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An Interview with Michael A. Burstein
conducted by Steven H Silver

© Nomi S. Burstein
Michael A. Burstein
Michael A. Burstein
Michael A. Burstein was born in New York City, New York in 1970 and grew up in the neighborhood of Forest Hills in the borough of Queens. He attended Hunter College High School in Manhattan. In 1991, he graduated from Harvard College with a degree in Physics, and in 1993 he earned a Master's in Physics from Boston University. In 1994 he attended the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer's Workshop. Burstein's first published story, "TeleAbsence," which appeared in the July 1995 issue of Analog, was nominated for the Hugo Award. Two years later, Burstein won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. He lives with his wife Nomi in the town of Brookline, Massachusetts.

Michael A. Burstein Website
ISFDB Bibliography

I Remember the Future
Since 1995, you've published numerous short stories and you've also published two issues of the fanzine Burstzine.  Do you consider yourself primarily an author or a fan?
I've always been a fan of science fiction, as far back as I can recall, and even at a young age I was writing stories and trying to sell them to the major science fiction magazines. So I guess I'd have to say that the two roles are intertwined for me.

I haven't been as active a fan in recent years as I'd like to be, if by fan you mean someone who regularly participates in fanac. Nomi (my wife) and I used to be much more involved, but after the first two issues of Burstzine we found ourselves drifting away. At the very least, though, we still attend conventions and we maintain our membership in NESFA. (I think I'm still a member of the Lunarians as well, but they kept forgetting to send me dues renewal notices, so I kept forgetting to pay my dues.)

What role do you see science fiction conventions as having for beginning and mid-list authors?
Science fiction conventions are a wonderful place for writers to meet fans and other writers. I don't think attending conventions will get a writer onto a bestseller list, but they do help you make friendships that can be personally rewarding and connections that can pay off down the line. I don't think I can point at a specific event at a convention that I can say led to a business opportunity for me, but I can say that going to conventions, I feel the warm embrace of a welcoming community.

You've said that Isaac Asimov was a major inspiration to you.  How did he affect your writing career and which other authors do you feel you owe a debt to?
I could write a whole article about Isaac Asimov. Come to think of it, I have, for the fanzine Mimosa, and it's available on my website. It would be far too long to reproduce here. But the short version is that Asimov, being as prolific and open about his life as he was, gave the rest of us a blueprint to follow if we wanted to do so. I could probably say more about Asimov and his influence on me (such as readability) if you wanted to ask some more specific questions.

You won the John W. Campbell Award in 1995, your first year of eligibility.  What type of effect did the award have on your career?
The award gave me a lot of name recognition that I would not have had otherwise. I suspect that winning it resulted directly in the subsequent award nominations I received.

Do you still read science fiction in your free time?  If so, what current authors are you reading?
I find myself reading a lot more nonfiction than fiction at the moment; I've been especially fascinated by the Dover, Pennsylvania evolution case and I've been reading all the books I can on that case.

In terms of science fiction, I hesitate to list any authors as invariably I will leave some names out. But the names that first come to mind are Robert J. Sawyer, Paul Levinson, Spider Robinson, Mike Resnick, Allen M. Steele, and Jack McDevitt. I recently finished Melinda Snodgrass's new book, The Edge of Reason, and enjoyed it a lot. And if Mona Clee ever publishes another book, I'm there. Someone really ought to reprint her novels Branch Point and Overshoot in nice hardcover editions.

What science journals form the basis of your reading material?
Primarily New Scientist, Scientific American, Discover, and The American Journal of Physics when I can find it. Also, The Annals of Irreproducible Results is quite valuable. And I think I'd place Analog among those, since they publish science as well as science fiction.

Your religion plays an enormous role in many of your short stories, however science fiction, as a literature and as a fannish entity, can, at times, be intolerant of established religions.  Have you ever received negative responses based on reader intolerance?
The only negative response I can recall is from a letter to Analog that Stan Schmidt shared with me shortly after my story "Reality Check" came out. The reader objected to how much I concentrated on some of the minutiae in the religious observance of the Orthodox Jewish main character. Both Stan and I agreed, however, that it was necessary to explore the character's development throughout the story.

The fact is that most fans are tolerant to read about other cultures; if they weren't, they wouldn't be reading science fiction! Although I had some interesting feedback regarding "Sanctuary." Many Catholic fans were delighted by the story, and how much I got right in their religion. But one critic complained that I was being too easy on the Catholic Church when I had my main character -- a priest -- speak in a forgiving way about how the Church treated Galileo. I suspect that critic made the classic blunder of mixing up an author's beliefs with those of his characters.

How do you research the religious questions your stories raise?
For Jewish questions, there's one particular Orthodox rabbi I tend to consult, since he's also a science fiction reader. In the case of "Sanctuary," I went around asking every single Catholic science fiction reader I knew if they'd look over the story. Providence sent Brother Guy Consolmagno to Boskone as I was working on the story, and he ended up being most helpful in vetting my story for the Catholic ritual and belief. Anything I got right, I have to credit to him.

In your story "The Cold Calculations," you took on one of the most famous stories in science fiction, and provided an alternative to the result written by Tom Godwin and sanctioned John Campbell. Did doing so make you feel any responsibility to the original story?
I don't know if I would call the feeling "responsibility." I suspect that many science fiction writers have looked at "The Cold Equations" and tried to figure out another solution to it. That was really all I was trying to do. Perhaps, unconsciously, we're all still uncomfortable with a story that presents a no-win scenario.

Up to now, all of your published work has been short fiction.  What path would you like to see your career go in the future?
It would be nice to publish a novel one of these days, and I would love to write for comics as well. Also, I wouldn't mind being given the opportunity to edit a science fiction novel line or a science fiction magazine or webzine. As it is, besides being a writer, I have a few years of experience as an editor, and I'm about to earn a Certificate in Book Publishing from Boston University. So I'm probably qualified to edit as well as write, especially since I know more about the business side of publishing than I'd expect the average writer would know.

Nearly all of your stories are stand-alones, although you did revisit TeleAbsence after ten years.  Do you see yourself writing sequels or expansions to any of your other stories?
It's odd; even though most of my stories are, as you say, stand-alones, the three "Broken Symmetry" stories have been some of my most popular sellers on Fictionwise. I would love to write sequels to some of my other stories; in fact, Bob Greenberger and I are working on a sequel to our collaboration "Things That Aren't." The problem with writing a sequel, though, is that I tend to try to follow the piece of advice that says that a short story should be about the most important incident in a character's life. And once you've written about that incident, it's hard to justify writing about something less important.

You have ten Hugo and three Nebula nominations for your short fiction. When writing a story do you ever have the feeling that there is something about that story that will draw the attention of any of the voters?
Sometimes, when a story is flowing, or the theme is a significant one, I get the feeling that the story will end up resonating with readers as much as it did with me. I wasn't surprised that "Kaddish for the Last Survivor" ended up on the Hugo and Nebula ballots, nor was I surprised that "Paying It Forward" ended up on the Hugo ballot (although I would have expected the Nebula ballot to be a more likely placement for that story). In most cases, though, I've been surprised that a story of mine has made it to an award ballot. In any event, whenever a story of mine gets nominated for an award, I am always grateful.

As someone who has taught physics in high school, what responsibility do you feel you have to your students (or readers in general) when writing fiction?
I'm not quite sure what you mean. If you're asking about my responsibility to get the science right, I feel that I do have some responsibility in that direction. But the fact is that science fiction stories have to entertain first, before they educate.

You've published several collaborations, with Charles Ardai, Robert Greenberger, Joseph Lazzaro, Mike Resnick, Shane Tourtellotte, and Lawrence Weinberg. How did those come about and how did the process differ with each co-author?
Each one would be a long story. And you're leaving out my collaboration with Stanley Schmidt. But let's see if I can remember...

Charles Ardai is a friend from way back; we've known each other since I was eleven and he was twelve. In that case, I asked Charles if he had any unfinished science fiction stories kicking around. He gave me something that resembled the first half of "Nor Through Inaction." I wrote the second half, he rewrote the whole story, I rewrote it again, and that was it.

I don't recall how Joe and I ended up collaborating on "The Turing Testers," but I think it was because he knew where the story should go.

Mike Resnick enjoys collaborating with his fellow writers, and he asked me to work on "Reflections in Black Granite" with him. I found it a valuable experience, as he brought an understanding to the story that I myself lacked (although the underlying idea had been mine).

The collaboration with Shane was a great experience for both of us. We were both interested in working together, but we needed an idea for a story. At some Lunacon, we shared a hotel room, and Shane brought with him the beginning of the idea for "Bug Out!" As soon as I heard the idea, I started to contribute more ideas to go along with it, Shane did as well, and we realized that this story would work as a collaboration.

The only problem we had was that I'm inherently a nonlinear writer. Shane, on the other hand, likes to start a story from the first word and keep writing until he reaches the end. But since we both work with outlines, we decided to write an outline for the story first, with each scene numbered. Then one of us took the odd-numbered scenes and the other one took the even-numbered scenes. That way, I could bounce around within my scenes and write whatever I wanted on a particular day, while Shane could write all his scenes from beginning to end. Then we figured we would trade scenes and rewrite each other. And that led to an interesting development.

There was a plot point that I knew would be needed in an earlier scene of Shane's for one of my later scenes to work. So I wrote that scene assuming that the plot point existed, and I figured I'd add it myself when I reviewed that scene.

To my surprise and delight, when I got that scene from Shane I discovered that he had already added the plot point! As he had been writing that scene, he realized the necessity of that point as well, and so he added it and figured he would add the following events when reviewing my later scene. If anything was proof that we had chosen the right story to collaborate on, it was that synchronicity.

I don't recall how Lawrence Weinberg and I ended up collaborating on "Debunking the Faith Healer," but I seem to recall that he had the initial idea for the story.

You finally have a collection of short stories, I Remember the Future, coming out from Apex.  How did this collection come about?
Jennifer Pelland, a very good friend, was having her first collection published by Apex, and she mentioned to the publisher, Jason Sizemore, that I had a bunch of stories that might work well as a collection. Jason got in touch, and I sent him a selection of my stories, and bless his heart, he agreed with Jen. We discussed what kind of collection to do, and in the end, Jason felt that a collection of my award nominees would be the most logical, even though it meant a larger book than Apex had yet published.

As part of the promotional aspect, anyone who pre-orders is eligible to be Tuckerized in one of the two original short stories.  Who came up with this idea and how did you decide to do it?
This promotion has already ended, although anyone who pre-orders the hardcover through the Apex website still gets a signed copy. And you haven't describe it quite right; anyone who pre-ordered before June 15 was entered in a raffle, and the two winners would win the Tuckerizations. As to how it came about, Jason Sizemore and I were trying to think of an extra way I could thank my fans for pre-ordering the book, and then it hit me. With two new stories, that was an opportunity for two Tuckerizations. So we went ahead with it, and the winners were Bob Leigh and Solomon Davidoff.

Many of your stories are available on Fictionwise, however, in many cases, I Remember the Future will be their first paper reprinting.  Do you think making stories available on Fictionwise limits their resale/reprint value?
Not at all! In fact, I Remember the Future is being released as an e-book through Fictionwise as well. If anything, I think having the stories available electronically has made more people eager for the collection.

You obviously had to re-read your stories to prepare them for I Remember the Future.  How often, otherwise, do you re-read your stories?
Honestly, very rarely. I'm too busy reading other people's stories and figuring out my next story.

If you have re-read your stories, are you embarrassed by any of your published work, either by your writing ability at the time the story was written or by the views you espoused?
I wouldn't say I was embarrassed by any of my earlier work, but I will say that I can see definite improvement over the years. I think I'd be more embarrassed if my later work paled in comparison to my earlier work.

In addition to writing and teaching, you are also involved in local politics.  How does your interest in science fiction influence your stands on the town council and the library board?
I probably see a little further ahead than many of the other politicians. For example, a few years ago Town Meeting was debating whether to fund a project to move all the utility wires underground as opposed to having them hanging on poles. I pointed out that we might pay all this money to have the wires moved underground only to have our current form of electric power transmission rendered obsolete by new technology, and I expressed my concern that the Town of Brookline would find itself paying a lot of money in 2050 to dig out all those useless wires. My fellow Town Meeting Members were amused by my perspective, but we did end up voting against the project. As for being on the library board, I do periodically check to make sure that our library system is stocking the latest science fiction and fantasy, but to be honest, they didn't need my help. They've got some good people on staff who were already taking care of it.

What do you have planned for your next writing projects?
"Steven H Silver: The Musical." But seriously, I have a few stories I owe to Analog, and a few collaborations I've fallen behind on.

If I had just begun reading science fiction, or come back to reading it after a long hiatus, and found that I liked your stories, what other contemporary authors would you recommend who have a similar feel?
If you like my work, the best recommendation I have would be for you to pick up Analog magazine and read the stories you find there.

This interview appears in Argentus 8 (2008).

Copyright © 2008 by Steven H Silver

Steven H Silver is a seven-time Hugo Nominee for Best Fan Writer and the editor of the anthologies Wondrous Beginnings, Magical Beginnings, and Horrible Beginnings. He is the publisher of ISFiC Press. In addition to maintaining several bibliographies and the Harry Turtledove website, Steven is heavily involved in convention running and publishes the fanzine Argentus.

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