AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Richard Ford Burley

"Writing’s an exercise in radical empathy—but it’s not empathy for other people so much as for parts of yourself, and the parts of other people you see in yourself."

Richard Ford Burley (he/they) is a writer of speculative fiction and poetry as well as Deputy Managing Editor of the journal Ledger. His second novel, Displacement, was published in hardcover in February 2020 by Prospective Press and will be published in paperback later this year.

Tell me about a recent work you released - a short story, a poem, a book, a game. What one work of yours do you hope readers will go out and read today? What's it about?

It’s funny—and a little bit frustrating—because the things I most want people to read are always the things that haven’t been published yet (and sometimes even the things that haven’t been written yet). I have a story coming out this year in Kaleidotrope called “The Stealing Gift,” about an engineer trying to understand the nature of a strange power that helped protect the front in a war—and turned a young woman into a bona fide War Hero™ in the process. I can’t wait for people to read that. But if I had to pick something that you can pick up today, I’d suggest Displacement. It’s a book about a small group of siblings and friends who are trying to deal with a series of escalating challenges that all begin when one of them, Jamie, gets transformed into the mirror image of his twin sister Alice, whose recent death they’re all still trying to get over. It’s sci-fi with a punk-rock aesthetic and is full of characters who were just an absolute pleasure to write. I’d say if you wanted to pick something up with no strings attached, that’s the one I’d recommend.

What do you enjoy most about writing?

I think the thing I enjoy the most about writing is the way it expands the way I see things… it’s hard to explain. A story or a book can begin as an idea, as a vignette, a picture in my head, or just a conversation between two characters who don’t even have a backstory yet, let alone a future to write their way into. But as I’m writing, they grow and the world they live in grows until there’s a moment where I look back at the story and I just know everyone in it, and I know what they’re going to do next, and I know how they feel about it, and why. In a way, I guess, writing’s an exercise in radical empathy—but it’s not empathy for other people so much as for parts of yourself, and the parts of other people you see in yourself (and vice versa). And I think exercising that empathy, that’s my favourite part. 

What is most difficult for you about writing?

There’s a joke in writers’ circles that the worst part of writing is that at some point you actually have to sit down and do it, and I think that’s my biggest challenge—especially in the past twelve months. Trying to engage in the kind of focus needed to write when the world’s on fire and your friends are on fire and everything’s on fire is just—it’s not simple. 

I think, before, I would’ve said that the hardest part is that you can write sixty thousand words of a novel and suddenly realize that you have to completely rewrite the first fifty thousand of them, but that’s just a symptom of improving as a writer. The hard part is writing despite the world trying to tell you it doesn’t matter.

What's the biggest thing about the publishing industry that you wish would change?

Okay it’s not the biggest thing. The biggest thing is that the publishing industry needs a reckoning when it comes to publishing marginalized voices. Like, there needs to be more of them. And not just publishing but also listening to them. But that’s been said more often and more eloquently by better writers than me, and I’ll let them do it. I do think one thing I wish they’d change—and this goes for everyone from before publishing to after—is this focus on “own voices” as a gold standard for stories. Do I think marginalized people deserve to be the ones telling their stories? Without question. But who gets to police that? Who gets to say if you’re enough a part of a given group to represent it? I don’t want closeted queer people to have to come out just to be able to write their own experiences without being told it’s off limits. And I also don’t want marginalized writers to be held to an impossible standard. If you’re autistic and writing, you should be able to be judged on the quality of your writing, not on whether you’re meeting the platonic ideal of an autistic writer. So there are things about that trend I’d like to see approached differently, at the very least.

Do you have any writing advice for other autistic people?

There’s a question I get a lot from other autistic people, and it’s always couched in the same terms: they want to know what they can do—to fit in, to not be misunderstood, to help other people see them for who they are. And I have the same advice each time, and that’s to stop acting like that’s your job and your job alone. It shouldn’t be all on the shoulders of autistic people to fit into an unchangeable, neurotypical world; the world should meet us halfway. So I think that for autistic writers, my advice would be the same: if you’re going to write for a neurotypical world, don’t go out of your way to meet it more than half way. By all means, get close enough that they can see you from where they’re standing, but once you’re there just stop. Maybe wave them over. Wait for them to walk the rest of the way over to meet you.