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Everybody has a story: Cliff Burns refuses to stay silent

To Cliff Burns, literature is a calling like a priesthood, and the term writer is an honorific, not to be used lightly. 
North Battleford author Cliff Burns was a featured speaker during Lakeland Library Region’s 50th anniversary celebrations.

THE BATTLEFORDS — Cliff Burns is a free-speech nut and that is a hill he will die on. 

“I don’t care what your politics are, you have a right to be heard, as long as it doesn’t veer into hate speech, and that is clearly delineated by law … If we’re a democratic society, we have to tolerate intolerance.” 

Burns cemented those ideas early in his youth. And despite his reputation as a radical high-schooler, he’s always maintained that freedom is incomplete without the liberty to speak. 

Burns recalls a peer in his school exclaiming when Ronald Regan was shot, ‘you must be happy, someone got him for you,’ and Burns was horrified.

“I would not be happy with an assassination!” Burns exclaimed, “but that was my reputation. I was a little bit of a loose cannon and a radical, even back then.” 

Despite his love of theatre and high-school drama, Burns loathed school, saying it was absolutely irrelevant.

“If every student could say, ‘in 20 years artificial intelligence is going to be doing all the stuff you’re teaching me, this is a pointless exercise, you should be teaching me how to be an innovative, critical thinker, and survive in the mid-21st century. 

“If it hadn’t been for drama, I would have been miserable in high school. I had a few friends, but theatre saved me. I was an actor and just loved performing.”

Burns grew up in a notoriously rough neighbourhood in Regina, and how an actor, writer, and creative thrived is a mystery.

“Why I wasn’t killed outright, I have no idea.” 

After school, Burns went to university for drama. He contemplated switching to creative writing or film but eventually decided to drop out, adding that it felt more like high school, only with 300 students in a lecture hall instead of 30.

But when it comes to writing Burns was never really given a choice.

“It’s a compulsion, it really is.” 

And it’s not just writing. Burns has to create something, ranging from painting, electronic bizzaro music with his midi keyboard, or other forms of creativity.

In the 1990s, Burns began submitting his short story collections to publishers across Canada, and they all responded with the same droll message, ‘Short story collections don’t sell, especially horror short stories,’

“You’d wait over a year before you’d hear back from a publisher. And it would be just a stamped, ‘thank you, dear occupant, thank you for sending your work.’ Just nothing. You’d devoted two years to the work, a year of waiting, and they barely even read it.” 

Burns wasn’t inspired by the industry, working in restaurants and bookstores for years. Finally, he decided he couldn’t do anything other than write, and he went professional in the mid-90s with his wife’s support.

His Publishing Journey

In 1995, Burns did something almost unheard of in Saskatchewan — he started his own publishing company, Black Dog Press, and began to publish his work independently. Before the rise of Amazon, Print on Demand services, and other pitfalls, self-publishing was significantly more complex than Amazon-published authors today.

“Self-publishing was forced on me by necessity, because of the inbred and closed nature of publishing, and I don’t think anything’s changed. If you asked around to some of the publishers from the old days, I had a ruthless reputation.” 

Burns would often chide them for publishing subpar work, and reminded them that he had never applied for grants or external funding like other publishing companies. 

“Those people loathed me,” Burns said. 

“They always used to exaggerate their effect on the cultural scene … they would have this inflated sense of themselves that was just remarkable.” 

Despite concerns about low readership and a non-existent market, when Burns started publishing his short-story collection, he sold his first 500 copies within five months.

“You’re a small, regional press. How about getting a little bit of humility?” Burns would question. 

And Burns avoided the stigma often attached to self-published authors, who run the risk of appearing to the industry as “unpublishable,’

“To me, it’s all about the work … My heroes aren’t Saskatchewan, prairie, or Canadian writers; my heroes are Borges and Kafka. They set the literary bar high, and so I set mine high. I’ve never had any doubt about my talent or ability to compete; just give me the same shelf space as everybody else, and we’ll see who sells better.”

Burns has published 16 books that would never have existed if he’d stayed on the traditional publishing path, popular at the time. Though Burns believes he could have been another Neil Gaiman because of the uniqueness of his work, he regrets nothing. 

“As much as I admire Gaiman, he plays to his fans with happy endings and things that tie up nicely. I always frustrate my readers; I give them unpleasant characters and unhappy endings.

“I always say, ‘I’m here to frustrate your preconceptions and disappoint your expectations.’ That’s what I’m here for, I’m not here to give you a formula. That’s just not my work.” 

Burns feels his work paints a realistic picture of life. 

“This notion that life is this episodic narrative that all flows together, no, it’s a series of jolts and terrors and ecstasies, and how we depict that is up to us. I choose to see chaos instead of a narrative.” 

The Future of Literature

Though Burns was a ‘literary pioneer’ at the time, with the advent of cheaper and easier access to publishing, he’s concerned about what he calls the ‘amateurization’ of writing, which he envisions is pushing literature to a critically low point.

“The writing now is just so god awful. Most of it is just bad fan fiction disguised as something else. There is no vetting, there is no quality control, people are releasing their first drafts.” 

And Burns thinks it will get worse before it gets better.

“With automation going to be putting more people out of work in the next 20-30 years, and artificial intelligence, what are [people] going to do? They will discover their visual artists, filmmakers, and creative writers.

“In France, it’s a national heritage to be a writer, and now here, someone who puts their grocery list online can call themselves a writer.” 

To Burns, literature is a calling like a priesthood, and the term writer is an honorific, not to be used lightly. 

“Don’t you dare call yourself a writer until you’ve spent the long dark nights knocking your guts out on something nobody believes in. I don’t want to hear about your poem from high school. No, that doesn’t count as writing. I’m sure it was a shitty poem, too.”

And despite his love of the craft, Burns has never enjoyed writing. 

“Never. Never. The first draft, maybe. There’s a certain freeing feeling because you’re not going back and editing. That last about 30 seconds after the draft is finished. And I flip back, and it’s a long, long slog. Editing is where the art is. You’re striving for perfection. Is it a semi-colon? A colon? A new sentence? Throw self-loathing on top and it’s a formula of horror and misery.”

Still, Burns has to create. 

“I think it’s because writing was important to me, and the printed word saved my life.” 

Growing up, books and the work of many authors, but most notably Ray Bradbury, transported a young Burns away from his abusive home and his alcoholic father and into the stars.

“I want to give that power to other people.”

The Power of Silence

And that power also is found in Burns’s radical beliefs and unwillingness to be silent. In Grade 11, he remembers reading a report in Macleans magazine that further solidified his understanding of the world.

“For years NATO had overestimated Russian capabilities in Europe and underestimated their own capabilities, in order to get more budget for the military,” Burns remembers the article reading, horrified that NATO was bringing the world closer and closer to a nuclear holocaust to pump up their budgets. 

“I stopped believing in the capitalistic system and aggressively became a critic of it. And it’s only gotten worse as I get older. I see that the future is rushing towards us and it’s a terrible dystopian future.” 

Burns has recently finished reading Yuval Harari’s 21 Questions for the 21st Century, in which he says automation will cause massive cultural shifts within the next 30-40 years. 

“He talks about how quickly society will change and that you’ll need a new job and new training every five years, or you’ll just fall into the lower classes.

“Now there are eight billion of us, and you have to keep us occupied somehow. The first thing that comes to mind is virtual reality: keep them in boxes, keep them in a fantasy world eight hours a day, and they won’t be out in the streets demanding meaningful jobs or income. Just stick them in boxes and keep them cheap.

Burns is also loud in his stance on copyright, aggressively defending artists’ rights to the work they create. 

“Fritz Leiber was an American fantasy poet who died in the late 70s, I think. But, this man published some of the most innovative dark fantasy in the 40s and 50s and lived his last days in a single-room hotel because he just didn’t make a lot of money for it, and people ripped him off. 

“And you have a 70-year-old man in a hotel room, still tapping his typewriter. That’s a shame.

“You say it’s just Universal Pictures, or Penguin Books, who cares? But no, a writer is being screwed out of his 50 cents a book … Free speech is one thing, but stealing is another.

Ever since the fated article in Macleans, Cliff has called himself a Marxist.

“I get people writing me constantly, asking how I monetize my work. You’re talking to a fan of Kafka, and you’re talking about monetizing my writing? Who the f**k do I look like, Nora Roberts?

"Do you know how much it costs to register a kid for minor hockey in Toronto? According to a Global News article, it will cost a family $5,500 a year for their child to play hockey in the GTA.

“What drives me nuts is this inclusivity. When you see those ads during hockey showing the black kids, the LGBTQ kids, I always say, ‘what about the poor kids?’

“They don’t show them. They stick in this checklist of the accepted minorities, and I’m glad you’re showing all these people, but what about the poor kid who could be the next Wayne Gretzky?” 

Burns turns down the commercials and grits his teeth, the Marxist in him screaming. He thinks the same of all the great minds languishing without university because people can’t afford the rising cost of tuition.

Burns Moving Forward

Due in part to the often downbeat nature of his works, Burns rarely gets fan mail. But, his demeanor online is a little intimidating, usually done deliberately, Burns thinks, to keep people away from him.

“People are a little scared of me."

But he also doesn’t like to promote himself, saying that taking his books into stock shelves at bookstores kills him.

“I guess I just want people to discover my genius independently. I would even give them away so people could read it. My stuff has that cult-like hold on you because you never know what you’ll get. Readers want escapism and to come home after a long day at work and lose themselves.”

He believes that writers must write and maintains that the craft has to be honed. According to Burns, writing requires plain stubbornness and sheer, blind faith verging into mental illness.

“I don’t have a lot of followers, and yet every day I sit down and write. Isn’t that insanity? Doing the same thing every day and expecting a different result … my daily practice for the last 35 years involves insanity.” 

When Burns really thinks about it, no one has been touched by his work like Ray Bradbury's work touched Burns. Is he doing it for posterity? That is a question he feels many writers have to ask themselves, and it’s a question few can answer, even Burns.