Tony Burnett joins us on the blog today. Tony is an award-winning songwriter and poet. He is president of the Writers’ League of Texas and has recently published a book of short stories, Southern Gentlemen.
Tony: Thanks for having me on your blog, Mary. I’ve been a longtime fan of your prolific work and dedication. It’s great to see you having such success with Peyote Fire. I knew when you let me read an early draft that you were onto a unique story and setting.
How did you come to write this collection of short stories, Tony?
To me, the short story was a natural progression from songwriting and poetry. The economy of words required keeps the
writing crisp and the story moving. During the past few years publishers of contemporary story collections tend to prefer linked stories or at least stories with some commonality. When I considered what to include I realized several of my most successful stories had Southern male protagonists. It also allowed me to open with the first story I published in a nationally distributed print journal (Bait) and end with a story I love that I knew would likely never publish as a standalone piece. Leaker is too long for most magazines and too short for a novella. It also contains some graphic depictions of sex and violence. Interspersed between are various genres; historical fiction, magical realism, unreliable narrator, coming-of-age. Diverse representations of all the places I like to play can be found in the Southern male with all his quirks and faults.
What other sorts of things do you write?
I’ve written as long as I can remember. I wrote my first story in third grade. It was a romance and had horses in. I read it, edited it, couldn’t salvage it and stuffed it in the bottom of my closet. When my mom found it she put me in therapy. Ultimately, my earliest successes were in songwriting. I also write poetry and I had a gig writing environmental feature articles for a couple of regional newspapers in the Temple/Georgetown area. I’m just wrapping up the first draft of my second novel which will be the first in a trilogy. Okay, now I’m confused.
What’s the difference in writing a song and writing a poem?
There are so many great answers to that; form, structure, rhythm, length, rhyme scheme, but each one has an exception. I’ll go with process. The best songs and poems seem like I’m channeling. They come, more or less, complete and need little revision. That being said, when I write a song I start with the music; a riff or a chord progression, then the lyrics and melody come together later. Poems often come from contemplation or a meditative state, the quiet time. Even the angry or dark ones begin in silence. For me, quiet leads to creativity.
If you could have a drink with any author you want, who would that be? What would you drink? And where?
Just one? Really? If I absolutely have to narrow it down it would have to be Tom Robbins. When I first read Another Roadside Attraction (or was it Still Life With Woodpecker, I don’t remember which one I read first) I thought, “Damn, this guy is having way too much fun with this.” I still think he’s one of the masters of balancing playfulness with drama and intrigue. That’s something I try to shoot for in my writing. I’d want to drink absinthe because I’ve never tried it and I bet he has, but only if we could smuggle it to one of the little villages on the banks of the Amazon.
Does living on a farm affect your writing?
Our farm is isolated at the end of the long dirt road along a chain of ponds that was a catfish farm back in the 60s and 70s. It’s a Certified National Wildlife Refuge so it’s a great place to get close to Gaia. I no longer farm commercially, though I do grow a lot of our food. This gives me a different perspective than I had when I lived in the city. I’m more relaxed which, for me, frees the creative flow. That being said, the lack of structure makes it easy to procrastinate. All in all it gives me more opportunity. It’s up to me to use it.
What’s the next book you’ll have ready to publish?
My first novel, Watermelon Tattoo, has garnered enough interest from a couple of A-list agents that I’ve quit querying until I get their final answer. It’s been through 5 or 6 revisions and I’ve developed it to the point where I wouldn’t make any more modifications without some agent or editor input.
While that process drags on I’m working on a concept for a multimedia publication. I have a number of artist friends, acquaintances and people I admire who work in various visual medium. My idea is to match a group of my linked poems to prints or photos of these folks work and produce a high-quality limited-edition hardcover, signed and numbered, and release it cooperatively. That’s the main reason I founded Kallisto Gaia Press It’s still in the formative stages so we’ll see. I’m also editing a collection of flash fiction and prose poems that I’ve been working on for a few years. If Southern Gentlemen does well I’ll release that in the fall of 2015.
Tell us a little about your work with the Writers’ League of Texas.
I joined the WLT in 2010 after attending a couple of Third Thursday panels. It was without question the most important
thing I’ve ever done for my writing career. What success I’ve had being nationally published can be traced back to what I’ve learned from the WLT. I was asked to join the Board of Directors in 2012 after serving as an ad hoc member of the nominating committee. Beth Sample mentored me and nominated me. I was fortunate enough to not only have the time but also to realize the impact I could have volunteering. I was elected to serve as President for 2014 and have been reelected for 2015. When I joined the board WLT didn’t have an Executive Director and the staff consisted of one full-time and one part-time employee. In late 2013 we were fortunate enough to find Becka Oliver to serve as ED. She has worked wonders with the organization. We now also have a board that’s involved and committed and a staff that’s talented and dedicated. We have increased our staff and everyone is aligned with the goal of making the League Texas’ premier literary organization. When I became President in 2014 I had two main goals. First was to develop and better serve membership statewide as our name suggests. Unfortunately, my plan for doing this wasn’t sustainable. Our incredible ED and staff took the idea and implemented a program that does this through partnerships and it’s flourishing. Second, I wanted to diversify our membership; bringing in more young people, more academics, more publishing professionals and more racial diversity. The Board and staff have excelled at this. Our membership has increased almost 40% and we have partnered with a number of other organizations. Our programming has increased in scope and quality. We’ve held meetings in Houston, Dallas, Alpine, and the Hill Country just in the last few months to hear their suggestions on how to serve the needs of our members in these locations. The dedication of our board and staff is unsurpassed anywhere and they continue to amaze me with their energy and expertise.
Thanks for being with us today, Tony.
Thanks again, Mary, for sharing my story with your readers. Southern Gentlemen is available in print or digital format through all the major international distributors. If my plan works, it will soon be available in an independent bookstore near you.