Interview with n. a. bourke

n. a. bourke’s story “Juana and the Dancing Bear” appears in the Winter 2007 issue of Shimmer. You can reach her at

Questions About The Story:

Where did the idea come from?
It’s really a combination of ideas. One of my favorite nursery rhymes as a child was “The Little Nut Tree.” One version, which you might know, is:

I had a little nut tree, nothing would it bear
But a silver nutmeg and a golden pear.
The King of Spain’s daughter came to visit me
And all for the sake of my little nut tree
I skipped over water, I danced over sea,
And all the birds in the air couldn’t catch me.

According to some sources, this was based on the visit of Jauana, the Princess of Castile, to King Henry’s court in 1507. Other sources credit the rhyme as being linked to the wedding gift given to her by her husband, Philip “the Handsome.” According to historical records, her journey to the Low Countries to meet her husband was a monumental caravan including an entourage of 22,000 people. Juana has become known as Juana la Loca (Juana the Mad). Rumours that her passion for Philip led to madness swirled around her both during and after her lifetime–it is said, for example (very untruly), that after he died she had his coffin opened every night so that she could embrace him.

I wanted to write a story that brought these elements together with a pair of characters I was developing for a novel–Just-Simon and the Bear. I also wanted to change Juana’s fate–releasing her from the rumours of madness and an unhappy marriage.

The other seed of the story was a visit to my home by a very wonderful young girl–Georgia Duncan. Georgia has cerebral palsy and she’s one of the most wonderful young girls you could ever hope to meet. She came to visit us with her mum, dad, and sister, and I was just so impressed by her strength of spirit, her charm and smile and beauty, that I wanted to write a story for her –a story where someone truly magical recognized the power and potential of a girl with a body that isn’t like everyone else’s.

How did the story change as you wrote it?
The earliest notes I have on the story in my writing journal say:
Handless maiden + little nut tree: handless maiden as metonymic myth for cerebral palsy? Juvenile arthritis; her hands cursed by a rival for her lover’s affection–slowly turning to silver. OR the prince (Philip and Juana?) is deathly ill. He dreams that the only thing that will cure him is a compote made from an apple and a pear from the same trea. Juana journeys with Bear to Estubal in Portugal to find the “little nut tree”–in order to buy the fruit she gives up her sanit (?) or her hands/–they stiffen and curve and die as she journeys back to him.

You know the advice “Sometimes you have to kill your darlings”? Was there a scene or a line that it really hurt to cut, but cutting it made the story stronger?
Ack! A whole old version (I burn those with much glee). The story was written while I was at Clarion South (in Australia)–and the tutor that week (Michael Swanwick) gave me some great ideas about the ending, which was quite unresolved in that early draft.

How is the story like your other work? How is it different?
I guess I write a lot of pseudo fairy tales, because I loved reading them as a child. Bear and Just-Simon are characters I’ve been hanging out with for a while, so in that sense they’re similar. The books I’ve had published have been contemporary realist (non-speculative) fiction so far, but the novel I’m working on now–the two novels–are both riddled with magic and wild science.

Questions About Writing:

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I guess I knew when I was very young, though not in a concrete sense. Even as a young child I wrote lots of poems and stories and such for my sisters. I told stories in the dark while we went off to sleep and acted them out in the bush with my best friend in the whole world–Cavell Altman. As I got older I think I lost the sense that it was something I had any talent for–it took a long time to regain confidence enough to write and submit work for publication.

Who do you write for? Yourself or someone else?
Someone else–always, though rarely the same person or group of people twice. I have this feeling that, for me at least, the best work comes of writing as a gift–writing when I’m conscious that the pleasure is less for me than for the reader.

Who’s your favorite living author?
Just one? I’ve been reading Aimee Bender’s collection, Wilfull Creatures, which I just adore–and Hanna Tinit’s Animal Crackers. Also piled up on my bedside table, spine cracked and well thumbed, are Barbara Kingsolver, Anne Carson, and Margo Lanagan.

Favorite book read when you were a child?
Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are and Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham.

Random Questions:

Do you believe in ghosts or the supernatural? Why?
Sure–my partner is a ghost.

Favorite restaurant?
Hmmm, have to be Mondo Organics in West End.

Do you have a secret skill that you never get to show off?
I like to draw and paint a little–but showing it off would require there being some redeeming features in the end results.

Do you check your horoscope?
Nope. Though I did once date someone who checked it for me on a regular basis so they could stay in tune with me. Didn’t work so great.

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Speculative fiction for a miscreant world

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