I first encountered Allison Burnett at the West Hollywood Bookfair. Teen blogger Ashley Thompson was interviewing him at the Teen Stage. I listened to the interview for a while and decided that though the storyline was interesting, it was a book I probably wouldn’t have the time to read. Since there are more things to do than there are hours in the day, I usually stick to reading writing books or books in my chosen genre.
Little did I know that three months later, I would end up buying the book—and reading it from cover to cover.
It all began with an interview I did with Tracy Trivas. She was so happy with my blog review about her book “The Wish Stealers”, and the author interview that followed, that she did me such a HUGE favor. She contacted some of her YA author peers and told them about my blog, and how I would be delighted to review their books and interview them.
I didn’t expect anyone to respond, since I’m a relatively unknown blogger (unless you’re part of my writing group, then you’d know me very well). But two days later, Allison Burnett emailed me and told me he would be happy to be one of my interviewees. I was so ecstatic! I immediately emailed him back to thank him. I promised to send my questions as soon as I had finished them.
So who is this Allison Burnett I keep on raving about?
Allison Burnett is a very punctual man. I emailed him my interview questions about a week after he had contacted me. A few hours after I had sent him my questions, he emailed his answers back, and succeeding emails after that never go unanswered for too long.
But more than that, Allison Burnett is the ultimate writer. He has written many essays, and short stories. But he is first and foremost a novelist and screenwriter. He is the author of three novels: Christopher: A Tale of Seduction, The House Beautiful, and Undiscovered Gyrl which I just recently reviewed.
He is also the man behind hit movies such as: Bloodfist III, Bleeding Hearts, Red Meat, Autumn in New York, Perfect Romance, The Feast of Love, Resurrecting the Champ, Untraceable and most recently Fame.
Here’s my interview with Allison Burnett, author of novels that make you think, and screenwriter of movies that make you feel.
The awesome Allison Burnett, author of “Undiscovered Gyrl”
Q. As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A. A stuntman.
Q. What were your favorite books growing up?
A. When I was thirteen, I read my first long book – The Complete Sherlock Holmes. Then I read all of James Bond. Like most kids of my generation, however, TV and film were far more important to me than books. My passion for great literature did not emerge until I was in college.
Q. When did you know you were going to be a writer? What prompted you to take your writing seriously?
A. If someone had asked me at my high school graduation what I wanted to do when I grew up, I would have said the following with a straight face: “Act in films, write films, and direct films. Act in plays, write plays, and direct plays. And write novels.” Clearly, I had no shortage of ambition and confidence. At Northwestern, where I majored in the Oral Interpretation of Literature, I acted in, directed, and wrote plays. The big turning point came for me right before my 21st birthday. I was living in New York City and starring in a George Bernard Shaw play. I was absolutely miserable. I decided right then and there to quit acting and commit myself entirely to being a writer. I never looked back.
Q. What would you say was the work that allowed you to take on writing as a full-time job? In short, what was your big break?
A. In 1994, I sold a romantic comedy for a ton of money. I knew right then that I would probably never have to do anything other than write for the rest of my life.
Q. You write short stories, essays, poems, novels, and, of course, screenplays. Which would you say is your favorite form of writing and why?
A. If I could only write in one form for the rest of my life, and it would pay the same as the others, there is no question that I would write only novels. I love that there is nothing between me and the reader — no studio, director, or actors to distort the story.
Q. You have written a lot of wonderful screenplays such as Autumn in New York, Resurrecting the Champ, and Feast of Love. What would you say is the biggest difference between writing a novel and writing a screenplay?
A. Well, the most obvious answer is that writing screenplays is obscenely lucrative and writing novels would starve a church mouse. (I hate to get the discussion back to money, but money buys freedom, and freedom is the medium in which an artist thrives. All throughout my twenties I was broke, and it was not romantic in the least.) Creatively, the biggest difference is that a motion picture has to move at all times. The engine of the story cannot falter. A novel has more room for digression. But in both cases the central imperative is the same: each page should be more interesting and meaningful than the page that preceded it.
Q. What inspired you to write “Undiscovered Gyrl”?
A. A girl I knew.
Q. How long did you work on this book? How many rewrites did you do before you finally felt it was ready?
A. I worked on it for about six months, continually writing and rewriting.
Q. Tell us about your path to book publication.
A. I was a screenwriting client at the Endeavor agency, so when the novel was finished, my agent sent it to their New York office, to a powerful agent there named Richard Abate. He read it, told me that it reminded him of A Catcher in the Rye, and that he would be happy to represent it. He sent it out, and there was immediate interest from three different hardcover publishers, but all three were at a loss as to how to market it. How do you sell a novel, written for adults, when the protagonist is a teenage girl? In the end, all three places backed out. A few weeks later, a great paperback house, Vintage, bought it. They solved the marketing problem by simply pretending that it was a novel written for teenagers, even though that was never my intention.
Q. How has your life changed since you got published?
A. It hasn’t. The biggest change in my life came when I began selling screenplays, because it meant that I would never have to work ever again at anything other than writing. But the happiest day of my professional life was definitely when I sold my first novel. Whenever working in Hollywood becomes absurd, painful, or degrading, I take great comfort in my separate career as a novelist.
Q. What’s your typical day as a writer like? Do you have any writing-related rituals or quirks?
Every day is the same. I wake before dawn, drink a ton of coffee, and work hard from dawn till lunch. I do this six or seven days a week and have for the past twenty years.
Q. Do you write outlines for your stories, or do you just follow wherever the story leads?
A. When I am writing a novel, I never work from an outline. When I am writing a film script, I usually work from a general outline, specific enough to give me a sense of direction but not so specific that I feel controlled by it.
Q. Do you encounter challenges in your writing life? What are these challenges and how do you overcome them?
A. When I encounter a challenge, I impersonate a tight-rope walker. I keep my eyes fixed straight head and proceed toward my goal one step at a time without looking down or back. I ignore the voice in my head that tells me that at any minute I am going to fall and die.
Q. Are you currently working on any other projects?
A. I have a couple of finished novels that I am having a difficult time getting published. One has been under contract twice, but both times the publisher folded, and the other is considered too dark by commercial publishers. This recession has made publishing as juvenile and unintelligent as Hollywood. As a screenwriter, I am rewriting Underworld 4. I spend my days killing vampires and werewolves.
Q. What advice would you like to give to aspiring writers?
A. Read great books, look at great art, listen to great music, and watch great films. Don’t waste time with junk. And write, write, write every day if you can. All the most important lessons you need to learn about writing, you will teach yourself as you work. Writing is as addictive as not writing, so set up a life that supports your writing habit and don’t vary it. Routine is your friend. One last thing: if you can quit writing, then you might as well do it now and save yourself a lot of bother, because real writers have no alternative but to write. Quitting is not an option.
Q. What would you like to say to your young readers? Is there any advice that you would like to give them?
A. Find something you love to do and do it. If you drift through life without a purpose, then you might as well be drunk, crazy, and nasty, because you have nothing to lose. But when you have a purpose in life, every choice you make arranges itself around your purpose. You have powerful incentive to be happy, productive, and good.
You can learn more about Allison Burnett at his website: http://allisonburnett.com/
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