Al Watt interviews Allison Burnett on his third B. K. Troop novel, “Death by Sunshine”

Allison Burnett sat down recently with Alan Watt to discuss his new novel, Death by Sunshine, and his decision to publish with fledgling Writers Tribe Books.

Q: The narrator of BK Troop has become somewhat of a cult icon. I’ve heard people compare him to Ignatius Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces for his outrageous rants, but also for his tender, almost innocent gullibility.  Where did BK come from?

From the time I was in high school in Illinois all the way through my twenties in Manhattan, there were gay male teachers in my life who were central to my development as a man and as a writer.  Each was, in his own way, brilliant, lovable, and eccentric.  Maybe because they weren’t depleted by the demands of a wife and kids at home, they gave far more of themselves than any of my straight teachers ever did.   My experience was not in any way unusual, I think.  In fact, I would say it is practically archetypal of life in New York City.

Years later, living in L.A., when I sat down to reclaim and re-imagine a thousand pages of prose I head written in my twenties, I wanted a new narrative voice.  Because I am an atheist, I am not comfortable writing omniscient narrators.  I wanted to create a first-person narrator to tell my story, but someone who was as much a spectator as a participant in the life of my autobiographical hero.  (A device Somerset Maugham used to great effect throughout his writing career.)  But in order to give the book urgency, the narrator had to care deeply about the hero’s welfare, maybe even be a little bit in love with him.  At the time, I had a gay older friend who lived upstairs from me in my New York tenement.  So I imagined that the narrator living in the same building as the hero.  Since the book took place in 1984, I also imagined the older man as a sort of Big Brother, always watching and prying and snooping….  With no more decided than that, I began to type.  In an instant, B.K. Troop was born.  He has not stopped talking ever since.  Death By Sunshine is his third novel.

Q: Death By Sunshine is not ostensibly a mystery, but there is a mystery within the story. How much of the story did you know when you began writing it?

B.K. comes to Los Angeles for a movie deal and stays because of a mystery.  It struck me that the less I knew about the solution to the mystery the less likely it was that the reader would every get ahead of the story.  Also, B.K.’s clueless, bumbling, stumbling journey would be all the more believable, if I, as an author, were as clueless as he was.  So the answer to your question is:  very little.

Q: Without spoiling anything, at what point in the story did you solve the riddle?

About ten pages before B.K. did.

Q: Was this a difficult book to write?

Of the three B.K. Troop novels, it was the only one that was not a re-imagining of previous material.   Each morning I was greeted with a blank computer screen.   It was without a doubt the most daunting and the most fraught with peril of the three books.  What if I never solved the mystery?  What if the book had no ending?

Q: You have two other novels narrated by B.K. Troop — Christopher and The House Beautiful.  Are we going to hear more from him?

You never know.  There is an image of B.K. I cannot shake:  he is renting a small adobe house in New Mexico, wearing bright, crisp blue jeans, and he is taking care of a baby that has been left on his doorstep.   No idea where this image came from, but it’s been hard to shake.  I also loved the idea of B.K. being trapped in deep old age and, like the mythological Tithonus, furious that he is unable to die.

Q: You have two separate careers. You are a busy screenwriter, and you also find the time to put out a novel every couple of years. Do these two occupations complement each other, or is one a distraction from the other?

If I could make a living writing only novels and poetry, it’s all I would do, but its unthinkable in the current marketplace.  I don’t earn  enough money from my novels and poetry to pay even for my son’s pre-school, let alone the bills of our household.  Of all the ways in the world to make a great living, I can think of none more enjoyable than screenwriting.  I suspect I am the happiest working screenwriter in Hollywood.  I have my novels and poetry to give me pride of authorship, which means that when my scripts are being mutilated, or even just slightly changed, rather than fly into a rage or sink into a gloom as so many of my colleagues do, I just shrug it off and remind myself that screenwriting is not my source of pride in the world.

Q: You received an offer from a traditional publisher with an advance and all the perks that go along with that. What made you take the risk of being the very first author published by Writers Tribe Books?

First, because I trust and admire Al Watt.  Second, because, despite the ego rush of being published by a name-brand publisher, ask any author who is not on the bestsellers list and they will tell you the same thing:  mainstream publishers do very little to promote your book and, in return, they keep almost all the money.  Writers Tribe Books is offering writers a chance to be not only their equal financial partners, but partners in every other respect.  And because it is a new company that will remain a boutique, every title is precious and will be promoted with real care.  I think as more book chains close and more of the industry converts to electronic books, small imprints like WTB will gain market share.  When you are clicking on an icon to download a novel, you really don’t care if it says Doubleday in the corner or Writers Tribe Books. I hope to have a home here for many years to come.

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