An Interview with Richard Burgin
Interview conducted by Ann McCutchan
Ann McCutchan: You’re a writer, and you’ve also composed many songs. I’m very interested in your musical background. You know I am a musician, too, and was coached in chamber music with both of your parents, Richard Burgin and Ruth Posselt, who were well-known violinists. I’m curious about your background in that musical household, and the effects of that upbringing on you as an artist, in general.
Richard Burgin: Well, next to not having more children, as I only have one, the biggest regret of my life is that I didn’t go into music, study and pursue it seriously, so I have to begin with that. I never studied music, except when I was very young. I played the piano with my aunt, who was my mother’s sister — she had a number of sisters who were also professional musicians. I studied with my mother, too. One of my earliest childhood memories was crying because I wanted to go out and play, and not practice the piano. My parents were both kind of liberal softies; they gave in and I never studied piano again. Everything I do in music is by ear; I have no training whatsoever.
AM: What kind of teacher was your mother?
RB: She was a perfectionist. It was probably a big mistake to study with her. I was 6 or 7 years old when I stopped, and my main memory was her perfectionism. That decision really shaped the rest of my life, because I’ve always loved music more than literature. Maybe this is overstating the point, but it’s a little like being a person who feels they’ve been born with the wrong gender. I’ve had what success I’ve had as a writer, but have always yearned to be a professional musician. That was the life I didn’t live, because of the decision to stop studying the piano and other psychological factors. When I got older I made a few attempts to study, but it was too late and not psychologically possible. So you know, it’s one of those road not taken things.
AM: Can you tell me a little about the music you compose, and the composers or pieces of music you love the most?
RB: I have written over one hundred songs and pieces, and I have self-produced four CDs and been paid for doing two others.
For the Ontario Review Press, Joyce Carol Oates wanted to have a CD of my songs as part of a book of mine, so that was kind of a thrill for me (I had been sending her tapes of my piano pieces for awhile). The book consisted of twenty stories and twenty songs, with a CD. It was called The Identity Club: New and Selected Stories and Songs. That was the first time I was ever paid for my music. And then I became friendly with Gloria Vanderbilt, and she asked me to write a song she produced to help promote a doll she designed, and she appeared with me on the Home Shopping Network to sell the doll, so I wrote the song for that. Recently, I’ve done more pop music, heavily influenced by jazz and classical. My 2008 CD, The Trouble With Love, got a nice response, and a couple of good reviews. So I have done probably a hundredth of what I could have done had I ever studied. I add that to make myself seem not so pathetic, which I have a knack for doing, as anyone who knows me knows.
AM: It’s part of your charm.
RB: In classical music, my favorites, besides the usual Bach, Beethoven and Mozart, are Stravinsky and Mahler. One of the great musical experiences of my life was seeing my father conduct Mahler’s Second Symphony. He had a great success with it at Tanglewood [Music Center], and my sister was singing in the chorus. Also Das Lied von der Erde, his fourth symphony, and his uncompleted tenth are all profound musical experiences, among the great works of art of all time.
To me, Stravinsky is the greatest composer of the 20th century; he seemingly never makes an aesthetic mistake. He has so much wit and charm in every line that he writes. I love everything he wrote from Le Sacre du Printemps to the chamber music, the violin concerto . . . I love all of his periods. He’s kind of like Picasso; I associate the two in my mind. And like Picasso, he could write in any style that he wanted. I love Prokofiev, too. Maybe he’s not a great composer with a capital G, but he’s written some of the most heart-breakingly beautiful melodies ever.
Among more contemporary composers, I like George Crumb, some of Phil Glass, and Harry Partch, so I’m pretty eclectic in my tastes. In jazz, Bill Evans is my favorite pianist. I wrote a little essay about him that was in a book called A Concert I’ll Never Forget, and then it got reprinted in a reader of my work that came out in France.
AM: What is it about Evans? What did he do, that no one else had done?
RB: I think he brought a kind of lyricism and introspection, a whole range of emotions to jazz, as well as a softness . . . he became more beautiful, more dramatic, the softer he played. He had a great ear for harmony. He’s strong rhythmically and strong melodically, but he’s a flat out genius harmonically. He brought Impressionism to jazz, if you will; I think his music can easily hold its own with the piano music of Debussy or Ravel. He’s kind of the Chopin of jazz. He got criticized a lot for being so soft, so introspective, but that’s my favorite Evans. His style evolved and he became more openly expressive in the latter part of his too-short life, but I still prefer the Evans of Live at the Village Vanguard 1961 than the Evans of the late 70s, when he was trying to be a little bit more crowd friendly.
AM: Do you think that’s a temptation for any artist, to play to the crowd? Or is it a career move that’s foisted upon them?
RB: I think in the case of Evans, he wasn’t doing it to help himself commercially. I think he had incredible integrity as a musician. I think he tried to do it for aesthetic reasons — he came to agree or wanted to respond to his critics for aesthetic reasons. It’s not like he abandoned lyricism completely, by any stretch, but he became more extroverted in his playing. And sometimes that
is a strength that is refreshing. He was adventuresome; he was always trying different things, even though his style was recognizable throughout his career. So it’s a subtle thing I’m describing – the move to a more extroverted style.
AM: Do you think that having absorbed music in your household, and being a music lover all your life, has affected you as a writer? Or maybe I’m just going for the ear here. Has your writerly ear been helped or influenced by music?
RB: It’s possible. It’s hard to know. I’m a little wary of connecting those two arts because I think of them so differently. But I will say this: the plot of my first novel, Ghost Quartet, concerns a famous Bernstein-like composer, and it takes place in Juilliard and New York City, and also at Tanglewood [the Boston Symphony’s summer home]. I obviously couldn’t have written that book in any authentic way if I hadn’t come from a musical family and spent the first 16 summers of my life at Tanglewood and lived in New York, known so many performing musicians and heard so many stories about them from my parents.
AM: I really enjoyed that novel. I recognized the people and the situations. It was spot on. And beautifully written.
RB: Thank you. So music definitely played a role in that particular book, and in other work, where I’ve made references to musicians. I’m thinking of this story called “Caesar,” the first story in my last book of stories, Shadow Traffic. Caesar is talking about Ravel and Debussy to the cab driver. But in terms of actually influencing my style of writing, I don’t know if it does or not.
AM: Let’s move to writers, then. Who are your models, the authors you admire the most or have taken the most from? And let me pair that with another question, and go where you want to go with it. You mentioned in the Huffington Post interview last year that the reading experience is neglected in MFA programs.
RB: Did I really say that?
AM: Yes you did!
RB: That’s my feeling, but I have to qualify that by saying I have never been in an MFA program, except when I’ve visited to give readings or lectures. I don’t really have first-hand knowledge, but it strikes me from talking to MFA graduates, that most of what they’re reading is other students’ work, and they don’t read many other authors as part of their program. And maybe I’m wrong, maybe it’s changed, I don’t know. But I remember some years ago in New York, having lunch with a fiction editor who had the power to acquire books for Simon and Schuster, and we got into a discussion which evolved into an argument about this topic, and I asked her, “Have you read anything by Kafka?” And she said no. “By Faulkner?” No. And I said, “How can you judge people’s work if you haven’t read the people who have influenced their work? It would be like a curator for a gallery having never seen Van Gogh or Rembrandt. And she said, “You don’t need to have that background in literature, you just need to know what will sell to the demographics the company is aiming at.” I get the feeling — and maybe I’m wrong, that MFA students are mostly reading each other’s work, and stories that get published in The New Yorker. They’re not reading people like Celine, Beckett, or Bernhard, for example.
When you were an MFA student, was that part of the curriculum? Did they have you read?
AM: Yes, they did. In the writing workshops at the University of Houston there were assigned readings along with the student work. This is the way my colleagues and I run workshops at UNT. I think most of us teach classics as well as contemporary writers. It works — though, if I ask a creative nonfiction workshop to read Seneca, some students balk.
What about the writers who have influenced you most?
RB: Quite a number, of course. I’d say the writers who’ve had the most influence aren’t necessarily the writers who I think are the greatest. They don’t always coincide. For example, I don’t think Shakespeare has influenced me in any way, thought I wouldn’t deny his greatness. So bearing that in mind: I think Tolstoy is one of the greatest fiction writers, but I think I’ve been much more influenced by Dostoevsky.
AM: In what way?
RB: In spirit. In my case, I think I’m most influenced by people I have a psychological or emotional connection to, and I think I’m closer to Dostoevsky’s type of soul than Tolstoy’s — even though I think Tolstoy’s a greater writer.
It’s why I identify more with Mahler than Mozart, though I think Mozart’s a greater composer.
AM: Can you describe what draws you to Dostoevsky?
RB: He’s a master of showing the ambivalence of people, their excessive pride. I’m thinking of the Underground Man, which became a prototype for the monologue as a form. So many monologists have come from Notes From the Underground alone. Everyone from Camus, (The Stranger and The Fall) to one of my very favorite writers, the much-neglected Austrian writer, Thomas Bernhard.
AM: I’ve not read him.
RB: Not many people in America have. He, in turn, was influenced by Notes From the Underground, especially in his novella Concrete (1982), which I recommend as a good place to start reading Bernhard. You can read it in an hour and a half.
So, because I used to write a lot of first-person monologue-type works of fiction, I was influenced by Dostoevsky. But also, he was a master of a frankly neurotic psychology, a master of understanding it. So few American writers have any ideas about the inner world at all. Everything is experienced through what Philip Rahv called the cult of experience. To Dostoevsky, ideas were as real as his characters, and he knew how to dramatize ideas, especially in Crime and Punishment but also in The Brothers Karamazov, in the grand inquisitor section. Ideas were of real consequence, and were part of his literary landscape. That has influenced me a lot, because I like ideas as a component of fiction.
And there are other writers who influenced me, too: Faulkner, Kafka, Borges.
AM: You said American writers are not as interested in ideas as, say, European writers. Why do you think that’s so?
RB: We don’t have a philosophical tradition or much respect or interest in teaching philosophy in this country. I don’t think many people in MFA programs have read The Critique of Pure Reason by Kant, or even The Interp
retation of Dreams by Freud, and those are two of the most important books for forming my conception of human reality.
I don’t think Americans find ideas very saleable or sexy or whatever you want to call it. They’re either dismissed as elitist nonsense, or just not helpful in selling a book.
AM: So it all comes down to mercantile considerations?
RB: It’s a vicious circle. So few people write books in which ideas play an important part, and when editors get one, they don’t know what to make of it. I’m guessing they dismiss it as boring, unnecessary, beside the point, not part of a plot. Ideas are not an important dimension, not looked for or valued. So if they’re not valued, people aren’t writing about them, and if someone does write a work of ideas, it’s not going to get very far.
AM: We hear editors choose the kinds of books they read, themselves. Perhaps they’re in a world some of us don’t occupy . . . ?
RB: Every now and then it amazes me that Borges published to the extent he did. It was kind of a perfect storm of circumstances, including the dawn of psychedelics, and people looked at his stories as kind of psychedelic. He was the first writer since Dante to write about infinity — to focus on astonishment at the universe itself. It’s very hard to write about those feelings, and he was able to find metaphors to partially express the inexpressible.
AM: As a teacher, would you speak about the consequences, for a writer, of a thin reading background?
RB: I don’t know if I’m prepared the answer that, because I don’t feel I’ve read widely or deeply, myself. There are some things I’m proud of having read, like the complete Remembrance of Things Past, because Proust is one of my very favorite writers. But I have many big gaps in my own reading background. I don’t know. I think it’s a mysterious question, why some people are able to write better, more movingly, more deeply than others. I don’t think it can be traced, necessarily, to how many books a person has read. I think the best-read person in the world might not be able to write one single interesting paragraph.
I guess what it comes down to is my belief that talent is innate and genetic, more than anything else. I know this goes against what a lot of people think: that you can learn how to be an artist by going to an MFA program. But I don’t believe that. I think you can improve your skills, and you might get inspired or motivated by the work of other people, or by contact with teachers, but can talent be taught? Absolutely not. If that were true, we would have many more Beethovens and Picassos and Flannery O’Connors and James Joyces than exist!
AM: I’m right with you on that.
Back to reading, if you don’t mind. I’m aware of how necessary it is to slow down one’s reading process, to absorb any great work. Students often whip through stuff just in time for class. Would you speak a little about the time, or the speed with which one reads?
RB: I could never read Remembrance of Things Past in its entirety now. I just wouldn’t have the energy. It’s something I did in my early 30s.
I’m a single parent; my first allegiance, first wave of energy, goes toward my son. He’s number one in my life. Then there is my own work, and reading for Boulevard, so there isn’t much time or energy left to read books. That makes me sound like an ignoramus, but it’s been one of the realities of my life, the last few years.
AM: I think we all fight for time.
RB: To be honest, I love music more. I’d much rather listen to music than read.
AM: Ha! Me, too.
Please tell me about your new book, Hide Island. It consists of a novella and nine stories. Is there a general theme, or are the stories more discrete?
RB: I’ve never done a book of linked stories, or one where there’s an overarching theme that connects everything. Some of these stories were written years ago, some were written in the last year. The only thing I try to do in a collection is to find a balance – so a dark story is followed by a more optimistic one, or a story in which the protagonist is male is followed by one from a female point of view.
In this case, I begin the collection as many people do with what I think is one of the strongest stories — a story called “Atlantis,” which appeared in the anthology New Jersey Noir, edited by Joyce Carol Oates.
The novella, called the The Memory Center, is a long story. It’s kind of a sequel to my story “Memo and Oblivion,” which was in my last published book Shadow Traffic (Johns Hopkins). “Memo and Oblivion” was set in a futuristic New York City and deals with two rival drug organizations, one devoted to a drug called Memo, which can increase memory exponentially, but has some ironic consequences. (We may think we want to remember certain things, but other things we don’t want to remember.) Some who took it went into depression, or even committed suicide. Oblivion is the name of the other drug; it allows people to forget the past, and the details of their life. The protagonist gets caught between the two rival organizations, doing undercover work. So — The Memory Center deals with some of the characters and themes of “Memo and Oblivion,” and an attempt by a bizarre and tortured doctor to surgically create a situation of memory selection — where you can eliminate some memories and keep others. It’s suspenseful and there’s a love story and it tries to deal with some ideas about memory and identity.