James Burge Interview
Posted on 23 November 2010. © Copyright 2004-2024 WriteWords
WriteWords talks to author James Burge about his biographical writing career
Tell us all about your writing background
I started my career in television making programmes as a writer/director first for the BBC Open University then for BBC Horizon and latterly for a succession of programmes about history, mostly for Channel Four. I came to book writing (as opposed to script writing) rather late with a biography of Abelard and Heloise, the medieval lovers whose life was blighted by monasticism and castration. That was in 2003 and I have just published a biography of Dante called Dante’s Invention.
Other work besides writing; eg. Editing, dramaturgy, tutoring, and how it works/worked for/against your own writing
My experience in television is important when it comes to shaping a narrative. In television you never have a second chance. If the viewer is bored or loses track of what you are saying they will just find another channel to watch. There can be no looking back over the page and trying to find the thread. That is a great discipline which I try to employ when writing non-fiction: always take the reader with you and only tell them things that pertain to the story at that moment.
On the other hand I enjoy the solitude of writing books. Directing television is 70% management and coercion. It is nice just to sit with a keyboard and get on with it
How, when and why did you first start writing?
My TV work has always involved writing and I guess that, without really knowing it, I had come to relish the rhythm of a well-turned phrase. That is something you can put to use in a book all the time (if only one had the ability) but only rarely in a film.
I started writing books because a friend of mine from BBC Books, Sheila Ableman, became an agent. I asked her if she could get me any work reviewing TV (which I have also done). She said no but why don’t you think about writing a book? It took me about 24 hours to realise that that was something I really wanted to do.
Who are your favourite writers and why?
Strangely for a writer of non-fiction (so far) I am going to start with novelists. Two writers who seem to me to be masters of the art of making every scene work in terms of character and action as well as enhancing the overall ‘feel’ of a book are Le Carré and William Boyd. I would love to get that kind of tension into my non-fiction work.
What's the worst thing about writing?
The fact that first drafts always read like teeth-clenchingly embarrassing rubbish. It always comes out all right in the end but I can never seem to get it right first time.
And the best?
When someone says they were moved – either to laughter or tears of something in between – by something I wrote. It is a feeling of having shared something important with a stranger.
Tell us what kind of responses you get from audiences\ readers.
I listen very hard to all responses, especially when my first thought is, ‘well you haven’t really got the point of this’. It is then that you have to consider why they haven’t got the point and whose fault it is – usually yours.
What was your breakthrough moment?
When I tried writing TV reviews and people said they found them amusing.
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