Since we last spoke you’ve completed work on and published The Fetish Collection. What was the idea behind this project?
The origins of at least two things cropping up in my writing, cults and fetishes, stem from the same adolescent experience. Most of my teachers were priests who saw taking boys aside to promote chastity as part of their job. My mentor left me with the conviction that masturbation was a mortal sin, an intervention I now regard as a form of sexual abuse, albeit in a different league from being the victim of the clergy who physically molest minors.
If I have a sexual obsession, it involves countering superstitions and intolerance that blights lives. I want people to be free to follow their sexual inclinations when these injure no one.
I have never joined a cult, but I recall at the age of eighteen coming upon a Scientology centre in Australia, completing a free personality test and being told they could help. What deterred me was the fervour and not wanting another brand of zealotry and dogmatism.
I stumbled on the idea of assigning fetishes to some character while writing The Bush Baptist. After finishing that novel, I trawled lists of paraphilias and read about them in academic publications and via subjective accounts online. Sometimes my reading provided the starting point for writing. This happened with emetophilia in Beholden, although it became a very small part of the story. (Beholden appeared in Gem Street: The Collectors Edition.)
I also saw an opportunity to produce the first anthology of literary fiction that dealt with a wide range of fetishes. And to sell a collection of short stories, a book will often benefit from standing out and appealing to the widespread fascination with what turns on others. I am toying with the idea of a sequel, The Cult Collection.
Where art ends and propaganda begins has interested me for over forty years. I know which side I want to stay on and hope readers regard my fiction as non-polemical. At the least, they will find that most of the stories treat sexual behaviour or cults as small elements in much bigger canvases.
In your last interview we talked about the reasons you began writing. When it comes to your aspirations, have they changed in any way? If so, how?
The dream is still to leave a body of work that includes at least one title that will interest people yet to be born. Despite this being a tall order, I think I am lucky to have it as my main driver rather than wanting or needing to make money from writing.
Of all the characters you’ve created, who is the least appealing to you and why?
The Order of Abraham in The Fetish Collection has a devious and murderous cult leader, but we never know what made him such a monster. For that reason, I nominate Nic in The Bush Baptist who betrayed opponents of apartheid to the South African security forces, takes on the trappings of hippiedom minus its idealism, lives by selling drugs when he has other options, and takes sexual advantage of young girls. The novel suggests a screwed up childhood, but doesn’t excuse his adult behaviour. Nic’s character represents the selfishness and cynicism I have encountered among some in settings as varied as student politics, trade unions, the counter-culture, business executives and senior academics.
You put a healthy dose of your knowledge, work experience and the places you’ve been into your writing and use all of these resources to great effect. If you had had none of these experiences, if you were beginning all over again, what do you imagine you would be writing about now?
Every adult life contains more than enough material for decades of fiction if it can be released and written about in interesting ways. I would hope to be able to draw upon whatever experiences were to hand augmented with imagination.
I particularly admire authors who write creatively about the ordinary. For example, the heroes and heroines in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The Country Girls, Owls Do Cry, Once Were Warriors and Kes are all people from humble backgrounds. It is relatively easy to bring drama to a story about a powerful person making decisions that will impact many lives. And much easier to expand on the inner life of an artist or intellectual than it is to communicate the thinking of someone whose limited education and other opportunities have resulted in a smaller vocabulary and less opportunities to develop insights.
You’ve written both novels and short stories but if you had to choose only one form, which would it be?
Five years ago, I would have said novels because I assumed they were more difficult and rewarding. Now I would choose short stories. While their length makes them more manageable in one sense, whittling away without deleting the words that bring more oomph to the story is a great challenge.
Do you set yourself certain goals with each story or book?
Only in the sense of two general aims. I want my work to be different from that of other authors, but not at any cost. (A lot of visual art suggests to me that looking different was more important to the artist than anything else.) And lasting literary merit is more important to me that commercial success.
The literary world is filled to capacity with writers of all description trying to be seen. Do you think the constant developments in technology and social media have made the process of getting attention easier or more difficult?
Home computing and the Internet have made it far easier to get published. However, the growth in self-publishing, ebooks and print-on-demand means that getting noticed and selling copies is tougher. My guess is that the majority of e-readers are loaded mostly with airport fiction just as the majority of printed books bought represent a small percentage of current titles. Perhaps less that 5% of novels first released last year accounted for 95% of the sales of fiction. While there have been some remarkable successes by writers who have caught the imagination of readers and succeeded without major promotion, the numbers breaking through to handsome sales are very small.
How do you promote yourself and your work?
Piecemeal. I don’t have a strategy other than trying to get stories published and entering competitions.
Two weeks’ solid promoting The Fetish Collection resulted in a handful of reviews. And I resented every hour that I wasn’t involved in more creative work. I’m not prepared to make another major investment of time in marketing as I can afford to live without an income from writing. I might consider hiring a publicist if I bring out another collection of short stories or novel and think it has a good chance of selling enough to cover the cost of professional marketing.
Any thoughts on where publishing is heading? Any new thinking on where it should be heading?
Many ebooks produced by big companies have been done on the cheap. The author’s use of fonts and the thought that went into the design of the printed book are often lost in the programe used to turn the source file into what will appear on an e-reader. I hope to see this remedied and better use of hyper text in future e-readers. At the moment, battery life and the ability to read a page in bright light have encouraged monochrome e-readers. But it can’t have escaped the firms who make these that many people are happy to read on pads and tablets with full colour. And colour lends itself to more and easier choices while reading, if these are built into the ebook design.
I would like to see more new imprints making a reasonable return on their investment because smaller companies often bring new authors to the public and provide competition for mega-corporations.
Amazon’s dominance of the print market, not to mention tax and employment arrangements, means it is in the interest of the public to avoid this company’s services as far as possible. We have created a monster and experience shows the more market share companies have, the more they use size to maximise profits by raising prices.
You’re an enthusiastic gardener. In your mind are there similarities, crossovers, comparisons between writing and gardening?
I visited several times a garden in London used for survivors of torture. The staff made me aware of the wealth of gardening metaphors that lend themselves to therapy and might be one of the few things that get through to very traumatised people. I am sure that my mind makes links between such things as pruning and editing, planting seeds and tending ideas, and the way what struggles in one season flourishes in another.
I’m what Kiwis might call a bush gardener, rough and ready rather than knowledgeable and trained. What I most appreciate about getting dirt under my fingernails is the relaxation that comes from pottering rather than via meticulously planned activities. However, I took courses to learn about writing fiction. And while my stories aren’t planned, I slog away at them in a way that is rewarding rather than relaxing. There are times I look with envy at neighbours with low-maintenance gardens, but I seldom envy those as yet unbitten by the writing bug.
If you could travel back in the literary time machine what era would you choose to write in?
It seems almost any Victorian gentle person with a hobby could become an author. Given that collections of sermons were among the best sellers of that era, perhaps readers welcomed almost anything else in print?
However, going back in time would mean less personal freedom and greater censorship. Therefore I prefer the new millennium provided I don’t to have live in one of the current repressive regimes.
A windswept New Zealand landscape, vivid setting and an intense relationship. Your story ‘High Note’, published in this year’s Gem Street: Beyond the Axis is a beautifully written snapshot of love on the rebound, tragedy and regret. What was at the core of your writing it?
I lived in Wellington, a spectacular city of hills and harbour, for sixteen years. Elevated views mean greater exposure to weather, which isn’t a selling point for the city given the wind funnel that is Cook Strait. The spark for the story was imagining the ridgeline house referred to as The Eyrie, which contains elements from several Wellington dwellings. Then there are aspects fed by memories of being in love, relationships ending and coming to London. Class in New Zealand is another element and one I became more familiar with via my first marriage, which brought me into contact with people more privileged than my family. One of the last tweaks was bestowing a hair fetish on the narrator.
You can find Paul and his unique style of writing here: http://paulburns.site50.net/ and you can purchase a copy of The Fetish Collection here: Kobo , Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk