The Stars of Speculative Fiction #7: Nathan Burrage

Once upon a time Nathan Burrage had a fight with Michael Stone (

) to see who was going to get to call their book FIVEFOLD and who would get FOURTOLD. I’m not sure who won, as both refuse to tell me which was the winning title and which was the losing. Maybe you should all buy both and make your own mind up (I have a signed copy of each waiting for me *looks all smug*).

Well now then, today sees me welcoming Nathan himself to the hotseat: nominated for best new talent at the Ditmar awards, squash racquet modeller and lover of cocoa, Nathan has been taking Russia by storm with his new novel FIVEFOLD. No it’s not based in Moscow but it does have its beginnings in lowly Yorkshire, England. Already hailed as the new Da Vinci Code, I’m sure that Nathan is hoping for similar success (and that Tom Hanks doesn’t get a part in the adaptation to silver screen).

Welcome, king for a day, lemon peeler extraordinaire, the one, the only Nathan Burrage!

1. So, Nathan, there we were having a wine and a chat about writerly things at Conflux 4, last October and then here you are, your novel Fivefold is getting great reviews and you’re nominated for best new talent, how’d all that happen?

Ah, Mr Deniz. My memory from that night is a little hazy, but I’m fairly certain it’s your round…

Let’s see. Back in October 07 I was unashamedly waving around an uncorrected proof of FIVEFOLD, so the editing process was fairly advanced. After Conflux we completed a final round of reviewing the typeset proofs. My publisher tweaked the front cover slightly and, after a little advice from the inestimably wise Keith Stevenson, I revised the back cover blurb, which Random House subsequently approved.

(Thanks Keith – you were right. We needed to leave the reader with more questions.)

So my involvement in the book’s production finished in early November and I turned my attention to websites, promotional activities and the predicaments of second novels. Just after Christmas I also received the wonderful news that Exmo, one of Russia’s largest publishers, had made an offer on FIVEFOLD, so that was pretty exciting news for a book that hadn’t even reached the shelves.

As for the Ditmar nomination, it was a very nice gesture from persons who have wisely chosen to remain anonymous. I will find them, however, and unleash some of my earlier stories on them as punishment.


2. How’s Fivefold going then and has it made you re-think your work schedule in any way (apart from turning a couple of my projects down)?


I wish I knew! My first royalty / sales statement is due at the end of April, so I’ll have firm facts then. Based on anecdotal evidence, however, it seems to be doing OK. Andrew McKiernan has sold at least 5 in the bookstore he works at, so if we can catch and clone him, then plant him in bookstores throughout the country, I might be able to give that Courtenay fella and young Reilly a run for their money!


Certainly the reviews that have appeared online have been largely favourable and that has almost exhausted my bribery budget. Plus the SKY News interview, which compared FIVEFOLD to The Da Vinci Code, certainly didn’t do any harm. I was also pretty chuffed to see get a definition of Speculative Fiction on mainstream TV. That doesn’t happen every day.


As for my work schedule…well, juggling my project management duties at BT Financial Group, parenthood and writing has always been a challenge. BT have been incredibly supportive of my writing endeavours and even hosted a launch for me, so I can’t whine too much. I’ve also made good progress on novel 2 this year, but it has been at the expense of short stories. I’ll need to take a break from it once I’ve finished the first draft, so I can see myself working on some shorter pieces towards the end of this year.


You do know I’m going to buy a copy of Voices, right?


Sounding pretty good and I especially like the little bribe stuck in at the end…


3. Would you say that any writers inspire you, is there anyone that got you on the road to writing?


A lot of the writers who influenced me before I started writing could be placed in the ‘epic’ category. Folks like Tolkien, Stephen Donaldson, Julian May, even Michael Crichton & Wilbur Smith.


Tastes change, of course, and more recently, the honours list has accommodated a few new additions. Writers such as Neil Gaiman, Guy Gavriel Kay, G. R. R.  Martin and David Brin.


I also read much more short fiction these days, and of the local authors, I’ve loved everything of Dirk Flinthart’s that I’ve read, much of Terry Dowling’s work, and I’m dipping further into Sean Williams’ impressive oeuvre. I remain amazed by Margo Lanagan’s ability to compress so much emotion into such short pieces and I’m very keen to read her forthcoming novel, Tender Morsels. Scott Westerfeld is also a master of the YA voice and sentiment, but again, I’ve only sampled a portion of his work. And Brendan Duffy never ceases to amaze me with his bizarre and unpredictable stories. I’ve really enjoyed some of Rjurik Davidson’s shorts as well.


Too many stories, so little time.


*nods* I certainly know that feeling.


4. How would you say the Australian speculative fiction scene is looking at the moment, is it healthy or could it do with a major facelift?


It’s definitely in a very healthy state. I haven’t been an active participant for that long, but there are definitely more markets available locally today than back in ‘99/’00 when I first started submitting short stories. (Mind you, I’m also better informed now.)


The activity on the blogosphere is also unprecedented and while I don’t consider posts (and rants?) to be writing per se, they do serve to promote certain markets / stories / authors. The more successful, or perhaps I should say more regular, short story magazines seem to have adopted a rotating editorial policy, which makes a lot of sense. It prevents burnout and provides a bit of variety in story selection.

While on the topic of variety, there seems to be less of it in the novel category. It was interesting to review the Australian snapshot Strahan, Biancotti and Stafford put together late last year. Brimming with phat fantasy, some YA and not much else. I must admit I was a little disappointed by the similarity of the fare.


Small press seems to be where the most interesting things are happening.


5. You were kind enough to invite me to a meeting of Thorbys complete with tea, coffee and Tim-Tams. How did you get into that and how do you think it has affected your writing?


Ah, Thorbys. Cat Sparks was kind enough to invite me to join the Thorby Avenue writing group, which proved to be a true crit crucible. Cat & Rob have since retired from the group, but fresh faces have joined and it is almost exclusively populated by Clarion South grads now. I can honestly say the standard of critique you get at Thorbys is almost on par with professional editors employed by major publishers. (Yes, it really is that good.) It’s a very, very valuable resource that has helped me identify problems with my writing that were previously invisible to me.


Absolute gold. Nice bunch of people too.


6. Tell us about Clarion South: would you recommend it to other writers and how was your overall experience of it?


Clarion South is tough. To pretend otherwise is misleading. Set during the height of the Queensland summer, it’s literally a melting pot of ideas, different personalities and bursts of inspiration and exasperation. Some people thrive in this sort of environment, others don’t. I fell somewhere in the middle of that spectrum and I certainly had some difficult moments inside the crit class.


It’s also an uplifting experience and condenses a lot of learning into a very short period. For me, it was invaluable and I have no doubt FIVEFOLD would still be sitting in the unpublished drawer if it weren’t for the students, tutors and convenors of Clarion South ’05. (Thanks guys!)


Should you do it? Even if you have to throw in your job and be separated from your loved ones for 6 weeks? Well, are you serious about your writing? If so, there’s your answer.


7. I’m fond of my weekly question, which concerns itself with the presence of music when you write. Do you listen to music when you write and if so what sort of stuff? Are you inspired by music away from writing?


I used to listen to music when I was writing, but not any more. As with others you’ve asked this question, I find it too distracting. On a good day, there is a rhythm to writing, almost a cadence you can hear. I find that music can interfere with that listening process.


I can’t say music is an inspiration for my writing away from the computer either. I do find music uplifting at times, motivational at others (particularly when I shuffle over to my Ministry of Sound CDs) but my best ideas seem to come from moments of silence or isolation…walking, running, even just taking a shower.


I think the fundamental problem for me is that creativity arises from setting my mind adrift, whereas music is an anchor, and sometimes, an engaging partner. Water and oil, at the end of the day.


8. Being nominated for the best new talent this year means you are a relative newcomer to the scene (or?). I’m curious what advice you would have for other writers keen to break onto the scene.


The Ditmar nomination for Best New Talent was a lovely surprise, although I hardly feel I’m new to the scene with my first short story appearing in Aurealis back in 2001. The contenders for New Talent this year had all achieved some impressive things, so it was nice to be included in such august company.


I suppose the key piece of advice to new writers is to keep persevering, keep writing, keep submitting. Start with the ‘for the love’ markets, get your work published, work with editors and then apply the lessons you’ve learned from being edited to your new fiction. A story can always be improved, no matter how good you think it is, and the editors running small press magazines in Australia are exceptionally good. Join a writing group, build up a support network, learn from others.


One final tip – don’t over-analyse your work. Others will do that for you. Writing is ultimately a creative exercise, so be willing to explore whatever ways that creativity manifests itself.


I think your last point is very good as I’ve seen too many new writers trying to be writer, editor and publisher all with one short story. It’s a case of get the thing written and then get someone whose opinion you trust to have a look.


9. And now my nasty series of questions begin and that is concerning us editors and publishers: as I’m aware you are primarily a writer, I’m curious what you think editors and publishers should be doing at the moment. What do you expect from a publishing company and an editor?


Where did that tight rope suddenly appear from?


I guess I touched on the questions of editors already. In working with local small press editors, I’ve been very impressed with the editorial insights offered by Angela Challis (Brimstone Press), Sarah Endacott (Edit or Die) and Sue Hammond (Aurealis Magazine). I think the Australian small press scene is very vibrant at present, so no real criticisms from me on that front.


At the big end of town, I do wish the major publishers would embrace more variety in what they published. The success of The Pilo Family Circus, The Company of the Dead and Saturn Returns indicates a desire from readers, I think, to see a greater variety of speculative fiction being published in this country. In other words, less Fantasy and more novels pushing the genre boundaries. I sincerely hope that’s a trend that continues, and that FIVEFOLD is considered as contributing to this trend.


Fantasy did seem to have taken over for a while didn’t it? Advice noted.


10. Last but not least what do you do when you’re not writing?


Day job, full-time job being a Dad, sometime gardener!


As a Program Manager for a large financial services company, the hours can be fairly gruelling, even though I’ve managed to limit it largely to 4-days a week. I’m also very keen to avoid being an ‘absent parent’ and with my daughter less than 1 year away from school, I don’t want to miss anything. Plus our backyard could be best described as a mountainous landscape, so there is always something up there awaiting my attention.


I’ve also been known to swing a squash racquet, but the second novel has sucked up a lot of my court time. If anyone is working on a petition to extend days to 25 hours, I’d be happy to sign it…


Well next I’m down your way or vice versa, we’ll have to have a game of squash, as I haven’t played for quite some time either.


Well thank you so much for agreeing to be grilled by myself Nathan and I wish you all the best for your future writing, and of course for many sales of FIVEFOLD (especially in Russia!) I’m very much looking forward to reading my copy.

Next week I have the unique honour of talking to horror writer and chicken impersonator, Martin ‘bric-a-brac’ Livings.

About Mark S. Deniz

English teacher, writer, editor, publisher, reviewer and blogger. Founder of publishing company, Morrigan Books and imprint, Gilgamesh Press. Also cycles, listens to lots and lots of music, reads a ton of books and tries to fit in some TV, film and writing too. View all posts by Mark S. Deniz

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