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How to rent space in people’s brains

Q&A | 6 minute read
Christine Burns on writing, campaigning, and the joy of moving text

Where do you write?

I look on writing as a process and I do different parts of that process in different places. My early writing experience was first academic and then commercial. At university I had to learn long-form writing from scratch to complete my research thesis. My first job was then as a writer for a computer company, creating instructional books. These experiences taught me the need to start with structure and I found I could design that just about anywhere. Nowadays I create structure on my iPad from the couch. Once actual writing starts, however, I head for the laptop in my study upstairs at home, with a desk that’s pointed away from the window.

What’s the last really good book you read? 

That’s a hard question. Since I retired six years ago I’ve gone back to reading for pleasure. I have lapped up the entire works of numerous crime writers because I enjoy the genre and I admire how fiction like that works. Latterly I’ve also been sent more and more review proofs of new trans-related factual books, so that has skewed my reading habits. Trans Like Me — a series of trope-challenging essays by a transgender academic, CN Lester, is the only book I can recall that has made me cheer out loud whilst reading.

What book marked you as a child or teenager?

You mean I have to pick just one book? My Dad introduced me to the local library when I was five and I was hooked. I remember reading the Mary Poppins books before the film made the character famous. Indeed, watching the Disney film was my first experience of how books are imperfectly transcribed to the screen. I sought other magical fantasies and ended up, via those, in the genre of science fiction. But the book that marked me most was Conundrum — the first successful and impactful biography about being trans, by Jan Morris in 1974.

What book inspired you to become a writer?

I’m not sure my inspiration was a book as such. At school I had the opportunity to write for my school magazine and I remember the buzz whenever a new edition came out and I could watch my classmates reading my contribution, typeset on the page. In work I had an early success: I was assigned to write a computer dictionary for my first employer and it became the company’s top corporate publication. More buzz! As a consultant I wrote and edited dozens of long proposals — books designed to invoke the desire to buy our services. I guess the true inspiration is that books allow you to rent space in other people’s minds for longer than you’d otherwise expect.

Pen and paper or laptop?

Laptop. Always. I learned to type early on, and a friend at university wrote one of the first commercial word processing systems in their spare time. I evangelised about the benefits of being able to correct mistakes in moments or move blocks around without retyping. However, before tablet computers came along, I admit I relied on paper for the all-important structure and note-taking that organises my thoughts. I still write with a bound, ruled notebook alongside, containing raw thoughts. Then, as I do rewrites and edit myself, I go through the notes, crossing out the things I’ve included. That way I don’t miss anything vital.

Do you re-read books or is life too short?

Oh I wish I could, but life is indeed too short. As a young reader I would sometimes flick back and reread earlier sections, especially if the end-reveal of a crime mystery indicated that I had perhaps missed a buried clue. I began looking at whodunits very analytically like that, to try and sharpen my ability to spot detail. But I think that the instant accessibility of the next book in a series (I nowadays read mostly eBooks) means I no longer have that fallow time waiting for a new book. I’ve lost that opportunity, I guess.

Who is the best fictional hero and villain?

My favourite crime writers have been Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton (sadly no longer with us) and Val McDermid, so it’s natural that I draw heroes and villains from their work — especially their strong female characters. VI Warshawski and Kinsey Millhone are both such brilliant role models, along with DCI Carol Jordan. I know the books I’m going to buy for my granddaughter when she’s old enough! Val McDermid has also given us a brilliant serial villain in the form of Jacko Vance — all the more scary because she claims he was based on a real life celebrity.

When did you last visit your local library?

Is it cheating that I’ve made a series of appearances recently in Manchester libraries, talking about transgender history during LGBT History Month? I also recently filmed in the amazing reading room of Manchester Central Library. Walking between the shelves takes me back to that childhood experience that my Dad introduced me to, but I also love the way that libraries have evolved since then, as more child- and community-friendly spaces. These days I seldom use a library as a reader — I’ve got most of what I need at my fingertips at home — but I’ve been passionate about helping libraries to stock books like mine.

What classic have you lied about reading?

I recently bought my own paperback copy of The Handmaids Tale. Before that I guess I was guilty of allowing people to perhaps think I’d already read it. I know a lot of public discourse works this way nowadays and I think it’s an increasing problem as we can no longer rely so much on other people being honest when using famous and influential books to make their point. So, in this case, I’m playing catch-up.

Finally, what’s the elevator pitch for the book you’re working on/you’re publishing?

You’ve heard about trans people? You’re aware of the (manufactured) controversy around us of late? Well here’s the thing: You’re in no position to take a view on the moral panic that’s going on, unless you know the true history of where trans people have come from over the last sixty years and more. That’s what Trans Britain is for. You’ve been misled by the press and media for generations, by lies and omissions. Trans Britain is unique. It’s the first comprehensive account of how trans people lived and struggled all this time, drawing on the eyewitness accounts of almost two dozen contributors. Don’t form an opinion without it.

Trans Britain by Christine Burns is now published in paperback by Unbound

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