The forces behind the GCLS Writing Academy sat down with author Anna Burke the other day to talk about writing, reading, and the pursuit of carrot cake. Anna beguiled us with her wit and wisdom over a cup of coffee, though sadly, she did not offer us any cake.
WA: We’re excited to get a chance to talk with you and learn from your wise words.
Anna: Wise? Have you confused me with Ann McMan?
WA: She is brilliant—but so are you. In fact, we’re super in love with the intelligent writing in Compass Rose and from the buzz we’re hearing, we aren’t the only ones. How is new-found fame changing your life?
Anna: I spend more time on social media than I ever used to, which I have mixed feelings about. The biggest change is that now I get to say, “I am an author” when people ask me what I do. I won’t lie—that doesn’t get old.
WA: Along those lines, are you still authoring? You have a new book out, don’t you?
Anna: Thank you for asking! My new book is Thorn, which is a wintry fairy tale set in a very different world from Compass Rose, although there are a few similarities. Strong women, complicated relationships, etc. I also just signed another book with Bywater called Nottingham, which is a lesbified (Ed. Note. Lesbified—ha ha ha.) retelling of one of my favorite stories: Robin Hood.
WA: That’s exciting! Pirates, fairy tales, and Robin Hood. Is Nottingham a work in progress or is that pretty much finished now?
Anna: Nottingham is like a sore tooth. I can’t leave it alone. It was actually the first full-length project I’d ever written. The first draft came to something like 250k before I realized it needed to be rewritten in its entirety, and I’ve gone through more drafts than I care to count since. I’ve been working on it off and on for years, so in some ways it is finished, but in a concrete, send-to-the-publisher way, I have several months of hard work ahead of me!
WA: Sometimes it seems like a never-ending process, I’m sure. Speaking of that, do you have a writing process? Is there a certain time of day or a certain place where the magic happens?
Anna: The magic happens wherever I can squeeze it in. In addition to writing novels, I also do quite a bit of freelance writing (if you’ve ever googled ‘can my dog eat__’ you’ve probably read my work) and I’m in an MFA program, so I write all the time. Making time for working on fiction means some creative scheduling. In an ideal world, I write first thing in the morning and last thing at night. That tends to get my brain working, and then I can wrap things up at the end of the day and work in any thoughts that may have popped up in between. In reality, I write whenever I can. I try to work on my novels at least 4 days a week. Sometimes I can do every day, but setting myself realistic expectations helps keep me sane!
WA: You are crazy busy! And you still managed to fit in a year with the Writing Academy. Can you tell us a little bit about your experience with that?
Anna: I discovered the Writing Academy at the perfect time. I was living in the Caribbean and had just been rejected from a low-residency MFA program (which turned out to be a blessing in disguise). I was looking for a way to improve my writing while abroad, and the WA allowed me to keep honing my writing skills while also introducing me to an incredibly supportive community of writers and readers. Not only did it make me a better writer, but it also connected me with amazing mentors like Ann McMan and Karelia Stetz-Waters, who I now get to call friends. The other point I want to stress is that writing can be lonely, even for introverts. Having a support network is essential, and the WA helped me get through some difficult times in my own life. Plus, at the end of the academy, I had a publishing contract, which is, of course, the goal for most of us writers.
WA: That’s an amazing feeling—the publishing contract and the new community of friends and mentors. Mentors are great for giving writing advice. What is the best and worst writing advice you have ever gotten?
Anna: The best writing advice? That’s tricky… I think we’ve all heard that the best way to become a better writer is to write (and read), but the best advice I have received came from Ann McMan. I was struggling with plotting, because while I am a bit of a pantster I am not comfortable with pantsing and always try to outline, only to discard said outlines almost immediately. She told me that I don’t have to know exactly what is going to happen on a micro level, but I do have to at least know “the tall poles in the tent that give my story structure.” I love that advice. It leaves room for creative license, but knowing at least a few main points helps keep me on track.
Now for the worst…
I think the worst piece of writing advice I’ve ever received is that writers must write every day. While writing every day is amazing, for most of us it is unrealistic. I have written every day for months on end and I have written sporadically when my schedule got hectic, and I think what new writers actually need to hear is that it is the writing itself that is important. Look at your schedule, decide when you can realistically write, and stick to it. Setting unrealistic writing goals is a sure way to feel like you’re failing. I now look at my planner and decide which days are fiction days, and I write on those days and don’t feel guilty when I can’t write on the other days.
WA: That is excellent advice—both Ann’s advice to you and your advice to new writers. It can be overwhelming when people are telling you that good writers write every day and you’re just trying to get your life in order on some days. See? You do have wise words of wisdom. Now we’ve talked about writing. Let’s talk about reading. What books are currently on your nightstand?
Anna: I am currently reading Circe by Madeline Miller, which I am loving, and am getting a jumpstart on some reading from next semester. Recently I’ve rediscovered Ursula K. Leguin and I just reread some N. K. Jemison, which I highly recommend for fans of speculative fiction. There actually isn’t any lesfic on my nightstand right now, which I am suddenly embarrassed about! Probably because I devour those novels so quickly that they don’t stay on my nightstand for long.
WA: Those are some incredible books, though. N.K Jemison is one of our new favorites over here and we’ve added her to the reading list for next year’s Academy students. If you could have magically written any book in existence, what would it be and why?
Anna: I’m going to have to say the Harry Potter series because I am a huge Harry Potter fan and also because it would mean my brain would be MUCH more organized than it really is. The money wouldn’t hurt, either. Or maybe A Game of Thrones, because then my publisher wouldn’t tell me to lower the body count… readers can thank Bywater for the survival of my characters. I do love a good tragedy, although not in the #buryyourgays sense of the word. I don’t kill love interests as a rule. On a side note, my wife is taking this opportunity to purge our closet. I can only imagine what she’s throwing away while I’m distracted.
WA: It’s nice to know someone is looking out for those who can’t stand losing characters they love. I mean, come on, George RR Martin? Do you have to kill everyone? I love that your wife is purging your closet while we’re talking. Are you afraid she’s going to get rid of your favorite old t-shirt?
Anna: She did make me get rid of a plaid jacket and a plaid flannel backpack. They’ll be coming for my lesbian card, next.
WA: You can never have too much plaid. One more question and we’ll let you get back to wrestling your favorite plaid things from your wife. What is one thing you wish people knew about you?
Anna: I think I wish people knew less about me, but again, introvert here. I do try and share the things that are important to me, because I think that talking about things even when they are hard is important. I am especially open about my stomach–I am always hungry, and I love talking about books, writing, and dogs. But as far as something more serious, I guess I wish people knew… ummm…. This is a hard question.
WA: I know. I’m still getting even with you for eating my carrot cake at the GCLS conference two years ago.
Anna: (Laughing) I do love a good carrot cake.
WA: It is a super hard question, though. Would you rather have a softball like, “What book is next after Nottingham?”
Anna: I had a terrible stutter as a child, which shaped me as a person and a writer. I’ve always had this terrible pull between wanting to speak my mind and feeling trapped by my tongue, which is probably why I identify as an introvert instead of an extrovert, honestly. I got over the stutter by the time I went to college and I owe most of my confidence to my experiences at Smith College, but I’ve noticed that my stutter returns when I read my own work out loud. I’ve had a few sticky readings where I’ve opened my mouth and no words have come out, which is also, coincidentally, a recurring nightmare of mine. I work really hard to prepare for readings, and so I want people to know how much I appreciate their patience, kindness, and support when even, despite hours of practice, I stutter and stumble my way through and butcher my own words.
WA: That’s a wonderful answer. You always seem so poised during your readings. I think people who have anxiety around readings will get a lot out of that answer. Thank you.
Anna: Thank you. And to answer your softball question, I am working on a sequel to Compass Rose, but I have no idea when it will be done.
WA: We cannot wait!
About the Golden Crown Literary Society
The Golden Crown Literary Society (GCLS), a 501(c)3 non-profit founded in 2004 is the leading lesbian-themed literary organization bringing authors, readers, and publishers together while creating a diverse and inclusive community. The organization’s mission is to increase the visibility and integrity of lesbian-themed literature, through its writing academy and educational programs, its annual conference, and its national and internationally recognized Goldie Awards. The GCLS embraces all who write literature of women loving women. www.goldencrown.org