J.L. Johnson
Moderator of The Enchanted Element
Interview with DJ Burnham


JJ: With so many different genres out there, what drew you to the world of sci/fi writing?


DJB: I grew up watching Kirk-era ‘Star Trek’ and reading Asimov, so with an accompanying science-based education and a love of all things sci-fi it was a logical progression. I started writing poetry in the early 80’s and then progressed to sci-fi stories about eight years ago – a psychoanalyst might suggest that the timing was a subconscious expression of pre-millennial angst, but I think I was just ready to scratch a compelling itch. Science fiction writing allows you to incorporate many of the other literary genres into the work, let alone the myriad sci-fi (sub-) genres available to explore, and the only limitations are those of the imagination. You can realize the improbable and flirt with conjecture, as well as extrapolating the recognizable, indulge in escapism and view modern society with fresh eyes.
A one-word answer to your question would be: Freedom.


JJ: How many stories have you written to date?


DJB: twenty five have seen the light of day so far: seventeen are in the new book, one is in the anthology 'Silverthought: Ignition', another in Vol. #1 Issue #1 of the 'Literary Bone', one has been entered into a MySpace authors’ competition, two others are likely to appear in printed anthologies later this year and three have been published on webzines. I also have three stories in draft form (waiting to be written when I go on holiday to Greece, which is where I get most of my writing done) and about 30 working story ideas on the back burner. There’s also a full-length novel called ‘Flux’ which stands at 120,000 words and is soon to go through the final editing process.


JJ: Very impressive. With such a huge volume of stories to your credit, what is it that keeps inspiring you?


DJB: Ideas seem to arrive in waves, so several months might go past when life conspires to keep me from writing and then, suddenly, there’ll be a brief period when – rather like a plant flowering – a group of storylines sidle up on me. The trigger for a story can be almost anything, but here are a few examples:


War is a stimulus to many art forms and the Iraq conflict was no exception. My wife and I marched in London in 2003 as part of the Stop the War Demo; we could see that no good would come of an allied ‘invasion/liberation’ and sadly the world is now far from being a safer place as a result. ‘The Spoils of War’ addresses the futility of endless conflict and ‘The Radical Intergalactic Travel Agency’ examines the turning of the tables on our warmongers.


Modern day influences on society such as celebrity chefs, Internet auction sites, Sudoku, anti-aging products and biometric ID cards have all inspired stories.


Occasionally the strangest things can spark an idea. As I drifted off to sleep one night I became aware of a weird, pulsing green light in the bedroom and thought there must be an emergency vehicle outside. After a while I realised that it was just my electric toothbrush charging up and it made me think of the regular flash of a lighthouse, so I started making notes that would go on to place a navigational warning device out into space.


My main motivation is to have fun and see where these notions end up, so for me writing is a form of self-entertainment and if other people enjoy my scribbles then that’s a genuine bonus.


JJ: Is there any thing that is taboo for you? Something you won't write about or a part of the genre that you have no interest in?


DJB: That’s an interesting question and not something I’d really considered before. I wouldn’t want to nail my colours to the mast, or be glib, and say that there are no taboos – as a storyline sometime in the future might warrant the use of a subject/topic/element which I wouldn’t necessarily have any interest in at present. For instance, it could be that I develop the scenario of an alien world in which human taboos might be the social norm in that society. Unless I’m underlining the inherent unpleasantness of a character I think it’s highly unlikely that you’ll find blatant prejudice or misogyny in my work. I don’t have any interest in writing which is a thinly veiled attempt at forcing the author’s affiliation down my throat with unsubtle, narrow-minded propaganda, be it religious or political, but I don’t have a problem with those themes if they are part of a well-constructed plot. (I poked fun at the concept of evangelism and fundamentalism in ‘One True Path’.) Alien characters with a particular belief system/religious society can be quite interesting (such as Kira Nerys, the Bajoran in Deep Space Nine, or Pa’u Zotoh Zhann, the Delvian priestess in Farscape).
The important thing is to keep ideas fresh and challenging. There are a lot of clichés in science fiction writing – there have been one too many alien vampire stories written over the years.
Other familiar themes might be:
All aliens automatically speak and understand English and breath our atmosphere,
Mad scientists,
Space ships list after being shot at and the control panels blow up,
Free love societies where everyone is good looking etc.
I try to self-edit and avoid the obvious ones, though I’m probably guilty of utilising themes that other writers would consider to be a cliché; it’s inevitable. But I actually made a point of it in ‘The Hollywood Effect’ in which a military-generated cliché field causes total disorientation and plunges the individuals into a microcosm of their own extrapolated reality perceptions.


JJ: You have quite a list of stories. How did your first novel come about?


DJB: The first short story was ‘Anthropomorphs’ (which appears in an anthology of speculative fiction called 'Silverthought: Ignition') and came about due to my habit of occasionally addressing inanimate objects. It’s something that most of us have probably done at some time – at least, I hope I’m not the only one. I pat the roof of the car after a long journey, thank the pop-up toaster when it’s finished, apologise to the washing machine after a heavy load…that kind of thing. I got to wondering what it would be like if household appliances were upgraded with a ‘Senchip’ (making them semi-sentient) and wrote the entire story from the perspective of a window cleaning device.


As for the novel, its title is ‘Flux’ but it was briefly going to be called ‘Hidden in Dreams’, but I thought that sounded a bit naff so its working title became ‘Visions of Morpheus’ for most of the time it was being written. A considerable amount of the initial inspiration for the first third of the novel came from my own dreams and the notebook that I keep by the side of the bed – I’ve mastered the art of writing in the dark. I also wanted to explore what it is to be human from an alien perspective, a theme that I will probably keep returning to over the years, and I envisioned a benign abduction where the human subject would be kept in a suspended dream state and the alien scientists would be able to manipulate those dreams in order to learn about what makes us tick. It took about five years to write, mainly because my only chance at uninterrupted flow is when I’m on holiday in Greece, sitting under the shade of a tamarisk tree on a sandy beach. By the time I’d finished the novel it had developed well beyond what I’d originally conceived, part love story, part evaluation of the psyche, part adventure on an alien world and part conjectural physics and the creation of a pansophical entity called the Flux: Guardian of the Alternative Realities (featuring in my most recent short story ‘Tree of Ubiquikin’). Just as I wrote the last chapter of the first draft ‘The Matrix’ came out and one of the main characters is, of course, called Morpheus. That wasn’t necessarily a problem but I felt that it could be construed as more than a coincidence, plus the extrapolation of the Flux entity concept had taken things in a new direction and the title changed, along with the artwork for the cover.


So it was a long term project and a melting pot for new ideas, eventually growing into a book of three parts/themes with the central characters providing the continuity with their developing relationship. I’m hoping to complete the final edits within the next twelve months, but I suspect it might turn out to be one of those things that someone will just have to take away from me and say, ‘That’s it, you can stop now.’ Ha ha, we’ll just have to wait and see.


JJ: What is your recent book about?


DJB: ‘Test Drive’ is volume one of my collected short stories – hopefully there’ll be another in a couple of years. It features seventeen stories on themes as diverse as a planet-hopping celebrity chef, a futuristic Internet auction site, alien evangelists, rejuvenation, rogue space rocks, the futility of conflict, a road trip across Mars and a radical intergalactic travel agency. Each story has its own artwork – assembled on the front cover in the same order as the tales inside. At the end of the book there are some short notes on how each story came about.
In 2005, I travelled to India with my wife Sue and we were lucky enough to see tigers in the wild. I was already planning to release ‘Test Drive’ and decided that I would like to help WWF (The World Wide Fund for Nature) by donating all of the profits from the forthcoming book to the charity. As the world’s largest independent organisation of its kind it works in more than 90 countries, conserving endangered species and habitats, researching, educating, and protecting the global environment.


JJ: What a noble undertaking. I hope that the book does well. How may one go about purchasing any of your printed works?


DJB: ‘Test Drive’ is available from the following site:
http://www.lulu.com/content/823956
For information on anthologies featuring my work, free to read stories and regular updates, visit:
http://www.myspace.com/djburnham
Add me as a friend, sign up for blogs etc.
For artwork, photography, poetry, more writing etc, visit:
http://www.djburnham.com/


JJ: What advice do you have for others who are trying to become published authors?


DJB: Ah, okay, let’s see.


Be sure that what you’ve written is as polished as you can make it: Don’t just rely on the spellcheck. Grammar and punctuation are, to an extent, as much about individual style as the actual content, but it’s worth getting a friend/husband/wife to read sections out loud back to you. If the punctuation or sentence construction isn’t easy to read and interpret then you’ll pick up on that in their delivery. In other words, you know what you mean, but other people might not.
Start off by submitting short stories to webzines/small press. Make sure you follow their individual submissions guidelines to the letter. An editor will feel much better disposed to your work if they can tell that you’ve read some of the other pieces on the site/in the publication first (to get a feel for what they like) and taken a note of their guidelines, which are really there to ease the process of editing and software compatibility.
If your story is rejected it may get a simple return statement such as: This story isn’t really right for our magazine, or you may receive constructive criticism. Criticism is a good thing. No one likes having faults pointed out but it is definitely one of the best ways to learn. If you story is published then you may get feedback from readers, or fellow writers, in forums and the like. Take what they say on board. Some of it may be purely subjective, but most of it is really valuable and these people are essentially your target audience – after all, they’ve made the effort to read your work in the first place. Many webzine forums have sections on writer’s tips, so check those out, too, for grammar, character/plot development etc. Above all, find your own voice and be original. Your work needs to stand out if it’s going to do well. You need to establish a bit of a readership if you’re going to sell and books and having short stories published can act as a calling card for your work as a whole.
Once you start to get some decent reviews and built up a readership, then it’s time to consider publishing your own work.
You can go the route of sending material directly to a publisher, but unless you’re really lucky it will probably be sent back with a polite letter. What you need is a literary agent. Again, that involves doing a bit of research and asking around to establish who might be able to do the best job in representing you. You need to make contact first to see of they’re interested and what they would like to see as being representative of the work you’re hoping to get published – usually a synopsis plus an example of a few chapters/stories. If you’ve got a few good reviews up your sleeve and some history of previous publication in webzines/small press then that will lend more weight to your case. Even if an agent does take you on, then they have to start knocking on publishers’ doors – although publishers know that a good and respected agent will have already done some of the groundwork in sorting out the wheat from the chaff, so there’s a much better chance of one of those doors opening.
Having said all that, do you actually want to go straight for that route? An agent will take a percentage commission on any introductions/resultant publications, and publishers will have total control over the release date/distribution of your work, and you probably won’t see much of a return on initial book sales.
The other alternative is to self-publish. That used to be associated with ‘Vanity publishing’, but things have changed in recent years. These days you can go to a Print-on-Demand site, which will do just that. Rather than being committed to a large – and expensive – print run, your book just gets printed when someone actually orders a copy. You’re guided through the publishing process on-line, but refer back to what I said earlier about your book being as ‘polished’ as you can get it. Unlike the agent/publisher relationship, you won’t have an editor: In this case that will be you.
I’d suggest approaching a few very good friends who are willing to read your work, looking for spelling/grammatical errors, missing/transposed words, glaring plots inconsistencies etc. You’ll also need some reasonably decent word processing software, as you will be totally responsible for the entire layout, from tabs to page titles/numbering and overall formatting. All of that has to be as professional as possible and to as high a standard as you can achieve, prior to uploading it to the site for printing. The Print-on-Demand sites also have loads of help sections and writer forums. Like most things in life, the more time you invest in familiarizing yourself with the process, the better your book will look in print.
I won’t get into marketing, that’s another subject altogether and depends on what you want to do with your book. But decent sales and reviews with an existing, well-presented product can be another route into the literary agent’s office at a later date.
So, in summary, find your own voice, make your work as polished and well presented as you can, build a readership and…don’t lose sight of why you started writing in the first place.
Hope that helps and good luck to any new writers out there.
All the best,
DJ Burnham