Book People: J.C. Burke

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JC BURKE book people

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Like when I read Claire Zorn’s ‘One Would Think the Deep’, ‘The Things We Promise’ took me back to my teen years in the 1990s and I could hear the songs of this era playing in my head as I read both books. Indeed, both authors talk about having listened to the songs of the 90s as they wrote their respective books and I do so love it when an author lists a soundtrack to accompany their book!

‘The Things we Promise’ is a heartbreaking, and at times, harrowing glance back over our collective shoulder to family, community and worldwide reactions to the AIDS pandemic of the 1990s, through the eyes of 16 year old Gemma and her family. Prejudice and fear around the issue were at epic proportions at the time, not at all helped by misinformation about the spread of HIV, which seemed as rife as the virus itself. ‘The Things we Promise’ serves as a poignant and permanent literary memorial to those who lost their lives to AIDS at a time when many chose to stigmatise those affected, rather than hold them close in their time of need.

Given the subject matter, the reader is aware from the start that many characters they will grow to love in this novel are going to pass away. And yet J.C. Burke manages to balance the light with the dark so beautifully that the reader finds themself hoping against hope that maybe, just maybe…things will be different. As with all her novels, J.C. Burke does not shirk the tough issues and the toughest of outcomes, but always leaves room for the light to shine in on the darkness.

I am so pleased to have J.C. Burke join me here today as part of my Book People series, which now has over 100 of the very best children’s and YA book creators in Australia featured. Welcome J.C. Burke…thank you for sharing some of yourself with us today (and please may I come and lay on that couch in your writing room some time?).
Burke JC Tell us about your latest book.

‘The Things We Promise’ is set in 1990 during the time of the Aids pandemic. The narrator Gemma, is a typical 16 years old. Her world is turned upside down when her brother, Billy, a hair and make up artist, unexpectedly returns home from New York. His partner has died of Aids and Billy is HIV positive.

How did you get started as a writer?

At 35 years of age, I started writing. I’m not sure why I did as I’d never written a word before and had no interest in it. Although my parents were journalists and I liked reading and was a letter writer. It must’ve materialised from there. What I do know is that I found it strangely instinctive. I had NEVER had that experience with anything before.

What does a typical day look like for you?

I’m not someone who writes every day. But when I am writing it’s pretty much all day, every day. I think the intensity works well for me because the voice and story is in my head ALL THE TIME! I usually do a yoga class which of course involves a coffee and a read of the newspaper. I enjoy cooking so you’ll usually find me over the stove in the evening, glass of red wine an arm’s length away. Some months are super hectic with travel and school visits which are never dull! I meet the most extraordinary people and their generosity always overwhelms me. I may take some editing or planning work away with me, but I don’t like to be actually ‘writing’ mid manuscript when I’m travelling.

Can you describe your workspace for us?

It’s at the front of the house and overlooks a park which I love sticky beaking into. There’s always someone having an intense phone conversation or lovers embracing or having a tiff (much more interesting!). The walls are covered in pictures and postcards. There’s a bed which I try my best not to lie on and my 25 volume dictionary set which I try not let distract me. My desk was my mother’s. In the few years before she died (but was very sick) she wrote a book of poetry at this desk so it’s special. My dad (alive and 90!) wrote many books at this desk too. It’s probably seen close to a million words, this desk! JCBurkeWorkspace (2) Any words of advice for young readers and writers? 

Watch and listen. To be curious and observant are the ultimate tools of a story teller. The word to use the most is ‘why’ ?!

Do you have a favourite book or character (your own or somebody else’s)?

My own character would be Tom Brennan. But I do really like Gemma from ‘The Things We Promise’ I suspect the combination of them may equal me.

I can never forget Prue Sarn, from Mary Webb’s novel ‘Precious Bane’. But the character who really got to me was Louise in MJ Hyland ‘How The Light Gets In’.

If you were not a creator of books for young people what would you be?

I’d love to be an interior designer. I love colour. I couldn’t live without it.

What is your favourite food to eat and/or your favourite music to listen to whilst you are working on your books?

Each book has different songs associated with it. I have recordings of them on my website With ‘The Things We Promise’ I listened to the music I loved in 1990. The Style Council, Madonna, George Michael to name a few.

How much of yourself or people you know is in your books?

Sometimes I think Gemma is a mixture of myself and my daughter, Victoria. There are always sprinklings of people I know but I’ve never ‘designed’ a character on a specific person. I have had the same best friend for 45 years. In each book, I insert a little anecdote or a personal joke from our lives. In ‘The Things We Promise’ it’s when Andrea becomes hysterical at the end of the movie ‘Beaches’ and the usher shines a torch in her face to see if she’s okay. Well…. It was a 15 year old me who was the blubbering mess at the movies and my friend and I, currently disagree on which movie it was. My recollection was ‘Endless Love’ and hers is ‘Ice Castles’. Either one is still embarrassing!!

If you could have one wish for the world what would it be?

Equality, because I think that’s a big step towards peace and harmony.

I couldn’t agree more J.C. Burke…thank you for your words. Megan

To read more about other novels by J.C. Burke click on cover images below. I remember so many years ago, the gorgeous and much-missed Beth Green pressing ‘The Story of Tom Brennan’ into my hands and telling me that I MUST read it and that she had just also given it to her grandson to read. It remains one of my favourite YA novels to this day. #loveozYA
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1 Comment

  1. Anne Shakti on Feb 24, 2017 at 3:43 pm

    I’m lucky to have an advance copy of jc burke’s ‘The Things we Promise’. Half way through. It’s sooo sad and tragic yet every few pages I get a laugh at a jc-burkism that either comes out of the mouth of a character or via the author’s voice mid-sentence. Typical and enjoyable jc burke writing style!

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