Writer’s Block: J.R. Burgmann

J.R. Burgmann—author of Children of Tomorrow (Great Plains Publications) a cli-fi novel that shows us hurtling towards a grim future reality while remaining hopeful in its portrayal of our collective humanity—shares with us what he’s working on next (“involving a lot of Tarantino-esque Nazi punching!”), the toughest part of being a writer, and his tips for writer’s block.

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All Lit Up: What do you enjoy reading?

J.R. Burgmann: I’d like to think I’m a very open reader who moves happily between “literary” and “genre” fiction. I am particularly interested in fiction that skirts the borders of these, that lives in the space between literary and genre – Michael Chabon, Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell, Kazuo Ishiguro, etc. More specifically, in terms of genre, I regularly read SF/speculative, thrillers/mysteries, adventure, graphic novels. I am also a keen reader of classics. But generally, I read more contemporary literary fiction, ranging from the experimental (recent reads – Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria or Alasdair Gray’s Lanark) to more conventional lit fic (recent reads – Franzen’s Crossroads, Richard Powers’ Bewilderment, Naomi Alderman’s Disobedience).

But as I said, I read broadly. Looking at my wobbly reading stack next to my bed now, it contains works of realism, queer fic, comics and graphic novels, philosophy, nonfic, Australian Indigenous lit, apocalyptic fiction, nature writing, YA. But, as the subject matter of my work might suggest, books about climate change or environmentalism/nature are of particular interest to me.

ALU: Do you have a book that you’ve gone back and read several times?

JRB: I cannot count how many times I’ve read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Mainly because it was the subject of my honours thesis. But it also played a formative role in pulling me toward literature during my high school years. I wasn’t a particularly bookish teenager, but The Road was one of the first novels – maybe even the first! – I remember devouring cover to cover. I can’t quite remember what led me to read it in the first place, but I do recall it was a battered paperback copy from the library of my state school. I realize now, that I haven’t read The Road since becoming a father, so I definitely need to dive into it again! From memory, the next novel to have a similarly powerful effect on me at that time was Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, which solidified a love of reading! More recently, Richard Powers’ The Overstory, which I read toward the end of writing Children of Tomorrow, had a similarly profound effect on me.  

ALU: What are you working on now?

So my partner and I and our little kids moved house early last year, shortly before Children of Tomorrow was published in Australia. The chaos of this – and spending half a year back in the UK during the latter half of 2022 – very much put my writing on hold. As you can imagine, upon moving I was eager to set up a writing space that felt permanent or at least stable, which is now thankfully finally starting to happen. On the bottom floor of our place there is a spacious, light-filled, concrete-floored basement walled floor-to-ceiling in painted white brick. It’s a great space to think and write. Here, I’ve just started work on my second novel Abominable, which I began at Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre last year on a fellowship. Taking a much needed break from climate change, Abominable is a work of historical fiction. It depicts the secretive 1938–1939 German expedition to Tibet led by zoologist Ernst Schäfer, who, under the patronage of Heinrich Himmler, was entrusted to discover if Tibet was the cradle of the Aryan race, and more absurdly, the mythical Yeti – the “Abominable Snowman” – its origin. While the novel details the dark inner workings of the expedition, it mainly centres on a cast of fictional protagonists, all of whom are in pursuit of Schäfer’s preposterous Yeti hunt. It’s very Indiana Jones so far! And involves a lot of Tarantino-esque Nazi punching! But I should add that I’m also starting to research and outline a second, much longer climate novel that I hope to start writing a few years from now.

J.R. Burgmann’s writing spot/workspace

ALU: Have you experienced writer’s block? What did you do about it?

JRB: I’m not sure I’ve experienced proper writer’s block before. I’ve certainly experienced the persistent glare of the blank page. Logically, I imagine if I fought this, then it could easily morph into some form of writer’s block. But generally, when this happens, I find myself drifting towards other activities – some other work, going for a walk, playing music, building Lego with the kids, gaming, reading, watching shows or movies. It’s helpful sometimes to consider other parts of life as part of the process – in fact, major details of the final few chapters of Children of Tomorrow came to me while playing the game Horizon Zero Dawn.

Those more difficult moments, when you sense that you do have some writing in you, but it just isn’t happening, are trickier to navigate obviously. You’re itching to write, but it just isn’t flowing at all. In those thornier moments I often shift gears and return to creative research, narrative planning/design, character profiles/arcs, and so on. That way, you’re still satisfying the urge to write to some degree. This is happening a lot with Abominable at the moment – there’s always more research to do with an historical novel!

J.R. Burgmann’s writerly advice: “If no words come to you, go for a walk.”

ALU: What’s the toughest part about being a writer?

JRB: I’d say the toughest part is balancing competing, or even conflicting, demands. In an ideal world, writers could afford to commit as much time as they wish to their craft. Like many millennials, I find myself moving constantly between multiple, precarious roles – in my case, PhD student, university teaching and research, freelance writing. While I’ve enjoyed much of the work I’ve done over the past few years, these casualised or freelance roles have not necessarily been amenable to creative work, not to mention writing an entire novel. Having said that, I particularly value the teaching and research work I do at the Monash Climate Change Communication Research Hub, which is where I was also based during my PhD. Being surrounded by so many experts and great minds has obviously informed Children of Tomorrow. The added joy of having children, whose care my partner and I endeavour to share equally, only adds to the complexity of this picture. I’m yet to find a practical solution to this puzzle that doesn’t require a revolutionary overhaul of how the arts are funded in Australia! But I have settled on a philosophy of deep patience with these circumstances as well as the process of writing. With the increasingly competing, energy-sapping demands of work and parenting, I’ve found it important to set the bar low, so to speak. If I’ve spent a writing day only producing a fraction of what I used to a few years ago, then that’s fine. Part of being patient with my process is also rejecting modern ideas around productivity – productivism is anathema to creative processes, in my experience.

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J.R. Burgmann is a British-Australian writer and critic. A graduate of the University of Melbourne, he is currently based at the Monash Climate Change Communication Research Hub. Children of Tomorrow is his debut novel.

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Children of Tomorrow is available for sale here on All Lit Up, or via your local independent bookseller.

For more Writer’s Block, click here.