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Dan Burns Interview with Author Lisa Lickel Plus a Review of A FINE LINE

June 7, 2017

Tags: Dan Burns, A Fine Line

A Brief interview with the Author Dan Burns by Lisa Lickel

LISA: Dan, what do you love about this book?

DAN: What I love most about this book is the path I had to take to see the novel come to fruition. My protagonist, Sebastian Drake, appeared first in a short story, Letting Go, which I wrote back in 2012. My process for the story was simple: put him at a table in a coffee shop, have him meet a person from his past, and see what happens. When I finished the story, I learned a little about Drake—who he is and where he came from—and I thought that was the end of his story. But Drake would not leave me alone. He had more to say and forced me to develop his story further. So, I went back to work and wrote a screenplay for a feature film that put him in the middle of a cold murder case in Chicago. The process was exhilarating and fun, and again, I thought that was the end of the story. The screenplay received national recognition and won the Best Screenplay Award at the Naperville Independent Film Festival, and fans at the festival asked, “What’s next for Drake?” I thought about the question often, and it seemed to me that the story I told in the screenplay was not quite complete. I could not get the story or Drake out of my mind, so I forged on and developed the story as a novel. I love the book and the story, and through the process, I came to the realization that Sebastian Drake is a part of me. He’s taking the lead now, and his story is just beginning. Where he will take us is anybody’s guess.

LISA: Congratulations! What a great way to find a story.

LISA: Introduce us to the character you had the most fun creating.

DAN: I had the most fun creating Sebastian Drake because he needed to be a complex, conflicted, and sympathetic character. He also had to be different, with character traits, experiences, and skills that we haven’t seen in other mystery series characters. I feel I accomplished that objective. However, I also feel I’m just getting to know who he is and what he can become. He’s not a typical protagonist or hero—he’s really an antihero, since he lacks the conventional attributes of a heroic character. Drake continually walks the fine line between the past and the present, right and wrong, and reality and the fiction he writes. His life is an endless high-wire act, and there is no safety net.

In a mystery novel, there has to be a nasty character, an antagonist, and in A Fine Line, there are many of them. But I especially enjoyed developing the character of Jerry Fitzsimmons: “an older man, thin and gaunt, almost sickly looking.” “He’s always grinning, like a cat who just ate a mouse.” From his “thin lips pressed together like a cadaver” to his “yellow teeth,” I found I disliked him more with each sentence I wrote about him. He gives me the creeps, and he adds a necessary dimension and complexity to the story. Fortunately, Drake doesn’t care much for him either and effectively addresses all of Jerry’s issues.

LISA: Those are fun characteristics put together in a believable way!


LISA: Share two things you learned either researching or writing-related during the production of this book?

DAN: A Fine Line is a murder mystery set in Chicago. To make the story interesting and believable, I felt it was necessary to make the city a character and include details about the city that would pull the reader in, whether local or not. I grew up on the North Side, but the story had to take place in and around areas I didn’t know about, where I haven’t been—unknown places, darker places. The Chicago Police Department also plays a large role in the story, and I had to make sure I understood the hierarchical structure of the organization and the basics of police procedure, especially because there’s at least one character who doesn’t follow procedure.

In researching both topics, what I learned is that even though I have lived in the Chicago area for fifty-four years, there is so much I still don’t know. I find that realization fascinating. There’s always more to learn and experience, and I think Sebastian Drake will make sure my education continues.

LISA: Readers--take this and run with it! Explore your own community.

LISA: What are you reading now?

DAN: I just finished reading Speed the Plow, by one of my favorite writers and playwrights, David Mamet. I’m in the middle of a memoir by Oscar Levant titled, A Smattering of Ignorance. He was a talented musician, composer, actor, and writer, and I find his writing insightful and humorous. I used one of his quotes as the epigraph for my book: “There’s a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line.”

LISA: Dan, what's next for you?

DAN: I’m always juggling several projects. I recently completed a stage play script, Grace, and I’d love to produce it at a Chicago theatre. I am also continuing to write short stories and hope to have another story collection ready for publication next year. And Sebastian Drake continues to pester me. He has another story to tell, and together, we’re in the process of figuring out what that story is.

LISA: Theater is fun! And I'm looking forward to seeing what trouble Drake gets into next.
Thanks for sharing about you and your work.


Review of A FINE LINE by Lisa Lickel

The premise of Burns’s thrilling detective story grabbed my attention. Sure, Sebastian Drake is almost a Sam Spade pulp-alike, a forties-era anti-hero for today, but honestly, how can you not love the wounded but capable man-of-few-words detective with a soft spot for his family? Who’s also an author!

Drake’s initial success has not led to the subsequent best-seller notice he needed to survive in the authorial world. His agent dug deep and found a contract for a book he has yet to complete. Time’s running out and he’s desperate. Unlikely help comes through his former secret life. His shadowy employer knows things Drake would rather not remember, but Drake is fascinated by the request to dig back into a long-cold mystery.

Drake’s hefty financial reward for a little detective work isn’t necessarily the main attraction to get his hands dirty once again. He’ll hopefully reap the material he needs to finish his novel—if he survives. Combing his acquaintances for help and returning to the scene of the crime as well as revisiting the original police files is not quite like old home week. Enemies and friends are suspiciously hard to differentiate. Drake slowly peels off layers of dust as well as fresh scabs from wounds both professional and personal, until the answers are bared.

Told through Drake’s perspective, readers are pulled into a side of Chicago off the tourist trail. A Fine Line is a tale of winners and losers, and the chance to move forward and find both retribution and redemption. Those who enjoy detective adventures, particularly set in a familiar town, will find much to like about this novel.

DAN: Thank you, Lisa!

A FINE LINE: The First Review

May 26, 2017

Tags: A FINE LINE

Many thanks to Marssie Mencotti and the entire team from Windy City Reviews for a very gracious and on-the-mark review.

A Fine Line (A Sebastian Drake Novel). Dan Burns. Chicago Arts Press, June 6, 2017, Hardcover and E-Book, 294 pages.

Reviewed by Marssie Mencotti.

This fine detective novel is a thoroughly engrossing Chicago experience as well as an engaging tale of the corrupting effect of power and privilege. I went down every street with Sebastian Drake. I understand his loyal midwestern friendships. And you cannot know Chicago without knowing that everyone here is connected by less than six degrees. I was also captivated by the incipient creepiness of old Chicago landmarks and the fact that there is no statute of limitations on cover-ups, personal vendettas, and the machinations of the elite.

The leading character, Sebastian Drake, is making his living as a writer and as we are reading about him in this novel, he is writing about his alter ego in a new novel for which he has received an advance. I enjoyed the book within a book device. It was interesting to see how much of the real case Drake was adding to his novel and how much he was leaving out.

Which brings me to the perfect title of the novel: A Fine Line. Every event we experience has its outcome differentiated by a fine line. It is the fine cut that was made to sever the young woman’s hand from her body. It is Drake’s persona wavering on a tightrope between boozy self-indulgence and disciplined sobriety. It is a fine line of demarcation between right and wrong and knowing when to defend and when to attack.

Drake’s character is slowly revealed. We are presented with a seasoned specialist skilled in a variety of professions. He is a spy, a journalist, a detective, a bookstore proprietor, a husband, and a father. His qualifications for the jobs he is being asked to multi-task are spot on. This makes his work seem effortless. To be fair, Chicago people do not usually flaunt their abilities. Better to let people find out the hard way. The internal monologue that Drake keeps regarding his work, his family, and his past is stated in a very sober way. Even the way in which Drake deals with the tragedy in his past life is private and personal.

Drake’s sense of justice may sometimes seem more like poorly handled anger management but he does put the bad guys away without hesitation. For a character that is so qualified in all of his professions he only does what he feels like doing and leaves the management of his empire to others, making him to seem cold and indifferent to one or more of them. Someone else runs his beloved bookstore. His ex-wife cares for his children. His friend Scotty manages the guns and the gun range. His agent manages his book business, and so on. So although he is a superstar, he is dependent on many others. Perhaps this is the fine line between who he is and who he appears to be.

He is not always “emotionally available.” Two instances of this come to mind. First, his burgeoning feelings for Angie, a Chicago Police detective, spike and deflate in just a day or two. Once she’s out of the picture, he starts to think about his ex-wife again. Later in the book when an incident involving his daughter occurs he is less emotional than mechanical. True, he feels more effective seeking her with his brain and not his heart but we never feel that he truly considers the dangerous consequences if he’s wrong.

This is a compelling read on many levels. How does a man so qualified for success manage to fail at the things that are personal and succeed beyond expectation on the things that are public? To read this book merely as a detective story is not to see that the underlying tension, the “Fine Line” is the key to Sebastian Drake’s true nature. He lives for the tension in the taut moment of the reveal.

On the Brink of Discovery

May 3, 2016

Tags: Poetry, No Turning Back, Book Cover, Book Cover Design, Sheep

An image can make quite an impression.

I still remember clearly the day I received the book cover image for my recent story collection, No Turning Back: Stories. I had received the email from world-renowned graphic artist, Hugh Syme, and the image attachment was hanging there, taunting me to open it. I tensed with excitement and clicked on the icon. The image flashed in my mind, seared it with a bolt of lightning. Decision made. Changed forever.

Since that day more than two years ago, the image has taken the driver's seat in my mind, taking me places I would not normally go, making me think beyond the boundaries of my imagination. I might even say the image has haunted me, for I still struggle with the meaning and the implications it conveys. What the hell does it mean?

A few weeks ago, I was mulling over poem ideas and the sheep popped into my head, as they often do. The damn sheep. So, I took the opportunity to look at the world through their eyes, in an effort to maybe, if I was lucky, gain some greater perspective and understanding. All I know for sure is the words leaked from my pen on to the page and I was left with the following poem.


On the Brink of Discovery


Two sheep stand at the edge of the precipice,
A lush green pasture under their cloven hooves,
Blue skies off into infinity but
Over the edge and down below lurks
A blackness broken only by a
Million blinking stars and a lonely moon
Lit by an unknown source.

The sheep seem to know that to
Step over the broken, rocky ledge
Will mean certain death, but
They are torn, for they are creatures of instinct,
Followers, but there is
No one left to follow but each other.
They look around, curiously, and wonder
Where the shepherd and the
Rest of the flock have gone.

The precipice represents the great divide
Between reality and dreams,
Between logic and facts and
The irrational delusions of a madman, and
The sheep struggle to make sense of
Their perceptions, but
They can assess for they are smarter than
They think, or we know, and
They pause and contemplate:

The fine thread between day and night.

The heart-flutter of hope and despair.

The inherent comedy of their daily lives.

Were the earliest Greek Philosophers insane and
Was Columbus’s course misdirected?

Is there a god, and if so, why has she waited so long
To lead us to this new, promised land?

Shall we remain in the pasture of comfort or leap
Into the adventure of the unknown?

The sheep rested in the tall grasses and ate.
Distraught that their brethren had left them,
They took comfort in knowing that
They at least had each other and could wait,
Together, for as long as they wished . . .
Until the answer came.


The Montana of Author Dan Burns: Part Time Home, Full Time Muse

June 29, 2015

Tags: Montana, inspiration, No Turning Back, Come Out Wherever You Are, Writing



I first traveled to Montana with my family in the summer of 2001. As an avid angler, I had read about the famed rivers and heard the stories of endless trout and big sky, and realized I had to go. We rented a home outside of Bozeman and spent a week exploring all that the area had to offer. We experienced the majesty of Yellowstone National Park, took a step back in time in the quaint small town of Livingston, fished the Gallatin River every day, drove hundreds of miles under the biggest and bluest sky we had ever seen, and spent quiet evenings on the deck playing games and cherishing our time together.

We fell in love with Montana and it became a part of each of us. We returned the next two summers to continue our explorations and then decided to buy a small place of our own. It has been fourteen years now and while our home outside of Bozeman on the East Gallatin River is a part time residence, it is a full-time member of our family. We long to get back there to take in the mountain air, walk the river rock shores of our favorite rivers, and spend quality family time together.

The nature, culture, and people of Montana inspire me. When I’m in Montana, I’m free—unencumbered by the usual distractions back in Illinois—and able to explore ideas and easily get the words down onto the page. When I’m not in Montana, I’m always thinking about that glorious place, and my experiences there end up finding their way into my writing. What follows is an example of how Montana became part of my short story, Come Out, Wherever You Are.

These days, our world is enmeshed in technological connectivity— twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week—and many people spend the majority of their days searching and texting and updating their networks of people on every minute detail of their existence.
I think we need to be forced away from our devices every once in a while to relish the simple pleasures in life: reading a book, taking a walk, or just looking around and taking in all that is happening around us. For without the break, we might get so distracted that we’ll miss out on what is really important.

What if a person decided to walk away from the technological tether and live his life in solitude, and what if while he was away, something happened to the social network? That, very simply, was the seed of the idea, and it was all I needed to get on with writing the story, Come Out, Wherever You Are.

In the story, the protagonist, Verne, had forced himself to break away. During his career as a politician, he was always in the spotlight and always in the news. Privacy was not a possibility and he understood that the absence of it came with the job. So, as he came to the end of his career, he made a wish to live in Montana, and then when he retired, he made the wish a reality. What he didn’t expect was for the circumstances that nudged him into exile to end up being the same circumstances that made his exile permanent. I had the main character and I knew exactly where to put him. Since falling in love with Montana on my first visit there, I have been pursuing my own temporary but regular exile there ever since.

The sky is big, the rivers are endless, and I think the people there are likely the nicest people in the world. Add to that, regarding the people, there are only about one million in the entire state. There is one square mile of land for every six people. It’s open and easy to get lost there, and I liked the possibilities. Montana was where Verne needed to go. I knew Verne would start and end his story in Montana, and at the end, I expected him to simply head off into the sunset to finish out his remaining years in solitude, as he had wished. However, since that time, I find that I’m often wondering—maybe even worrying—about Verne and what his future holds. Who knows, maybe I will run into him again somewhere down the road, in Montana.

Traveling to Montana? If you are in the Bozeman area, be sure to wet a line on one of the many famed and local rivers. If you’re looking for a great dinner spot in Bozeman, you can’t go wrong with Dave’s Sushi and their creative and inspired sushi creations or Copper Whiskey Bar & Grill and their classic cocktails, hip crowd, and inventive menu items. Plan a day for a side trip over to Livingston for shopping, breakfast or lunch at Gil’s Goods, a drink at the Murray Hotel bar, and dinner at 2nd Street Bistro.


Bringing the Words to Life

February 19, 2015

Tags: Short story, short film, screenplay

A writer’s goal, his reason for being, is to get the words down onto the page. If he’s lucky, the words and the story are good. If he’s exceptionally fortunate, someone makes the effort to read the words. So, what is the writer to think when a cast of talented actors and a crew of skillful filmmakers agree to invest their time to bring the words and characters to life? He thinks he’s the luckiest person in the world and witness to the magic of film.

Not too long ago, I spent a day on the set for the short film, Out of Touch. After writing the short story of the same name, an old friend and filmmaker suggested that the story would make a great film and he asked me to write the screenplay. Sure, why not, I told him, knowing it was a minimal additional investment on my end and not expecting much to come of the wishful suggestion. And then there I was, on the set and watching as these people who I had never met before, actors, spoke my words and brought the characters to life.

It was unbelievable.

I arrived on the set at 4:30 a.m. at a local bar up on the northwest side of Chicago. It was a Saturday morning and the bar had just closed an hour and a half earlier. The smells of the night still lingered in the air. At a time when the place should have been dark and dead, when the rest of the world was at home and dreaming, the place was buzzing and alive with crew and cast members preparing for the shoot. I was there, awake, but dreaming as well.

After I introduced myself to the cast and crew, I took my place in the back, out of the way and unnoticed, and I stood there for more than ten hours with my eyes wide and mouth open in awe as I watched the artists engage in their craft.

I feel I'm the luckiest person in the world and I want to thank everyone who was involved in bringing Out of Touch to the big screen. A special thanks to our director, Danny Ahlfeld, for making it happen. You are a fine and passionate filmmaker. I also want to thank Michael McDermott, Julia Kessler, Paul D'Addario, Ron Dean, Frederick Husar, Samantha Bailey, Tom Moore, Bill Boehler, George, Gene McElligott, Lauren Stasio, Zach Ruddell, and Gary Gordon. The filming was a great experience and I can't wait to see the final cut.

I’ll see you at the theatre!

It's Been Quite a Ride

October 26, 2014

Tags: Newsletter, Screenplay Award, Free Shipping, Poetry, No Turning Back, A Fine Line

Greetings!

A lot has happened in the last few months, and I’d like to take a moment to share the highlights:

A Fine Line Wins Best Screenplay Award

My newest screenplay, A Fine Line, won the Best Screenplay Award at the 2014 Naperville Independent Film Festival (NIFF) Awards Gala on September 20th. It truly was an honor just to be nominated, but taking home the trophy was pretty darn cool. At the event, I had the opportunity to meet many film directors and producers and who knows, maybe we’ll see the screenplay produced into a feature film sometime soon.

Want to see the award presentation? CLICK HERE .

A Fine Line is a story about a struggling writer with a secret government past who is hired by a wealthy philanthropist to investigate an old and unsolved murder case. The best part: it’s all set in Chicago.

Audiobook of No Turning Back is Now Available – Narrated by Yours Truly

With my first novel, Recalled to Life, I hired a narrator and audiobook producer to create the digital audiobook for me. The narrator, Dan McGowan, did a wonderful job. This time around, for No Turning Back, I had to take a different approach. In No Turning Back, I accompany each story with my personal notes regarding the thoughts and ideas that inspired me to write the story, and I felt it would sound strange having someone else narrate those parts in the book. So, I decided to narrate and produce the entire audiobook myself.

I want to send out a big "Thank You!" to the entire Chicago Arts Press team who urged me to narrate the book myself and who helped to edit and produce the audio. It was a great team effort and I love the result. Consider listening to the audiobook edition, which is now available through Audible, Amazon, and iTunes. Check out the free sample at each of the sites.

No Turning Back Receives Honorable Mention

My short story collection, No Turning Back: Stories, received an honorable mention from the judges of the 2014 Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year Award. It’s a great honor to be a member of CWA and recognized along with the other award finalists.

If you’re not doing anything on Saturday, Jan. 24, 2015, consider attending the CWA Book Award Presentation event at The Book Cellar, 4736-38 Lincoln Ave., in Chicago’s Lincoln Square. I know I’ll be there to cheer on and support the winners.

Gift Shopping + Free Shipping

Get an early start on your holiday shopping by ordering books for the readers in your family. There is something for everyone. All orders placed from now until the end of the year will receive FREE SHIPPING.

Visit Our Store and Place Your Order Today!

Word of Art

Earlier this year, I submitted one of my poems, A Song of Reason, to the annual Word of Art program, produced in cooperation with In Print Professional Writers Organization. I’m humbled that Rockford artist, Jim Simmons, selected my poem as a basis for his artwork. His art and my poem were included in the published 2014 Word of Art hardcover edition.

A Song of Reason

I wonder what comes first, the
thought or the reason, the
melody or the words, and realize
I don’t think it matters,
as long as they come.

The composition of music, of life, is a
miracle best to be cherished,
rather than explained, or rationalized, or criticized.
But most of all, it must be nurtured.
The words and dots are the seeds to sow.
The instruments are the tools used to cultivate.
But it is the passion and the feelings and the love that
brings the words to the high heavens.

The artist feels the beat and
beats the feeling.
She makes note of the notes and
sings the song, right or wrong, and
gets it all out before there is no more.
It’s part inspiration, part perspiration,
part reflection, part projection, and
all introspection.

The path is clear, yet not without
a thousand doors, heavy doors, with
many locks and many keys.
The soul is untarnished and
the keys are there for the taking.

You can’t get it out unless you’re willing to go in.

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The Writer's Handful

May 5, 2014

Tags: bad workshop advice, giraffes, the School of Prolific Writers, writing

Many thanks to acclaimed author, blogger, and educator, Patricia Ann McNair, for allowing me the opportunity to participate in her "Writer's Handful" discussion. Learn more at www.PatriciaAnnMcNair.com.

May 5, 2014

Questions:

Did you write today? If yes, what? If no, why not?

I did not write today, and it kills me to say so. I just released my new short story collection, and I am in the throes of a full-on, all-out publicity push. So, I set aside the day to promote my book, make some contacts, and set up some future publicity events. I certainly realize the importance of the publicity and promotion aspect of a writing career, but I’d much rather be in my office, writing. Only when I am getting the words down onto the page do I really feel a sense of accomplishment. It’s a good thing that I’ll be back at it tomorrow. I’m in the process of revising my next novel, A Fine Line, which is a crime mystery that’s set in Chicago, and my year-end deadline is fast approaching.


What's the first thing (story, poem, song, etc.) you remember writing, and how old were you when you wrote it?

It’s hard for me to think back that far. However, I can remember the first “real” short story I wrote after I made the decision to purse writing as a career. I wrote the first draft of the story, No Turning Back, in August of 2006. In coming up with the idea for the story, I tried to think about what might be one of the most difficult acts a person might be forced to do in life, and then, what would it be like if the person had to do it twice?

I was 43 years old at the time and I remember how excited I was after completing the draft. I read the story and revised it at least a dozen times and I really liked it. I also remember the criticism I received after sharing the story in a writing workshop. Instead of providing guidance on how to improve the story, the instructor suggested that I change the story, and quite drastically. I remember she said, “If it were me, I would change the plot altogether and . . .”

Well, needless to say, I didn’t feel very good after that discussion. I thought about the instructor’s comments and I re-read the story many, many times. In the end, I decided that I liked the story just the way I wrote it. I can live with that decision. It may not be the best story I ever wrote, but it’s important to me in that it really defines the beginning of my writing career. I’m happy to say that the story is included in my new short story collection—which also carries the title, No Turning Back—that was just released on April 29, 2014.


What are you reading right now?

I tend to have a number of different books going at the same time, and I’m juggling a bit right now. I’m reading The Tenth of December, the new short story collection from George Saunders. I’m also reading Brown Dog, the new collection of novellas by Jim Harrison. Lastly, I’m reading the new novel, Lost in the Ivy, by my friend and fellow Chicago Writers Association member, Randy Richardson. Each of the books is so very different, and I like switching back-and-forth between them based upon how I’m feeling on a given day. Diversity—it’s good for me.


What's the most important advice you ever received? (Writerly or otherwise.)

I am a student of The School of Prolific Writers. I find that I am able to learn the most from those writers who have come before me and who have produced the most successfully published stories. You can take your pick of your favorites and there are a lot of them, but they will all suggest the same advice: get the words down onto the page.

We can talk about writing, plan for it, and study for it, but in the end, the only way to become a successful writer is to actually sit down and write.


If your writing were an animal, what animal would it be? Because...

I’m going to stick my neck out (did I really say that?) and say that my writing is most like a giraffe. I don’t think I necessarily do it intentionally, but sometimes when I am finished with a story, it seems that what I’ve written ends up being a bit outside of my comfort zone, that I’ve stretched out and reached beyond what I thought I might do as a writer. As a result, I might question myself on occasion. What will someone think of what I’ve written?

I write about ideas, topics, and things that interest me and that come to me based upon everything that I’ve crammed into my head over the years. I write what I feel I am supposed to write. In the end, it’s important for me to just go with it, to finish the story and share it. Every writer has likely encountered the situation where he or she has questioned the validity of his or her writing. I know I have done it, and I think it’s healthy. It’s good to evaluate yourself and your writing. However, you have to push your own boundaries. You can’t let what anyone says, or what you think someone may say, stop you. You have to keep sticking your neck out.

By Way of Introduction

February 21, 2014

Tags: Introduction to No Turning Back, Short Stories



In anticipation of the release of my new short story collection, No Turning Back, I would like to share the introduction to the book.


It all started with a thought.

Over the years, I have often found that in order to get an idea to come to fruition, all I needed to do was think about the idea—that’s it, just think. The more I would think about an idea, the more my conscious and subconscious brain would join in to help develop and flesh it out. Thoughts would turn into other ideas, which would make me think even more, and before I knew it, I had a plan in place to make the idea a reality. That is how it has been with my writing in general, and with my short stories in particular: I get an idea, store it in my head to let it simmer a while, and write the story when it is ready.

Twenty-five years ago, I first considered becoming a writer and have been thinking about that idea ever since. My favorite authors—Bradbury, Crichton, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Harrison, and King—had made me do it. Think, that is. Over the years, they had grabbed me and engaged me with their words and especially their short stories. They opened my eyes to the limitless possibilities of words and books. Particularly through the influence of their short stories, they urged me to keep reading, and by all means, to start writing.

I have always enjoyed the short story form. Unlike reading a novel, reading a short story impacts me more immediately. I love getting through an entire story in one sitting and then moving on to the next one. When reading a short story collection, I can get a fuller picture of the thoughts and ideas that the author has in store for me.

One book in particular—and a subsequent meeting with the author—set me on my way to becoming a writer. The book was Dandelion Wine, written by one of the greatest American authors, Ray Bradbury. I had read other Bradbury books, like Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles, but when I read Dandelion Wine, which is actually a series of loosely connected short stories, it was the first time I could truly visualize the overarching story as I read it. It was the first time I became part of the story. It was the first time I experienced words and sentences strung together in such a unique way: literature with doses of realism and lyrics and poetics. He hooked me. I thought to myself, I want to be able to write a book like that some day. I’m a big dreamer.

In 2003, while in San Diego on business, I had the opportunity to meet Ray Bradbury. I had heard about a seminar he was conducing at San Diego State University and on a whim, I changed my afternoon plans to attend. His two-hour talk about his “love of writing” was truly inspirational, and his words made me wonder even more about becoming a career writer. Afterward, I met Ray, and he signed a book for me. He asked me if I was a writer, and I told him that I wanted to be one someday. He said, “Just do it,” and I replied, “Okay, I will.” Four years later, I became a writer. Although I had been writing for years, I made it official, with a total commitment to writing and to publishing my writing.

My fiction writing took off at a feverish pace. I focused mostly on shorter pieces, which allowed me to flesh out many ideas with a minimal investment of time and get the writing practice I needed. I get many ideas for writing projects, and I usually try to see if the idea is worthwhile by attacking it through a short piece, such as a poem or a short story. After that, if I still like the idea and the premise, I will consider it for a longer form.

For example, I wrote Letting Go—a story in this collection—as a way to explore the character of Sebastian Drake, to better understand exactly who he was and what made him tick. After I wrote the short story, I was more interested in Drake—and perplexed by him—than ever, and I needed to find out where he was going next. That was not a problem. He would not leave me alone, so I put him in Chicago, right in the middle of a cold murder case, and a year later I completed the screenplay A Fine Line, with Drake in the lead role. I thought that might be the end of his story, but that was not the case. Drake persisted, even insisted, that the story was not over, and he was right. I completed the full story of A Fine Line, in novel form, a year after the screenplay. I wonder where he will take me next.

People often ask me how I came up with a certain idea or why I decided to write a particular story. Those are tough questions to answer. All I can say is that ideas come, at any time of the day or night, and it is usually something I saw or read or heard that inspired them. The ideas come, and when they do, it is prudent for me to jot them down so I do not forget them. I realize there is a reason the ideas come to me, and it is not up to me to judge the source. However, it is up to me to trust the source, because the ideas germinate from the combined experiences of my lifetime. The ideas are me. I think it is true that I do not have a say in which stories I write. I do not write a story because I think it will lead to fame or fortune. I write a story because I have to, because the idea nags at me and will not leave me alone until the words are down onto the page and the story is finished.

I took the title for this book from the final story in this collection. No Turning Back is actually the first story I wrote, and the story is about a man put in a predicament where the only option is to jump forward, into the unknown and on to whatever comes next. I had no prior intention, but as I was pulling together the stories for this book, it was clear to me that all of the stories were linked by a similar theme: that every day we come to a crossroads in life and going back the way we came is not an option. No Turning Back is not only a fitting title for the book, but it also provides a sound mantra for living our lives: don’t try to re-live the past, for the future has so much in store for us. Just keep moving forward.

In preparing this collection, I thought quite a bit about the stories and the sequence in which I might like to present them. I wrote the stories in this collection over a period of six years, from August 2006 to September 2012. In the end, it made sense for me to present the stories chronologically. However, I knew I did not want to start with the first story. That story, No Turning Back, holds a special place in my heart and I felt it best to end with that story. Therefore, we begin with the most recent story and progress in reverse chronological order to the first story written. We’ll jump into our figurative time machine and as we progress through the stories, we’ll take a journey to see where I came from. We’ll make many stops along the way to discover what might have been going on in my mind and my life at the time. I hope you enjoy the ride.

With this book, I wanted to produce something different, more than just words on a page. Of course, the stories are important, but I wanted to provide a broader experience for the reader. I have always been particularly fond of books that combined words with art as many of the early Dickens novels in my book collection did, with exquisite woodcut illustrations that graced the pages preceding a chapter. Unfortunately, that type of illustration is a lost art and is no longer financially feasible. Recently, I had been particularly impressed with the work of Joseph Mugnaini, the artist who provided many illustrations for Ray Bradbury’s novels and story collections. I thought it would be great to include illustrations in my book.

I set out to find an illustrator, and I was fortunate to meet Chicago actor and artist Kelly Maryanski, who read the manuscript and provided custom ink illustrations for each of the stories. I had talked with a half dozen artists, and I think she was the only one who really understood what I was trying to accomplish. I sent her the manuscript and waited, wondering what was going to happen next. Her approach was simple and straightforward. She read a story and then sent over an illustration for me to review. I received each illustration with anticipation and excitement, and every time I saw the newest one, I smiled. Every reader interprets a story differently, but Kelly and I were always on the same page. I think each of the illustrations is perfect, and each story now includes an original and thought-provoking visual interpretation.

I also felt I needed a book cover that would help to capture the essence of the book and set it apart visually. From the day I came home from the record store with Rush’s 2112 album as a teenager, I was hooked on my favorite band’s album art and the graphic artistry of Hugh Syme. When I thought about the cover art for this book, I felt the artwork had to be something special, much like 2112 and all of the Rush albums since, and I thought about how great it would be to have Hugh Syme design my book cover. No chance in hell, I thought. It was a pipe dream, but I figured, what the hell. I contacted him. I told him I was a fan of his work, and it would be an honor if he would design my book cover. He asked me about the book, and I shared with him the title, the story names, and a brief description of each story. He said “okay” and that was that. A week later, he sent me three designs. The first one was great, the second one better, and when I got to the third image, I knew I had found my book cover. He insisted that he be part of the entire jacket design and the final production, and it was a privilege to work with such a consummate professional. What an experience and what a trip it was.

There was one final element that I wanted to include in the book. I don’t know about you, but after I’ve read a story, I’m often left with burning questions: what was the inspiration for the story, where did the original idea come from, and what was going on in the author’s head while writing the story? The only way I have been able to get answers to these questions is if I’ve had the opportunity to meet the author in person. Such a meeting almost never happens, and even if it does, it’s hard to ask the questions. More often than not, the answers remain elusive.

I decided I was not going to be so elusive. There is so much that goes into the writing of a story, and because every story in this collection is so different, I thought it might be nice to share with the reader whatever was going on inside my head at the time. From the day I first started writing short stories, I got into the practice of documenting my story ideas, along with other thoughts, conceptions, and notes that pertained to the story. I did it for myself, to help me remember. However, as I went through my old notes, I was surprised to learn about my younger self and the mania that was coursing through my veins. Where did those ideas and words come from? I often wondered. The process of reviewing my story notes was a great opportunity to re-introduce myself to the individual who wrote the stories, stories that were—quite simply—distant memories. The notes brought the stories back to me in all their glory, and I hope the story notes provide for the reader a small glimpse into the mind of a hopeful author.

No Turning Back is a book quite different from my first novel, Recalled to Life, and even more drastically different from my first non-fiction book, The First 60 Seconds. I like that. Diversity is good for me. In the future, I have every intention of following my brain and my gut as I select new writing projects. So, you may be wondering, what’s next? My first crime novel, A Fine Line, is set for publication next year. Am I writing poetry? Yes. Are there more screenplays to come (hopefully to the big screen)? Absolutely. Will there be more short stories and novels? Yes and yes. What I do know is that I have enough ideas to keep me writing for at least another ten years. I cannot say I am certain of the order and form in which I will produce my ideas, but I can say, with absolute certainty, that I will write. I cannot fight it, I have no other choice, and there is absolutely no turning back.

Dan Burns
January 2014

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Looking in the Rearview Mirror

November 21, 2013

Tags: publicity, book tour highlights, reader reactions



This month, I had the opportunity to talk with my publishers at Eckhartz Press. I’ve experienced a whirlwind of activity since the release of my novel in June, and the following interview provided an opportunity to briefly glance back at some of the highlights of the book publicity tour.

What has surprised you the most about the reaction to your book?

What I never expected, and what I truly love, is that I have heard back from so many readers with their very different and personal interpretations of the story and what it means to them. It’s so rewarding to be able to write a story, with my own intent and experience and perspective, and then to hear back from people where the story resonated with them in a similar manner. It’s just as rewarding when the reader experiences something very different from the book. I know that if I asked one thousand people to read my novel, there is a good chance that I would get one thousand very different and personal interpretations. That is certainly a benefit of writing fiction that I did not initially expect, and I look forward to hearing about every single one of those interpretations.

Do you have any good anecdotes from your promotional tour?

I had the fortunate opportunity to be at the Chicago Writers Association tent at the Printers Row Lit Fest this past summer. I had my book out on display and people were coming by to look and to talk to me about my story. I looked up, and I noticed a gentleman standing about five feet away, in the background, and he was looking at me and smiling. I returned his gaze, curiously. He said, “I get it. I get the allusion!” He smiled and nodded his head, pleased with himself, and then he turned and hurried away.

He was referring to the title of my book, Recalled to Life, and my indirect but intentional reference to the Charles Dickens classic novel, A Tale of Two Cities, and the message “recalled to life” that signified Dr. Manette’s second chance at life after being held captive in the Bastille prison for eighteen years. The gentleman at the Lit Fest was the first person to ever share such a revelation with me. I raised my arms and yelled, “Yes!” I wanted to climb over the table and hug him, but he was already gone and lost in the crowd. I thought that if anyone, he was the one person that needed to have a copy of my book. I hoped that he would come back, so that I could give him a copy, but he never did. Maybe he will read this interview and contact me so I can personally thank him and send him a book.

What have you learned about yourself and your writing since the book was published?

Being a writer is a humbling experience. Every single day I realize that I have an opportunity improve my skills as a writer. I have a responsibility to improve—a responsibility to the reading public and myself. Every writing project I complete defines my writing career at that specific point in time. But then there is always what comes next, and what comes next needs to be better.

I try to make a conscious effort to improve my writing on a daily basis. I have a fairly extensive library of books on writing, and I find myself going to them often if I have a question or need help with something I’m working on. We have all heard that to be a better writer, you need to be a better reader, and I believe that statement to be indisputable. So, I read a lot of books across a diverse range of authors and genres. Ultimately, the best way for me to improve my writing is to just keep writing—a little at a time—on a regular and consistent basis. Only by getting the words down onto the page do I get the ability to read, review, and revise what I have written, and I find that the process of revision is often the best teacher.

I know that my writing is getting better, but it takes time and it’s a continual learning process. I also realize that much of what I wrote earlier in my career could benefit from another revision or two, and that’s okay. I can read a short story from years back and I can see where it is that I came from, and where I am at today in terms of my writing abilities. Every day is a learning experience, and it’s one of the great benefits of being a writer.

What is the question you hear the most, and how do you answer it?

Many people ask me if the story of Recalled to Life is autobiographical. I have come to think that the question arises most often because the story is so real, believable, and relatable. The story is not autobiographical but like everything I write, all that I have crammed into my head over the last fifty years influences it, and my head is chock-full of goodies. Everything I’ve read and learned and experienced, in some way, seeps into the stories whether I realize it or not.

One of the more wonderful aspects of being a writer is that I get to become other characters. I get to create a character and put that character in a situation, and then I get to put myself into the head of that character. I get to pose the questions and the character gets to provide the answers. The result is that the character takes me on a journey and it is often a journey that I never expected. Sometimes I get to lead the way and sometimes the character leads me. It’s an awful lot of fun.

Tell me why your book would make the perfect Christmas present.

Recalled to Life is a timeless story about family and the importance of taking the opportunity every now and then to put all of life’s distractions aside to focus on what is most important. Similarly, the holiday season is one of those times for us to take a break from work and all those activities that fill our daily lives. It’s a time to get together with friends and family to celebrate love and friendship, and when everything has settled down, to curl up with a good book. Why not bring Recalled to Life and the O’Hara family into your home and into the lives of your friends and family. They will be glad that you did.

A Thousand Different Faces

September 20, 2013

Tags: Readers, book reviews, reviews, comments, the writer's job


Unless a writer writes solely for himself, for his own personal enjoyment, the goal of the writer is to get at least one other person to read something he wrote. If that one person, the reader, was to use her hard-earned money to purchase something he wrote, even better. If that single reader was to go even further and do something crazy, like actually read what he wrote, then hallelujah! And if the stars were perfectly aligned and it was “in the cards” and if that single reader made the effort to share a comment about the writing, then as a writer, he would have hit the jackpot, would have experienced the Grand Slam of Writing.

I know many writers who are not particularly interested in comments about their writing, and they are not interested in the posted reviews of their books. There are many reasons. For many of them, they cannot be interested, for to be open to the comments and reviews would be to open themselves up to a potential onslaught of emotional turmoil. Like the famous actor who does not watch his own movies and does not read the reviews from his critics, many a writer would simply prefer to focus on the craft of writing. I can understand that. I suppose that if the fortune—the advance—was paid and the product delivered and it was someone else’s responsibility to sell the product for profit, then maybe it is possible to just let it go and not care about what anyone might think. No, even then I think the writer always has to care.

I know that I care.

There is a truly, absolutely beautiful and unbelievably rewarding benefit to being a writer, and it is the realization that there might be one other person in the world who is willing to read the sequence of words you have strung together and who is willing to make the effort to make a subjective interpretation of those words. That’s the magic of the story and the wonder of fiction.

I know that if a thousand people were to read my new novel, Recalled to Life, there would likely be a thousand uniquely personal and subjective interpretations of the story. How cool is that! It may have taken me two years to get my words down onto the pages, to get my story into the hands of the reader, but in the end, it is still simply that—my story. However, for every person who reads my story, it becomes their story, for better or for worse. Because the reader was willing to invest the time to read my story, they have the right to internalize the story and subjectively interpret what I was trying to say or convey. Additionally, the reader has the right to say what she wants about the story. She has earned the right.

I want hear what my readers have to say. I need to hear what they have to say.

I was a member of a writing panel a few weeks ago, and the hundred-plus people in attendance were discussing book reviews and their importance to the writer. I shared that I felt reviews were important as a learning tool for the writer, that only by reading or hearing what people think about a book can a writer truly understand how well he did in communicating the story. Only then can a writer hope to improve. The reader’s perspective matters. The reader’s perception of the story matters, because for the writer, perception is reality.

I also said that the writer’s job—at least this was true in my case—actually begins when the book is published. I want people to read my book, and more important, I want to talk about it. I want the discussion to begin and I want to talk to everyone who will provide me the opportunity. I want to see their faces. I want to hear about every one of the thousand different interpretations of the story or any part of it. I need to “get out there” and make that happen.

I commented more about not only the investment, but also the effort that the reader puts forth to sit down and read a book. It’s a big effort, and I think it is my duty as a writer to show my appreciation for that effort. The effort means a lot to me. The last thing that I mentioned to the group is that the effort is so important to me that I would give a hug to any person who read my book, regardless of the feelings or comments—positive or negative—that the reader may have or express. For any person who is willing to make that investment, that effort, it’s the least I can do.

Let the national hugging tour begin . . .