Pastor and suspense writer Steve Burt balances the pulp and the pulpit
By Rob Williams | Special to the Vermont Guardian
Posted October 27, 2006
Mad River Valley resident Steve Burt is a practicing pastor at Waitsfield’s United Church of Christ church. He is also an accomplished writer who has penned some of the most widely read short stories in the country.
His work has appeared in the Chicken Soup for the Soul series and Family Circle. Most interestingly, his four collections of short horror stories — “Odd Lot,” “Even Odder,” “Oddest Yet,” and “Wicked Odd” — have garnered numerous national accolades, including a 2003 Bram Stoker runner-up nomination (he lost out to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter) and the 2004 Bram Stoker Award.
How does he balance his pastoral duties and his writing? The Vermont Guardian caught up with Steve for a pre-Halloween interview.
Q. You are a United Church of Christ pastor who also has had tremendous success writing short stories in the horror genre, especially for young adults. How do you account for and balance these two seemingly diverse career paths?
A. I enjoy both “callings.” And while I’ve only pursued ministry as an adult, I’ve loved Weird Tales, Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, and Tales from the Crypt since I was a pre-teen. I’m not much on blood and gore and senseless violence, so I don’t watch the Freddy and Jason and Nightmare on Elm Street or Halloween stuff, but I do enjoy well-told creepy stories. I’m also a mystery fan and a mystery writer. The oddness of having two very different “callings” really came to light publicly when I won the 2004 Bram Stoker Award, the world’s top horror prize for young readers just a year after being runner-up to Harry Potter for it in 2003. I just love writing and reading aloud imaginative tales of creepiness.
Q. Where do you get your ideas for your stories?
A. A writer sees a story behind every tree. My dog Opie stops and licks a wet rock because he’s thirsty — that’s what you see while walking beside me — but I see a dog from Hades that stays alive by sucking the moisture out of people the way vampires rely on blood drives. You and I visit Pemaquid Point Lighthouse in Maine and notice moth-like shadows around the light, and we read in a guidebook about a shipwreck in 1905 on the rocks below, one that resulted in much loss of life and several bodies not being recovered. You forget the story, but I write “Lighthouse Moths” about the disembodied, earthbound spirits of the shipwreck victims who are left flitting around the huge Fresnel lens of the lighthouse and yearning to be set free. You know about the huge cement drainpipes under the village, but I imagine four pre-teen kids exploring them and running into a midget called The Rat Man and his half-siblings, a pack of rats the size of beagles. Just look at things differently and ask, “What if . . .?”
Q. Every writer can point to both literary and non-literary influences on his work. What are yours?
A. Certainly Edgar Allen Poe for his mystery and horror short stories, but also O. Henry for his short stories’ ironies and surprise endings, or Guy de Maupassant. And, of course, Rod Serling and Alfred Hitchcock, maybe my old next-door neighbor in Bangor [Maine], horrormeister Stephen King.
Q. What makes for a great horror story, in your mind?
A. Not blood and guts. I’m more into unique ideas, or about following along in a story with someone you can identify with (a character-driven story as opposed to a plot-driven one), then finding yourself in an awkward or horrible situation. The reader has to be willing to suspend his/her disbelief and go along for the ride. And not a lot of padding to slow it down. And the protagonist(s) must have motivation; you can’t have someone reach to pick up a possibly infected dog that everyone else is backing away from unless that person has a strong reason for reaching for it, otherwise it isn’t believable. And sometimes it’s a great twist ending, like in my story “John Flynn’s Banshee,” which uses a punch line ending (except a joke’s punch line brings the laugh out, while a horror story’s punch line brings the awfulness out). A great twist ending occurs in the movie The Sixth Sense when our protagonist Bruce Willis, with whom we’ve been sleuthing partners all through the movie, discovers he’s the one who’s dead. Great use of the device.
Q. If you ever had to choose between writing and the priesthood, which would you take?
A. Writing. Keep in mind, though, that I also write inspirational books, canoe guidebooks, and church leadership books as well as devotional material. And every Sunday I create an eight-page document that’s like a short story in many ways — except it’s called a sermon. So whether I’m in ministry or writing exclusively, I’m writing. The problem is, I can’t choose, because one is so solitary and the other is so communal, and I need both. But if I could make a full-time living as a writer, I guess I’d do that.
Q. What are your future plans for both writing and the ministry?
A. I’m planning to do both unless the MacArthur Foundation people award me one of their grants so I can just keep at the creative work. But right now I’ve got to eat and pay the rent, which ministry allows me to do while honoring both callings.
Q. Where can we see you read publicly in the near future?
A. I’ll be autographing books at the Champlain Valley Union High School Craft Fair Oct. 28-29, then in Holliston, MA, on Nov 18. I also do school visits, but am so busy with church this fall that I haven’t had time for any local ones.
To find out more about Steve Burt’s writing, visit www.burtcreations.com.
Historian, media educator, and musician Rob Williams lives in Vermont’s Mad River Valley. Read more at www.robwilliamsmedia.com.