Q&A with local novelist Ken Burger
Probably Ken Burger would consider his life somewhat accidental: An Allendale boy grows up to write politics and sports for the oldest daily newspaper in the South.
He lives in Washington, D.C., for a while. He becomes a prominent sports columnist. He gets a contest named after him. And then he starts to write stories about the ways old and new collide, about how people in South Carolina see themselves and others, about what it means to live in this time and place.
Burger, a populist newspaper man for decades, retired from The Post and Courier in 2011 and now has put his pen to other use.
He has become a novelist. Now that his third has been published (by Evening Post Books earlier this year), The Post and Courier looked him up. We had a few questions to ask.
Q: Let me start with a silly question. Was there a reason all three of your novels, “Swallow Savannah,” “Sister Santee” and “Salkehatchie Soup,” have two words in their titles that both start with the letter “S”?
A: It’s obvious I have an alliteration problem. I think there’s a 12-step program for that somewhere. Truth is, I just like the way the titles sound.
Swallow Savannah is the name of the Methodist church in Allendale) where I grew up. To me, it describes that area of our state where moss hangs low, life is slow and the government plays with plutonium behind secret gates.
Then I write about the pine plantations in the Palmetto State and create “Sister Santee” as the name of a shrimp boat that’s named for a dead singer.
From there, it’s a slippery slope (no pun intended) to “Salkehatchie Soup,” that mysterious and dangerous legacy of the Cold War that’s still buried in our beautiful state.
Q: All three of these books tell tales that are imbued with a sense of place and time, and that deal with social and political issues, in particular race and the implications of nuclear energy. In what way do your own life experiences connect with the stories you write?
A: I think the best answer is consciously and unconsciously. In writing about life and times in South Carolina, I’m just doing what every author should do: write what you know. I grew up here during segregation, in a county that was 80 percent black, next door to the Savannah River Plant, a top-secret government facility where they produced plutonium for the atomic bomb.
In fact, everybody called it the “bomb plant.” When it comes to writing stories, there is no better boogeyman than a top-secret boogeyman. Like I always say, where there is secrecy, fiction will fill the void.
Q: What’s your writing “method”? Do you outline a novel in your head before writing it? Do you just write and see where the story takes you? How well-defined are your characters at the beginning of the process?
A: I suppose everybody does it differently. I’ve always been a “be creative on demand” kind of writer. Point the deadline gun at me and I can produce prolific amounts of copy. In the press box, we called it “literature in a hurry.” I can turn it on and turn it off.
When I get into a novel, I become a hermit and hide out at the beach and write 5,000 words a day. I can do that for about a week, then I take a break, think about it all, then do it again. And, no, I don’t plan it out. I’m fearless that way. I treat it like life. It will go somewhere interesting if you give it a chance.
Writing characters is equally intriguing. In a novel, unlike a play, there might be 20 characters and you’re playing every part.
To write a really wicked character, like Frank Finklea in “Swallow Savannah,” or a truly troubled character, like Maceo Mazyck in “Sister Santee,” you have to go places in your imagination you didn’t know existed until they appeared on the page.
And, for better or worse, there’s a little bit of you in every character you create. It can be revealing.
Q: Novels often deal with unresolved issues, either personal or social. And your books indicate that race relations could use some continued improvement. What are you views, in a nutshell, on the state of race in South Carolina?
A: I think, because of our deep, contentious, racial history as the gateway for slavery, South Carolina has been dealing with race very badly, continues to think it will somehow work itself out and has no modern blueprint for improving race relations in our state.
It is true that black and white people coexist quite well in modern society. But it’s a facade of tolerance. We are still living in parallel universes when it comes to our social and religious lives. We shake hands on Friday afternoon and disappear into our own separate-but-unequal weekend worlds.
And the farther you travel off the beaten path, back into the hinterlands beyond the interstate highways, racism is as rampant and malicious as it ever was because it’s still taught at the knee of angry rednecks who think integration, like prohibition, is a passing fancy.
Meanwhile, it simmers on the back burner of an open stove in a trailer along a dirt road, like a familiar stew of fear and guilt, ready to serve at the next covered-dish supper at the little white church just outside of town.
Q: To what extent do your many years in journalism inform the way you approach fiction writing?
A: I will never have a job that was as much fun as being a newspaper reporter. It’s that amazing feeling of empowerment you get when you realize that a notepad in your back pocket gives you the right to ask anybody anything, anytime. It’s a powerful drug that led me down the road to being a Washington correspondent, a sports columnist, and a metro columnist before I retired.
So there’s no way you go through almost 40 years of reporting in this state without learning a lot of things about a lot of people. This gives you not only the reporter’s instinct to dig into a story, but the license to expand on it and bring it to life in another genre.
News writing is also the world’s best training ground for clear, concise, tight writing. I still write like I’m on drop-dead deadline. That’s when the creative juices flow.
Q: What are you working on now? Another SS novel or something else?
A: Funny you should ask. Having finished this trilogy, I thought I might be done. But once you start writing novels, there’s a little wheel in your head that starts spinning and you can’t turn it off.
So, without really thinking about it, I’ve jotted down another SS title, started making a few notes, and already find myself riding down lonely country roads in search of that perfect South Carolina story. We’ll see.