This week I interviewed an author who I’ve really come to admire and respect. A tall man who mostly writes short fiction—’Nathan Burgoine.
(Please note that responses to my questions are minimally edited to preserve the integrity of the author’s answers.)
I first discovered who you were at Can-Con 2016, when I attended two excellent sessions that included you as a panelist. The first was about writing sex scenes, moderated by author Angela Stone, and the second was about representation of queer characters in fiction, moderated by Speculating Canada’s Derek Newman-Stille. Why did you choose to be a panelist for these topics, and what other topics do you like to discuss at conferences?
I think I got my first taste of this kind of thing in university, when I was the “Education/Outreach Co-Coordinator” at the queer centre on campus, and it turned out that I loved it. I’ve always enjoyed public speaking (I know, I know), but when it combines with having an opportunity to speak about a topic close to my heart? I’m all in.
One of the best things about Can-Con is how rich with authors and readers the event is, and how eager everyone is to learn and share. Writers write outside of their own experiences, and panels like those two are a great way to ask questions, bring up concerns, and just generally broaden a horizon or two.
The why of it, though? Can-Con is conference about the speculative genre primarily, but unlike a lot of conventions, it doesn’t pretend those genres all exist in distinct bubbles that never overlap. The full range of sexuality is a part of humanity, as are queer people. Having the ability to talk about sexuality outside of medical or romance/erotica conventions—not to mention having queer discussions outside of specifically queer spaces and conventions—is pretty darn rare, and to my mind that’s a problem.
It might sound dramatic, but I think any time I have an opportunity to help bring a queer point of view into a new area, it’s worth doing. When I was a kid, I never found any characters like me (and when I first did in high school, all the characters died). That can’t be the norm, especially in a genre devoted so readily to the future.
As for future topics? I’d love to see more intentional intersection representations within wider topics. We still tend to compartmentalize things: “This panel is about queer life, this panel discusses neurodivergent experiences, this panel on Jewish culture,” and so on. And wow, are those implicitly diversity-focused discussions important. Totally. But if the queer panels are the only place where the queer people get to talk? That’s not great.
So, bringing neurodivergent Jewish queer writers onto panels about other topics? That’s the kind of stuff I’d love to see. Don’t get me wrong, I’m always down for queer discussions, and I know I get a lot of opportunities to speak on the topic because of my queerness, but sometimes I just want to talk about the X-Men.
When I read your list of published works, it was so hard for me to believe you have to limit your writing time because of debilitating migraines. You’re a powerhouse author in my eyes. How do you stay so focused and produce so much? Asking for a friend.
Ah, the migraine headaches. Yeah. So, I remember one of our first conversations where you asked me to write for the SpAN and I was like, “Me? What? Why?” and then once I started writing it down I had this face-palm moment. My headaches (and the triggers for them) really do impact my day-to-day, mostly through how I schedule myself. Assuming I don’t have a migraine headache, because if I do, then all the schedule is just tossed in the garbage until I can see again and stop throwing up.
My writing time? Generally it comes in two chunks, and the total for a single day can’t be more than, maybe, two hours total. So, I block my time, usually in the morning after walking the dog post-breakfast, usually around 7:45 am, and stopping before it’s time to walk him again at 11:00 am at the latest. In those three hours or so, I need to make sure I take a break (9:30 am or 10:00 am or so, the dog usually starts his campaigning for a walk anyway, which makes a nice alarm clock). And that’s it. No more writing after that, or I’m risking a headache at least, or a migraine headache at worst.
I also know if it’s not flowing well, that I can force a migraine headache even faster than that by pushing myself to write despite not having that inspiration. So, I give myself Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays for whatever my major, deadlined project is. Wednesdays I leave for a short fiction project (usually something for an open call for submission, or a side-project) as a way to “palate cleanse” mid-way through the week. And weekends I leave blank. Sometimes I do write on Saturday or Sunday (and if I have a migraine headache during the week, the weekend can become a day to make up lost word count), but I don’t plan on it. I break down my word-count targets smaller than I know I generally put out, and schedule myself to that smaller number. If I get done faster, that’s fantastic, but it stops me from over-promising and under-delivering. That advice: “Write every day or you’re not a real writer?” Whoever said that needs a slap. I can’t do that. I make myself physically ill just trying to do that, and although I’ve gotten better at recognizing my limits, I still screw it up.
So I guess it’s not so much that I stay focused as I know I’ll pay for it dearly if I try to do more. Which I still sometimes do. Because I’m not always bright. I do think that having less actual writing time at a keyboard means I spend a lot of time doing the mental/emotional parts of writing in my head, and I do find that I don’t often have knots I can’t untangle before sitting down if I’ve taken the dog on a good long walk or two. I don’t have a choice but to spend a lot of time away from the keyboard, and part of me thinks that’s a bit of a blessing, as often it’s the time away from the keyboard where I figure out what I should do while I’m there.
I can generally manage a novel a year, but even that has been hard this year (the rain and storm-laden weather this year was merciless for migraine headache sufferers), and I fell so much further behind than I imagined. I had to ask for an extension. I’ve never done that before, and it felt like failure. It wasn’t. It’s accommodation, and I’m learning to be okay with that.
I honestly don’t feel like I produce a lot, but I know a novel a year is pretty darn quick to a lot of writers. It’s just hard not to look at other authors—especially some of the talented romance novelists—who manage multiple novels throughout a year, but that will never be me. “Don’t compare yourself to others” is fantastic advice. I should really work on following it.
Writing novellas and short stories (on Wednesdays and sometimes weekends) though? That keeps me feeling like I’m making measurable progress throughout the year. I love short fiction, it flows much more naturally for me, and the novella length book is sort of my writing sweet-spot.
It also doesn’t hurt I’ve got a really high typing speed.
Your novella, In Memoriam, is the first piece I’ve read from you and it just blew my mind. This work might have been too awesome to publish without a warning of its awesomeness. You began your career as an author of short fiction, didn’t you? What appeals to you about writing shorter stories?
Two things: one selfish, and one more crafty.
The crafty thing? There are things you can do in a short story (or a novella) you can’t do in a novel. There are some narrative arcs I just enjoy more as a reader when they’re short. I tend to prefer my romance-type stories to be shorter, because as soon as they start to lengthen, they need something more for me not to start getting annoyed that the romantic pair (or more) aren’t just together already. This isn’t to say there aren’t authors out there who can do magical, wondrous things with super-long romance novels, it’s just an example of the kind of story that I think can be really well told without having to linger longer.
Similarly, “reveal” stories, where the narrative hinges on some revelation. In short fiction or a novella, that can be a short ride with a solid impact. In a longer format, sometimes those stories start to feel like too long a tease, especially if the reader is particularly clever or observant and figures out the twist, and starts to feel like the rest of the characters are being a bit dense.
The selfish thing, though? I can write a short story, get feedback, edit, and release it within a month. Validation—which I tend to think we authors try to downplay and shouldn’t—is a real thing. Having someone say they enjoyed words I put together? That’s lifeblood to me. I know, I know, we’re supposed to be all about the “art” of it, and say things like, “Even if no one ever read it, the story had to be written,” but honestly? I’m writing back in time, trying to create the characters I never got to find when I was looking for them. I like knowing they’ve been found, and if someone likes it? That gets me pumped for days.
So, you saying In Memoriam blew your mind? That’s gold. And In Memoriam took a month or two to write (it’s a fairly short novella). The turnaround to feedback, and the feeling of success at finishing a project, the validation if someone enjoys it, those come so much faster with shorter formats than they do with novels. I write a novel for a year before someone even gets to see it. A whole year in a vacuum doesn’t build my confidence, or help me feel at all like I’m on the right track.
Short fiction does.
And you’re right, it’s where I started. When I was working full time I couldn’t even manage the pace I was doing now with writing. It all happened on my days off, around everything else going on, and I was really, really bad at remembering to stop (this was pre-dog, too). My first novel took three years, and I didn’t even try writing a novel until I’d had a dozen short fiction pieces published. I resisted novel writing every step of the way, and it wasn’t until I had a couple of short story ideas that wouldn’t fit in a short story that I really gave it a shot.
Now that you have three novels published, how did journeying into a longer word-count feel after short fiction?
They’re very different animals to me, and I don’t think I’ll ever leave short fiction. The biggest difference, though, was how much more attention novels get. I mean, I knew that. I worked at a bookstore for decades, and I’d heard roughly a bajillion people tell me “Oh, I don’t like short stories,” or, “I don’t read short stories,” but wow was I unprepared for the difference. People had been really supportive and nice about my published short fiction, and I even had a small taste of a “going viral” day thanks to my story being the first and being used in a promo for This is How You Die, but when Light came out? So many more people contacted me, or wrote reviews, or just generally supported me in some fashion. It was really amazing.
Also, as awful as this sounds, it added weight to the word “author.” It’s so frustrating to me this is the way it is, but when I’d written dozens of short fiction pieces and had them published, the reaction was more-or-less, “Oh, but have you written a novel?” said with the tone of, “Have you done any real writing?” Now that I have three novels, I don’t get that sort of question any more.
Well, now I get, “Have you written anything that isn’t queer?” but that’s a whole other ball of wax.
I know I’ll keep going with novels. But my love of the novella and short story isn’t going away, and thanks to the e-book world, they become a little more viable, especially in series. I’m happy about that. If I can also release a novella a year, or a few short stories a year? That’ll be my happiest balancing point.
I am dying to begin Triad Blood. It’s literally next on my list. There is also Triad Soul as the second book in the series. Am I right to assume there’ll be a third, so it’s a triad of Triads? Can you tell us a bit about this series?
You’re right! (I love saying that to people. Everyone loves someone saying, “You’re right!”)
The Triad books came from a bit of a throw-away reference in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Dracula has three brides. We never really find out why, though. When I’d been asked by Todd Gregory to send a short erotic gay story to an upcoming vampire book, I re-read Dracula hunting for some inspiration, and that little fact stuck with me, and I decided to play with it.
In my world-building, I decided that three was a minimum. Unless you had a group of three (or more) vampires, or wizards, or demons, the individuals weren’t safe from everyone else. In the case of vampires, it meant that other vampires could literally force a kind of dominant act of will over them, and make these solo or paired vampires do whatever they wanted. Those groups of three or more gathered every full moon to reinforce their bond, which meant that those who weren’t bonded had three nights every month where they were somewhat safer, at least for a while each night, to try and eke out a survival. That first story, Three, explored that from my vampire’s point of view, and he meets a wizard and a demon in a similar state and they decide to bond with each other—something that isn’t done, since they’re not the same kind. The fallout of that led to three more erotic short stories with those characters, and then I bumped into an idea that wouldn’t fit into a short piece for them.
They also became the short stories I’d written that garnered the most feedback. So when it was time to pitch a second novel to Bold Strokes Books, I put together a proposal for a full length urban paranormal novel with the guys, and that became Triad Blood. Triad Soul followed, and the next novel I’ll pitch will be Triad Magic.
Generally speaking, the books explore chosen family, how tradition and “how we’ve always done this” isn’t by any means inherently a good thing, and while it’s our world with magic and vampires and demons, I also wrote the kind of urban paranormal I’d always wished I could have read: one where queer people exist, and lead queer lives. Y’know, among all the danger and magic and stuff.
Your genres include young adult, romance, erotica, and paranormal. Do you have a favourite?
My favourite is always going to be contemporary speculative fiction of any kind: our world, our time, but with a dash of magic or the paranormal or something psychic or “other.” Also a healthy dose of queerness. The vast majority of what I’ve written is like that. In Memoriam is a gay romance with time travel (of a sort), Light is all about Ottawa Pride, and has telepathy and telekinesis, the Triad books are urban paranormal featuring a relationship between a gay wizard, a bisexual vampire, and a gay demon. The YA I’m working on, Exit Plans for Teenage Freaks, has a young gay kid who develops a teleportation problem during the week before final exams.
I do write some things without magic—I have an upcoming holiday romance with zero spec-fic content—but my comfort zone is usually around spec-fic. Unless I’m very constrained by a call for submission, though, I’m likely to go queer, and go magic.
There are so many great Canadian fiction authors out there. Who are some you admire? Do any of them particularly inspire you?
Omigosh yes. Okay, I’m sure I’ll forget a bajillion of them, even limiting myself to Canucks, but. I adore Stephen Graham King’s ability to world-build. I think Elizabeth Hay has an incredible ability with character voice. Francis Itani makes lyricism look effortless. Tanya Huff and Charles de Lint were the first authors I think I read where I understood the kind of story I wanted to write could actually have a home. Also Nalo Hopkinson. Oh! And Alice Munro. Her short fiction is majestic. André Alexis’s Despair and Other Stories was breathtaking. Darren Greer. Meryn Cadell. Helen Humphreys . . . I could probably go on for ages here.
And I’m really, really lucky that I have often met many of the authors I just named thanks to the job I had at the bookstore.
They all inspire in different ways, but most centrally it’s that I can see such unique voices in their work, and that each of them has a talent I want to cultivate and can use as a kind of ‘I’ll never get there, but I can sure get closer’ goal. Stephen’s seemingly effortless world-building, for example. I can aspire to that, and reading his books and seeing it done so well recharges my desire to work at it.
Okay, shameless plug time! What would you like us to read of yours and why? How best can we plunge into the ‘Nathanness?
Ooh, okay. I have three answers, if I’m allowed that. I’m going to assume I am.
If you want to know what my short fiction is like? Best entry point, I think, would be The Psychometry of Snow. It appears in The Bears of Winter anthology from Lethe Press, but—bonus!—they also have it up for free on their blog: http://www.lethepressbooks.com/latest-news/tbt-thursday-the-bears-of-winter-ed-by-jerry-l-wheeler . Why this story? It’s got the psychic stuff, the queer stuff, and is somewhat nonlinear, all of which I like to do quite a bit in short fiction.
If you’re a novella lover (or a gay romance lover)? In Memoriam, </em>which we’ve mentioned a couple of times, is very much my usual style. Now, when people read the description they sometimes wonder how it could possibly be a romance given the topic, but I’ll say two things: one: romances always have happy endings, and two: wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey. Why? This one’s got the “other” and the queer stuff too, but it also has a lot of humour, which is something I think is often missing from rough topics.
But if you’re all about the novel (and hey, like I said earlier, I know lots of readers don’t do shorter fiction), and you think urban paranormal is cool? Triad Blood might fit the bill. Vampires, demons, wizards, and Ottawa, too! As for why? Well, this has the magic, the queer stuff, certainly some humour, but most importantly? It has Firefly references. Shiny.
’Nathan Burgoine is a tall queer guy who mostly writes short queer fiction, though he’s up to three novels now. Light was a Lambda Literary finalist. Triad Blood and Triad Soul are available from Bold Strokes Books. He lives in Ottawa, Canada, with his husband Dan and their rescued husky, Coach. You can find ’Nathan online on his website, Twitter, and Facebook. Coach often steps into the frame, and ‘Nathan wouldn’t have it any other way.