The Kelly Jo Burke Interview

Wreck is an anxious memoir in which its brave author embarks on a wild journey to understand many things, including the part where her grandfather sort of murdered her grandmother. Returning to a house filled with her first memories of childhood, she begins to explore the complex origins of her own anxiety. Along the way, she reflects on alienation and immigration, mental health and generational trauma, and the nature of memory itself. A memoir filled with raw honesty, comedy, tragedy and grace. 

Kelley Jo Burke is an award-winning Regina playwright, creative nonfiction writer and documentarian, and was for many years host of CBC Radio’s SoundXchange. She was the 2017 winner (with composer Jeffery Straker) of the Playwright Guild of Canada’s national Best New Musical Award for Us, which premiered at the Globe Theatre 2018. Her new musical The Curst will premiere at Dancing Sky Theatre in Saskatchewan when the pandemic says it can. Her work includes four books, a dozen or so plays, and eight creative nonfiction documentaries for CBC Radio’s IDEAS. She was the 2009 winner of the Sask. Lieutenant-Governor’s Award for Leadership in the Arts, the 2008 Saskatoon and Area Theatre Award for Playwriting, and has received the City of Regina Writing Award three times. 

 What made you decide to write this specific memoir at this specific time? 

I had been away from broadcasting for the CBC for a few years, and the kind of ” Watch what you say, your repping for the Mother Corp” dampers on my voice had finally released. I don’t think I could have written this until that sense of restriction, which when you are a host is very real and part of your responsibilities, was gone.  

What did you learn about yourself while completing Wreck? 

There’s a song I love by a zydeco artist,  Zachary Richard– Travailler c’est trop dur–which basically says that all the things that you can live on, work, theft, begging–are not great. And then says “Each day of my life, I ask why I keep living? I say, I live on love and I hope I live old.” (It sounds much cooler in Cajun) But that’s what I really learned. That for me, unconditional love, in all its forms,  is what makes life bearable. And maybe even a good idea.  

How did your other skills such as talking/playwriting / radio inform your work? 

I am an aural thinker–that’s why I write plays because I think in speech. So it’s pretty easy (easy being a relative term since writing plays is just ENDLESSLY hard) for me to write in a first-person, heard rather than read,  narrator’s voice… It’s a mental quirk, like being left-handed. So when I came to this book and came to a place where my voice felt less encumbered by, you know, good sense or common decency, I really was looking for a way to keep my spoken voice in the work, while still being crafty and literary and precise. And because I also write for radio, which means I have to write to time limits that are unalterable- (you keep talking when you are supposed to go to the news and you don’t have a job for very long) I also had a skill set for editing and crafting spoken word for economy and pace–so I think all of that came to the writing of Wreck

Were any family members like, ‘no don’t write about grandpa!’?  

Well, I think Dawn Dumont’s comment on the back of the book, that very few families cheer when they find out the writer in the bunch is turning their attention to the family, pretty much sums it up. But hey, they made me. And I was always going to be a writer. If they were going to do something about it, they should have done it while I was young and malleable.  

How do writers approach humour in today’s world where nothing is really at all funny? 

My humour is really deeply rooted in British, specifically Irish,  rhythms and tone and darkness. My reaction to tragedy isn’t to get more earnest. I’m allergic to earnest. My reaction and this isn’t my line,  but I swear it is inscribed on my DNA, is to say “that which does not kill me gives me a set of unhealthy coping mechanisms and a really dark sense of humour” and find the laugh, no matter how tears-of-a-clown the laugh is.  Everything I write is some hybrid of comedy and tragedy–tramedy maybe? because that’s just how the world always feels to me–a constant pivot between hilarity and the abyss. 

If you had to write a short TV guide synopsis for your book but the editor says you have to make it sound like a road trip because your book is somehow going to be a tv show about a road trip and you need to sell it to people who like shows about different towns and people’s road trips getting there… 

Kelley Jo keeps hitting the road to get to her favourite lighthouse in Maine. Things get in the way–Customs, neighbours, sort of murder, the passage of time, the number of guns brandished by her grandfather and her own anxiety….and even when she makes it–can she get the answers she needs? Or at least a decently priced order of fried clams?  

What advice would you give someone wanting to write a memoir?  

Be really famous. If you’re really famous, a simple linear memoir that recounts the events of your life is enough. For the rest of us, don’t write a memoir. Write a piece of literary nonfiction that’s about something other than you–write about things that you care about and trouble you and that you want to poke at, and gnaw on. And use the facts of your life for the stuff of that writing, and hopefully discover something new. And pray that others will care and trouble and gnaw and discover with you.  

What was the hardest part of writing about yourself, your family, etc.? 

Getting through what the poet Rumi calls the three gates–ie.: before you speak, ask yourself, Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind? I was constantly monitoring what was kind of a tsunami of a first draft, fact-checking memory (there’s a whole chapter about my aunt helping with that in the kindest and most supportive way possible). Then asking whether what I was talking about was necessary to the story. And finally whether what I was choosing to tell was because I thought it was true and necessary–or because I was angry and wanted to be unkind. It required a kind of rigor that was actually incredibly good for me and made me dig deeper into my memories and stories, and try really hard to see things from other perspectives. It’s really cool when a project actually makes you better as you write it–on all kinds of levels. This one did.  

You have just finished a musical, can you briefly tell readers what goes into putting that together?  

This one just wanted to be. I’m in love with the music of a Regina band called Library Voices, once dubbed “the unluckiest band in Canada”. I think their songs are fantastic and full of story. So full that I actually could see how the story of the band and the stories in the songs could really beautifully come together into something fictional, but really rooted in the life of a Western Canadian band, living life on the cold road, in a bad van…the way they do. I could hear how the songs would tell the story. So I went and pitched my idea to the band, and after 45 minutes of my feverish talk, they said,  “okay.”  So I walked in to my favourite director and said: Want to make a rock musical where the boomers won’t know all the songs, or get warm fuzzies and buy lots of drinks as they chair dance to golden oldies? Want to, in fact, make the anti-Mama Mia? And he said yes, ’cause he’s kind of crazy. And then we had to find four actors who could play specific instruments, sing rock and wrap their mouths around my comedy–which is both very dry and utterly reliant on exceptional comic timing. AND WE FOUND THEM!!!!! And we were ready to go, the sets were built, rehearsals set and then–covid. Serves me right for naming the musical The Curst.  So now we wait–but I have to believe this is going to happen because it really just seems to want to be in the world.  

Born in 1933, Carol Burnett once said, Comedy is tragedy plus time. Do you concur? 

Yah, but for me, it’s the time is about three minutes.  

If Wreck was a Netflix series, who would play the lead? 

Frances McDormand. Not because she would be appropriate for me at any age. Just because, y’know, Frances McDormand. 

What will you write next – book-wise? 

I’ve started on a book working titled The House of the Easily Distracted. It’s about being the only person in my house who doesn’t have severe attention deficit disorder. My kids are already consulting their lawyers.