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Christopher Burns

About The Author

Christopher BurnsChristopher Burns is the author of five previous novels and a collection of short stories. He lives with his wife near the western edge of the English Lake District.

A Division of the Light is his first novel since Dust Raising, which was published in 1996.

Its striking opening chapter sees acclaimed photographer impulsively taking pictures of a bag-snatch before going to the aid of the victim, Alice Fell. As a man who has taken portraits of many women, he finds something irresistible about her and becomes driven by a desire to bring her to his studio. Although Gregory has seduced many of his subjects before, assisted by his ability to bring out something unique in all he photographs, the astute Anna is more wary of his motives.

A Division of the Light by Chistopher BurnsGregory's daughter, Cassie, who works as his assistant, is puzzled as to why her father is so in thrall to this one woman. Her relationship with her father has been strained ever since the death of her mother, whose slow and painful decline Gregory meticulously recorded with his camera.

The novel is one of the most striking and memorable of the year, a book that should appeal to fans of Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes or Kazuo Ishiguro. Indeed Ishiguro describes A Divison of the Light as "a strange, brilliant work", a particularly significant endorsement as it is the first time he has ever allowed his words of recommendation to appear on a book jacket.

In this exclusive interview for Foyles, Christopher discusses why Alice is such appealing subject for Gregory, how the photograph used for the cover of a novel about photography was chosen and our changing relationship with photography in the digital age.

 


Questions & Answers

 

For a novel about a visual medium, the choice of image for the cover must have required a fair amount of thought. Can you tell us anything about the photograph that's been chosen?

The striking and memorable cover portrait was chosen because it has resonance not only with the physical appearance of one of the characters, but also with a mysterious event in the narrative. A design team working for the publisher discovered the image. As soon as its use was suggested, the woman with the dark flowing hair was an obvious choice for the cover.

Is Gregory modelled after a specific photographer?

Not as such, although he shares characteristics with many of those who work in the profession. Gregory's ambition is to be compared to classic photographers who have taken iconic studies that have informed our appreciation of the human face and the human body.

The book opens with Gregory instinctively taking pictures of Alice as she has her bag snatched. Does his talent for photography rely on his ability to view his subject dispassionately?

Objectivity is necessary for any photographic study, but it is also true that a degree of involvement will enhance the result. At first Gregory does not know Alice, so it is only the dynamic of her fall, and the textures and contrasts that his lens can capture, which intrigue him professionally. Later, when he meets her again, the balance between his objectivity and involvement is to become complex, unpredictable, and emotionally charged.

Gregory believes that there is much of himself in his pictures. Would you say the same is true for your writing?

I am not an author who uses his own sensibility as a vehicle for fiction. Instead I try to create characters with their own personalities so that their individual beliefs, backgrounds, and actions govern the narrative. Until these characters begin to define themselves, I have little idea of what shape a novel will take. So that although there must surely be hints of my own personality and experience in a text, I do not believe that these are readily detectable. Of course this does not mean that my fiction is not without its own distinguishing themes, imagery and patterns. Critics could argue that these are somehow indicative of a writer's personality, but I would take issue with such an interpretation.


Gregory has gone on to sleep with many of his photographic subjects. Would you say his success with women is down more to his ability to flatter with the camera or his personal charisma?

Both personal charm and compositional talent form the beginnings of these relationships. Both photographer and model want the best results, and in their own way each flatters and guides the other. Eventually they find themselves following a predictable course of events. It's a kind of dance, with mutually understood progressions and a foreseeable end point. Of course Gregory considers himself an expert, not only in his profession, but also in the art of seduction. Perhaps the other women in his life think of themselves with similar confidence.

It seems that Gregory is more taken by Alice than most of his previous subjects. Is that because she remains too mysterious to him, leaving Gregory unable to strip her bare with the gaze of the camera?

Alice does not obey the rules of the dance. She and Gregory have different outlooks and different aims. She is obstructive, enigmatic, not conventionally beautiful, and from the start she refuses to collaborate with his plans. To Gregory, Alice becomes a challenge. And yet he continues to believe that eventually he will be able to pin down her personality with his lens. Alice has other ideas.

"Gregory obtains both aesthetic and intellectual satisfaction from photography." [p.72] Do you find that you take the same pleasures from writing as he does from photography?

Photography and writing are different disciplines and their practitioners must exercise very different means of selection, application, and control. A blank sheet of paper has more potential and is more unsettling than a camera with nothing to focus on. A photograph can be framed, shot and assessed within seconds, and it usually stands on its own. A novel will often take two or three years to write, will have several false starts, and by its very nature is comprised of hundreds of interconnecting components. And it may be a very long time before its value is recognised. Take one photograph from a sequence and print it on its own and it will still be a powerful image: take several pages from a novel and publish them separately and they will be pale ghosts of a greater whole. So although we may discuss each art (or craft) using similar categories, their intellectual, aesthetic, and other qualities must be very different, and satisfactions and frustrations of their creation must be different, too.


Does the tension in the relationship between Gregory and his daughter, Cassie, stem from the intrusive photographs of his wife's/her mother's death or is there something deeper to it?

There is something deeper to it. Although it may appear unconventional, there is something of a traditional father -- daughter relationship between Gregory and Cassie. As readers will discover, in this case the daughter is often wiser than the father. However Gregory's behaviour as Cassie's mother was dying can never be forgotten by either of them.

Do you think the ease of digital photo manipulation and ubiquity of cameras today has changed our relationship with the photographic image?

Gregory understands that the invention of photography led to a revolution in human consciousness. The print gave us the opportunity to gaze at people we would never meet and countries we would never visit, just as it gave us the ability to stare on the nakedness of strangers and the faces of those who died before we were born. These new insights could be consoling, enlightening, troubling, or frightening. Early portraits were treasured not only because they were expensive, but also because they were taken infrequently - often only once. And what the viewer saw was the truth, or what was believed to be the truth. Nowadays anyone with a camera or phone can take hundreds of images and not be concerned about expense, or framing, or image quality. We are still too close to this new revolution to fully understand its social or psychological effects. What does seem certain is that photography, although increasingly democratised, is shedding its traditional qualities of permanence and display. Instead its images are becoming both easily transferable and disposable. Characters in A Division of the Light may operate with the new technology, but they also recognise that photography has always been associated with a kind of continuity. They understand, too, that the image has given new perspectives on truth, beauty, exploitation, and death. Which are some of the broader themes of the novel as a whole.

 

Past Events for this Author

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It’s Christmas so this month we had to choose Dickens’s classic festive ghost story, A Christmas Carol.

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