I was born into a family of readers and I gobbled up books from an early age. My father Basil Burwell loved wordplay and storytelling and published novels and poetry. I grew up in Norwalk, Connecticut and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and remember trailing after my parents through the nooks and crannies of second hand bookstores and the crowded booths of flea markets in search of paper treasure. I became interested in writing when I was ten years old, started keeping a diary that I still write, and began creating my own tales. After college in Vermont and Wisconsin, I followed my interest in editing and served as Associate Editor and Editor-in-Chief of the Beloit Fiction Journal and as publisher and editor of Acorn Whistle magazine. I’ve published short fiction and non-fiction on a variety of topics, including baseball, rock ‘n’ roll and American history. I live with my wife and son in Beloit, Wisconsin. Prairie Hill is my first novel.
What inspires you to write?
I can’t really imagine not writing. When I was a little kid I adored listening to my father and grandmother tell amusing tales and I loved their reading bedtime stories to me. I began reading as soon as I could and then my teachers complained that I would get lost in books. I found diary/journal writing a wonderful way of capturing the world around me, slowing it down, allowing me to ponder and try to understand. I began to write fiction in my teens, at first autobiographically, but after a time using my imagination more and more. Editing literary magazines taught me so much about writing. My son, who constantly craved “pretend stories” on our walks together, inspired me. Now, my journal is ever more narrative and I dream stories. I feel happiest when writing. There is nothing I like better to do.
Tell us about your writing process.
I took notes about Prairie Hill before writing it and then while writing it. I always had a notebook with me, even when bike riding. I did not use a formal outline. I wrote a first draft of Prairie Hill without much editing along the way, other than a few word changes. If I came to a place where I was unsure of how to proceed, I skipped over it. Once I had my first draft, I went through, filled in holes, fixed inconsistencies and changed a few names. I also marked up a hard copy with edits and many, many questions I needed to ponder further. In my second draft I took out bits and pieces, but added more. I went through a few more drafts, mainly refining the writing. My final draft was #7, although I went over the earlier drafts multiple times. I proofread Prairie Hill several times and then at the very end, made one major change in the order of scenes, which I felt helped strengthen the earliest section of the novel.
For Fiction Writers: Do you listen (or talk to) to your characters?
I hear their voices. I spend a lot of time observing people, thinking about people and writing about people. Along with a diary/journal that I’ve kept since age ten, I keep several other notebooks, including what I call my “people notebook.” Even though I don’t directly use that material in my fiction, the close observations – capturing of dialogue, mannerisms, personal histories – all contribute to bringing my fictional characters to life, making them different from each other, including their voices and conversation. Prairie Hill used multiple characters telling the story and I really enjoyed their different tones and ways of speaking.
What advice would you give other writers?
I used to have writing blocks when I felt that my writing had to be “perfect” with my first draft. I no longer worry about how that first draft looks. Somewhere along the line I figured out how to edit and rewrite. So I believe that with a first draft, you simply get the story down, get a feel for its flow, get a feel for your characters and setting. It is not a place for perfection! Don’t stop early on and fuss over particular sentences and paragraphs. That said, every writer finds his or her best method.
How did you decide how to publish your books?
At first I wanted to go with traditional publishing. However, I became impatient with the long wait to hear back from agents and I decided that with my initial book, what I really wanted most of all was to find readers. I hoped that by connecting directly, I could find out whether readers like and respond to my work. I revived Acorn Whistle Press, an imprint I’d created to publish others, and I published my first novel, Prairie Hill, in 2012. The publishing process is challenging, but highly rewarding.
What do you think about the future of book publishing?
It’s obvious that the publishing industry is changing rapidly. I believe we will see a mixture of traditional paper books and eBooks for quite awhile. It’s not an “either/or” scenario for me. I enjoy both formats. The advent of eBooks and print-on-demand has created quite a wonderful opportunity for good authors unable to crack the major publishers to achieve a readership. Although it’s not a level playing field, small presses also have a chance to strengthen their niche and find more readers. This “democratization,” though, has also created an ever-growing glut of material, good and bad. Readers have to somehow sort through it all.
What genres do you write?
Literary fiction, Contemporary fiction, Young Adult, Romance
What formats are your books in?