Sunday, October 14, 2012

Gerry Burke Makes a Pest of Himself

In the 31st in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Gerry Burke, author of Pest on the Run (iUniverse), tells of how he evolved from an accountant to an advertising copywriter to a short story author.

What led you to become a writer?
I used to be an accountant. I then came to the conclusion that I really wanted to be anything but an accountant, so I took on a scriptwriting course. I could see myself as a television creative, but the tutor thought I had the imagination and fantasy-driven ideas to be successful in advertising. It was a good pitch and I rewarded his optimism by landing a job as a copywriter with a large international agency. You can now fast-forward thirty years.

I had never harbored the desire to write any kind of a book but that I ended up churning out short stories was fairly predictable. My advertising brief usually required me to produce 30 second and 60 second commercials. My first volume came out of frustration. I had geared myself up to become a columnist, for one of the dailies or a local mag, and had accumulated a swag of material: articles, essays and commentary that covered the area of politics, entertainment, sport, and travel. I gave myself a pseudonym — PEST. Of course, the media weren’t interested. It wasn’t so much rejection. They just ignored me. One of the editors, a friend, suggested that I put it all down in a book, and that’s what I eventually did. Yes, the high profile publishers also ignored me. One day I will learn how to get past the receptionist.

The short stories are now getting longer. I was shocked to see the puny size of my first paperback. I have now produced five books in three years and the latest runs to over one hundred thousand words.

Where do you do most of your work?
I have a home office, but my best work is done in bed. Sometimes I can be a bit of an insomniac and I use those sleepless moments to conjure up various scenarios that I put into my computer the next day. I have retained the imagination from my youth, and I go where the story takes me. My adventure tales involve very little research other than the checking of facts, and the locations for Paddy Pest’s escapades are usually destinations that I have visited. I am well-traveled, and so is Paddy. He actually classifies himself as an international crime-buster.

Have you written a story based on an idea from another person?
I certainly have. I seem to be more focused when somebody gives me parameters. It is probably my advertising training, which required me to work within the structure of a brief. I can modestly say that I wrote an excellent radio play about a couple called Basil and Rosemary. My friend, a chef, was living his fantasy, but, to me, the challenge to incorporate jazz, cooking, and sex into a late-night format was irresistible. After my first two publications, another friend suggested a novel that incorporates a private investigator and, so, Paddy Pest was born and remains alive and kicking after three books and many stories. In both cases the narratives diverged from the original expectations, but their suggestions were the motivation that I needed to proceed with enthusiasm.

What writers have you learned from?
Would you believe? Maxwell Smart
I can’t answer this one because it is highly likely that my style is comparable to someone else and it is a subliminal thing. It is also an area of worry for a writer. In Australia, one of our most famous rock bands (Men at Work) lost a legal case for plagiarism. It was all because of a flute solo that supposedly resembled a ditty from a Girl Guide’s song in 1934. A newspaper editor commented that my early material reminded him of David Sedaris. I had never heard of that gentleman at the time. On the face of it, my hero is a cross between James Bond and Maxwell Smart. Paddy would think James Bond, everybody else, Max Smart. I like to think that I have instilled a fair amount of individuality into my work. After all, what other crime buster carries a fold-up boomerang in his coat pocket?

What's the worst idea you've had for a story?
You can combine this with the question that people often ask “What triggers your ideas?” I had just experienced my first visit to a talking toilet, and I thought that the instructions were particularly bossy. Being in the advertising business, I recognized the voice-over man and wondered if I could blackmail him. After all, I knew that he was doing Shakespeare at a nearby theater and wouldn’t want to fess-up to the fact that he was the voice of a St Kilda toilet. Incredibly, the toilet was actually in Shakespeare Grove. In the end, I didn’t out him but placed the story in the Entertainment section of my book entitled “Down-Under Shorts.”