Alan Burdick is a senior editor at Discover. His writing has appeared in that magazine as well as The New York Times Magazine, Harper's, GQ, Natural History, Grand Street, and elsewhere. He lives with his wife in New York City.
Author biography courtesy of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
Good to Know
Back to Top
Some interesting outtakes from our interview with Burdick:
"When I was 10 I lived for several months with a friend's family in a house in the middle of the Serengeti."
"My first job was as a paperboy, starting from about age 9 onward. I had a morning route as well as an evening route, but I overslept so often that my dad -- the sweetest guy in the world -- started delivering the morning papers for me, just for the exercise. My customers never knew, but they gave me big tips."
"I refuse to wear a watch."
"Likes: Pretzels, a day at the beach, watching the World Cup, the photographs of Jacques-Henri Lartigue, anything under a microscope."
"Dislikes: Anchovies, deep water, people who talk more than they listen."
Back to Top
In the fall of 2005, Alan Burdick took some time out to tell us about some of his favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
The Thurber Carnival, by James Thurber. I grew up on a street called Thurber Street, which was named for somebody entirely other than James Thurber, but when I was 10 or 11, I saw the book's title on my parents' shelf and thought it might have something to do with me, so I read it eagerly.
And in a way, I was right: Thurber's world of pet dogs, nosy midwestern neighbors, and odd grandparents (in Columbus, Ohio) looked enough like my world of pet dogs, nosy semi-midwestern neighbors, and odd grandparents (in Syracuse, New York) that Thurber's storytelling voice -- personal, dryly wise, but full of humanity -- became the running voice in my head. Later he was joined by a lot of other writers' voices, but his was the first, and the one that showed me that writing isn't just an occupation, it's a way of seeing.
What are your favorite books, and what makes them special to you?Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino -- I'm a huge Calvino fan; he turned postmodernism on its head, to create something both funny and profoundly beautiful. This is my favorite of favorites --- the story that contains all stories.
The Emperor by Ryszard Kapuscinski -- I didn't know what nonfiction could be until I read The Emperor, about the fall of Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie. Kapuscinski breaks all the usual rules of journalistic writing; He's the Calvino of narrative nonfiction.
Hiroshima by John Hersey -- To my mind, the single most important and powerful work of nonfiction in the 20th century.
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson and So Long, See You Tomorrow, by William Maxwell -- two utterly beautiful novels, and models of concision.
In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust -- The opposite of concision, but mesmerizing as a result. Proust's sentences are like rabbit holes: They draw you in and make the sensation of timelessness wonderfully tangible.
Coming into the Country by John McPhee -- A case study in narrative structure for any aspiring nonfiction writer.
Daisy Bates in the Desert by Julia Blackburn -- A sort of biography, and a fascinating exploration of the lies we tell ourselves. Though the book is nonfiction, Blackburn takes a daring leap by assuming her subject's voice and writing in the first person. The technique seems doomed to fail but instead is devastatingly effective.
Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell -- A great mix of war reportage and essay, searing with disillusionment.
The Last Shot by Darcy Frey -- The true story of four high school basketball players in Coney Island. Perfectly paced and elegant.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control (Errol Morris, 1997) -- A sublime documentary, ostensibly about four people with disparate occupations -- a lion tamer, a naked-mole-rat researcher, a robot builder, and a topiary gardener -- but ultimately about consciousness and the meaning of life. Its power sneaks up on me every time I see it.
Breaking Away (Peter Yates, 1979) -- I've seen this more times than any other film; I love its exuberance, and I always cheer at the end.
The Big City (Satyajit Ray, 1963) -- A delightfully slow film about an Indian couple struggling to balance marriage and modernity.
Gladiator (Ridley Scott, 2000) -- What's not to love?
Endless Summer (Bruce Brown, 1966) -- When I was as a kid, my dad borrowed a reel-to-reel projector from his school library and showed this movie in our backyard, projecting it onto the wall of an adjacent apartment building. The surfing was titanic and magical; I wanted to move to California immediately.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
My musical tastes are pretty eclectic: from Wilco to Wyclef Jean to Virginia Rodriguez to Hank Jones. But the only music I can listen to while writing is classical, and a pretty limited field of it: Mozart, Bach, but never Beethoven -- it's too absorbing, too distracting as background music. Bach's French Suites, played by Andre Gavrilov, is a favorite; it's on perpetual replay when I'm working on my laptop.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
A long and complicated novel: Ulysses, maybe, or Don Quixote.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I love getting books I can look at: photography books, graphic novels, books of old maps. But that's very individual. I feel safer giving small favorite novels or -- for people who drive a lot -- books on tape. Homer's Odyssey, the Robert Fagles translation, is unbeatable for anyone going on a long road trip; read by Ian MacKellan, it sounds like Shakespeare.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I try to start writing first thing in the morning, before I've had a chance to fully wake up and realize what I'm doing. Failing that, I work late at night, when I'm less distracted. Likewise, I try to keep as little as possible on my desk. I think most clearly when my field of view is bare: no window to gaze out, nothing on the wall, no papers around me. I've often been most productive while writing at an impossibly small desk in a cramped closet.
What are you working on now?
Not much -- I still have a writing hangover from Out of Eden. I'll write a short essay or magazine piece here or there, as a sort of snack. Eventually I'll get my appetite back and start work on another book.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I've been writing and editing for almost 20 years. I started out as an intern at Harper's magazine, during a year I'd taken off from college. It was unpaid, but it was great experience: We worked closely with the editors and really saw what magazine writing and editing was all about -- I fell in love with it.
Maybe three years went by before I published a piece I was proud of. Sometime around then I met a poetry editor for The New Yorker, so I submitted a poem that I felt clearly made the case that "June" and "moon" really could be artfully rhymed; thankfully, the editor felt otherwise. It wasn't a painful rejection then, but it's painful now to think I let that poem see the light of day.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
Charles Siebert. He's hardly new -- he's written two nonfiction books, Wickerby: An Urban Pastoral and A Man After His Own Heart, and one novel, Angus -- but his writing is breathtaking and not nearly as widely read as it deserves to be.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Keep at it. Write for as many different outlets as you can. Push yourself to explore different forms: long, short, narrative, newsy, essay, poetry, book reviews, science commentary, relationship advice. Good editors are key -- and hard to find. Work with as many as you can. If you catch a good one, cultivate that relationship: You'll learn a lot about your writing, and they'll think of you as they move up in their career.
Back to Top