Jean Bürlesk: The Pleasure of Drowning

Interview by Megan Bond

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The Pleasure of Drowning by Jean Burlesk. Cover art by Carolina Cancanilla.

Firstly, congrats on your debut short story collection, The Pleasure of Drowning! I can’t wait to read it. How have you found the publishing process so far?

Thank you, that’s good to hear. I find publication to be a very interesting process, both on a personal, emotional level – where even after months of preparation and with weeks to go before the actual release, I find myself getting giddy and excited all over again – and, intellectually, on a practical business level. It felt rather unique to be researching how the publishing world works, to unearth how infuriating and unfair its practices can be – and at the same time to be experiencing the elation of the process just working perfectly.

I got very lucky in several regards. I won an award for my manuscript, which meant I started off with some publicity and the support of Luxembourg’s most important literary foundation, the Fondation Servais. I got to go to Worldcon and mingle with more writers, editors and fans of genre literature than I could ever have imagined, which was not just an incredible pleasure, but also an endless source of information. And finally, I saw my future publisher on a panel, was impressed by her, and decided to go talk to her. I think every writer should have the chance to work with a small publisher, who is doing what she’s doing out of pure passion, before they ever get into a meeting with big publishing and have to face the business side of selling a book head-on. You’re selling your soul, sell it wisely.

Many different countries and cultures have their own unique collection of fairy-tales and legends. Are you drawn to any culture’s fairy-tales in particular? If so, why?

That diversity is part of what makes legends and fairy tales so attractive. These are the stories we have been telling for generation upon generation. They’ll give you a glimpse into a culture’s soul. A deeper glimpse than you might get almost anywhere else, in fact, for fairy tales do not hide the darkness. They thrive on it. They confront it and allow us to face our anxieties with the ritualistic protection of a story. They can often be archaic, so far out of date that it is risible in itself, yet they are always retold and so always new, betraying new takes on familiar fears, as well as the crushing impact of cultural heritage. At the same time, many of the themes of these tales are universal, and recur in most, if not all the cultures of human history.

In my collection, I mostly used the fairy tales that would be most familiar to a European or an American reader, if only because of their use by Disney. Those were of the greatest interest to me, as playing with a motive requires the reader to know the “original” you’re referring to in order to unfold its effect to the fullest extent. However, I also included the foundation legend of my city, the city of Luxembourg, which holds a particular place in my heart. I’ve also always had a particular affinity for Celtic culture and folklore, and Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Brittany have all come to hold significance to me personally.

Do you believe it important to reimagine old fairy-tales through a modern day perspective?

I believe “important” is a widely misused concept. What’s important, if not what matters to you personally, what speaks to you, inspires you, makes you feel alive and connected to the world around you? Reimagining fairy tales is something I find interesting, precisely because they are both very old and yet always retold, always adapted, hence “modern”. We still find meaning in these tales, else we would have forgotten them. And any narrative we believe in is a narrative worth questioning.

Who has been the biggest inspiration behind your work?

If we’re talking about literary influences, it would be hard to hide the importance of Neil Gaiman – I dedicated the book to him, after all (him and Marguerite Thomas-Clement, who was not a writer, but you should absolutely look her up). There are other writers, of course, too many to list, some of them inspiring my work, some of them inspiring me to work. And there are many people who aren’t writers, but who, for one reason or another, are important to me.

In the particular case of this collection, I should also name Charles Perrault, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, Madame de Villeneuve, and point towards all the people who have collected and told fairy tales up to and including the Disney versions, with a particular mention for Marlène Jobert, whose magical voice introduced me to so many of them.

Which mythological creature would you have as your companion?

A dragon. Always a dragon. I would be to afraid to be flown by her, and would probably end up getting eaten by her, but wanting a dragon is not about such practical details. Wanting a dragon is about so much more than reality.

The Pleasure of Drowning is out on the 24 March 2020 and you can find it here!