Interview with a Misfit

Oregon Writer Suzanne Burns

In 2009, Suzanne Burns has read her work in every Portland venue from Powell's to the Loggernaut Reading Series at Urban Grind East to Voodoo Doughnut Too–but not poetry, as those who know her might expect. Burns' newest is a collection of short fiction entitled Misfits and Other Heroes, published by Dzanc Books. Its stories whip up a whirlwind of bizarre characters and luscious desserts that make the reader feel repulsed (or, at least, confused) and hungry at the same time. I asked Burns about her love triangle with fiction and poetry, her sweet tooth, and why she sequesters herself in Bend rather than living amongst her freaky peers in P-town. Interview by Kristy Athens.

How did a fiction book come about for you? Was this a new form?

Fiction has always been my first love. I do have random poetic affairs from time to time, but my passionate relationship with books began in high school with The Illustrated Man and The Catcher in the Rye. When I was a junior, the state made us take standardized creative writing tests and I wrote two short paragraphs about an imaginary visit to Ray Bradbury's writing studio. My English teacher, Mrs. Boon, pulled me out of class the day the tests came back and I remember being scared because I'd never been in trouble before. (What could someone like me, the quiet, obedient Gothic girl, have done so wrong?) With a grave seriousness she told me, "You received the highest marks in the district. You really need to be a writer." And to think ... I wanted to be a lawyer!

Did working in this form bring up different ideas/themes/challenges than if you had written poetry? What did fiction do for you as a writer that poetry didn't/couldn't?

For me, fiction is the meat and potatoes of writing. (I am an Irish girl.) Fiction is so substantial and requires such commitment. Maybe fiction is more like a marriage? You make a promise from the time the first word hits the screen or paper to love, honor and commit until the story reaches its natural conclusion. A poem is like a spice, a flower, something ethereal. Substantial in its own way, yes, but also fleeting, and with a quick payoff.

Fiction opens me up to the world. Poetry closes me off and makes me retreat into myself. I've learned over the years of writing both that I prefer to be engaged fully with the world.

How was working with Dzanc? Was the editing process different from your poetry books?

Dzanc is a dream come true, and I'm not just saying that because Dan and Steve are probably reading this interview. They gave me the gift of complete creative freedom. There were no back-and-forth editing debates. Of course, I went through copyediting and learned fascinating things, like the fact that "Tin Roof Sundae" is a proper name. Dzanc made suggestions about which story would begin the collection and which would end it. I couldn't even say the experience was collaborative as much as I really felt like I was treated not like a commodity but as an artist. This approach made Misfits seem less like a product and more like an entity [that] Dzanc tenderly released into the world.

I am a completely fascist self-editor who bears the scars to prove it. No one in the world could be harder on my work than I am. I don't know if I see this as diligence or craziness¸ but by the time my previous poetry publishers saw my manuscripts they didn't change a word. They also never saw the outtakes and the crumpled pieces of paper and the tears along the way.

Do you find fiction readers and readings to be different?

My experience with fiction, compared to poetry, could not be more different. I believe audiences idolize poets and poetry. They expect you to be either brilliant or profound 100 percent of the time, and never succumb to things like weekly readings of The National Enquirer or jogging on the treadmill to "My humps, my lovely lady lumps, check it out."

My fiction audience has been a blast. Really engaged and laughing–in the right parts. It feels like more of a communal or "relatable" experience. I believe we are biologically wired to love when someone tells us a story. I'm not sure about poetry. Poetry can sometimes feel embarrassingly personal, like watching a couple recite their wedding vows.

Are you done with poetry; was Misfits an anomaly; do you consider yourself a member of both clubs?

I will never be done with poetry. I enjoy molding and manipulating words too much to go cold turkey. I recently completed a chapbook-length project of linked poems about a woman whose soldier husband goes missing, and a full-length collection chronicling the week I spent in Paris last year. Poetry is an indulgence. Poetry is my dessert. Of course I don't eat dessert every day, but when I do I wholeheartedly enjoy it.

What role do you think misfits and freaks play in this world? Why write about them besides to exploit their strangeness?

To me, "misfits" and "freaks" are terms of endearment. I am a misfit. Everyone I've ever loved is a misfit. Everyone I've ever befriended is a misfit. We are all members of a secret club that seeks each other out. Call it misfit pheromones, but it is uncanny that those near and dear to my heart have an undying love for comic books, The Twilight ZoneA Clockwork Orange (book and movie), writing, painting, guitar playing, satchels and cigarettes. Maybe even Paris and James Dean? This is a pretty specific archetype that does not fit into mainstream society. Misfits can't comprehend people who golf or jog or bleach their hair, or make fun of people who are fat or slow or different. To me, a freak is a more specific misfit. Marilyn Manson saying he would fire anyone who mentions sports in his presence. A true freak, the nexus of freakdom, would be someone like Kurt Cobain, who, even after the success of Nirvana, said his favorite thing in the world was "finding a little treasure at the thrift store."

Out of dozens of characters in Misfits, only two have unique physicality, Tiny Ron, the world's smallest man, and Alano, a boy born with three hands. But the misfits in my collection aren't always who they appear to be. It's those bleach-blonde joggers who really should be exploited for their strangeness.

Specific influences?

My holy trinity is Ray Bradbury, Shirley Jackson and J.D. Salinger. Ray Bradbury ignited my passion for language when I was an adolescent. J.D. Salinger created the "swell" boys I wanted to share a cherry Coke with after a "lousy" movie. Shirley Jackson is a master of craft, subtlety, eeriness. It's like that quote Henry Rollins said about The Clash being who U2 wishes they were. We all wish we could write one perfect Shirley Jackson sentence, and she wrote thousands of them.

Any plans for a novel?

Ah, yes, a novel. Damn the thing. Curses. I'm trying to wrangle in a beast of one now.

Can you make all the pastries mentioned in your book?

Most of them, yes, yes indeed. And they are fattening and soulful and beautiful and lovely.

When/why did you move to Bend? Where did you grow up? What has that experience been like as a writer whose work is fairly, shall we say, unconventional?

I moved to Bend in 1980, when my dad retired from the Navy. Until the age of seven I lived in Hawaii, a little town called Ewa Beach, on Oahu. It was the paradise you'd imagine. We lived across the street from the ocean on a small, tree-lined avenue. Exotic flowers everywhere. A plumeria tree right in our backyard. I think I soaked up enough sun in those seven years to last through all of Central Oregon's bitter winters.

I think that growing up on a Navy base made the unusual seem normal. For the first seven years of my life I assumed everyone lived in the same house (same floor plan, that is) but with different furniture. It seemed safe to walk into my friends' houses and have their bedrooms and kitchens and living rooms in the same place.

Spending the rest of my life–so far–in Bend has its benefits. I enjoy standing out in a crowd here. I enjoy a tiny bit of local celebrity. For instance, my postman, who works at an outpost inside a convenience store that reeks of deep fried burritos, always wishes me good luck when I send off my piles of manila envelopes to contests, etc.

Bend is also a good place to hide from distraction. When all I see in an entire afternoon are a few rabbits, quail and an occasional deer, it is easy to get my work done. And since I am drawn to what goes on behind the closed doors of the suburbs, it enriches my work to be invited to barbecues and cookie swaps, and to watch the rodeo queen wave from her favorite horse along the Christmas parade route. Maybe I secretly want my own float in the Christmas parade? Piled high with snowmen smoking cigarettes and handsome elves, who not only recite poetry but feed me sugar cookies at the end of every brilliant line.

About This Story

  • Interviewer: Kristy Athens
  • Published Online: Jan 13, 2012