About the Book:
After his first overseas assignment to the USA in 1975 – just twenty-three with a suitcase and a guitar – corporate nomad, Patrick Burns, kept on moving from country to country rarely declining a fresh challenge in a new location. In these stories from four decades of living and working around the world, he relives some of his most memorable experiences: from dangerous pyrotechnic liaisons in the Algerian desert to a quest to find the Archbishop of Rangoon after a chance meeting in an English village church. The locations and circumstances run the gamut of the quotidian to the exotic; context and time are less relevant than who is met, what transpires and how the experience says something about the human condition.
This exploration of the personal landscape of expatriate life is interwoven with a navigation of some of the ties that have bound his unusual Anglo-German family during the past century; a mixture of hardcore Yorkshire eccentricity (including a grandfather whose obsession with installing indoor toilets inadvertently led to a twenty-five year family rift) and a liberal academic, Hanoverian heritage disoriented by Hitler, the events of 1939-45 and Cold War detente.
1: Tell us a little about yourself and what got you in to writing?
I’m a retired senior human resources executive currently living to the north east of San Francisco. My specialization in international human resources meant that I spent nearly four decades living and working all over the world. Eight countries in total, involving thirteen international moves and twenty-one house moves.
Writing my most recent book “Far Away and Further Back” arose directly from that experience. I had already co-written one of the earliest “how to” books on expatriation (“The Expatriate Handbook – A Guide To Living and Working Overseas” Kogan Page 1993) so the broad subject area was my comfort zone.
This latest book is, hopefully, a lot less dry since it’s a recollection of some of the more memorable things that happened and people that I met in the course of my travels.
In all honesty I retired too soon and too quickly. I’d taken for granted the sense of self-worth that comes with having responsibilities and the need to make things happen in a business. I was desperately looking for something to replace that and writing about what I’d experienced seemed the best option. It gave me a voice I’d been searching for and a formula for writing that was fulfilling – something that allowed me to shake off the dissatisfaction, I still felt from dropping out of corporate life so suddenly
2: Do you have a favourite time and place where you write?
Not really. Some of the stories in my current book were started while I was still working and I always enjoyed writing at airports or on planes. It sort of fitted in with the subject matter. These days it’s a little more prosaic. A study overlooking the redwood trees in my garden is my normal perch. Very pleasant but fairly predictable…
I do tend to write best in the early evening before dinner. Probably the prospect of food spurs me on…
3: Where do your ideas come from?
In my case, real life. The stories I recount are 100% what happened. What I try to do is approach the point of the story obliquely and work into the main event – and the point of the narrative – in a way that may surprise the reader. The quest to find a Burmese Archbishop on a visit to Yangon starts with a chance meeting in the church where I was baptized in Yorkshire in England, and with a conversation about stained glass windows. In another story, I describe traveling through (and over) the equatorial rain forests of Borneo but the main event is the oddness of an encounter with a pocket-watch expert while waiting for the arrival of a helicopter in a jungle clearing.
4: Do you have a plan in your head of where the story is going before you start writing or do you let it carry you along as you go?
Yes I do usually have a plan. Again, since I’m giving an account of things that actually happened, I’m less concerned with plot development – given that the events are known. The planning is more in the way I approach the anecdote and what I want to leave in the reader’s mind about the person I met or the experience I had.
5: What genre are your books and what drew you to that genre?
I suppose they are a loose form of memoir focusing on travel related experiences and an unusual family history. I felt comfortable with this genre since I believed I’d had some funny and unusual experiences that I thought other people may enjoy hearing about. I use the term “loose” in connection with a memoir because, unlike many books in this genre, the stories aren’t really about me but about what happened when I was in a particular place. Each story is datelined with a location – often well on the margins of where people usually go – and I consciously avoid a chronological approach to dispel the sense that this was some sort of sequence lifted from a diary.
The format I chose also gave me the opportunity to explore the view that history always informs experience and that family history shapes the person we become. Like many people, I’m fascinated by the way our lives, (in my case a life predominantly of expatriation,) and the way we see the world, are shaped from the intersecting of various lines of family history and events.
6: What dream cast would you like to see playing the characters in your latest book?
Interesting question! Most of the book relates to me in my twenties to forties so I would be looking for an English actor who can play both observer and protagonist depending on the circumstances. Tom Wilkinson (Full Monty) in his younger days would have been a contender. There are too many other people populating the twenty plus stories to work up a full cast – it would be a mixture of mainly British and American players with an equally long list of largely Asian parts.
7: Do you read much and if so who are your favourite authors?
I read less than I used to. Fiction doesn’t grab my attention the way it used to. I read a lot of rock biography and books on the history of rock music.
Favorite authors: Paul Theroux, David Mitchell, George Orwell, Anita Shreve, Kate Wilkinson. (Rock non-fiction: Richie Unterberger and Barney Hoskyns.)
8: What book/s are you reading at present?
“The Sympathizer” – Viet Thanh Nguyen
“The Last Stand – Custer, Sitting Bull and the Battle of the Little Bighorn” – Nathaniel Philbrick
“Our Towns – a 100,000 Mile Journey into the Heart of America” – James and Deborah Fallows
9: What is your favourite book and why?
Probably Paul Theroux’s “Mosquito Coast” (but there are so many and it will undoubtedly be a different choice if I’m asked again next week.) Such an original story beautifully told.
I’d also have to put Theroux’s “Saint Jack” up there as well for the same reason – with its evocation of a long-gone Singapore, a place I spent more than ten years of my life and know well.
10: What advice would you give for someone thinking about becoming a writer?
I’m not qualified to give advice but the obvious thing to me is a) find a voice that suits you and b) just do it – don’t talk about it – but stop and start again with a different voice if it’s just not working. Flogging a dead horse doesn’t usually produce a worthwhile end result.
11: What are the best Social Media Sites for people to find out about you and your work?
I have an author’s page on Facebook at Patrick H Burns where I am slowly loading photographs and commentaries that provide a backdrop to “Far Away and Further Back”.
Direct link: www.facebook.com/patrickharaldburns
About the Author:
In 2009, after more than thirty-five years of climbing, clinging onto, and occasionally sliding down the corporate ladder, Patrick Burns retired from an international business career in Human Resources. An opportunity to work on regional and global projects led to an early specialization in international HR and the chance to live and work all over the world. This included four assignments to Asia, where he spent a total of eighteen years, as well as other regional roles covering Europe-Africa, the Middle East and North and South America. Patrick was born in Yorkshire in the UK and now lives just outside San Francisco. He is married with four children.