Author and documentarian Martyn Burke has made his literary career turning real-world adventures into fiction
There is a symbiotic relationship between Martyn Burke’s parallel lives as filmmaker and novelist. In a career spanning four decades, the celebrated Toronto documentarian has invariably found ways to refashion his film projects as fiction.
“It’s a chicken-and-egg thing for me,” says Burke, who just published his sixth novel, Music for Love or War. “I’ve done a lot of things, but it all fits into one category. I’m a storyteller.”
Burke has experienced hair-raising adventures not usually associated with the sedentary, solitary life of a writer. Since eschewing the relative comfort and safety of his native Toronto in the 1970s to cover the Vietnam War as a freelance journalist, Burke has been smuggled by car in the dead of a Belfast night to a rendezvous with a high-ranking official in the provisional IRA, managed to wheedle an exclusive one-on-one with Ugandan strongman Idi Amin, and worked undercover to make documentaries on the Mafia and the KGB.
In the 1980s, during his coverage of the Mujahideen’s successful efforts to drive the Soviet Union from Afghanistan, Burke trekked through remote mountains, slept in caves, and stumbled into serious peril after a misunderstanding with an especially fearsome Afghani tribal chieftain.
“He was the most terrifying guy I’ve ever met,” says Burke. “His look went from smiling and benevolent to homicidal. And then, all of a sudden, the translator told us to get in the vehicle quickly. The warlord’s guys were slamming the truck with their rifle butts as we screamed out of there. We all ducked because we weren’t sure if they were going to open fire on us.”
Burke, who divides his time between Toronto and Santa Monica, has been honoured for his filmmaking efforts. His 2012 documentary, Under Fire: Journalists in Combat, was shortlisted for an Oscar and won a Peabody Award. Earlier this year, he won the International Press Association’s Auteur Award, a distinction previously bestowed on such cinematic luminaries as Robert Altman and Peter Bogdanovich.
More often than not, the experiences Burke has documented on film have later turned up in the pages of one of his books. His debut novel, 1980’s Laughing War – shortlisted for the Books in Canada First Novel Award – was based on his experiences in Vietnam. He is now working on an HBO adaptation of his 1984 novel The Commissar’s Report, which in turn grew out of his documentary The KGB Connections.
Music for Love or War, Burke’s first novel with Cormorant Books, is a Romeo and Juliet story about a relationship between a young Toronto man and the daughter of a strict family of Afghan immigrants. When the woman is forced to return to Afghanistan to wed a tribal warlord – who, not surprisingly, is modelled on the one from Burke’s own perilous encounter – her lover enlists with the Canadian forces in an effort to rescue her.
“I wanted to tie a love story into what is happening in the world around us,” says Burke. “To me the great classics are as much non-fiction as they are fiction. If you want to know what was going on in Victorian England, read Charles Dickens – or read Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky to find out what was going on in Russia.”
It might all be storytelling on one level, but the inevitable financing demands that attend every step of the filmmaking process make for a decidedly different creative process than what goes into the contemplative solitude of writing a novel.
“Film is a collaborative medium. If you just go along with whatever [the producers] want, you’re pandering,” he says. “But if you stick to your guns too much, you can get labelled difficult to work with.”
Burke adds with a broad smile: “That is one of the reasons I write books. If I could only do one thing, I’d write. It drives me crazy when I hear about someone who’s been a success in one world say, ‘Oh, I think I’ll just dash off a novel.’ I take writing a book as a very serious and difficult enterprise. It’s not something I do as a hobby.”