After years in the day job wilderness Australian journalist and writer Michael Burge has made a splash on the literary scene with a biting debut memoir and his first collection of short fiction. He talks to LGBTicons about creating gay characters, and the hard sell of gay-themed writing.
LGBTicons: You’ve been writing for LGBTicons for a couple of years, so we knew your journalism through your regular contributions, but a memoir and a collection of short stories? You’ve been busy!
Michael Burge: I have! I’ve been writing full time for six years now, and after decades getting pent-up with plenty to say, I’ve inadvertently created a bit of a logjam. I have been telling people for a while: “I am pregnant with ten books”, and I guess I have started giving birth.
LGBTicons: What drove you to ‘get pregnant’ in the first place?
MB: Since I was very young, I’ve been a wordsmith, but it took me a long time to get my head into the writing space. I think I was busy living, and coming to terms with myself to the degree that I’d be able to start looking objectively at other people, situations and characters. I feel I came out late, at age 29, by which time I had not really made my mark in a way that satisfied me creatively, and I did a lot of experimenting with self expression. In the end, I found writing the most liberating form of creativity. Nobody can stop you from doing it.
LGBTicons: What was the first thing you wrote after waiting so long?
MB: It was a short story, one of those in my collection, called ‘Dirty Nurse’, and I was so ready that I sat down and wrote it in a matter of hours, before living with it and reworking it over those six years. It’s based on a true story I happened to hear about during my coming-out process, an incredible tale of great courage shown to the Australian gay community during the unfolding HIV-AIDS crisis. It felt so satisfying to get that one on paper, and I haven’t really stopped writing since.
LGBTicons: Do you draw inspiration from real life?
MB: I do, in fact there is barely a scene in my fiction which has not been inspired in some way by people I have met or situations that I have been in. I take the seeds of fact and turn them into what I hope is good storytelling.
LGBTicons: Closet His, Closet Hers is a collection of LGBTI characters which you’ve described as being at a crossroads. What do you mean by that?
MB: All the stories are about life choices, some of them bordering on life or death situations, and I have long been interested in what drives people to make the choices we make, when life puts us under pressure, and things could go either way. When I was putting the collection together, I searched for what my characters had in common, and it was that moment of decision that gave me a mental picture of a crossroads.
LGBTicons: But these characters are LGBTI, so are their choices different?
MB: I am not sure they are different, although I know the lives of LGBTI are not often analysed in this manner. We often appear as supporting characters in bigger dramas, but I have several key characters who drive the action forward. I think LGBTI people will recognise several of these crossroads.
LGBTicons: Can you tell us about some of these characters?
MB: Sure. The collection opens with the story of a deeply closeted railway worker who has liaisons with a teenager at a public toilet. The next story is about a lesbian aged-care worker who encounters an Auschwitz survivor who delivers a life-changing lesson on prejudice. From there I take the reader on a journey into the heart of several critical life choices.
LGBTicons: I read that you tried to create a portrait of homophobia with Closet His Closet Hers. Is that true?
MB: It’s a common theme in the collection. I realised I was writing about the way homophobia appears within families and the impact it has on everyone, not just gay and lesbian family members, but parents, siblings, partners and friends.
LGBTicons: Your memoir, Questionable Deeds is about homophobia that you endured, right? What is it like to write about?
MB: That’s a very good question. For me, homophobia falls into two main categories at either end of the spectrum. There’s gay killing and bashing at one end, and down the other is disenfranchisement, where people do certain things to block the advancement of lesbian and gay people, which is insidious and very hard to pick. In Questionable Deeds, it was that kind of discrimination I was trying to explore.
LGBTicons: It’s the story of what happened after your partner died, and how his blood relatives made your life difficult. Was that hard to revisit?
MB: It was, but by that time I had been writing for a few years, and I realised I could retell the story a bit more objectively than I could have if I’d written it at the time. It was healing in some ways to go back and report, almost journalistically, the events that unfolded.
LGBTicons: Were you analysing life choices?
MB: I was! I was trying to come to terms with why a parent and a sibling would seek to disenfranchise their son and brother’s partner after his death. But I also had a long, hard look at myself in the process.
LGBTicons: Questionable Deeds has been described as a tough read. How does that make you feel.
MB: It’s a common response. I often get messages from people who have started the book, and they’re feeling the grief I experienced, followed by an extended silence, during which I sense these readers are shocked at what happened and how powerless I became in my own life through other people’s actions. But despite the depths of the story, I offer the reader a message of hope and survival, and that’s the integral challenge of my book, for readers – can you handle these truths, about the extent to which some will go in their homophobia – and do you have the guts to come with me through that to the other side?
LGBTicons: I sense it’s something of a political book.
MB: I think just about everything I write is political in some way. Much of my journalism is about politics, particularly on marriage equality, and in Questionable Deeds I trace the history of the same-sex marriage debate in Australia, and the failings of successive governments in delivering what the Australian community is still waiting for. These themes also crop up in my fiction.
LGBTicons: What is it like writing fiction, as a journalist?
MB: My fiction has been described as journalistic, and a reviewer observed how I don’t dwell on the minutia in any given fictional scene. I am more about the story, and the workings of storytelling. I read a lot of fiction, and I kind of wince when the writer tells me the main character is blonde, for example, when my imagination has decided they are not. So much of the role of a good writer is to allow the reader to participate. Other writers will disagree, of course, but I write fairly sparsely, I think.
LGBTicons: Where do you think your writing fits into the wider LGBTI literary scene?
MB: Somewhere in between Brokeback Mountain and A Single Man, and Australia’s classic LGBTI memoir Holding the Man, which has just been released as a movie.
LGBTicons: What makes you rank your work there?
MB: Holding the Man was published twenty years ago, and covers LGBTI life in Australia in the 1970s and 1980s. It’s a perennial favourite, but one of the reasons I wrote Questionable Deeds is because I think it’s time for a bit of an update on where Australian families are at with their LGBTI members. I think readers might be surprised to find that although laws have changed, many community and government attitudes have not. I was very inspired to read Brokeback Mountain and Annie Proulx is a writing icon for me. A Single Man is a film based on the novel by Christopher Isherwood, and it’s the fictionalised account of what happens to a man whose partner dies, and my life followed similar patterns.
LGBTicons: How are your books going in the marketplace?
MB: My two works of non-fiction have appeared in Amazon’s Top Ten bestseller lists, in fact Questionable Deeds was in the number one spot for a few days running, which was a great result for me, since I am an independent publisher of my own work.
LGBTicons: So you publish your books yourself?
MB: I do. I tried for many years to get my work traditionally published, which I think is why I have such a logjam of titles in the pipeline.
LGBTicons: Do you think the political nature of your writing hurt your chances of getting published?
MB: I’d like to think not, but there is a broad conservatism in the media and publishing which seems to be taking a strong foothold. We have LGBTI characters in science fiction or historical dramas, but relatively few as living, breathing people you might encounter in your family or your workplace. Publishing is a risk, and publishing fiction is an even greater risk, so there are not too many short story collections out there with an array of gay characters. Erotic thrillers, of the ‘Fifty Shades’ type, are the bestsellers.
LGBTicons: But your short stories and your memoir contain their share of sex, right?
MB: They do, although I have not pitched them that way.
LGBTicons: Was that a conscious decision?
MB: I suppose it was, because I realised I was not setting out to write a sexual thriller of any kind, but to write where sexual adventure, or misadventure, can place people in extraordinary danger, not just physical danger, but mental and emotional states that are probably not that good for the soul.
LGBTicons: So what’s next in the logjam?
MB: I published a third book this month – Pluck: Exploits of the single-minded – which is a collection of my articles from 2009-2015. Some of them have featured on LGBTicons, and I’ll be publishing my first play later this year, and another four titles in 2016, including my first novel.
LGBTicons: Are all your books gay-themed in some way?
MB: Yes, they are, in different degrees. I think straight authors generally write straight-themed books, so I am not approaching this publishing journey with any different energy to writers that came before. The only thing I think I am doing differently is reserving the right as an out, gay man to write work that places LGBTI front and centre. It’s what writers like E. M. Forster could not do in his lifetime. I feel that if I don’t do this, the struggles that came before me were in vain.
To read extracts of Michael’s work, watch book trailers check out Michael’s online bookshop.