Interview with Aaron Burch by T.C. Porter
Students and enthusiasts of writing—the types of people frequenting San Diego Writers, Ink—will be happy to meet Aaron Burch. His work’s high quality does not keep it from being approachable as the writer himself. The founding editor of Hobart, he commands the respect of a legion of writers familiar with his enthusiasm, kindness and excellence. His forthcoming story collection, Backswing, melds disparate voices along a broad continuum of realism to fabulism.
SDWI friends So Say We All welcome Burch for a reading on Friday, June 27, 7 p.m., at Gym-Standard, 2903 El Cajon Blvd. Also reading are Dylan Nice (author of Other Kinds), Juliet Escoria (Black Cloud) and Julia Evans (Black Candies).
Burch’s publisher, Queen’s Ferry Press, says of Backswing:
Throughout Aaron Burch’s debut full-length collection of fiction nearly everyone is seeking some kind of perfection. Despite their attempts falling short, going stray, or sometimes not even making it off the ground, they keep swinging—at latent nightmares and glaring domestic lives, at severed limbs and redemptive baptisms, at the awe of what has been taken and the bewilderment over what remains. Nevertheless, in these stories ranging from the magical to realism, from Biblical allegory to everyday relationships, the characters of Backswing, faithful that forward motion will someday strike, keep driving toward grace.
I virtually met Aaron last year while doing research on independent publishers. Of the hundreds of people I contacted via email he was most generous. We connected again this week—precisely as he packed last-minute for his West Coast trip—in an email chain excerpted below, with eyes to his story collection, tour, and the work of aspiring writers.
TC: What’s going on? A book tour?
AB: Yep! Hitting the road, pimping the book. Searching for America. All that.
TC: I’m enjoying the collection. An antonym for pretentious. So refreshing. Thank you.
AB: Thanks! That’s maybe my fave compliment for the book.
TC: What span of time have these stories been written?
AB: The biggest chunk of writing was probably 08-13, give or take, but I first started working on “Unzipped” forever ago.
TC: How did you arrange the stories within the collection?
AB: Some mix of very thoughtfully and kinda by accident. I wanted the first couple few stories to really introduce the whole collection, style, POV, semi-recurring themes, all that. And then I wanted it to “build,” but that’s largely intuitive, just playing with putting them in different orders and seeing how it feels.
TC: Was there much editing or changes from the journal publications to the book form? For example, the changing of the title for the story, “Scout” (nee “Backswing,” the title of the collection)? Speaking of which, why did you use that for the title (or is that for us to decide)?
AB: I don’t think there was a huge amount of editing, post-journal-publication, but definitely some. Everything got at least a round or two of edits, sometimes small writing related “betterments” (hopefully), sometimes to help pull each story from an individual story to something that was a piece of the whole.
Originally, I was calling the manuscript “Perfect,” but nobody but me really liked that. So my publisher and I went looking for a “better” title, and after a decent amount of back-and-forth, we landed on Backswing. Which I now really like, and am happy for the back and forth, but I always knew I didn’t really want a “title story,” so then we went looking for a new title for what was Backswing (now Scout).
TC: What’s your routine? Like, write first thing in the day, then edit and publish?
AB: IDEALLY, when I’m being motivated and life isn’t getting in the way, yeah, I write in the morning, maybe 2-4 hours, and then afternoons and evenings are typing up what I’ve written, or working on Hobart, or reading, or just doing family stuff, not feeling guilty about even just watching multiple episodes of The Bachelor, wasting the day away, any of it, because I got my morning writing done. I don’t want to think about or answer how frequent those days are.
TC: San Diego Writers, Ink is a community of professional and aspiring writers. What general advice do you share with those of us still aspiring … some of us for years and years?
AB: This is a tough Q because I’m not sure if it’s possible to answer it not as a cliché. The biggest advice is just to keep writing, I think. I had a chapbook of short-shorts come out, and a novella that was basically also made up of short-shorts, but I’m kinda thinking of this as my “full length debut” and I’ve been working on stories (in general, and in a couple instances, even specifically these stories) for a decade. I wrote the first draft of one of these stories in … 2003?
TC: Having screened so many submissions is there any advice you would give aspiring writers, such as common mistakes and conversely what works well?
AB: Honestly, I don’t think so. I think as aspiring writers (and this is maybe half-writer/half-editor speaking), we tend to look for these kinds of “common mistakes” or “cover letter hints” because they’re easier to grab hold of than writing itself—just write another draft, another story, etc.
TC: Do you have any idea what percentage of the writers you publish has an MFA, and how much that plays into their success?
AB: I don’t. At Hobart, we don’t really put into thought of MFA or not, or any of the bio, really. I think (outside of the small handful of “elite” programs, where you do get connections and whatnot) where an MFA helps you is just by giving you time to write. Not too many people, outside of graduate school, get to spend 2-3 years almost solely focused on writing, and that time helps, in general, and toward that Gladwellian 10,000 hours, and all that. But you put in the time where and how ever you can. (I also think a lot of writers that have success have MFAs, not because the MFA played into the success, but just the kind of literary writer that is going to keep at it, keep submitting to lit journals that nobody but writers read, all that, is often the kind of person who wanted to go to school for it, so there’s a connection but not causality?)
TC: What’s new with Hobart?
AB: Not much, actually, I don’t think? The website is going better than ever, and Elizabeth (the editor of Hobart’s book arm, Short Flight/Long Drive Books) has the next three books picked out for our books division, such that print Hobart is kinda on a bit of an indefinite hiatus, which is one of the nice things of indie publishing—you can just kinda put things on hold when you want, you are less beholden to deadlines, which is helpful when you want to hit the road to promote a book, and also try to get some work done on the next book, and all that.
TC: I’m curious about your life as an author AND publisher. It seems like a diverse if not schizophrenic lifestyle; would you agree it’s a rare breed that can pull off the two? How do you manage the various challenges, and have you learned any tricks along the way?
AB: I think, for me, it’s just been really productive. I’d maybe have had this book out sooner if I didn’t keep getting distracted by Hobart, but maybe I would have given up altogether? I love writing, but I love editing too, and I often get as much joy out of introducing other writers into the world as I do with my own stories, so there’s a bit of that old maxim, or if it isn’t a maxim, it should be—something about the more I have to do, the more productive I am, generally because I’ll procrastinate writing by working on Hobart, i/o just watching TV, and vice versa.
TC: As a publisher and editor yourself, how has it worked on the other side, as an author working with your editor, publisher and publicist?
AB: It’s been pretty awesome. Because Hobart (and SF/LD) is ultimately pretty small, I have a pretty good idea of how the process works, and expectations, so I feel like that’s helped with knowing what questions to ask, and just with knowing what I want a bit, but being on the other side and not having to handle some of the more logistical and business aspects of publishing has been awesome, and Erin at Queen’s Ferry has just been awesome to work with.
TC: Presently I’m reading two disparate books on the subject of publishing, from the old guard (Publishing for Profit) and new (Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto). The latter has expanded my imagination on what a book can do. Can you chime in here generally on the state of the book business? What new and exciting things are happening? Is it as promising or depressing as some might suggest?
AB: You know, I don’t think that much about publishing, to be honest. I kinda do what I do, over here in my corner, and I get excited about what I love, and I (mostly) just kinda leave it at that. When I do think of it though, I think of it pretty optimistically. I don’t think I ever expected to make my living as a writer. That wasn’t really ever my dream or something I thought about, so I don’t get disappointed about that not happening, but instead get really excited about everything that does happen, about having this book come out, about a pretty great group of people who support Hobart, about all the exciting writing that I come across.
TC: San Diego: America’s Finest City? Any experience here or is this your first time?
AB: I like San Diego. I wish I had time while out there to catch a Padres game. I’ve been a few times, but usually to visit friends for a night or three, or to do a reading, or once to hit Comic Con, back when I lived in Southern Cali. Also, pretty much the only time I did drugs was in beautiful San Diego, so there’s that.
TC: (Laughing) Thanks Aaron. Looking forward to meeting you in person on Friday.
Aaron Burch is the editor of HOBART: another literary journal, and the author of the novella, How to Predict the Weather, and How to Take Yourself Apart, How to Make Yourself Anew, the winner of PANK’s First Chapbook Competition. Recent stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Barrelhouse, New York Tyrant, Unsaid, elimae and others.
T.C. Porter volunteers for SDWI, where he launches a weekly writing cohort soon. His unpublished novel, The Maculate Conception of Wally Maas, slushes around New York and elsewhere.