Difficult Narratives: An Interview with Jeff Bursey


NC photoBy Lee D. Thompson

There may be only a handful of Canadian authors with as rigorous an approach to fiction as Jeff Bursey. His two published novels – Verbatim: A Novel (Enfield and Wizenty) and the recently released Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press) – both adhere to a kind of hyper-real conceit – the showy Hansard transcripts in Verbatim, the candid, near-verbatim dialogues in Mirrors.

We met online in 2010 after an introduction through New York author Joseph McElroy. We quickly found a kindred interest in so-called difficult, often obscure authors and met in person the following year. Born in Newfoundland, now residing in Prince Edward Island, Bursey crossed the Northumberland Stait and stopped in my hometown of Moncton this past autumn to both launch and later talk about his new novel.

You’ve championed ‘difficult’ (or unconventional) fiction often in your reviews, and Mirrors on which dust has fallen is itself a difficult fiction – both style-wise and its content; what did you find most difficult in writing Mirrors?

Difficult or unconventional fiction has relatively few advocates in the general press, as bestseller lists and the bulk of novels reviewed in the newspapers will confirm. While writing Mirrors on which dust has fallen I never thought of making the work appear difficult. Doubt is common among writers, and at one point I thought: This is a book with a lot of dialogue, so does something extravagantly dramatic need to happen? Then I came back to the guiding principles behind the novel and carried on. What I found most difficult was in putting specific ideas and allusions (which I’ll leave for people to find) in everyday words, as bits of speech, internal monologue, or the narrative voice, so that they didn’t stick out but, when found, might deepen the reading experience, if done well. Readers will have to decide that.

In a novel that relies so heavily on dialogue, and dialogue that’s often unattributed (at least in traditional ways), how important is it to you that we know who exactly is speaking? Or is there a desire for a kind of chaos?

The conversations take place in a variety of settings where music, say, and the arrival of other people interrupt the flow. This is the reality of many exchanges: complications occur, chaos as well as order can be present. True, a reader won’t always know who’s speaking on the first try, but a re-read will help. There’s a lot of writing that lays everything out so that the amount of effort (or you could say, responsibility) demanded of a reader is minimal, no more demanding than what you find on a cereal box.

You’ve written critical work on William Gaddis, whose approach to narrative, in my opinion, should be mandatory reading for any aspiring novelist. How far does his influence extend into your work?

I began writing in the early 1980s with plays, and that taught me the importance of getting lines right. It took time to put the oral nature of the culture I was born in, and the demands on speaking that the radio job I had at the time required, in the service of my writing. They finally began to show up with “The Benches”, a play from 1984. A big influence on that was David Mamet. A previous and also abiding influence has been Henry Miller, whose first three novels illustrated what seemed to me an astonishing notion: that one could write about anything. In 1987, while living in London, England, and writing up a draft of my Miller thesis, I started reading Gaddis’s The Recognitions and admired the rhythms of the sentences, the expansiveness of the topics, and the richness of each work. He had a way of finding new structures that matched the interests that he wanted to explore. His example seemed to say that, with the exercise of thought and care, you could do something particular in each work and not repeat yourself. It took a few years to incorporate that lesson, which I hope I have. That’s the true extent of his influence.

Do you have a preference for delivering story through dialogue rather than through traditional narrative techniques?

Whatever the form of the book might be, whatever anybody is writing, the content and the form are indivisible; sometimes dialogue is simply the way to go. Really, the question that you ask is: do I rely on interior monologues, or do I prefer dialogues that give an exterior view of characters? The characters are determined by what I want them to do. They don’t have freedom. Sometimes an internal monologue is appropriate, but sometimes the dialogue tells readers exactly what they need to know. It’s whatever the author wants to do. If I can get the rhythms of how people speak on the paper – not verbatim, but a manageable form – that makes people think the characters are real enough for the duration of the reading experience, I’ll go for that.

Do you find yourself eavesdropping on people in conversation, or ‘stealing’ bits of dialogue from people you know?

Restaurants are great for that if you’re sitting by yourself and reading a newspaper when people in other booths say something and you pick it out. I’ve often jotted down things if they’re particularly noteworthy. I’m in the process of revising a novel set in Charlottetown so at various locales in that city I’ve recorded what people have said. Sometimes it’s accidental, if a phrase or a word leaks out. I never set out to do it, but if it occurs I’m there to try to pin it to paper. Like any writer.

Are any of your characters based on people you know?

Our brains, do they determine what the world is? Do we have an external reality, apart from our consciousness? Due to some events in my life I have a different perspective on what is reality, and that’s partly why the works of authors who question and shake up the alleged firmness of the world are important to me: Gabriel Josipovici, César Aira, others… Do I make up characters or are these just my interpretations of the people in the world? Necessarily, they have to emanate from me. When you’re transposing this interview you’re filtering my words. Are these my words or are they a mixture of you and me?

Some of your material, such as the rape scene in Mirrors, is material other authors would never touch. Where do you draw the line when it comes to ‘appropriate’ material in fiction?

Each fiction project will contain particular elements. I have conceptions for what my books will look like, and there are large-scale plans, but then happy accidents occur, and that might seem like a crass thing to say – for a rape scene to be ‘happy accident’ – but I’ll stand by that. It’s just one of those things that occur to a writer as they’re writing. To the larger question, there are no rules, there are no lines that are drawn. If we only ever wrote things that were pleasant then I doubt we’d ever write much that qualifies as art.

Have you received pushback from editors on certain scenes?

No. A couple of interviewers have asked: Why did you show that scene? It has to fit within the thematic concerns. I think a writer has to stand by what they do, and some of that is not going to be pleasant. If you’re not in it the whole way, why be in it?

You’ve published Mirrors with what might be considered a fringe publisher, or a micro-publisher, certainly a very new publisher – at what point is it simply more important to get the work published, as opposed to seeking a large publisher or do you never have a large publisher in mind for a work like Mirrors?

I finished this book in 1998 and believe that in many respects it’s resolutely Canadian, so of course I tried Canadian publishers. I tried American publishers and some English publishers and then I gave up and moved on to other things. Eventually Verbivoracious came to my attention, we started talking, they read the book and then said they’d like to publish it. Now the object was, as in any book, to make sure that the communicative act is actually a communicative act. Every book, every sculpture, every play, is an act of communication between people. There’s no point in writing a book to only then say, “I’m just going to bury it,” unless you want it hidden for legal or ethical reasons. I wanted to communicate things in this book and I worked hard on it, and I wanted it to be read, for me to be heard. I don’t mean that in any egotistical way; it’s just as if you were talking and you wanted someone to listen to you, and to respond in conversation. I believe intelligent reviewers enter into a dialogue with a work, and that’s essential. The book is the book, but the conversation doesn’t end there. What the best reviewers do is carry on the conversation that an author has started, but of course, an author joins in with the chorus of other authors that have come before.

Final question on that note. As someone who does a lot of reviewing, are you ever concerned or have you received feedback that you might not want to be harsh toward people who in return may review your book poorly?

You can’t bank on what anyone’s opinion is going to be. I received feedback from a Canadian author who objected to what I wrote about his or her book. The most important thing is to get your own opinion out there; there are enough censors within you that you don’t need to bring in external ones. If you’re just going to apply for grant money and worry so-and-so may be on the panel, what’s the point of writing? Then you’re just spaying or neutering yourself so that you can just get a few dollars to live on, and to get your next, perhaps enfeebled, book out, and I don’t see the point in that.



  1. Shane Neilson
    Posted December 28, 2015 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    Hi Lee,

    Great interview with Jeff. I think of Bursey as one of the most active and knowledgeable fiction critics going when it comes to what I’ll call here, for reasons of brevity, the “postmodern novel.” He has a huge repository of very strong (and in some cases, quite lengthy) pieces on the world’s best modern writers and has published them in respected venues. I’m not sure his criticism is appreciated at a level commensurate with his talent, and I’d recommend his Offshore Drilling column on TWR as a quick primer on both his talent, appetite, and taste. That he usually looks abroad is perhaps part of his lack of renown in Canada, but for me it’s a great recommendation. So few Canadian critics are doing the work that he does so well.


    • Posted December 29, 2015 at 9:27 am | Permalink

      Well said, Shane. I’ve certainly seen a lack of respect for his critical experience here in Canada, where too many authors react poorly to his thorough critiques. His fiction deserves a wider audience, but so much worthy fiction does.

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Lee Thompson

Lee D. Thompson is a writer, editor, and musician living in Moncton, New Brunswick. His fiction has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, and he is founder and managing editor of the sporadic literary journal Galleon.