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An Interview with Steve Burford, Author of Crossed Lines

Burford

Steve Burford lives close to Worcester but rarely risks walking its streets. He has loaded conveyor belts in a factory, disassembled aeroplane seats, picked fruit on farms and taught drama to teenagers but now spends his time writing in a variety of genres that are far too wide to ensure international success. He has written four police procedural novels in the Summerskill and Lyon series, and a steampunk, YA novel, Moon King, under the name of Steve J Burford just to confuse the readership. He finds poverty an effective muse and, since his last book, he has once again been in trouble with the police. (He would like to thank the inventor of the speed camera.)


You can buy Crossed Lines here.


Who/what made you want to write? Was there a particular person, or particular writers/works/art forms that influenced you?

I think from the time my chubby little baby hand grasped a crayon, I’ve always wanted to write. Then, I matured (say about four or five) and knew that what I really wanted was to see my name on the spine of a book, like that lovely Enid Blyton fellow. Shamelessly vain, but in his essay “Why I Write”, George Orwell confessed that egoism was a huge motivating factor for a writer. So, if it was good enough for George…

As I grew up, I can’t say I became less egotistical, but I did fall in love with story-telling. I did a degree in Literature which exposed me to some pretty cracking writing (and a range of monstrous egos too). My own writing however remained sporadic, partly because of Imposter Syndrome (how could a working-class boy ever hope to get a book published?); partly because I loved such a wide range of genres (from Old English poems to the latest SF) and couldn’t settle on one to make my own; partly because reading all that Literature took up all my time; but mainly because I lacked that spark required to ignite the literary gunpowder.

Of course, sex helped.

More accurately – though perhaps less excitingly – sexuality. Mine. I was gay! Who would have thought it? (Quite a few people as it turns out. Hey ho.) I was an “outsider” (even more so a few years back), which was probably the best place for a writer to be. I began to write about that.

Then, I entered that competition.

A fairly prominent gay publication (once a worthwhile, crusading magazine now a glossy fashion mag – how did that happen?) launched a short story competition. They were looking for stories that reflected ‘real’ gay experiences. By then, I was teaching English in a large city comprehensive – and you don’t get much more ‘real’ than that. So, I wrote about it in a story, One Day – the tale of twenty-four hours in the life of a gay high school teacher. Nothing explosive. No revelations. Not a ‘coming out’ or ‘coming of age’ or ‘coming to terms’ story. No coming at all, in fact. Just an account of the balancing act that was my working life. It was, I thought, honest, clear and really funny. I sent it off and waited for the first prize cheque.

It sank without a trace.

Sometime later, the competition’s winning stories were published – a flamboyant mix of clubbing, drugs and sex. While not critical of anyone who lives that kind of ‘real’ life, it just wasn’t a reflection of mine. I had far too much marking to do of an evening.

Disillusioned, I looked around for somewhere else I could send my literary child so I wouldn’t have to look at its disappointed face. I sent it to a short story competition, then quite new but growing in size and importance, and it won! Intoxicated by success, I wrote another story based on one of those ‘real’ gay experiences I was sure straight people didn’t enjoy. (Maybe straight people do snatch kisses on Welsh mountaintops in front of foreign tourists – what do I know?) That won too. My prize, was an offer from a major publishing company to look at a novel submission. No more waiting on slush piles for me. I was on the one-way road to the Booker Prize.

My submission was rejected.

To be fair, they were very nice about it, and said encouraging things about plot and character. But one of the two lead characters was a gay man, and, well, as they said, “Gay lead characters don’t sell.”

It was depressing, enraging but also, extremely motivating! I had finally found my spark. I wanted to tell stories about characters who were honest, uncliched, non-stereotypical yet thoroughly gay. And I wanted to prove that a gay man could be the lead character in his own story without alienating (or depraving) a straight audience. Hell, I wanted my straight audience to like him, without his having to compromise in any way. And I chose my genre: detective fiction – because everyone loves a policeman, right? And there were more than enough cliches in that genre to subvert as well. I began to write in earnest.

What other professions have you worked in? What’s something about you that your readers wouldn’t know?

For far too many years, I was a high school teacher of Drama. That may sound like an utter cliché, but in fact, through my training and career, I came across very few other gay men in my subject. Disappointing really. I’d gravitated towards Drama not because I’m particularly extrovert (put me in a crowd and I tend to disappear) but because it remained one of the increasingly few areas of education our government hadn’t laid its cold, dead hands on, making it a last bastion of creativity and – whisper it softly – fun.

Given that I haven’t yet made the New York Times Bestseller List (are there any books, apart from mine, that haven’t made that list?) there are probably quite a few things that readers don’t know about me. The potted bio in my book is a desperate attempt to jazz up my breathtakingly ordinary life. (Amazingly, the throwaway joke about having been in trouble with the police, earned me an awkward interview with my headmaster at the time who was concerned I was using this opportunity to confess to a life of crime.)

One thing about me though that does seem to surprise people, even people I’ve known for years, even people who are my family for Pete’s sake, is that I am a brown belt at Judo. Taking up Judo had, again, been part of that urge to break down gay stereotypes, though I’ll admit, as a hormone-maddened, teenager, one of its attractions had been the prospect of wrestling men in pyjamas. As it turned out, defending yourself against being thrown or strangled does divert the mind from raunchy thoughts. I loved the sport for what it was, one of the purest forms of physical competition, and remain a fan of Japanese culture in general.

Tell us the story of your book’s title. Was it easy to find, or did it take forever?

I love story titles. If they’re right, I think they work like poetry, and if I manage to craft a good one, I can feel as much satisfaction with the title as I can with the whole story. And I do have a weakness for puns. But coming up with titles is a lot easier, I find, for short stories than for novels. The tight focus of a short story makes it simpler to neatly sum up in its title. Finding a title that covers every theme in a novel is much harder.

Crossed Lines is Book 4 in my Summerskill and Lyon series of police procedural novels. Its setting is a gay and lesbian telephone helpline, and it’s not giving too much away to say that the murder victim at the start has been strangled with a telephone cord, so I think you can see straightaway where the first ideas for my title came from. Crossed lines can also refer to misdirected calls, and even to broader misunderstandings, and there are plenty of those in the novel too. But perhaps what interested me most of all were the lines we draw up to demark friendships, relationships and duty, and in this book, Summerskill and Lyon, my lead characters, are forced to consider just which of these lines they could or should cross.

Of all of the four novels in the series (so far) this one has the title that most encompasses its themes and setting, and is the one I am most happy with.

How did it feel when you first saw your book cover? Or when you first held your book in your hands?

I have absolutely loved the covers that my publishers, Ninestar Press, have come up with for my Summerskill and Lyon books, and this one is no exception. Abstract without being confusing: sombre without being dull, they took a couple of key images and created something really arresting. (Yes, a pun. Told you!.) And it had my name on it! Literally, a childhood dream come true.

I confess, I spent much of the first day after its arrival picking it up and stroking it, working out where I could leave it so that friends and family could accidentally find it, then picking it up and stroking it some more.

If your book had a soundtrack, what are some songs that would be on it?

I love music, but when it comes to writing, I have to have silence. If a song has lyrics, I have to sing along (sorry) and if it’s instrumental, the images it conjures in my head are rarely the ones I’m striving to create. But, if we’re talking about a soundtrack for a potential film or tv series based on this book or any of the others in the series (hello producers) I guess it would have to include music my two main characters, Dave Lyon and Claire Summerskill would like. Claire is very much a power ballad kind of girl, as evidenced by her phone’s dreadful ringtone. Dave doesn’t really have that much time for music (I keep telling people – he isn’t me) though I have a feeling if he had to choose, he’d go for minimalist, electronic music, something without lyrics to distract him. His current partner, Joe, might make him more familiar with whatever is currently popular in clubs, just don’t ask me what that is – I haven’t been clubbing since the mullet was a thing (the first time).

What is one thing you hope readers take away from reading your book? How do you envision your perfect reader?

When I first came out as gay (an ongoing, probably permanent process) what surprised me weren’t the negative reactions (and there were some) but the positive ones. Barriers had been removed, taboos of patriarchy, embarrassment, English reticence, whatever had gone, and straight friends, male and female, opened up to me in ways that were surprising and humbling. Yes, a couple of friendships ended, but most became much closer. I didn’t feel cast out – I felt drawn in. I hope my book and its companions, in their own small way, can show how that works, through the relationship between its two central characters, but also through their interactions with all the other characters that populate the stories.

And I don’t need to envision my perfect reader – I’ve met her. She’s my dear friend Anna, and she’s a pain in the neck because she keeps asking me, “What are Dave and Claire going to do next?” What better motivation to keep writing than having a reader who demands more?

What new writing projects are you currently working on? Or, other projects that are not writing?

Crossed Lines is the fourth novel in the Summerskill and Lyon series, and I am a long way from being finished with its characters, so Dave and Claire will be keeping me busy for years to come.

I have, however, just had another novel published that could hardly be further away from the world of Foregate Street police station. Moon King is a YA, science fiction story set in 1869. It was the second novel I ever wrote (let us never speak of the first – all records are destroyed) and I finished it decades ago. Every now and again, I’d take it out, dust it down, and send it off to a publisher, and it would inevitably return, hanging its head and bearing a rejection letter. I would have given up on it long ago, except a good friend (not Anna) insisted I keep trying because he loved it so much – and then out of the blue, it was accepted by a publisher at the start of this year.

Should you feel inclined to seek it out, it is published under the name Steve J Burford, the J added to separate it from the Summerskill and Lyon books (a trick borrowed from Iain Banks / Iain M. Banks). It was thrilling to finally hold a copy of that book in my hands, but it is the first part of a trilogy so now I have to dig out the notes I made long ago (faded dot matrix printouts are so hard to read) and get down to writing the sequels. Other projects that are not writing? No time!


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