BackStory: Five Questions with Peter Burns
Author of The Fur-puller
What inspired you to write ‘The Fur-puller’?
This flash piece started off as an activity on my MA in Creative Writing with The Open University. We were to write an historical fiction piece after searching the British Library Newspapers database. I typed in ‘workers, 1800’s’ and this article on the lives of fur-pullers caught my eye. I had never heard of fur-pullers before, but I’ve always been interested in the social history of workers in Nineteenth / early Twentieth century Britain. The fine downy hairs pulled from rabbit pelts were used to make felt hats and the coarser hairs used for stuffing cheap mattresses. The fur-pullers themselves, always women, often carried out the work in their own homes. The description of rabbit hairs covering every surface of their rooms, and indeed their own persons as well as that of their children, conveyed a striking image of a time when workers had no rights, no protection against ill-health caused by their job, and that’s something often overlooked today because these industries have been largely forgotten.
Who are your favourite historical fiction writers and why?
I love Pat Barker, especially The Regeneration Trilogy. Wilfred Owen is one of my favourite poets and Pat Barker’s ability to bring both him and Siegfried Sassoon to life is breathtaking. Also, by including the working class character Billy Prior, she gave a voice to a peoples that wouldn’t normally factor in a narrative about First World War poets, let alone the time of the trilogy being set when class boundaries were very much prevalent in society. This has been a huge influence on my own writing.
If you could live for one year in any historical period, when and where would it be, and why?
Only one year? That’s so unfair! I was going to say that I would choose to live in the — what I remember being called in the History teachings of my undergraduate foundation year — the ‘Long Sixties’, an era from mid-50s to 1972. I was born in 1969 and, like most children born in that era, the sixties ran like a cultural seam right through my childhood. So, in being forced to pick a single year, I would probably choose 1963: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan had not long started out and were just hitting their stride and some of the old blues greats that I love like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf were still going strong. While in cinema, one of my favourite directors released, what I would argue is, the last of his great films: Hitchcock’s The Birds. But, also, the chance to see and hear the Beats — Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac — read from their work, now that would be amazing.
What do you like most about writing flash?
I love the compression of flash fiction and the focus this brings right down to the individual word level. It’s also a great way for a writer to sharpen their characterisation, plotting skills and editing skills, not that flash fiction should be seen as a stop-gap to longer fiction. Flash fiction is thriving right now — in competitions and publications — and it’s an exciting time to be involved in that.
What do you think is the most challenging and/or rewarding aspect of writing historical flash?
I would say the most challenging aspect of historical flash is not only fitting in period details but getting the language right — that is the language of the narration and the dialogue. My writing is very character driven and my characters show themselves best via dialogue, so if I pull a convincing voice off then that, for me, is the reward.
Peter Burns has had flash fiction published twice in FlashFlood Journal for UK’s National Flash Fiction Day, placed third in the Sentinel Literary Quarterly short story competition, and shortlisted and longlisted in various other competitions. He is currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing with the Open University.
Image detail from an engraving published in The Illustrated News depicting a rabbit auction at the Fish Markets in Melbourne, Victoria, 1872. State Library of Victoria IAN13/08/72/172.