In the latest of a new series of Q&A’s with some of Wales’s leading artists, musicians, performers, and writers, novelist and writer Carole Burns reflects on her influences and the power of collaboration within the creative sector.
Where are you from and how does it influence your work?
Carole Burns: Such a complicated question for me! As an American living here, I am asked this a lot – my accent gives me away. (I still remember with bemusement shopping for mangos at Clare Food in Grangetown one day and the shop assistant running over to me, calling out “American! American!” to catch my attention.) Usually when asked, I answer Washington, DC – everyone’s heard of it – but I’m originally from a small working class city in Connecticut. And of course, now I’m also from Cardiff. All these places influence my work, first in terms of setting. I go “home” to Connecticut in my fiction quite a lot, as many of my short stories and my new novel, The Same Country, end up being set there; it’s not really my choice, as much as where the stories take shape in my head. Moving away from Connecticut, then from the United States altogether, means these places have influenced my fiction in terms of outlook as well, as in, where I’m looking out from. I am viewing Connecticut in particular and the United States in general from the distance of both years and also culture. I understand my country differently as a result of living here; I am part of that culture but also see that culture from the outside now, and I think that’s been influential in the writing of The Same Country especially.
Where are you while you answer these questions, and what can you see when you look up from the page/screen?
Carole Burns: It’s the weekend, so today, I’m sitting at the table at my newly renovated, brilliantly yellow kitchen/dining room in Cardiff – a room that still gives me a thrill – with a large (and gorgeous) painting by my partner, Paul Edwards, in front of me, and outside the glass doors, our yard with a flourishing hibiscus plant, a struggling rose bush, and a pile of old kitchen cabinets and guttering and packing material that is waiting for the skip we haven’t yet ordered. This mix of color and art and mess is probably typical of my life, I must admit. Despite the best of intentions things end up in disarray, in part because I’m sitting here writing this instead of weeding or cleaning out the front room. Or dusting, god forbid. There’s a pile of books on the table, too – two by James Baldwin, a Granta issue, a notebook, a book about Islam, a New Welsh Reader, and crisp copies of my new novel, which landed yesterday.
What motivates you to create?
Carole Burns: Writing is who I am. I wouldn’t know my purpose in the world without it. What would my life be about, if I wasn’t writing? It is also the way I think – how I figure things out, or maybe don’t figure them out, but at least puzzle over them. I mean, don’t get me wrong – I love being with friends, cooking, eating, certain kinds of shopping, watching movies and going to museums and being outside. I actually like parties. (My only hole-in-one Wordle was PARTY.) I could happily spend days just hanging out with friends. And there are also times when I wonder if I should be using my writing ability to fight for social justice or the environment – to change the world in a more direct way. But I feel direction-less if I’m not writing for too long. I’m not myself.
What are you currently working on?
Carole Burns: I have a new novel in the works, but in these weeks leading up to the publication of The Same Country, I’ve mainly been writing journalistic articles and personal essays. I’ve published an interview with the American writer Mary Kay Zuravleff for the Washington Post, and have an essay on James Baldwin’s novel Another Country being published soon on LitHub. I won’t reveal much about my new novel, but I am looking forward to getting back to it in a few weeks. Last year, I published a story with Mslexia, “The Mother I Never Knew,” which felt more experimental in form than my novel, and I’m trying to play around in that same way with this new book.
When do you work?
Carole Burns: I always say that I’m a morning writer, but not a morning person. Why do that to myself? But I find that my mind is clearer in the morning, before email and work and life intrudes, and while I still have some access to the dream world. I try to push lunch as late as possible so I can lengthen my mornings like a shadow. Summers are most productive, due to teaching at university, as is the strange phenomenon here of a four-week Easter break. Glorious! I try to do a writing residency then to maximize those precious weeks. I’ve just moved to part-time, so I’m hoping I can begin writing during term time, too.
How important is collaboration to you?
Carole Burns: I’m the co-curator with my partner Paul Edwards of a visual arts/writing collaborative project called “Imagistic” – some of the best writers and artists in Wales (and elsewhere) have participated, including writers Philip Gross, Patrick McGuinness, Susie Wild, Ivy Alvarez and Rhian Edwards; and artists Shani Rhys James, Kevin Sinnott, Robert Harding, and Mary Lloyd Jones (I wish I could name them all!) I like collaborating with artists working in other forms. This feeds my writing in a different way from reading – it helps me see. I also get a lot of sustenance from writing groups, which is also a kind of collaboration in terms of solving problems (and seeing problems). In the end, though, writing is a lonely art. Paradoxically, you need a lot of time by yourself, in your own head, to create something that other people can connect with.
Who has had the biggest impact on your work?
Carole Burns: There have been significant teachers along the way, and the wonderful Margot Livesey comes immediately to mind – in many ways, she taught me how to write a novel. My influences are wide and varied, and who’s important right now is always in flux, but I feel my work remains indebted to Henry James and Virginia Woolf. In my early days of writing seriously, I found the way James traces so closely and precisely the consciousness of women tremendously moving and exciting – I’ve not read him in years now, but I have not left behind his influence. I continue to read (or re-read) Virginia Woolf — for the language, for the depth of feeling. Contemporary writers I look to include Zadie Smith (George Eliot was another early influence and I think Zadie Smith writes societal novels which carry the same ambition and breadth); the marvelous American writer Alice McDermott; Colm Tóibín; Taiye Selasi. This list does not feature many, many other writers and books that I love. I adore Toni Morrison but I’ll never write like she did. Ever.
How would you describe your oeuvre?
Carole Burns: I’m not sure an artist should describe their own oeuvre. I suppose what I want for my work is an intensity (I don’t always get it); an interiority that is convincing and compelling (better, though hopefully it’s not compelling to me only); a story that makes readers see our world, society, ourselves – or the simmering, ripe green of late summer leaves – anew.
What was the first book you remember reading?
Carole Burns: Are You My Mother by Dr. Seuss. I was about four, and my big sister Eileen, who’d been reading to me, told me to read the book to her, and when I did, she made a big fuss (no wonder she ended up a primary school teacher). I still love Dr. Seuss, his wacky playfulness with language. I think reading If I Ran the Circus was the first time I realized you could make up a word. (“That is super-Stoo-pendous! Stoo-Mendus! Stoo-Roarus!”)
What was the last book you read?
Carole Burns: Right now I’m reading Edna Buchanan’s 1992 novel, Time and Tide. I started it a few months ago then needed to turn to other books, so I’ve just picked it up again. She is a ferocious writer, wildly inventive with form and sentences, and unblinking in her gaze at our world. The first sentences blow me away every time I read them, so much so I’m going to share them with you here:
“Do you believe her?” she said. Once said, it cannot be unsaid. That is the thing with words. You cannot wash them away and wipe them the way you wipe dishes, which was what she was doing, merely to cancel out the brutality of what she had just said. Four words. Four treacheries…
Is there a painting/sculpture you struggle to turn away from?
Carole Burns: This answer would have been different last year, and a few years ago, ten and twenty years ago (I’m suddenly envisioning an essay that explores each work of art and why, then, I couldn’t walk away). At the moment, I remain entranced by Gwen John’s “Girl in a Green Dress” after writing about John last year. Those subtle gradations of barely-green that shape the girl’s dress – olive-green, browny-green, pond green, yellowy green – and then the coral necklace resting above, then higher up, her lips, the same coral. Her gaze as quiet and as multi-layered as the painting. So quiet and haunting and muted and haunted.
Who is the musical artist you know you can always return to?
Carole Burns: His music has always moved me – or rather, it gives me pause. I have to listen. I play piano very badly – I’m not being humble here – but I love struggling through a page of a Chopin waltz. A joy in playing badly is realizing you’ve gotten something wrong, correcting the one note you’ve missed, then hearing the difference. All the beauty of Chopin contained in that one chord.
During the working process of your last work, in those quiet moments, who was closest to your thoughts?
Carole Burns: My characters. Of course. It wasn’t just my narrator, Cassie, I needed to inhabit; I also had to be inside the characters whose points of view I wasn’t inhabiting, and that might have been even more important, because I couldn’t express their thoughts and feelings directly. I had to make their emotions shine through.
Do you believe in God?
Carole Burns: I’m afraid not. I say “afraid” because I don’t wish to offend people who do, and because the world, or maybe the afterlife, is a much scarier place if you don’t believe in God; and maybe the lapsed Catholic in me hasn’t given up on the idea entirely. Even though I have.
Do you believe in the power of art to change society?
Carole Burns: Yes. Art and writing and music illuminate the world from within. We’re able to see it; sometimes, understand it, and in a more emotional way than facts and figures help us understand. Change is never going to happen if we don’t see the world clearly enough, and if we don’t understand what needs to change, and if we don’t feel moved to change it.
Which artist working in your area, alive and working today, do you most admire and why?
Carole Burns: I admire every single writer today still working on whatever they want to work on – it’s not easy. One writer who comes to mind, though, is the American writer Jesmyn Ward. Her work is uncompromising, despite (maybe because of?) the many difficult experiences she’s faced in her life – most recently, her husband, 33, died of Covid. I was astonished, and thrilled, to learn she has a new novel coming out this autumn, Let Us Descend, and I can’t wait to read it.
What is your relationship with social media?
Carole Burns: Since I’ve lived in countries divided by an ocean, I love being able to stay in touch with people from both sides of the pond, and from what feels like my many lives: my hometown; my working life in Connecticut; my life in DC; the many artists and writers I’ve met at residencies; and now friends and colleagues in Lincoln, Winchester, Southampton and Cardiff. But there’s a lot of pressure now as a writer to promote yourself via social media, and I hate doing that. In my ideal world, I’d be famous enough not to have to.
What has been/is your greatest challenge as an artist?
Carole Burns: Between working, and friends, and family, and stupid tasks like finding new house insurance – all navigated across two countries – life is complicated. Finding the quiet, intense time I need to write is always hard.
Do you have any words of advice for your younger self?
Carole Burns: Make the time (advice for my older self, too).
What does the future hold for you?
Carole Burns: Okay, so none of us knows the answer to that! And I’ll skip the worrying prospects engendered by climate change, right-wing politics, income inequality, I’ll stop now. On a smaller scale, I hope it’s more writing; time with family and friends; great wine and lovely meals; fabulous books; sunshine.
The Same Country is available now from Legend Press. Carole Burns will be in conversation with Emma Schofield in a launch event hosted by Griffin Books on Wednesday 6th September; tickets are available here.