Interview with Douglas A. Burton, author of Far Away Bird
- Where did you grow up/live now? Like a lot of people in my generation, I moved around quite a bit. I grew up in Berwyn, Illinois, which is a small suburb of Chicago. After high school, I moved to Orlando, Florida, where I started a career in real estate appraising. After the housing market collapse and the Great Recession, I sought work elsewhere. That’s how I ended up in one of the most dynamic and up-and-coming cities in America, Austin, Texas. I live here with my wife, Crystal, and my two little boys, Jacob and Lucas.
- As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? I wanted to be a movie director like George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg. These two directors came to dominate the film industry in the formative decades of the 1980s and 1990s. Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T, Jurassic Park among others, captured my boyhood imagination and never let go.
- What is your education/career background? I‘ve written stories my whole life, but not exactly as a professional. I started a career as a real estate appraiser back in 2001, just before September 11th. Everything was great until the housing market collapsed in 2008. I knew that if I was ever going to be a writer, then I needed stability in my life. Appraising here in Austin has provided that stability. Therefore, no matter how much writing takes over my life, I’ll always stay vested in my career as a real estate appraiser. I’ve been training new appraisers ever since I moved to Austin and I consider it a privilege to train a person in a job that can sustain them. Hopefully, in the future, I can also help other writers!
- Do you have kids and/or pets? I have a 7-year old boy named Jacob, who is just a wonderful person. He’s bright, caring, optimistic, and excitable. He’s a second-grader and we both are involved in Cub Scouts as well. I also have a 4-year old boy named Lucas. He leaves a remarkable impression on everyone he meets. He has that bizarre, hard to define “it” quality that appeals to seemingly everyone. I also have two dogs, one is an old-timer Viszla named Wrigley and the other is a rescue dog, named Duncan. For 7 pounds, he has quite the fighting spirit.
- When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer? Or what first inspired you to write? I wrote my first real story in 4th grade. I wrote a Halloween haunted house story by hand in my Mead notebook. It was 28 pages long, so it took up a pretty decent chunk of the notebook. But everyone wanted to read it. I then started making comic book stories with panels of hand-drawn characters. I’m also a bit of an artist, though hopelessly amateur. After I read this one phenomenal comic book called, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, a collection of tales by author Fritz Lieber, I had a wave of desire to become a full-on writer. The bizarre details, the exotic world, the characters, I loved it all. I created a beloved and similar character called Eli Naxin, The Grey Fox I wrote so many adventures for him. So, when I started writing about Byzantium, which is an equally exotic and bizarre world in real life, I brought a fantasy writing background into it. I’ve tried to write stories that took place in Byzantium for 20 years.
- Where/When do you best like to write? I write almost exclusively in the morning. I find and then defend my writing time no matter what. If necessary, I’ll go to bed a 10 pm and wake up at 4 am. I make sure I get at least six hours of sleep each night, but I get up early and write. I never write on Saturdays because I do no work whatsoever on Saturdays. I can write anywhere. But I usually write from home in my little office or I go to a coffee house.
- Do you have any interesting writing habits or superstitions? Yes. Music. I can’t write without music. Whenever I have a scene in my head, I simply must have accompanying music. It’s the sound and spirit of the music that has to be right. I’ll comb soundtracks, classical music, world music, anything to find that music. I’ll create a playlist. When I’m in the car, I listen to that music and my imagination runs wild with almost dreamlike spontaneity and randomness. Great scenes come into my head sometimes and then I try and bottle that magic on a page. For example, in the climax of my book, Chapter 47, I listened to the finale of Swan Lake. This scene was to be the emergence moment of a true empress. I’d play the music loud and let my chaotic, creative mind auto-populate the entire scene in all its rich and vivid details. Then, I challenge my logical, orderly brain to use exact and unambiguous language to recount the scene. It’s a pretty intense process actually. But the feeling that the music evokes stays inside you long after the chapter is written.
- When you are struggling to write/have writer’s block, what are some ways that help you find your creative muse again? I listen to music. Soundtracks are usually best. That feeds my chaos brain. And then I do tons of research, which feeds my structured brain. I keep doing both until the two halves of my brain make babies lol. But this process is tried and true.
- What do you think makes a good story? Good characters who are seriously challenged and face failure at every turn. Being overmatched. Being unable to overcome a situation. These are major aspects of a good story that cause us never to forget what that character went through. And more importantly, when we see how these characters finally triumphed in the end, we learn something about overcoming adversity. To me, stories are much more than mere entertainment. They are models of the human experience that can span across time and reality. They all mean something.
- What inspired your story? I fell in love with the Byzantines back in 1993 when I read a book called Constantinople: Birth of an Empire by Harold Lamb. He painted a picture of a Roman Empire divorced from Europe, Greek-speaking, not Latin-speaking. My fascination never let go. My first attempt at my current novel was back in 2009 and had Justinian as the main character, told in the first person. But as I explored a competing storyline that focused on Theodora, she came to dominate the story in ways I could have never imagined.
- How does a new story idea come to you? Is it an event that sparks the plot or a character speaking to you? Anything can spark an idea. A boat half sunk next to a pier, a name on a tombstone, a bad movie, seeing an orchid mantis for the first time on YouTube, or a random conversation. I usually jot them down in a notebook and file them away.
- Is there a message/theme in your novel that you want readers to grasp? Well, the message emerged on its own. The strongest message of the book is about personal empowerment, which comes at a price. There are many discussions and lessons in the book about the nature of personal power and the nature of evil. I believe these themes are universal and take on a special dynamic when it relates to women. Seeing the world through Theodora’s eyes had a major impact on me, personally.
- What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your books? I think my biggest discovery was the cultural significance of a heroine-centric story. I grew up studying Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey and based a ton of work on story structure and character development on it. However, I came to find many differences in the narrative arc when it came to Theodora that I decided to study female-driven stories and films. I came up with something I’m calling the ‘Heroine’s Labyrinth,’ which is a heroine-centric model for story structure that I’m damn excited about! Many women encounter a host of different challenges in our cultural stories and in many cases, model a different kind of heroic behavior. Generally speaking, heroines save the world in different ways. Whereas male-oriented heroes taught me how to leave home and prove my worth, female-oriented heroes taught me how to overcome social roles and unmask villains here in my own native culture. I’m inspired by heroic women more than ever before and plan to pursue this study long into the future. I think I’m on to something.
- What was your greatest challenge in writing this book? I was completely unprepared for the dramatic challenge to my world view and personal perspective that would come about in the writing of this book. Writing about Theodora, especially her struggles and efforts to assert herself in a male-dominated world opened my eyes. And not in a small way. To my surprise, when I opened myself up to feedback about my lead character, numerous women came forward. They gave a voice to the issues and conflicts within the novel. Real people told me real stories and provided real perspectives about real-world issues. I couldn’t believe how relevant Theodora’s problems were here in the modern day. I see things differently now. I did my very best to open myself up to perspectives and insights that were not my own. And in a big way, I met my own lead character for the first time and she taught me things about the world I didn’t know before I started writing the book.
- On a Friday night, what are you most likely to be doing? Friday night is Shabbat in our tradition. So, you’ll almost always find me with my family at home having a Shabbat dinner. I never work on my appraisal-related work or my writing. I don’t even think about it. Friday nights (and most of the day on Saturday), it’s all about family, friends, and the community.
- What do you like to do when you are not writing? Wrestle and read with my boys, appraise real estate, train others to appraise real estate, watch movies, read books, grab a drink with my friends, go camping, vacation, Cub Scouts, my synagogue, and my favorite, go out with my wife. Date nights are still a hit!
- Who are some of your favorite authors? Leo Tolstoy, J.R.R. Tolkien, George R.R. Martin, Anne Applebaum, Dennis Lehane, Hannah Arendt, Harold Lamb. Fyodor Dostoevsky, Ray Bradbury, Margaret Mitchell, Stephen King, and Erik Larson.
- Do you have a bucket list? What are some of the things on it? By the end of my life, I’d like to have written as many books as possible, including the full series of books about Sixth-Century Byzantium. I’d like to see my children as grown adults, fully educated, and in professions they love. I’d also like to see and experience more of the world. I want to visit Israel, Venice, Revenna, Florence, Spain, the U.K., China, Japan, France, New Zealand, and Australia.
- Have you won any awards or honors (not just for writing)? Well, I’m proud to be an Eagle Scout. Last year, I was the den leader to my son, Jacob’s Cub Scout den. I really enjoyed that role. I won a Silver Key Award in high school for artwork. In high school, I was the team captain for track and went down state for track as a hurdler and sprinter. I won the MVP that year. I’m still proud of that because I learned a ton of valuable life lessons in high school track. As a writer thus far, my current novel, Far Away Bird, won the grand prize for the Writers’ League of Texas manuscript contest last year for historical fiction. It also won a gold medal for Book of the Year in Historical Fiction and a bronze medal for Best Debut Novel by the Coffee Pot Book Club. Hopefully, now that the novel is published, it will win more awards! 😊
- What person(s) has/have helped you the most in your career? My best friend George Frei really mentored me and gave me great advice. He helped me to understand the writing world as a professional industry. He helped me think like a professional writer and also taught me a little bit about business contracts. I’d also say Jeniffer Thompson, who is the CEO of Monkey C Media. I hired her to help me with my author branding so that I could look like a professional. She really took me from zero to sixty in that regard. IN a year’s time, I feel like she took me from a real estate appraiser who had a novel on a Word doc, to a professional indie author who belonged in the industry. My website is www.douglasaburton.com if you want to take a peek at her work. Lastly, I’d say Kathie Giorgio. She’s an accomplished author who is fast becoming prolific. She helped me immensely with my novel. She has a company called AllWriters Workshops, where I met and worked with numerous other writers in the polishing of my book. She also worked with me personally as a writing coach to get the best possible book I could write out into the world. I’m VERY grateful to the people who helped me along the way and I look forward to helping others in the very near future.
- What’s the best writing advice you have ever received? I would say it came from my friend George, who is an artist at Disney. He told me never to get hung up on just one book. He said that, as a professional, you create a product, give it all the love and attention you can, get it out into the world, enjoy the heck out of that process, and then you move on to the next product, He helped me to understand that as an artist of any stripe, the act of creating is ongoing and never-ending. He also told me that being a professional artist isn’t always fun, but it's always fulfilling. I think that was perfect and sobering advice.
- What was your favorite book as a child? As a child? I absolutely loved A Light in the Attic and Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein. I simply could not get enough of his wacky, but immensely creative work. I entered a speech contest in sixth grade and instead of using the prepared speeches that were available, I made my own using a bunch of Shel Silverstein's poems and even wrote my own rhymes to transition each poem lol. What a blast. I also like The Best Nest by P.D. Eastman, Sheldon’s Lunch by Bruce Lemerise. And then, of course, when I was about ten, I fell in love with The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien.
- What is the one book no writer should be without? The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. I’d also add On Writing by Stephen King and Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.
- How do your spouse/significant other/friends/family feel about your writing career? I feel completely supported. My wife is full-on helpful. She listened to every version of every chapter and never doubted me. She’s been involved with every aspect of the writing journey and has been just amazing. Without Crystal, I don’t think I could have written a novel like this. My friends and family have also been extremely supportive.
- If your book was turned into a movie, who would you like to play the main characters? I love this question because it’s so fun. I actually did this already when I first wrote the book in 2014. For Theodora, I would LOVE to cast Gal Gadot. She seems to strike the perfect balance of seductive flamboyancy yet with the capacity for feminine power, sovereignty, and authority. For Justinian, I liked Joaquin Pheonix because of his look, but more and more because of his acting. For Macedonia, I like Kate Mara. She has that solid blend of force and stoicism. Indira Varma would be perfect as Theodora’s mother, Maximina. I would cast Daniel Day-Lewis as Magister Origen. He has the self-control of a man in power but with a steady glow of cruelty in his eyes. Bobby Cannavale for Governor Hacebolus and Lupita Nyong’o for Samira. Natalie Portman as Theodora’s sister, Comito.
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