Usually, someone tells me a story that I find so striking or so compelling that I have to share it with other people — and then those other people tell me a version of it from their own lives. I just cherry-pick the very best versions of the same experience and find a way of quilting them together.
That makes it sound like your fiction is realistic.
My degree is in journalism, so a lot of it is just looking for key elements of stories and finding the patterns that exist between them. They’re stories from people’s lives because those are the most unfiltered, freshest. Usually, they have some cultural precedent, but they’re something I’ve never seen anywhere before. That always hooks me.
Do you then have to make their stories more fantastical?
I have to make them less fantastical.
In your new novel, “Doomed,” a girl named Madison emerges from hell to get stuck in purgatory, which is Earth. Where did that come from?
I started writing the book when I was taking care of my mother, who died of lung cancer in 2009. When she died, my family had left the Catholic Church so many decades before that we really didn’t have a ritual for dealing with her passing. We didn’t have a blueprint for those human ceremonies that have to take place. So I wanted to play with the idea of heaven and hell, because we’ve given up the kind of standard Catholic idea of heaven and hell.
Madison finds out that God exists. What do you believe?
I’m sure God exists. Arguing that God doesn’t exist would be like people in the 10th century arguing that germs and microbes didn’t exist because they couldn’t see them.
I’ve often wondered how teenagers today rebel against “cool” parents who went to Woodstock and saw Led Zeppelin. Is this a question behind your new novel?
That’s a big part. Before my final rewrite, I had a huge Woodstock section, which my editor asked me to take out. In a way, Madison’s snarkiness is a rejection of her parents’ earnestness, and there was something earnest about that Woodstock generation. Maybe that’s why subsequent generations have been so bitter and ironic.
In “Doomed,” you write, “All progress is the product of the unpopular.” Is this your defense of the uncool?
No, it’s a statement of truth. My teacher Tom Spanbauer, the man who got me started writing in his workshop, used to say: “Writers write because they weren’t invited to a party.” That always struck so true, and people always nod their heads when they hear that. Especially writers.
Are you uncool?
I am enormously uncool. I’ve made a cottage industry of being uncool. And I’m fine with that.Especially when you’re dealing with young people, if you can go up there and risk being uncool, then you give them the freedom to be uncool.
Reading this book makes me think that you have a blast writing. Is that true?
I do, and that’s another Tom Spanbauer teaching — that you should have a huge amount of fun writing. You should also be dealing with some very personal, threatening issues so you get your paycheck at the front end. You get therapy, and you get fun. Because chances are you’re never going to get paid for it.
I understand that you’re working on a sequel to “Fight Club” as a graphic novel. Why that form?
Chelsea Cain, who writes best-selling thrillers, has been sort of the midwife, introducing me to a lot of graphic novel people she knows from DC and Marvel and Dark Horse. They’ve all been whispering in my ear about how great a form it would be for “Fight Club.” My publisher’s been shipping me to Comic-Cons, and it seems that my readership overlaps perfectly with the Comic-Con crowd. So I thought, “Why not?” It’s like storyboarding a movie. It’s fun. It won’t be published for a while, and we’ll probably bring it out in installments, rather than book form.
And now you’re off to a slumber party in New Orleans with 800 people?
Chelsea Cain, Monica Drake and I have put together these late-night, very adult slumber party events. We had 900 people in Tulsa; Baltimore’s sold out. Everyone wears pajamas, and a lot of people bring pillows and sleeping bags. As they enter, I give them a two-foot-diameter beach ball to blow up, which comes with glow sticks that go inside the beach ball. Periodically, we shut off every light in the place so it’s pitch-black, and people throw hundreds of brightly glowing two-foot orbs in the air, and people just gasp. I ask for a show of hands: “Who’s ever been to an author’s event?” At least half have never been — usually 80 percent. So this is their first time seeing an author. And I really want it to be extraordinary so maybe they’ll go to somebody else’s event.
And be bitterly disappointed!
Well, maybe we can raise the bar.
Burns is editor of “Off the Page: Writers Talk About Beginnings, Endings, and Everything in Between.” She teaches at Cardiff Metropolitan University in Britain.