THE MAN BEHIND THE MANE
An Interview with John Burkitt
by David Morris
DAVID MORRIS: Tell us about the man behind the mane. Who IS John Burkitt?
JOHN BURKITT: I suppose I'm a big kid who never grew up. Being like this is a two-edged sword--I laugh a lot but I also cry a lot. I'm a sensitive man living in a world of aggressors and their victims. That's why I contribute heavilly to charities like the Born Free Foundation. Unless I'm an active part of the solution, the problem obsesses me.
I'm a firm believer in miracles. I see them everywhere and in everyone. When I break a large rock, I like to touch the freshly exposed surface and reflect that I'm exploring new ground. Don't forget that a miracle is still a miracle, no matter how small. This sense of wonder shows in my writing.
DM: The sense of wonder that you speak of certainly shows; each of the work you release ends on an upbeat note. Is this something you like to pass on to your readers, or something simply integral to yourself?
JB: I think both. I believe that it is in the struggle, not the resolution, that we define ourselves and achieve nobility. In the end, Aiheu stands ready to patch us up and make us new. But of the ways to find Aiheu, some are more noble than others. Those differences are called "character." I believe that character is not always rewarded by earthly success, but it can't hurt. My literary children that take the noble path of self-development always find rewards, even if those are primarily spiritual in nature.
DM: Is this then the source of all your ideas? You have an endless suply of unique situations and characters it seems...where does it all come from?
JB: I had few playmates as a child, so I learned to amuse myself. I read a lot, drew pictures, wrote stories, and developed a very vivid imagination.
Certain things in my stories are influenced by classical mythology and folklore. Others are inspired by nature study, history, and literature. But once my characters are formed, they begin to write themselves and I switch to the role of observer. Uzuri particularly took on a life of her own.
Don't take this wrong. Writing is never easy for me. It's hard work, often very physically and emotionally draining. I get very moody and agitated when I'm in the final stages of a fanfic.
JB: Yes. People who have chatted with me note my slightly bawdy sense of humor. They also see I'm quick with a bad pun. On the other paw, there is also the man who sat in the graveyard by Ben's grave and wept. There is more to me than my sense of humor....much more. The writing reflects this. Fact is, there is a very serious theme underlying all my works.
DM: You are a terrifically prolific writer, producing three novel length works and five short stories in a year's time, something that takes most authors several years. How do you do it?
JB: I certainly didn't do it without help! (Thanks Dave, Ian and Mirco). But since the question was directed at me, yes, I do write fast. My imagination works quickly, and I have to rush to pin down the ideas before they go stale.
Writing is one of the ways I express friendship to you, Dave. You understand this and take this at face value as my way of spending quality time with you. Mirco, and to some degree Ian, have to remind themselves that the stream of consciousness that pours out of me at manic speed is directed TO them rather
than AT them.
There is a method to the madness. I always start from the inside and work out. That's why it never ceases to amaze me when people like Sam Simpson and Brian Tiemann release "chapter one" when chapter two is still on the drawing board! That's much like walking a tightrope without a net. I'd go crazy if I
lost control to that degree.
I suffer from Post Completion Stress Disorder (PCSD), and this potentially crippling emotional problem could send me flying from the top story of the Nashville Arena if I didn't have "The Next Big Project" already in planning before I finish the current work.
DM: I know this from experience. :) There's a lot of work involved in the planning and writing of the stories we've done no doubt...but there's more than simple mail messages about plot and characters. For instance, the long standing fun with Ugas. :) How does he fit in here?
JB: From behind, obviously. Good old Ugas gets us thinking creatively. We come to the phone tense and kid around. In the release of humor and good-natured chit-chat, we put aside our emotional baggage, relax, and get into a working mood. Even my most die-hard fans would be shocked to be privy to some of these topics and in-jokes. Like the ISHA 5000 computer. She's the one with "Ugas Inside." Plug and Play compatible.
DM: You've mentioned occasionally the difference between the Ugas we joke about and the "real" Ugas. Most people are familiar with our jokester...how about tthe real McCoy?
JB: Oh, there's a tough one. The real Ugas is laid out well in Under the Acacias. He's a full character, not a running gag. He genuinely loves Uzuri and would do anything for her. In fact, there's not one unkind bone in his body. He's a tragic character, forced to assume the mantle of leadership on the death of his brother. With no son and no brother, he faces constant challenges alone and in fear, pushing his arthritic old body to patrol endlessly in the hot sun. Every time he sees a group of hyenas or a rival lion, he wonders, "is this the one?"
DM: Ugas was an outgrowth from the original story "Chronicles of the Pride Lands." What made you orignally decide to pick "The Lion King" as a subject for your work?
JB: That's assuming that Chronicles of the Pride Lands was the first thing I wrote! Fact is, I'm rather furry. By saying that, I do not mean to conjure up shadows of issues often associated with "furry" mucks and writer's groups. I feel a warm connection with my fellow men and brotherhood with all life on earth. But my life was changed when as a very young boy I read "Born Free" by Joy Adamson. Elsa the lioness changed my life. She is still changing my life, along with new companions like Shingalana and of course Simba. I love lions.
DM: This feeling is shown in your participation in outside groups, most notably the Born Free Foundation. You also participate in the Boy Scouts as a Scoutmaster...how do you find the time to do all this?
JB: Good question, and there's a good answer. I'm growing old at the same rate you are. We're all ageing at the same rate. So it's all about setting priorities on what you'll do before it all slips away. For me, the way to enjoy life is to live it. I mentioned once that if I am not part of the solution, I'm mired in the problem. For me, BFF is an outlet that gives me some emotional breathing space. No, I'm not foolish enough to believe that my money will cure the world's ills. Nor am I thinking my work in the Scouts will save the world. But I can make a difference.
DM: This shows in your work...is there some particular instance in "The Lion King" that made you sit down and think? Something on a gut level, so to speak?
JB: That's the question that I dread answering, but here goes. When Mufasa died and Simba found him in the gorge, he crawled under Mufasa's paw. I wanted to put my arms around Mufasa's neck and wash his face with my tears. I am no stranger to death, and that scene captured perfectly the feeling of helplessness Simba must have felt. It made Mufasa's death very real. I mentioned Ben. He was my god son. At five years of age he was struck down by someone who ran a red light. I would go to the grave and sometimes when I was all alone, I would stroke the grass over where his heart would be. Because I could not touch him. I think this bonds me with Simba in a way I hope none of you ever have to discover for yourselves.
DM: If you could change that scene, or something else in the film....what would you change?
JB: When I'm in a light hearted mood, I would say the ending. Rafiki should have announced, "Behold Tanabi, the male heir, son of Simba and Nala!" But when I'm being serious, I say the design of the hyenas. Their visual design was a disaster. They look like giant mice with big teeth, black lips and bad hair. Everything else about them was fine, but they looked like characters from a different movie.
DM: As one of the most read and respected authors of Lion King fiction, what would you tell an aspiring author who wanted to write his or her own tale?
JB: Wow, now THERE'S a full length novel! I would have to say that above and beyond the rules of good writing, know what you want to say. Everything I wrote had at least one strong central theme. Avoid just stringing episodes together. One of the things I tried to do with Chronicles is to put
what lions really did in terms that humans could understand and relate to. Not in an attempt to be lewd, but in an attempt to put the reader in the leonine mindset, I included some behaviors that real lions engaged in. Those included peeing on shrubs and trees, mating behavior (including that famous swipe and snarl in Touch of the Makei) and that biggy--infanticide.
DM: This attention to detail has apparently paid off...the "Chronicles" series is arguably the most read and known piece of TLK fanfic out today. References to characters and situations are made regularly in common discussion, like "corban" (forbidden) and such...how do you explain the enormous popularuty of
JB: Now you make me out the bad guy! However I answer that, I'll look like I'm bragging! Well, if you must have an answer, I look to the old salesman's adage that you can sell any product if you would buy it yourself. I put a lot of soul into that work. I think there are as many Chronicles series as there are fans--they all read into it something different, and I think that is great. I understand and appreciate that there are many people--some of them very good friends--who are not particularly Chronicles fans and who do not wish to make any COTPL references in their work. That's fine too.
DM: Another term many have become familiar with: Aiheuism. The de facto "religion" of the lions in the "Chronicles" series, it touches many aspects of all the characters we see in there. Just what is Aiheuism?
JB: I get so many questions about him. Aiheuism -- do I believe in it? Yes. But don't I also claim to be a United Methodist? Yes, and a chaplain too with five years of service. My down-deep religious beliefs would surprise most of my friends. For instance, I do not believe in a master race. Man is certainly
the most intelligent and successful creature on earth, but I don't believe that God gave him all the other life forms any more than I believe God gave us to the squirrels. I accept evolution as a plausable explanation for the diversity of life on earth. I believe that makes me a distant relative of Lions, Meerkats, Carol Burnett and other exotic animals.
As for the other differences, they could fill a small book--one I have no intentions to write. I stick with fun stories, not religious tracts, but specific questions in private e-mail are not discouraged.
DM: Before we go, are there any surprises in store forthcoming from you? Any new works?
JB: Yes. Let's just say that "The Spotted Lion" will be a nice change of pace. It will be enough like "Lion King" to appeal strongly to TLK fans, but it is not canon to the movie at all. (Editor's note: The Spotted Lion is currently available.) And there is a work whose working title is "Jaguar!" that will be quite different. It will be lighthearted--no one has their father get turned into Chicken McNuggets at the bottom of a gorge by wildebeests--though it has a dramatic tenseness and quite a confrontation scene at the end!
DM: I'm sure we all look forward to seeing it. Thanks for your time, and thank you on a personal note.
JB: You're quite welcome. One last note to everyone who reads this. Dave is my friend. I find working with him more rewarding than most things in life. He kindly consented to interview me, something he was uncomfortable doing, and he did it as a personal favor. I don't think anyone else would have pulled
exactly the same answers from me that I allowed him to. Thanks Dave.
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