An Interview with Writer Tony Burgess
Tony Burgess is best known for the horror novel Pontypool Changes Everything, about a zombie virus that is spread through language. The book served as the basis for Bruce McDonald’s film Pontypool, which Burgess also wrote. In a genre often considered formulaic and staid, Burgess is strange and extreme; his recent novel, The n-Body Problem, contains a chapter that is unreadable because mathematically encrypted. The books read as if written by, to quote Burgess, “a deteriorating consciousness.” They are things that should not be, novels that disconnect themselves from the conventions of both horror and literature.
I. “I AM INTERESTED IN GIVING THE READER TRUE VERTIGO.”
THE BELIEVER: Your books, from the beginning, have embraced horror—a much-maligned literary genre—while at the same time having few similarities with other horror novels. Your influences are almost untraceable. I can detect Burroughs, I think, and Cronenberg, but maybe a good place to begin is where you began. How did you come to horror, and to cultivate your own particular strain of experimental, literary horror?
TONY BURGESS: It’s natural, isn’t it, to assume influence is primarily literary? And along the way it has to be, but my experiment began with, and still includes, non-literary influences.
I’ll be plain about this—I sought out horror at a very young age because I understood it. More than that, though, it was occurring. I have been frightened for as long as I can recall. I am shocked by this and feel isolated. That we aren’t holding onto things, like trees and rocks and screaming, surprises me. That was sort of the environment in my head as a child—that there is mindless violence in everything, and anything quiet and welcoming is so because it knows you by name, and that name marks you for sadism. Everything we think is real is made of elegiac materials.
So that was my backdrop as a kid. I couldn’t articulate it but I sought out things that could. At first it was horror films—extreme panic and terror, grotesque and maniacal. These films calmed me and made me feel more connected in my experiences.
As I got older my psychic life grew dire and started to resemble paranoid schizophrenia: disordered thought, a terror of secret, malevolent designs, an overwhelming sensation of being deformed. I had to seek out stronger medicine, and so I started obsessively reading surrealist and Dadaist texts.
That was when I started to have a tiny bit of control. Jarry, Beckett, Artaud, Bataille, Lautréamont, Genet, Gide, Cocteau, Apollinaire, the inframince of Duchamp. Then from there, outward to devour anything I could get my hands on—not just out of intellectual or literary appetite, but as a fairly urgent project to make my thought work. So it wasn’t really a question of, “Oh, I like this, I’m gonna be smart now.” It was a real attempt to figure out how I can be here.
I am answering this question in a confessional mode because the answer isn’t yet an academic one. Anyway, things got much worse for a very long time. I am still a feral person. I have no bank account. I am unemployable. I own nothing. I lose my shoes sometimes when I go out. Ha ha. It sounds like I’m making a case for my own exceptionalism, which I suppose I am, but I wish it wasn’t true.
My fear now, as a writer, is that I am a curiosity. That I can only bring you this peculiar condition from far away, from outside, and if you look at it then it will mean nothing. So, I have to pretend it’s more than that. Horror writing lets me do that.
BLVR: Typical of your style is unstable narration, which often shifts between character perspectives or narrative voices without warning. You describe this in the afterword of your book Fiction for Lovers as an attempt “to tell stories with a deteriorating consciousness.” Can you unpack what that means to you, and why you committed to this approach in your early novels?
TB: Well, the backdrop is always the chaotic environment of my thought, such as it is…and the deteriorating consciousness takes up Artaud’s challenge to be slipping into disintegration and still able to imagine what that feels like.
I like the separation there. The frantic shell game to discover where you might be. Your agency is a colonizer, a deterritorializer. The idea of a deteriorating consciousness also sets it apart from conventions like unreliability, which really just stabilizes the book’s themes, story, etc, as a carefully cooked voice in service of meaning. I am interested in giving the reader true vertigo.
The size of things, the meaning of things, the intention, the proximity of a convention are not absent—they are trying hard to be discovered in an indifferent and malformed organizing principle. Ultimately, I look to deteriorating consciousness as our inevitable condition and I am trying to make it work the same way I did with my juvenile mind—that is, to imagine how we are suffering. To record it being actual and then virtual.
BLVR: One thing I like about your unstable narration is that it stands opposed to the detached, transparent narration commonplace in genre fiction. The nature of the horror genre complicates the seeming neutrality of this ubiquitous style of “sober” narration, since it should be difficult to speak of horrors. One thing I have always thought is that the narrating consciousness, if sane, should be driven to madness by the events it is required to relate. Lovecraft has this problem: he always struggles against language, to describe monsters that are sublime and should therefore be indescribable, and inspire silence. Where do you see your work standing in relation to other horror authors and stories?
TB: Lovecraft is very important, as is the idea of the unnamable, the incommensurate record—that is, the destroyed record. I have said this many times: I believe the book should be something you protect yourself from by returning to your life. But it has threatened your life. Not by saying something it believes is true, but by attacking it.
A horror novel should reveal to you that you are falling apart. That there are ways your imagination can be made different. Can threaten what you think is. You should be holding onto that tree or rock and screaming. Or laughing. Not at absurdity, either: absurdism is just a bourgeois and reactionary nostalgia for good, stable meaning.
I think horror should have occult elements, not as its subject but as its ambition. It is a machine that destroys illusion. I, of course, never achieve this, but I always act as if I can.
Other popular horror writers I have great respect for: King, Barker, Piper, etc. But I think we have very different projects. I like Ben Marcus a lot and have recently discovered Guyotat.
II. “IT HAS TO FEEL LIKE IT WILL ALL FLY APART.”
BLVR: I heard that you wrote The n-Body Problem in nine days? How is that possible?
TB: It would have been ten but I took Monday off. Not kidding! It’s the way I do things. I thought about it and wrote a fair bit in my head for a year.
BLVR: What does your life look like when you are in the middle of these books?
TB: Oh, I get a bit hypomanic, not sleeping or eating properly. It’s not entirely comfortable. The books are recordings; that’s what they have to be, recordings of the writing. They have to be happening to me. But I do prepare for them, about a year in advance.
BLVR: I like that idea, that they should be recordings of the writing. What do you think attracts you to that idea, pushing it all to that metafictional level?
TB: I don’t think really think of it in metafictional terms, or at least I try to avoid what metafiction is supposed to be doing. In fact, I want to get closer to the thing happening. It is a record.
BLVR: With you as a recording angel.
TB: A record is an analogue. Fidelity to unmeaning lines. A path to being there. Bataille and Artaud, to some extent, helped build my little book machines.
BLVR: It feels like what you are doing is very close to Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, trying to close that distance between the audience and the work, while paradoxically using a lot of the techniques that in a different book would widen the distance.
TB: Yes. I think that’s right. It’s a radical collapse of metafiction, something almost like phatic fiction.
BLVR: Phatic fiction—that would certainly describe passages in Pontypool Changes Everything, where I am sometimes unclear whether two people are eating each other or watching TV.
TB: Haha, that’s the right reading! That makes me smile. So the fast writing isn’t some kinda balls-out feat, it’s a record of my writing without a moment to think. It has to feel like it will all fly apart.
BLVR: Were you always doing the books like that? In that headlong rush?
TB: Yeah. That sounds sort of crazy, and maybe it sounds impressive, but you have to be prepared. I’m getting close to preparing for the next book, but it’s two years of reading, thinking, of finding the voice, of breaking it down, of sitting and—like, I have days where people think I’m crazy.
My family thinks I’m insane, because I sit and do nothing for fucking months. I make no money, I stare.
BLVR: There is this madness to the books, this headlong rush and almost surrealistic, automatic quality, but at the same time there are clear structural elements. Like in Caesarea, it begins and it ends with the image of writing on paper, and it has a real symmetry to it even as it takes weird leaps. The latter half is almost a mirror image of the first half.
BLVR: In that novel, the mayor goes into his house and then comes out as the smaller version of himself. Then the book almost breaks and starts to reverse itself.
TB: Yeah, absolutely. And it changes: it begins to eat itself partway through the book so that it’s actually digesting itself, and coming to understand itself, so that the structure repeats itself as a mirror of its beginning.
That’s a function of the writing more than, “Well let’s balance this, and let’s balance that.” It’s the way the book ate itself as it was writing.
BLVR: So what is it that you’re looking for? What are you trying to get in your head before you start writing?
TB: First of all, I listen. I’ll get a conceptual idea, which I hope is not very compelling. Because the more compelling ones tend to be a bit distracting.
Pontypool Changes Everything was a very compelling idea, but I didn’t want to treat it that way. But now that’s the one everybody talks about, and asks me about. “Eh, viruses and languages, it’s so fantastic!” Well, you know, it’s not that hard to find that idea, it’s around.
BLVR: Well, yeah, it’s literally out there, with Burroughs saying “Language is a virus.”
TB: That’s not where it came from, but yeah. Caesarea was a deliberate attempt to find a concept that was unworkable and undevelopable: that the town is smaller, slightly smaller inside itself. The book will never find a way to make that idea legible. And because of that, in its attempt, it will set up an absolutely perverse stage wherein it becomes this horrifying painting of a market, that’s just excess.
So I’ll have a concept that’s sort of, “maybe, maybe,” and then I’ll try to figure out a fairly conventional, “this and this and this,” for a story. “This and this and this—the town was there, this happened to the town, or one fellow was blah blah blah, and then he ended up meeting somebody or they went to another place and they found a plane, blah blah,” to the end.
Then I’ll corner people selectively, and I’ll go, “I’ve got a story I want to tell you.” I’ll narrativize it—it has to satisfy a kind of conventional thing so that the person goes, “Oh, oh, oh wow, oh that’s a great story!” I look for that, where the listener goes, “Oh, I like that story.” Because that’s part of the bait.
BLVR: That’s the spine?
TB: Part of the spine. But not really, because that’s not the story that the book is going to be. But it has to satisfy what people think a clever or good story is. So then they trust it.
And then I’ll listen. Takes a long time to do sometimes, and it’s very strange where it comes from, but I’ll listen for a voice. Somewhere out in the wild. It can be somebody I hear at a grocery store, it can be somebody on a TV commercial, it can be something I read in a book, or it can be something else—but I hear the voice and it starts telling the story that I’ve been telling for the last year.
And it will do something to the story that I can’t really control. For instance, People Live Still in Cashtown Corners is the ShamWow guy.
BLVR: That’s interesting. It kind of makes sense, now that you say that.
TB: Well, I love the way he goes, “Hekini, Bikini, Batoni, Padoni, batadada.” He’s sort of aggressive and crazy, and he throws in words that don’t make sense in order to rhyme his way to the next sentence, as if that was allowable.
And everything was speculated into being: “What if you do this and what if you do that and what if you do this?” So it was this series of scattered speculations about what is, combined with this wholesale rhyming, and providing structural ways of getting from that idea to this, things that aren’t related to the idea.
And the other thing is—there’s the voice, there’s the concept, and there’s the narrative to take the voice and take it somewhere—nowhere near that story anymore. So that story will now be something that that voice hears about.
It may hear about it once, it may be hearing about it all the time, but it is never that voice’s story. That voice will actually have no story. It sort of loiters and kills time, and tries to get on with things, or whatever, but it is sort of empty of that story. That story is primary or secondary, but it is not the narrative voice’s story.
So then the book that I was going to write is overheard, or spied on, or seen from a distance by the voice. A narrative voice I listen to instead of occupy.
BLVR: You’re almost setting forth this antagonism between the voice and the story. The narrative voice is supposed to be telling the story, but is really destroying it, in a manner of speaking.
TB: In a manner of speaking, yes it is. And weird things will happen. The story will have a kind of envy, and will have this agency.
It’s bizarre. It will try to interfere with the voice, or try to work its way in front of the voice, and insist—but it can’t, sort of like it’s not legible or not available to the voice, the governing principle or the governing body of the thing that’s in front of it.
III. PHATIC FICTION
BLVR: Was this always what you were doing? Was there ever a moment where you were writing standard stories in a standard manner?
TB: No. This was always happening. There’s a bunch of different things, there’s a bunch of reasons. Influences on me when I was a teenager, really. And some of those were disastrous lifestyle choices. [laughs]
BLVR: At one point you tried to burn down the Hotel Isabella [a historical Toronto landmark], is that correct?
TB: [laughing] Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey! Bill C-51 [Canada’s “Anti-Terrorism” bill] was passed, bitch! Kill it! Jesus Christ, that never happened!
BLVR: [laughing] That’s right, sorry. Didn’t you work as a telephone psychic at one point as well?
TB: I did. I worked as a telephone psychic for about a year and a half.
BLVR: How did that work?
TB: I loved that, man. I got a degree in fucking semiotics at U of Toronto, which was ridiculous. So the job I got, which I thought was a perfect job, that I was absolutely qualified for, was to read tarot cards. And it was perfect. It was in fact the high end of the jobs I could expect with a degree in semiotics. You know what I mean?
BLVR: There’s science in it.
TB: So I took that job very, very, very seriously. Even though I had zero belief in it whatsoever. It didn’t matter.
BLVR: It’s semiotics, I suppose. In its purest form.
TB: Yeah, and I didn’t interfere with it. I just did my best job as a reader, as a medium.
BLVR: You’re describing a medium-like writing process. At least, that seems to be the intention—to set up a system or a structure that is going to produce a text that you can channel.
TB: Yeah, and to me that’s the big difference. Automatism is an element of that, as is the notion that it is a recording of the writing as opposed to something else.
BLVR: Fidelity to the event—
TB: Fidelity to the writing, yes. It is, and it’s preoccupied with that all the way through.
BLVR: I want to jump back to how what you see yourself doing is “phatic fiction,” and how it has this phatic interest or goal rather than what we might otherwise think of fiction doing. We think of phatic speech as something that is expressing, rather than having a meaningful component. And so what I’m wondering is, what are these things expressing?
TB: Phatic is emptying the instrument of content so that it becomes apparent to you that I am here, because that’s all that this can do—say that I am here. There is no other freight, there is no other direction, there is no other lesson, there is no other content or material. Anything that I might put there will interfere with the signal and you will no longer know if I’m here or not.
This is going to sound so insane—but I don’t believe that I’ve ever said or thought or heard or read anything that was of any value unless it was disposable or ephemeral. The far more important feature of that instrument is to let you know I am here.
Everything else interferes with that; everything else is a problem. The only thing that can possibly be successful in any—we call it a meaningful way—is for you to know that I am here and me to know that you are here.
I’m sounding like a mystic now, but there isn’t anything else, and so this is one of the reasons why I’m quite comfortable with my books falling apart and the freight disappearing. It sounds ridiculous, I know.
BLVR: I don’t think it sounds ridiculous. What I think is interesting about it, though, is that you’re working with horror. Why is horror the best material to work with, to indicate that I am here? Is “I am here” producing horror?
TB: Well, that’s a very good one! It could be that they serve each other well. Maybe you could go to something like Stephen King’s hierarchy [of terror, horror, and gross-out—the latter being “lower” than the former, according to King’s book Danse Macabre].
Maybe what I want to do is say hello, that’s my “A” game. All this other content would be my “C” game, which is going to give other people something else to talk about.
BLVR: I find the idea of phatic fiction so interesting, because it produces this situation where maybe it’s horrible that you’re here.
TB: Oh no! Exactly.
BLVR: Or maybe it’s horrible that you might lose the message, and then the here-ness will be lost.
Or maybe the form is horrible. I find, when I teach one of your books, that it becomes very disturbing for the students that it is not a normal book. They find the formal difference—the way that it violates category—upsetting, more than the content. The violence and atrocity they can accept, but the way it is not a normal book makes them uncomfortable.
TB: It’s perverse and it’s embarrassing because it shouldn’t be that way.
BLVR: They find it disturbing that you’re talking to them. With Pontypool Changes Everything, students are very disturbed by the segments that are clearly meant as an autobiographical intrusion. They find that really disturbing and—
BLVR: It’s disruptive, yeah. And I think it comes out of that tension that you talk about, and which I see in David Lynch a lot. Where it becomes horrible often, in Lynch’s films, is when it seems like it is a movie but it’s not operating like a movie. It just feels wrong, like it shouldn’t be—yet here it is, insisting on its presence.
TB: I love that, and that goes to a whole bunch of different things—one of them is that to be here is a disruption.
Something phatic is something we quickly get rid of and treat as if it isn’t there at all. You know, “Hello”—“Yeah, hello”—it’s the most formal thing, but these things that are the most spontaneous are often the most codified.
BLVR: Makes me think also of Thomas Ligotti. In The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, which is his non-fiction book about pessimism, Ligotti has this interesting idea—it’s not original to him, he’s kind of just talking about the history of it—but the idea is that somehow consciousness is a monster, a monstrous thing.
And so the presence of you here is potentially horrifying in and of itself, from a certain point of view, whereas from another position of course the monster is out there, but trying to intrude, and you have to get rid of the monster.
Either I am here in the nightmare, or I am here is the nightmare. I am the monster and I am here. Your books seem radical in taking on the mantle of the monster like this, so they do produce an anxiety. But they don’t seem concerned about their own monstrosity.
TB: No, no, no—and nor would they, because that would require them to occupy the position of you looking at them, or you understanding them.
It’s not like a snapping turtle goes running around in the muck saying, “Oh my god, my horrible mouth!”