MFA candidate Morgan Green interviewed Mountainview MFA faculty and author of Team Seven: A Novel, Marcus Burke, about his education, writing, authors he admires and future plans for the characters featured in his debut novel.
What’s the difference between a short story collection and a novel? Which one is Team Seven?
The difference between a short story collection and a novel are somewhat like this difference between sitcoms and movies. Sitcoms may return to a storyline but reserve the right not to do so, whereas with movies they have a grand continuity. When I first started writing Team Seven, I though it may be a linked collection but it became a novel. With a short story collection every story can generally stand in its own, so when characters return elsewhere in the collection their presence must be re-explained. Where with a novel it’s like taking down those partitions, and being able to write with the assumed knowledge that the reader is keeping track of the information being presented, so when things return or come back around there doesn’t have to be the same level of contextualizing.
So, Team Seven was published back in 2014, why don't you tell us a little more about what inspired you to tell Andre's story and how you came up with the title.
Team Seven came together very slowly, there are a few ways to answer this question. My original intent wasn’t to write a book but to do a homework assignment. It was early on during the fall of my sophomore year and I’d just become a creative writing major. And being intimidated of my new classmates a few weeks into the semester, I remember skipping an Intro to Fiction class. I was on the basketball team, it was preseason, and I probably did some sort of workout at the gym. I was yet coming into my studious ways. Anyway, later that day I saw a classmate in the training room and asked him what the homework was, he told me it was to write a first person narrative, and I did. Team Seven was written very out of order compared to the table of contents. The first chapter I wrote was, “The Big One-Two, which eventually became the novel’s fifth chapter. After I wrote that section, I then wrote the title chapter, Team Seven. The motivating idea in writing Team Seven was to get something not easily talked about off my chest. Another motivation for writing it was the enraging depiction of black men and women, and the black family, within mass media. I wanted to humanize a group of people that are generally pre-judged by society before opening their mouths. I wanted to give more voice to the group of folks that nurtured me as a child. They have valuable insights and valid stories if only given the platform, coupled with people willing to listen.
Aside from all that, I was a hardcore athlete growing up and I was, at a time, lumped in with the “bad kids,” and I know what it feels like, to feel locked out of school, and how fast a problematic educator can turn a student completely off to the idea of reading, and education. Never mind the idea of reading for pleasure. With my public education being so intensely Eurocentric, I was generally bored by most of the books I was given to read in school. It wasn’t until one summer during high school, while I was stuck in the house with sun poisoning, that I found The Coldest Winter Ever by Sista Souljah and read it cover to cover. That book felt like an olive branch into the conversation, so I wrote Team Seven as an olive branch for people that maybe don’t like to read books.
Where is Andre now? Can we expect a sequel?
I’m working on the next novel now. It is a follow-up, but it doesn’t return to the dramas of Team Seven. There are things from Team Seven referenced but it’s a very different book. I’m still working with Andre and his family so some characters do come back. Team Seven is the second book in a trilogy, even though it was released first. I’m writing the trilogy out of order too, I guess. I published a chapter from the new novel in McSweeney’s this past spring.
How would you say your undergrad experience affected you as a writer as compared to grad school and what advice do you have for those who may have had similar experiences?
My undergraduate experience was helpful and damaging in its own right. My classmates were vicious initially until my professors praised my work. In my first workshop, I remember a girl writing me a letter telling me that she was a grammar and punctuation “elitist” and that reading my work was “thusly painful.” I sort of laughed and thought, who even uses the archaic word “thusly”? Anyway, being that I was a basketball player, I was accustomed to trash-talking being a part of competition and didn’t take the comment to heart. More than dealing with awkwardness in the classroom, dealing with an intense amount of racism came along with being a student on the campus of Susquehanna University.
I was there for Obama’s first election and it was a crazy time. At night the locals would ride around campus in trucks, high beaming students of color, yelling racial slurs, and throwing stuff. That and countless other incidents occurred. It was a mess, really. With all the drama and fighting that came along with the existence of a black man on campus, I took great solace in writing, it was an outlet for a lot of angst. So I guess I’d tell other young brown writers studying at predominantly white institutions that are maybe feeling lonely, agitated and/or confused: your story is needed and valid. Seek community even if in small numbers. Keep on pushing until you find your folk. Hold onto your visions and your dreams. Your future audience needs your presence and example.
As for my time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, it was a much-needed breath of fresh air. I was given time to read and to shape and define my own aesthetic, and I worked with an AMAZING cast of writers like James Alan McPherson, Marilynne Robinson, Peter Orner, Ben Percy, etc. It was an honor to study alongside so many writers that I admire and respect. My time at the Writers’ Workshop changed the trajectory of everything, truthfully.
What's your writing routine? You always say that everyone's processes often change, care to elaborate a little more on that?
Generally, I shape my writing around whatever’s going on in my life, which is why I say my writing routine is always changing. I’ve written at night, in the morning, afternoon—it just depends. I generally try to accomplish something each day in that arena, either reading or writing. Sometimes I’m writing more than I’m reading. Other times it’s the reverse. After I’ve written a lot, I need to step back and do some reading, it’s like going back to the well. Lately, I’ve been writing in long hyper-focus chunks of time, usually from mid-evening into the early morning.
What's the best thing you've ever gotten out of a workshop as a student? The worst?
The best thing that came out of workshop for me as a student was finding readers. It’s invaluable to have people you trust read your work and vice versa. Those are life-long friendships. Even if you don’t agree with the feedback or it’s hard to hear, it’s better received when you know there’s nothing but goodwill and integrity in the criticism. Even if I was in a workshop that did not consist of my ideal readers, I always thought it was interesting to hear how so many drastically different aesthetics were reacting to my work.
You've had a lot of success in your career so far from Team Seven, such as getting a starred Kirkus Review to publishing in McSweeney's, and it's clear that there's more to come. What do you think is the key to success and how do you stay humble?
I’ve been blessed and pray there’s better ahead. I can’t say there’s any one thing to point out as a key to success. I’ve had to be persistent, resilient and faithful. When I started writing, it was a deeply personal thing that I didn’t even tell people about. I took my approach with basketball and applied it to writing. I became disciplined and put in the hours in order to give myself a chance. But I shouldn’t list those things as though l was given some secret formula or that the highlights of my writing career thus far have happened because of those things. Persistence, resilience and faithfulness, certainly helped, but there’s a lot more to it. There were a lot of people that helped me along the way. I had an amazing family, teachers, friends, and mentors supporting me. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve known somebody when they have good will and good intentions for you. I was hungry and took a lot of risks and certain things came together at crucial moments. Around year four of writing the book I just wanted to prove to myself that I could do it, that I could finish.
I’m unsure of how to answer the part of the question about staying humble. It feels strange to try and qualify one's own humility and speak to it. More than anything, after I published my first novel, I had to decide what type of writer I wanted to be. I had to figure out what it is that I got and wanted to continue to get from writing, and what I wanted for my writing career. It took a great deal of soul searching to sort all that out, which is nice, I suppose. Well, I guess, all that is to say I feel most alive and at ease in my soul when I’m being creative and in the throes of working on a project.
What books are currently on your nightstand?
It’s beautiful to see so many black writers getting much deserved attention. I recently read two books that I enjoyed immensely, Naffisa Thompson-Spires’ collection, Heads of Colored People, and Kiese Laymon’s new memoir, Heavy. With Heavy, simply put, the book is amazing. That’s a brother that writes with a mind blowing amount of heart, courage, empathy and honesty. His work always inspires me to dig deeper. Alexia Arthurs’ How to Love a Jamaican, I’m really enjoying that at the moment. And I also have Ruth Joffre’s Night Beasts, Jamel Brinkley’s A Lucky Man, and Novuyo Rosa Tshuma’s House of Stone. I started it but had to pump the brakes. You ever start reading a book, like it so much you realize you’re reading it too fast and have to slow your roll? Sometimes I don’t want some books to end.
Morgan Green is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.