Until this year, British author Paul Burston was better known for writing darkly comic novels based around gay protagonists.
Shameless, Star People, Lovers and Losers and The Gay Divorcee were brimming with waspish one-liners, satire and camp melodrama.
If those books showed off one set of his writing muscles, a more serious side was reflected in his journalism. He was, for the best part of two decades, the editor of Time Out magazine’s LGBT section in the UK capital.
His contribution to that publication was instrumental in it scooping the 2008 Stonewall Award for ‘Publication of the Year’.
However, he was let go by Time Out in 2014 when the title decided to axe its LGBT section: a decision described by one media observer as ‘short-sighted and a huge loss to London.’
London’s loss may be the wider world’s gain. Burston re-emerged this year with The Black Path: a dark thriller quite distinct from his previous work.
It’s also gone on to be his most successful. It remained in the WH Smith Top 20 chart for almost three months following its September publication.
Returning to Burston’s roots in South Wales, the book is set in Bridgend: Helen, a mid-20s army wife, still struggles to cope with the violent death of her father many years earlier. Her husband, Owen, is on active duty in Afghanistan.
A seemingly chance encounter with a strange woman, Sian, on a night out, turns Helen’s world upside down, leading to discoveries about both her father and husband.
All of the characters, in some way, are dealing with trauma, but to reveal any more would give away spoilers.
‘I got dropped by my publisher … That put me in a bit of a tail spin for a while’
Burston divides his time between homes in Oval, South London, and Hastings in East Sussex. Meeting him at the former, my first questions is simply what prompted the change in direction with this novel.
‘It was several things. Firstly, I got dropped by my publisher after The Gay Divorcee. It was 2009/2010, when the recession hit the publishing world, and a lot of mid-list publishers got dropped. That put me in a bit of a tail spin for a while.
‘I’d done four novels and a non-fiction book with them, and, if I’m really honest, it knocked me for six. I wasn’t sure what I should do.
He says that he’d had the idea for The Black Path knocking around in his head for some time, but was unsure where to go with it. He credits his decision to form a regularly writing group with two other writers – VG Lee and DJ Connell – as helping enormously.
‘We’d meet weekly or fortnightly. It was the first time I was writing a novel without being contracted to write one, which me was quite a daunting thing. But the upside was that there was no expectation: it could be whatever I wanted it to be.
‘I’d sort of written quite black comedies in the past, but the books I read for my own pleasure tend to be thrillers and always have been.
‘So I was writing this book and thinking “I’m not quite sure what this book will be”… I knew it would be different to the others and not making jokes but I didn’t realize quite what it was until I was about a third of the way in.
‘We had a writing group here and swapped chapters that week and sat down, and they both said, “You do realize you’re writing a thriller, don’t you?”
‘That’s when I realized what it was and adapted it then. I knew what the story was, and who the two main characters were – Helen and Owen, but I didn’t know what the outcome was going to be.’
He says he felt emboldened by the rise in popularity of ‘domestic noir’ (a term coined by the author Julia Crouch about the success of her books and the popularity of others, such as Gone Girl, Before I Go To Sleep, etc.).
‘I’m not interested in procedural novels. I like reading them but I wouldn’t want to write about a detective or murder scenes,’ says Burston. ‘With domestic noir you could write thrillers but very much based around the victim rather than the investigator.’
The change in direction, along the feedback from his writing group, has paid dividends. After being picked up by Accent Press, The Black Path has outsold any of his previous work.
Burston is now working on another thriller (‘about a novelist’), which he hopes to finish in 2017. He says he has been pleasantly surprised not only be the reception The Black Path has had from readers, but also from the wider crime writing community.
‘I’ve never known a community so supportive of each other. They’re just so amazing and welcoming.
‘I’m friendly with the crime writer Alex Marwood, and she and Sarah Hilary both said I should come to the Harrogate Crime Festival. This was back in July. I went for a few days and it was so inspiring. They had huge audiences, like 700 people in a room listening to two authors talk about their work and then buying books.
‘I was introduced to so many writers: “This is Paul and he’s written his first crime novel,” and they were all, “How can I help you? Meet this blogger, they always write really nice things about my books!” I’ve never had that as a writer before.’’
‘It’s so difficult getting a book with LGBTI characters and themes published’
Supporting other writers is something Burston feels passionately about. Since 2007 he has run Polari, a monthly ‘Queer Literary Salon’.
Running at London’s Southbank Centre, it provides a platform for LGBTI writers to read excerpts from their work to an appreciative audience.
With the help of Arts Council Funding, Burston over the last couple of years has been able to take Polari on tour around the UK. As well as readings, this also includes workshops for local writers.
Polari First Book Prize
Burston is very aware of how difficult it can be to get mainstream publishers to take on LGBTI-themed material and is pleased to offer any help he can to LGBTI writers struggling to have their voices heard.
It’s part of the reason he launched the Polari Prize: an award for a first-time published writer for a work with LGBTI themes.
‘The Polari Prize is all voluntary and is a lot of work for the judges as it involves a lot of reading. It’s open to self-published work, which it had to be because of the nature of how the industry is to LGBTI stuff, but that does mean you have to wade through some slush pile stuff.
‘But I think it’s a really worthwhile enterprise, because it’s so difficult getting a book with LGBTI characters and themes published.
‘Anything that puts a spotlight on those new and emerging writers is great, whatever age they are.
‘We do workshops on the tour and somebody, at each, is given a chance to perform in the evening. It’s really been very encouraging to see all these people out there, all around the country, working on their books with no support network whatsoever. It really is extraordinary to see that.
‘I know how important support networks are. This book [The Black Path] wouldn’t exist without my support network.’
‘You never stop learning’
Among his advice for other writers is to remain open to constructive criticism.
‘You never stop learning. We do come across that in workshops, the odd person who comes along with their great unpublished novel who is resistant to criticism. And I do wonder, “Why do you come to this workshop unless you want us to be honest?”
‘I’ve done this a long time and am grateful for constructive criticism. It’s different if someone’s just being vile and tearing it apart, but if you can’t take constructive criticism, you’re never going to improve.’
The Black Path is widely available in the UK via outlets including Amazon, WH Smith, Foyles and Waterstones. It’s also available from Barnes & Noble in the US and worldwide with free delivery from Book Depository.