Author Interview with Missy Burke

Today we welcome Missy Burke.

Book ‘Em:  Tell us about you and your life outside of writing.

Missy Burke:  Outside of writing, I work part time giving away other people’s money in the form of scholarships for academically accomplished students. I also work for a non-profit that dresses at risk/in crisis men and women in free business attire for their job interviews/new jobs. I resist the temptation to retire–I don’t think it’s healthy…

Book’ Em:  Which books have you written? What are they about and why did you choose to write them? Do your books have a message? Are they fiction or nonfiction?

Missy Burke:  To date I have written two books Gymrat and Lyric Cal. Both are middle grade novels that offer object lessons on overcoming bullies and finding your own core of self-esteem. One has a male protagonist and the other has a female protagonist.

Book ‘Em:  Do you have a work in progress?

Missy Burke: In process is my third novel, Personal Burial, which is the tale of an inconvenient death in a colorful family–with a twist.

Book ‘Em:  What was the most difficult selection/piece you ever wrote? What made it difficult?

Missy Burke:  The most difficult piece I’ve ever written is what I am working on now–the voice of someone from the dead. It is not scary, or macabre or weird. It’s just a dead person with the perspective of having the world in their rearview mirror.

Book ‘Em:  What sort of research do you do for your work?

Missy Burke:  The research I do for my writing depends entirely on what is needed or what will give depth to the piece. Sometimes it’s internet, sometimes it’s visiting a spot, sometimes it’s reading.

Book ‘Em:  Which books and authors do you read for pleasure? Is there an author that inspires you?

Missy Burke:  I love Colum McCann, Elizabeth Strout, Ann Patchett, Jonathan Franzen and Louis Sachar. All of them inspire me in different ways. I like story-driven novels the best, and hope that my work measures up to telling a good story.

Book ‘Em:  Was there a person who encouraged you to write?

Missy Burke:  Yes. My college roommate–I’ve never really given her credit for that.

Book ‘Em:  What would you say are your strengths as an author?

Missy Burke:  My strengths as an author include wanting to write for the love of it and hoping that others will enjoy my writing.

Book ‘Em:  How often do you write, and do you write using a strict routine?

Missy Burke:  I was writing five days a week for a while, for a half day each time. I have fallen way off the wagon on that, but am going to get back on that schedule again.

Book ‘Em:  Five years from now, where do you see yourself as a writer?

Missy Burke:  Yes. Oh, yes. I hope to be doing at least a novel a year by then.

Book ‘Em:  If you could offer one piece of advice to a novice writer, what would it be?

Missy Burke:  Don’t follow my advice.

Book ‘Em:  What would you consider the best compliment a reader could give your book?

Missy Burke:  That they kept thinking about the story, or the characters, or the themes(lessons) AFTER the book was finished.

Book ‘Em:  Provide an excerpt of your writing that you would like to share with our members.

Missy Burke:  From Gymrat:

The moderator’s opening question for the semi-final round came from Irish literature. No problem, Matthew thought, I’ve got this. Over the course of two nights with Mannie at the gym, he’d covered seemingly endless lists of the top twenty-five authors from every major European country. He remembered straining through a round of chin-ups when they had covered Irish authors. Mannie had warned him that the test designers liked this kind of question.

“Oscar Wilde, the Irish author of the timeless tale ‘The Picture of Dorian Grey’ was a contemporary of which other contributor to that country’s literary anthology?” This is too easy, thought Matthew as he lifted his hand and kept it poised over the button.

“Was is A) William Blake, B) Rudyard Kipling, C) Washington Irving, or D) Sir Arthur Conan Doyle?” Matthew’s hand smacked his buzzer. But he was too late.

“Sir Arthur Conan Doyle,” George blurted. He’d pressed his buzzer a half second before Matthew. How could he have been so sure? None of the high school English classes offered anything on Irish literature. And the moderator hadn’t even finished the list of possible answers before George’s buzzer sounded.

George’s points lit up on a large electric green screen hanging up high and to the left of the stage. Matthew dismissed his musings about George’s knowledge and concentrated on the next question.

But, it happened again. And again. George kept answering one question after another with correct answers. He seemed so sure of himself, never hesitating. As the moderator neared the end of the other questions on literature as well as math, science and history, George had earned a score five time larger than any of the others. Matthew had managed a few correct answers, more than the other two competitors, but he felt ignorant and ill prepared compared to the lightening fast answers that George blurted out time after time. Out of the fifty questions slated for this round, forty-four had already been asked, and George had answered thirty-two of those correctly. Matthew had eight right answers; the other two students only had five right each.

It was time for another question, but the moderator had something else to say, “Ladies and gentlemen, for those of you doing the math, we are only six questions away from the end of our semi-final round. Given the dramatically uneven scores, I must point out that Mr. Hammerly, even if he were to give incorrect answers to all of the remaining questions–and that doesn’t seem likely–would still be in the lead. So, Mr. Hammerly is now excused from the rest of the semi-final round and will move on as one of our two finalists. Congratulations!” The audience cheered. Matthew could hear some of the lacrosse players whooping from the back. While the clapping continued, the moderator used a sweep of his arm to lead George from his podium to a seat on the side of the stage.

Speaking over the last of the audience’s claps, the moderator inclined his head towards Matthew and the other two contestants. “Yes, folks. The stakes just got higher for these three.” He faced the contestants and said, “Only one of you will go on the final round. The other two will have to leave the stage…and the competition.” He shot them a pitying look. Matthew thought he was only pretending to feel sorry for them.

“On the other hand,” the moderator broke the mood by using an overly cheerful voice, “one of you will go onto the finals–and maybe even be the winner! Let’s see who that is going to be. Ready for more questions? All three of the competitors nodded their heads in silence.

“Super! Here we go: ‘The use of tiny spots of color instead of brush strokes to create paintings is a difficult skill and can take years to master. One famous example of this technique is ‘A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jette,’ sometimes called “A Sunday in the Park.’ Shown now to the contestants on a screen at their podiums, and to you on the screen above the stage, this method of painting was made popular by France’s own Georges Seurat. The name of this method is: A) Symbolism, B) Dadaism, C) Pointillism or D) Impressionism.”

Matthew cringed, waiting for one of the other contestants to hit their buzzer. The moderator looked up, also expecting a buzzer, but none sounded.

Matthew’s mind raced. Art? Seriously? He and Mannie had concentrated on the more difficult subjects taught in school. Symbolism was out–too broad of a term and used in many other disciplines. Dadaism? He had no idea what Dadaism was, but it didn’t sound French, so that probably wasn’t it. He’d have to choose between the last two. From the corner of his eye, he saw Ronald’s hand leave his side, moving slowly towards the buzzer on the top of his podium. Without thinking, Matthew pulled his hand from his side and slammed his own buzzer. Ronald’s hand froze in mid gesture and his shoulders slumped. Then, silence. Matthew was torn…a wrong answer could mean he’d never make it to the final round, and he was so close. A right answer would guarantee him a spot, since the others wouldn’t have enough questions left to catch up to his score.

“Mr. Whittaker, your answer?”

Pointillism or Impressionism? Which one was right? Matthew clenched his jaw, a wave of frustration crashing over him.

“Mr. Whittaker, the clock is running. You have seven more seconds to answer,” the moderator urged.

Matthew flipped a mental coin, and it came down ‘P’ for pointillism. He turned to the moderator and blurted it out.

“Correct! Congratulations! You are going to the final round.!”

With that answer, the other two candidates left the stage, walking backwards, both of their expressions a mix of dumbfounded amazement and rising disappointment. Matthew felt for them both.

Now the contest was ‘down to the wire’ with George and Matthew in ‘a fight to the finish,’ at least that’s what the moderator told the audience. Excitement electrified the auditorium.

A seventh grader and a high school senior were set to face off for the grand prize. Hadn’t happened in years. Unprecedented. Etc., etc., etc. Matthew listened distractedly but still couldn’t believe that out of all the smart, studious and articulate kids in the region, George Hammerly had offered the answers that earned him a place in the final round of SMSSS. He didn’t seem to be the brainy type. Maybe it was the moral support of his family. George and Darren must enjoy a close sibling bond. George looks at Darren almost every time he has a question and Darren seems to signal his support.

The moderator finished his fanfare and offered the first question of the final round to the two boys. George’s buzzer sounded a full second before Matthew, and his question was correct, of course. When the scenario repeated for the second and third question, Matthew’s resolve began to waiver and his mind started to wander.

Daydreaming of support, especially the kind he needed right now, Matthew looked again at Darren, and realized that Darla wasn’t standing at his side. The two lovebirds always attended school events arm in arm. Darla did everything with Darren, except play lacrosse. Even then, she cheered him on at every practice and every game. They were devoted to one another. So where was she now?

Just then, Matthew detected a tiny flash at the back of the room. It came through the small, square glass window centered in the auditorium exit doors. Darla’s face filled most of the glass opening and she held her hands close to her cheeks. Matthew wondered why she didn’t just come in and hang with Darren, especially since he kept looking at her. Then at George. Then at her.

Matthew fixed his stare and his full attention on the three friends. He was so engrossed in observing them that he missed the sound of the next question’s buzzer. Suddenly, he grasped what the lightening quick hand gestures from Darla to Darren meant. Darren used four fingers to touch the beginnings of a beard on his chiseled chin. Just like the four fingers Darla flashed through the window from the hall outside. George’s buzzer sounds again and his answer–D, the fourth letter of the alphabet–is correct. No, it couldn’t be. It’s impossible.

Matthew continued to stare at Darren, even as the moderator began the next question in his best radio-announcer voice.

“To what state do we attribute the invention of the mousetrap?” The moderator stared down his straight, thin nose, pursing his lips slightly when the sentence ended. Of course it’s Illinois…William Hooker was the guy who created it, Matthew thought to himself, but he stopped his hand before it can press his buzzer. Instead, he watched in fascination as Darla’s hand went up, this time with two fingers, and Darren turned to the front of the room, away from the window framing Darla’s hand, scratching his chin again with two fingers.

“Is it A) Wyoming, B) Illinois, C) New Mexico, or D) New York?”

Bama! George’s buzzer sounds. “B. Illinois.”

A shadow of a smirk crossed Darren’s face as the judge awarded George another 200 points. Matthew, stunned at the illicit communications taking place in front of his very eyes–in front of everyone’s eyes–barely heard the moderator’s next sentence.

“Son? Son! Excuse me. Are we boring you?” The moderator peered over his wire-framed glasses. “You’ve missed the last several questions, didn’t even seem to hear them. I am calling an official time out just to make sure you are all right. Are you ill? Is something wrong?” The audience members stopped their quiet murmurings and settled their gaze on Matthew. The silence dragged on, interrupted only by the loud, repeated and intentional clearing of the moderator’s throat.

Still Matthew didn’t answer. His eyes finally closed and he hung his head.

“Well, if you don’t have anything to share with us Mr. Whittaker, then I am compelled, per the rules of SMSSS, to end the time out and ask you…”

“Wait!” Matthew’s voice burst across the stage and across the hushed audience. He understands their system:  Darla must have gotten her hands on an SMSSS answer key and is signaling the correct response for every question to Darren. Then Darren uses an innocent scratch of his wispy facial hair to let George know the answer from the A, B, C, or D choices:  one finger for ‘A,’ two for ‘B,’ three for ‘C,’ and four for ‘D.’ They are cheating, all three of them.

And they’re getting away with it.



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