My chum Yury Sabinin has been very busy of late.
If you recall, he’s the chap who has taken it upon himself to translate some of my best stories into Russian. Originally, he set himself the task because he had a acquaintance back in Russia (Yury currently resides in B.C.) who he thought might appreciate my work. But she spoke no English so he very magnanimously decided to do the translations himself—he got in touch with me to secure my permission for the endeavor and I was genuinely touched by his devotion to his friend.
Here are his translations of two of my most well-known short stories, “The Hibakusha” and “Cattletruck”. Both are post-apocalypse tales from my very first collection, Sex & Other Acts of the Imagination (1990)…but they couldn’t be more different. You’ll find the original English versions on my Novels & Stories page. Meanwhile, for those of you fluent in Russian, check out Yury’s translations. Click on the PDFs below and away you go:
In the spring, when the snows subside, dissolve away. Sometimes a careless farmer will plough up the wrong field. Or children will make a grisly discovery in the woods.
We have been condemned, collectively, for those dark times. You would think we all owned Kalashnikovs and a cluster of hand grenades.
They will not forgive the desecration of the churches. Those pictures. Awful, awful. Though some of us insist they were faked…
Listen, we can’t keep apologizing for the past. What’s done is done. It could happen in any modern, civilized state.
They want to call it genocide but we reject that.
It was war and terrible things occurred.
We won’t be treated as pariahs.
We have sinned but are answerable only to God.
Copyright, 2013 Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)
Writers who put great stock in their editing know exactly what I’m talking about. You can obsessively work on a piece to near irrationality, trying to get the sound, the tone exactly right. Note perfect.
The art, after all, is not in the initial act of creation, it’s how you shape and hone the material afterward. Can’t tell you how many books or short stories I’ve read where I had to give credit for the originality of a concept or approach, only to see that uniqueness surrounded, besieged and eventually defeated by drab, unremarkable prose; featureless, uncolored sentences, bereft of rhythm, dumb as stone.
Right from the beginning, I wanted to tell my stories as simply as I could, in as few words as possible. I loathe long reams of description or exposition, what some of my colleagues call “info dumping”. Conversely, I love snappy dialogue and believe that a brief conversation between two people reveals far more about them than five pages of backstory.
I take the editing process to ridiculous extremes. Exceptions & Deceptions includes (at least at this point) around twenty stories culled from the past fifteen years. Most have been previously published but that doesn’t mean I can’t go in and “touch them up”. I’m a different writer than I was back then, a better writer. I’ve raised the bar a number of times since I began the oldest story more than a decade and a half ago.
I’m also a tougher, more demanding editor.
So I’ve really been putting these nineteen tales through their paces, demanding that every word, every syllable be accounted for.
It’s a tiring process. Make that exhausting (more descriptive and accurate). Three months of poring over three hundred manuscript pages, running through them again and again, watching and listening for anything the slightest bit off-key . Going at it day and night, seven days a week. Falling into bed utterly spent, knowing the collection will be the first thing to pop into my head when I open my eyes in seven or eight hours.
But, honestly, I don’t think it’s as bad as it used to be. I pace myself a bit better these days. Take frequent short breaks, stretch, go for walks. Shut down my brain earlier, try to unwind with a movie or good book in the evening. I go for a massage occasionally and sometimes Sherron will set up our big, clunky table, give my shoulders and lower back a solid working over. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: the woman has healing hands.
Over the past few years, I’ve been making a concerted effort to break this cycle of artistic self-abuse. Thanks to tools like Garageband and iMovie, I’ve been able to expand my horizons to other disciplines and, with Sherron’s encouragement, I’ve been applying myself to more visual art: painting, collage, photography. I’ve periodically posted samples of my film and music experiments, the ones that don’t blow up and end up wrecking my secret lab. I no longer rely on the printed word solely to express myself…and I think that’s a healthy development. Might even literally be a life-saver.
However, I sense that no matter what steps I take, writing will always take a toll on me. I want to be an author of stature, respected by my peers, acknowledged and sought after by intelligent, discerning readers. Placing those kinds of expectations on yourself as you commence each new poem, play, novel, short story is bound to create enormous creative tensions, which might translate into fine work, but are also accompanied by certain rather distressing emotional and physical side effects. Trust me.
That said, I have to stop equating the creative process with torture. There has to be a happy medium. I have to approach my work more playfully and allow myself the very human possibility of failure. I don’t want my fiction to become so perfect, polished and tight it’s almost robotic.
Recognize my writing for the blessing it is, rather than a curse that exacts nothing but pain and toil.
Yes, a blessing. A gift. A calling.
So, if that’s the case, what’s with all the angst?
He pushes through the door of his apartment, then shuts it against the world. Bypassing the kitchen, he goes into the living room where he lowers himself into a chair, sighing as he slips into its warm, pillowy embrace. Slowly, his sluggish movements betraying his exhaustion, he bends down, pops the snaps on his ankles and removes his aching feet. Lies back in the chair, closes his eyes, willing himself into a state of enforced lethargy. His left shoulder twitches spasmodically, a reaction to the day’s rigorous exertions. He reaches up, unlatches the shoulder from its socket, lets the arm drop to the floor. He then divests himself of his legs, checking the hinged knees for signs of wear and tear before settling back in the chair. But then he feels a thrill of pain in his lower back so he reaches behind him, depresses two switches and squirms out of his pelvic cavity. His head is throbbing, so with one practiced tug that goes too. But the respite is short-lived because then the phone rings—so he has to use his remaining arm to stick his head back on and reach for the receiver. Charlotte, it’s always Charlotte, asking to see him, pleading with him, threatening him, wailing at him until finally he gets sick of listening to her and hangs up. In the time it takes her to re-dial, he peels off his ears and plucks out his tongue.
© Copyright, 1990 Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)
* This story originally appeared in my 1990 short story collection Sex & Other Acts of the Imagination
Some gals we met through a local “Open Mike” event invited my family and I to pop out to their high school and participate in a public reading.
We love to show our support for stuff like that and were delighted to accept. The only problem is, I needed something new to read. And over the course of a couple of days, a notion for a short tale presented itself to me, pretty much full-blown. A few touch-ups here and there but nothing serious. It’s wondrous when that happens. All the proof I need that the universe is conscious, sentient and permanently beyond human ken.
The story’s short, vivid, to the point. Read on…
“Bagshaw,” my father says suddenly. He’s been silent nearly an hour and his voice gives me a start.
“What was that, Dad?”
“Who I was talking about.” Shooting me a stern look. “The little queer.” I don’t remember any reference to Bagshaw but, never mind; clearly he’s been off on some kind of mental ramble. “Worked at head office with me. A swish, and not ashamed to flaunt it either.” He pauses to get his breath. His lips are dry and grey. Everything in the process of shutting down. Propped up to help him breathe, Demerol to handle the pain. He’s making a sound, wheezing, could it be…laughter? “Lord, how I tormented that man.”
“What did you do?”
His face is still drawn but animated by something that looks suspiciously like a smirk. “I’d put thumbtacks and pins on his chair. Not every day, spacing it out so he’d always be caught off guard. I was down the hall but I could hear him squeal. Served him right.” I’m leaning forward, fists clenched. Make myself ease back in the chair, force open my furious hands. He angles his head toward me. His eyes sunken, lusterless. Dark holes in his face. “Other things too. I’d send him flowers, have them delivered right to his office. With a card, Love, Charlie or whatever.”
“You’re kidding.” I can’t help it, blurting it out.
“Sure.” His thin smile confirming it.
I haven’t seen this side of him before; I’ve often found him thoughtless but never believed him capable of out-and-out malice. “You hated him that much?”
“He made me sick. And I wasn’t the only one. But I was the sneakiest.” A sly wink. “I’d call him, late at night.”
“Never from home. Sometimes from other cities. He’d change his number, get an unlisted one…” His face crinkling with mirth. “Didn’t matter. I worked with the guy. In Human Resources, no less. Jesus. I knew where the bodies were buried and how to find them. That’s why I lasted so long.” He gestures for the water glass and I automatically move to comply. Holding it for him while he sips through a straw. One final indignity he must endure.
“What would you say,” I ask, once he’s done. “When you called him.”
“Sometimes nothing. Just letting him know I was still out there. Other times I’d be all…uh…y’know…you queer, you dirty, little faggot…you’ll get what’s coming to you. Just spooking him.” I back away, fumbling behind me for the chair. Then I realize I still have the glass and must rise once more, replacing it on the nightstand beside the bed. Finding it difficult to approach him again, this stranger I’ve known all my life.
“What was his first name?”
“What? I don’t recall. He only lasted a year.”
“Couldn’t take it, I guess.” There’s no remorse, that’s the thing. He’s talking about running over a dog in the street, thirty years after the fact.
“And then you left him alone? Or—”
“Hell, no.” Frowning at his foolish son. “That might look suspicious, give him ideas. I kept at it six more months. Just to be safe…” He’s fading again, ebbing away. “Old Bagshaw.” Almost a whisper. “You know, the bastard actually lisped?”
My father is sixty-four years old and staunchly conservative. A self-made man. In our house, he was the one who held the reins and cracked the whip. Stern but fair, I guess you could say. My sister sees it differently; she believes mom worked and worried herself to death, trying to please him.
I should tell him. Right now. Go over and spit it right into his face. Just to see his reaction. God. Wouldn’t that be something? I’m dying to tell him, I’m about to tell him…but at that moment his mouth sort of sags open and my dying father begins to snore.
© Copyright, 2011 Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)
Speaking of which, I’d better explain what I’m up to:
This year Esquire magazine is promoting a fiction contest where authors are invited to write stories based on three titles they (the editors) provide. You can visit their website for further details. I discovered the contest in May, printed up the info for later reference. Found the stuff again in late June, thought writing a story based on someone else’s title might be an interesting writing exercise. Wrote down the first title, “Twenty-Ten”, and went for it. Not necessarily thinking of submitting the finished work to the contest, just seeking to limber up my wrists before the real work of the summer began.
Well, I wrote one story and it turned out pretty darn good so the next day, suitably encouraged, I wrote a second and almost immediately a concept occurred to me for the third. So in the space of a few days I had three handwritten drafts. Tapped them into the iMac, opened one up, did a bit of fiddling…and now, three weeks later, here I am.
But I have a problem and I’ll bet you spotted it right away, didn’t you? You’re only supposed to submit one story and I’ve got three I’m quite taken with. I read all of them to my family the other night, hoping they’d immediately point out a winner but the verdict was mixed. They loved the stories, the characters, but each seemed to favor a different tale. Even I had changed my mind as to which one I preferred by the time I’d finished reading the last of them. Good grief. Well…I’ve got until the 31st (what is that, Friday?) to choose one story and edit it into tip-top shape. Because I will indeed be submitting something, despite my oft-repeated reluctance to enter writing competitions. For one thing, there’s no entry fee (mandatory). For another, Esquire, like the BBC, is a flagship, one of those names you’d dearly love, as a writer, to have on your resume. And one last consideration: I’ve written three bloody good tales, any of which is worthy for consideration.
My break’s over. Yesterday was fun: I sat around reading Paul Auster’s Man in the Dark (not one of his great ones, unfortunately), straightened up in the office, cleaned my area of the basement (we’ve been painting and installing a new ceiling light/fan in our kitchen so everything is a mess), listened to some alternative radio on the ‘net, trying to ease up and relax…but it’s time to get back at it. Grind, grind grind. Funny how hard you have to work on a story to make it read and flow naturally.
This tales have already taken up more of my summer than I’d intended–this started out as a simple writing exercise, remember? I still want to dive into edits of my next novel and here we are, approaching the end of July. Yike!
Time to finish up these tales and get back on track. It’s been an intriguing interlude but that novel beckons, miles to go before I sleep and all that.
That’s it for the update.
Hope you’re all having a fun summer. We’re finally getting some hot, sunny days, real Saskatchewan scorchers.
And, last but not least, it’s our 19th anniversary tomorrow.
Thanks, Sherron, for everything.
Forever and ever, doll…
“Matriarchy” (matriarchy.pdf) was a pleasant surprise…and a revelation. It was originally written as sort of an exercise, three or four pages of text which I then filed away. But I never quite put it out of my mind, there was something that stayed with me, the voice of the main character, the notion of these vile, old women controlling and manipulating and intimidating him.
Last summer (2007) I was, as they say, between projects and chafing at the inactivity. I recalled “Matriarchy” and thought I’d dig it out and have another crack at it. The tale came together remarkably quickly, at least for a plodder like me. I read it aloud to my wife and sons and their reaction was gratifying–I knew I had something. God bless Kelley Jo Burke, producer of the CBC Radio arts program “Sound XChange”, for thinking enough of the tale to pick it up. It was broadcast the end of October–on my birthday, as a matter of fact.
Here it is, a heart-breaker…and a gem. Enjoy!