character-driven writer. Ed's writing reminds me that plot matters, that stories are better when things happen. Ed's writing also reminds me that all stories are morality tales. We’re now writing a screenplay together, but we’re doing more laughing than writing because Ed is also one of the silliest people I know.

MB: Joe Wade.
MB:
Joe is one of the people who shape my thinking. He has for over 25 years. It’s as if we’ve been engaged in a lifetime conversation about life and death and politics and work – and hope. We talk a lot about hope; Joe was a Chicago White Sox fan long before it was popular.

MB: You wouldn’t be who you are today if you didn’t have Joe Wade in your life.
MB:
So true. Or if I didn’t know George and Ed and Jim Slonoff. Jim is a newspaper publisher – and a very talented photographer – who is a model of competency for me. In that regard, Jim is like my brother, Joe Burke, and my sister-in-law, Colleen Burke. All three are enormously competent people. Interestingly, the more I feel like an artist, the less competent I feel in the world.

MB: Who else has shaped your thinking?
MB:
Well, there are three broad groups. I think of them as my life teachers, my writer-friends from graduate school, and the people who shape my sensibilities.

MB: Let’s start with your life teachers.
MB:
Robert J. Hannon, Jerry Thompson, Eugene Burger. They’re the Big Three. I met R.J. in high school – he was one of those rare and wonderful teachers who know you better than you know yourself. Jerry was (and is) a thought-provoking conservative – he was the perfect mentor for a left-leaning college-age writer like me. And Eugene is a gift – a graduate of Yale Divinity School who is now the country’s greatest close-up magician. His way with words and insights into human behavior are unparallel. I met Eugene through Robert Charles. Having Eugene in our lives is truly magical.

MB: What sorts of things are you learning about writing and storytelling from Eugene?
MB:
Conciseness, mostly. No one gets to the point like Eugene. I’m also studying, if you want another concrete example, how Eugene uses rhetorical questions. He’s a master at that, as well.

MB: And you’re learning about theater from him, too?
MB:
Yes, theater – and show business: How does one make a living in the arts? I’m just beginning to see how this is done. Plus, Eugene has introduced Robert and I to a number of other wonderful teachers: performers such as Jeff McBride, Abbi Spinner, Max Maven, Cesareo Pelaez and David Bull, who have deepened my understanding of drama and entertainment; the filmmaker Michael Caplan, whose documentary, Stones from the Soil, demonstrates how history and art can be woven together; and the University of Chicago economist Jack Gould and the writer-editor Kathleen Carpenter – all of them are enriching how I think about politics and business and theater and art and society … Jack and Kathleen also throw the best parties. It’s always good to have people in your life who throw good parties.

MB: You spent some time studying in the graduate fiction writing program at Columbia College Chicago, where you met a number of friends. Let's talk about some of them. Robert N. Georgalas?
MB:
Bob is a writer, publisher, Medieval scholar, former New York advertising guy, photographer, English professor, one-time florist and ex-Merchant Marine – how’s that for character biography? Bob is the best writer I know, word-for-word, sentence-for-sentence. I could get into trouble for announcing a verdict like that, but it’s true. Bob’s an amazing writer. I find myself reading and re-reading his stories because I continually discover something new about the mechanics of storytelling or because I leave the story feeling something deeper than before.

MB: Bob also came up with the idea for Polyphony Press.
MB:
Yes. Bob and his wife, Joanne Pepe, who is a sharp and skilled editor herself, live in a Chicago high-rise apartment filled with three thousand books. Within their living room, they created an inviting home for Polyphony Press. Hundreds of hours and three books later, Polyphony Press has, in turn, created what we hope is an inviting home for dozens of emerging and established writers, showcasing their diverse voices and talents. One added joy is that, through Polyphony, Bob and Joanne enabled me to work with the poet Jo-Ann Ledger and the writers David McGrath and Mark Wukas to edit our three anthologies. Jo-Ann’s wicked sense of humor and her equally wicked way with words continues to slay me. David and Mark’s stories always wow me. And Mark, a teacher, provides his students with this very sound and good advice: “Real life is no excuse for bad fiction.”

MB: Jotham Burrello.
MB:
Another thoughtful teacher and editor. And a talented filmmaker, too. Over the years, Jotham has been kind enough to publish – and reject – some of my writing. The rejected pieces clearly needed to be rejected … well, at least, I see that now. But I learned through Jotham that every good writer needs a good editor. Jotham and Bob Georgalas also have kindly invited me to speak to their college classes on numerous occasions – a great and generous opportunity for a working writer like me: the gift of an eager audience who has actually read my work.

MB: Elizabeth Ward.
MB:
I love Liz Ward! She’s a Chicago cop who is a Chicago writer – or, perhaps it’s the other way around. We met in graduate school and she continues to inspire me to this day. Liz also produced one of my early one-act plays – and, in so doing, showed much tenderness and instilled in me a greater sense of confidence for which I will always, always be grateful.

MB: Kevin Grandfield.
MB:
Kevin, to me, is graduate school. He’s a prolific writer, reader and reviewer, and I so enjoy talking about writing and writers with him. On one night a dozen years ago, in a small neighborhood bar called Augenblick, Kevin asked me if I was afraid of making enemies. The question really sharpened my understanding of the artist’s mission. Mary Shaughnessy, Kevin’s wife, has changed Kevin’s life and warmed mine. Mary, too, is a person who shapes my sensibilities about art and life.

MB: Like Linda and Jack Martin.
MB:
Yes. Very much so. When they're not in France, Linda and Jack host fabulous dinner parties at their home here, which is filled with beautiful art, including several of Jack's own paintings. At some point in the evening, we always try to talk Linda into playing a piece or two on piano – sometimes she does, often she doesn’t – and then we continue our rowdy, wine-soaked conversations about politics and religion.

MB: They sound like fun.
MB:
They are. And Linda and Jack are teaching me another important lesson, too: the joy of staying in love. I’ve never known a couple more in love!

MB: What’s their secret?
MB:
They actually like one another, for starters. And, more important, they seem endlessly curious about what the other has to say … Of course it’s the bad relationships that make better fodder for a fiction writer – the couples who are always fighting or cheating on one another. Now that’s entertainment!

MB: Do you use real-life experiences in your fiction?
MB:
Only the sex scenes are autobiographical … I’m kidding! Yes, of course. But the valuable thing about fiction is that it’s not handcuffed to the facts.

MB: Facts aren’t important?
MB:
Facts are quite important. Facts are precious. And facts should be treated with respect – especially now, when so many people in America are playing so fast and loose with the facts: labeling Creationism science, justifying torture, manipulating spy “intelligence” to rush us into war, ignoring the growing and tragic divide between rich and poor in our country. I say we leave fiction to the fiction writers and keep it out of policymaking.

MB: What is the purpose of fiction?
MB:
The better question is, why do we tell stories? I think human beings tell stories because we don’t know our own story. We have no idea why we’re here – why we even exist. So we invent stories and myths and religious explanations to help us make sense of existence. Good fiction does just that. Bad fiction – like a lie from the White House or from a minister’s mouth – is irresponsible.

MB: Do you consider yourself a political writer?
MB:
In the broadest sense of “political,” yes. Every artist is. Entertainment confirms what we know and comforts us. Art confuses us and challenges what we believe. So if you’re an artist, you’re confronting the status quo, which our politics is programmed to protect.

MB: How did you develop your ideas about politics?
MB:
My thoughts about politics are shaped by three things: experience, conversations and reading. Early in my career, I worked on two different political campaigns in Midwest, middle-class, middle-of-the-road America. I met and got to know all sorts of people on farms, in small towns and big towns. What I found and what I still believe is that most people, Republicans and Democrats, want the same five things: greater safety, equal opportunity, responsible spending, healthier families, and more hope. That’s not asking too much; yet, our politicians don't seem able to deliver it.

MB: Why not?
MB:
You tell me.

MB: So much of your writing is dark and even pessimistic.
MB:
Henry James said the happiest people write the saddest stories.

MB: Are you happy? Are you hopeful?
MB:
Absolutely. I’m happier than I ever have been and more confident than ever that better days are ahead.

MB: Why?
MB:
You go through life and, if you’re lucky – and no one is luckier than me – you go through life held by many hands. Friends and colleagues – people such as Jeff Osman, who is a poet who doesn’t write poetry, and Priscilla Brown, who is a playwright who doesn’t write plays, and Sally Mandell, who has not only provided loving encouragement but also has given me the computer right off her desk. She’s my Medici! With friends like these, how can I not be filled with hope? Mike Lynch, Jerry Bowman and Mike Shaver are the kind of friends who can make me laugh by saying, "Hello." Stephnie Weir, Bob Dassie and Mary McCain are great comic performers. There's not nearly enough laughter and poetry in life, but I have an abundance in mine.

MB: Part of that is luck and part of that is “opening yourself up,” as you mentioned earlier.
MB:
Yes, welcoming people into your life like the octogenarian poet John Mahoney, the musicians Amy Lusk, Anne-Marie Akin and Kate Milan, the writers Nancy Monk and Vicki Ruzicka, the graphic artists Sam Silvio and Sheila Sachs, the weaver Aimée Piccard, and the painter G.L. Smothers. They’re creative, expressive people who help you see the hope and struggle of ordinary life in a different way. I think, too, of Thom Clark, Hank DeZutter, Gordon Mayer and all of my fellow rabble-rousers at the Community Media Workshop, who are fighting to make sure the voices of ordinary people in Chicago's many neighborhoods are heard in the mainstream media. And I think of all the teachers and editors and producers and directors and booksellers – including Tom Montgomery-Fate and Cele Bona and Katey Schwartz and Dale Heiniger and Reginald Gibbons and Richard Shavzin and Domenick Danza – who, at different moments in my life, have each provided encouragement.

MB: You’ve also said that encouragement is almost always more helpful than advice.
MB:
And encouragement comes in unexpected ways. Our friend Luis Martinez once pulled out a chapbook of my poetry in the middle of a party at his home – and that simple gesture lifted me for days. Our friends Michael Godnick, Steven Cohen, Sanford Sharp, Claire Dunham and Karen McCartan show up for my readings and come to Robert’s magic shows – simple gestures which reaffirm that kindness lives. All of this reminds me of Bill Meiners, who edits Sport Literate, the magazine I love the most because it feels like my literary home. Having work published in Sport Literate is like coming home after a long and tiring trip.

MB: You’re also fortunate to surround yourself with an army of friends who are a lot smarter than you are.
MB:
Yes! That’s my motto: If you can’t be the smartest person in the room, then sit next to the smartest person in the room. Someone like Dan Pedersen, a former London bureau chief for Newsweek, who is teaching me that theater doesn't only happen on a stage and “density,” not only conciseness, matters in writing. Or someone like Judy Bertacchi, an educator and thinker, who has given me eight words of wise advice for writing and for life: "You always have to get the birth story." Or people like the sociologists Ami Nagle and Mark Chaves. Ami is an independent scholar who works for major foundations across the country. Mark chairs the sociology department at the University of Arizona, where he’s working on a new book examining the mega-church phenomenon in our country. If we are to be judged by the company we keep, I’d say I’m fortunate to be standing among quite good company.

MB: Can you imagine living – and working – somewhere besides Chicago?
MB:
Working, yes. Living, no. At least, not in the sense of making someplace else my home. Chicago is my home and I’m lucky because Chicago is a writer’s town. Chicago is still very much a hustler’s town; but what, after all, is a writer if not a hustler?

MB: That said, you can – and do – write well elsewhere.
MB:
Absolutely. In fact, it’s no small thing that I’ve done some of my best writing on the quiet kitchen porch at Veda Mae Creason’s house in Browning, Missouri (population 189 – and dwindling). Veda, her daughter, Nola Mae and Nola Mae’s husband, Bob Swearengen, have graciously opened their homes and their hearts to me over the years. Browning is my writer’s retreat.

MB: And Browning brings us to Robert Charles.
MB:
Yes. Indeed. The best for last. Quite fitting. Robert means the world to me. I wake thinking of him and fall asleep thinking of him. Robert Charles certainly knows me better than anyone and, in that way, he is the greatest influence on me as an artist and, more importantly, as a human being. I just love him with all of my heart and soul.

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