Author Janet Burroway talks about loss and a lifetime of achievement

Writer and teacher Janet Burroway talks about helping others after a loss and about a lifetime of achievement.
Published February 26 2014

In January, after a career as a writer and teacher of writing that has spanned six decades, Janet Burroway was named the 2014 recipient of the Florida Humanities Council's Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing.

"I'm thrilled," Burroway says by phone from her home in Wisconsin. "It's very nice to be recognized." She's looking forward, she says, to returning to Tallahassee, her longtime home while she was on the faculty of the creative writing program at Florida State University, for the awards ceremonies in March.

But she's not resting on her laurels. Between January and April, five books will be published with Burroway's name on their covers, including perhaps her most personal work ever, Losing Tim, a memoir about the death of her son.

And she's not done. Burroway, 77, is writing a musical and a play, and thinking she might "try to salvage" a novel in stories she started years ago.

Losing Tim, however, is the book "most important to me," she says, because it deals not only with her personal loss but with a larger issue she feels is profoundly important: the aftereffects of war, not only for soldiers but for civilian contractors.

Tim Eysselinck, the elder of Burroway's two sons, was "one of those boys for whom the paraphernalia of war held a fascination from toddlerhood," she writes. As an adult, Tim served in the Army for four years and the reserves for eight, volunteering for deployments around the world, garnering glowing evaluations and finding his niche as a mine removal expert — a task aimed at saving lives.

But then the Army decided to privatize Tim's job. "By the time Tim reached Iraq in 2003, half the jobs that had been done by soldiers from World War I to the first Gulf War would be farmed out to multinational corporations and their hired hands." So Tim went to work for one of those corporations and continued his work.

In the spring of 2004, Tim went home on leave to Namibia, where his wife and children lived. There, he shot himself. He was 40 years old.

In the memoir, Burroway vividly recounts the raw shock and grief of his death as well as her efforts to understand it: "I felt from the beginning, from the time it happened, I had to write about it. I write for my life."

Losing Tim, which will be published in April, was not easy to write — "I had to write it over and over and over" — but, Burroway says, "I really wanted it to be useful to other people, because so many books were so helpful to me." She mentions William Styron's Darkness Visible and Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking as two memoirs that "helped me make sense" of her loss. The publisher of Losing Tim, Think Piece Publishing, is "trying to get it to suicide support groups, parents of vets, veterans support groups," she says. "I want it to make a difference."

Three of Burroway's books coming out this year have been published before. Open Road published an ebook of Raw Silk, her 1977 novel that was a finalist for the National Book Award. And there is a ninth edition of Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, one of the most widely used textbooks of its kind, and a fourth edition of Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft. Both were born out of Burroway's tenure as a remarkable teacher — she is the Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor Emerita at FSU.

The fifth book is new. Burroway edited A Story Larger Than My Own: Women Writers Look Back on Their Lives and Careers, a collection of works by such notable authors over age 60 as Julia Alvarez, Margaret Atwood, Erica Jong and Jane Smiley.

Burroway had organized several conference panels of older women writers "to talk about looking back at their careers," and the book grew out of that. "We're always telling young writers how to begin, but we never look at it from the other end."

Not that Burroway has come to the end of hers. She talks excitedly about the musical she is writing, based on Morality Play, a bestselling novel by Barry Unsworth. "When I reviewed it for the New York Times in 1966, I thought, 'This would be a great musical.' It's taken all this time to get it done."

She went into it thinking her substantial experience as a playwright would make it easy. "Then I realized all the things I had to learn, so I spent a couple of years in workshops" in Chicago, where she and her husband, Peter Ruppert, have another home.

She has completed the musical's book and lyrics and is working with a composer. "We had a concert reading with 16 singers. It was just fantastic to sit in a small theater and hear your words come back at you."

Burroway is also working on a play based on Losing Tim. "With the memoir, I had said all I could say in words. With a play, I'm at one remove. I can change characters, dig for the metaphorical and the metaphysical."

The novel, Burroway says, has always been her main form, although she has written plays, poetry and nonfiction as well. But she is finding satisfaction in the rigor of writing entirely in dialogue. "I've always loved eloquence in anyone. But since the death of my son, I've felt a need for spare language. That's the first time for me."

Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.