Q&A with Janet Burroway

What is your background as a writer? How did you start out?

According to my mother, I wrote my first poem at the age of five (about Jesus). I did write a pile of verses at eleven and twelve, and was taught the poetic feet in after-school sessions by a kindly English lit teacher.  

How would you describe your usual writing process?

Long agony and dread succeeded by brief flashes of joy when the sentence or the image finds its shape.  I procrastinate terribly, mindful that Victoria Nelson says "If you accuse yourself of procrastination, you're an accuser, not a procrastinator."  But it is my husband (Peter Ruppert, Utopian, Film and German scholar) who smoothes my way by pointing out that my morning routine - dishes, flowers, garden, tidying- is in fact a ritual during which I am if not consciously writing then preparing myself for the task, as a runner prepares by stretching.

Is there any book(s) over all others that has held a lasting effect on you, and why?

Yes. Curiously, it was The Oresteia, and particularly the preface by Richmond Lattimore in his U. Chicago translation, that let me understand, and aspire to master, what he called "symbol complex" but I am more comfortable thinking of as "motif." I studied this work at Barnard under a particularly inspiring professor, and I could, after reading it,  decipher the way that a given image could recur, reveal, and shape a long fiction. 

Is there any one published book that you wish you had written yourself?

Here's a wonder.  Though I would not turn down the chance to have written Middlemarch or Portrait of a Lady, the thing that made me cry,  "I wish I had done that!" was the film of Rocky Horror Picture Show, to which I used to take my boys as teenagers.  I have always, always wanted to write a musical, and so…   

Are you currently working on anything new?

This is a busy time. Bridge of Sand comes out in early October.  I have just turned in the copy for the new editions of Writing Fiction (9th) and Imaginative Writing (4th), both of which I believe will now be in international editions and e-book versions.  They will come out in the winter of next year.  I'm ready to proofread a collection of essays by older women writers that I have edited: A Story Larger Than My Own.  That comes out from University of Chicago Press in March '14, followed in April by the publication of my memoir Losing Tim, about the life and death of my elder son, from Think Piece Press in Minneapolis.  In workshops at Chicago Dramatists I am also writing a play about Tim, feeling freed by having written the memoir to shape and distance myself from the sad material - a process very salutary for me. 

More nearly done, however, is that musical, an adaptation of Barry Unsworth's Morality Play, for which I've written book and lyrics, with music by Matthew M Kiedrowski, who is literally fifty years my junior, and quite brilliant.  We have had a table reading and a concert reading with the Midwest New Musicals group, sponsored by the NEA (sixteen lovely voices send back my words!  a thrill!).  Now we are refining, rearranging the scenes, tossing out favorite songs that don't do the trick, writing new ones.  And are looking for angels to produce it. Barry Unsworth was wonderfully enthusiastic and supportive, but he sadly died last year -not before he heard a recording of the concert reading, though.  His widow remains a staunch ally, and we hope to do her proud.