Short interview: Misha Burnett
Misha Burnett has little formal education, but has been writing poetry and fiction for around forty years. During this time he has supported himself and his family with a variety of jobs, including locksmith, cab driver, and building maintenance. His first four novels, Catskinner's Book, Cannibal Hearts, The Worms Of Heaven, and Gingerbread Wolves comprise a series, collectively known as The Book Of Lost Doors. More information about upcoming projects can be found at https://mishaburnett.wordpress.com/
1) According to you and apart from the number of words, what is the main difference between a short story and a novel?
I think that word count divisions are arbitrary, largely determined by the economics of printing. Ideally, a story should be as long as it takes to tell it, whether that's 5,000 words or 500,000. In practical terms, there are pressures on authors to write stories of a certain word count. There are a lot of novels that would have been good short stories but have been bulked out by tens of thousands of words of padding. My own sweet spot tends to be between 10,000 and 20,000 words, which many folks consider to be too long for a short story, but is far too short for a novel.
2) What's your favorite short story?
That's a tough one. Probably Bradbury. At this exact moment I would probably say, “There Will Come Soft Rains”. Ask me again tomorrow and it might be “The Veldt” or “Usher II”.
3) What's your favorite short story written by you?
Another tough question. I think I'll go with “She That Was So Proud And Wild” from my collection Dark Fantasies. I wanted to sketch out a world similar to ours, but containing fantastic elements, and in this world I set a thorny ethical problem, and I tried to do both of those things without a mass of exposition or preaching. I think I managed it. But, like the question above, if you ask me tomorrow I'll probably say something different.
4) The descriptions of your characters and their mentality are striking. Sometimes we recognize ourselves in a particular reaction (not necessarily a glorious one). Where do you get this ability to describe reality?
I paint what I see. I think it's important for a writer of fiction to be able to extrapolate from life experience. You can't know what it feels like to be attacked by a dragon, but you probably do know what it feels like to be an automobile accident, so use that. The caveat is that you have to be honest—there is always a temptation to describe what you think you should have been feeling, or to make it more like a movie. Introspection is vital for a fiction writer.
5) Modern SF is often characterized by a bleak view of human nature. In your work, the theme of redemption is prevalent and a certain optimism reigns. Can you tell us more about this?
Fiction is a vicarious activity. As readers, we experience things that didn't really happen, and do things that we didn't actually do. I read for pleasure, which means that I want to finish a book thinking, “If those things had happened to me and I reacted in the way that those characters reacted, I would feel good about myself.” So that's what I want to supply to my readers.
In addition, I think it's more realistic. Most people are decent, most of the time. At least in my experience, and I have met a lot of people in my life.
6) Your stories are real page-turners. Could you describe your writing process?
Primitive. I start at the beginning, go on to the end, then stop. I don't do drafts, I don't do outlines, I seldom rewrite anything. With very few exceptions, what you see on the page is exactly what I typed the first time. Lots of authors tell me that no one can write this way, that nothing that hasn't been rewritten a dozen times will ever sell, but I do okay with my method.
Grab a copy of Misha Burnett's Endless Summer: Twelve Strange Tales of Mankind's Future