I became a writer because of Ray Bradbury.
Over thirty years ago, I first considered becoming a writer. My favorite author, Ray Bradbury, had made me do it. Over the years, he had grabbed me and engaged me with his words and especially his short stories. He opened my eyes to the limitless possibilities of words and books. Mainly through the influence of his short stories, he urged me to keep reading and start writing.
One of Ray's books in particular—and a subsequent meeting with him—set me on my way to becoming a writer. The book was Dandelion Wine. I had read many of Ray's books, including Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles, but when I read Dandelion Wine, 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 someday. I'm a big dreamer.
In 2003, while in San Diego on business, I had the opportunity to meet Ray. I had heard about a seminar he was conducting at San Diego State University, and on a whim, I changed my afternoon plans to attend. Ray's 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 publishing my books.
The number one thing I learned from Dandelion Wine is there are no definitive rules for how to write a successful book. Although Ray's publisher marketed and categorized the book as a novel, Dandelion Wine is a loosely connected collection of short stories. Ray was a great short story writer, and he weaved together the many stories he wrote over the years about Greentown, a town he created. Many of his Greentown stories are autobiographical, depicting his experiences as a child growing up in rural Waukegan, Illinois. His book is a mash-up of many forms of writing. It's a novel of short stories that's also an autobiography that includes elements of prose poetry—told through the eyes of a child. I think until his dying day, he lived his life and told his stories with the heart of a much younger person. Isn't that great?
As I began to write my own short stories, Ray's books, storytelling approaches, inspirational writings and quotes, and love were always nearby. My first published story collection, No Turning Back: Stories, includes a heart-warming story "An Unexpected Guest," which recounts a fictional birthday dinner with my family and Ray. What a dinner it was!
Ray continues to be an inspiration for my writing. My newest book, Grace: Stories and a Novella, includes the story "The Final Countdown." In the year 2110, the Earth struggles to survive, ravaged by overpopulation and greed. Food is scarce, and the youth-run government has no choice but to implement a plan devised decades earlier: deport the elderly population to a remote outpost—on the moon. "The Final Countdown" is also the opening chapter of my new in-progress stories-as-a-novel, Elderworld.
I became and continue to be a writer because of Ray Bradbury. He is an endless source of inspiration.
Dan Burns is the author of the novels A Fine Line and Recalled to Life and the short story collections No Turning Back: Stories and Grace: Stories and a Novella. He is also an award-winning writer of stories for the screen and stage. He resides with his family in Illinois and enjoys spending time in Wisconsin and Montana, where he stalks endless rivers in pursuit of trout and a career as a fly fisherman. For more information, please visit www.danburnsauthor.com.
I became a writer because of Ray Bradbury.
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!