Monthly Archives: October 2011

On… a book print

I love this print.

It’s from 20×200.

I want to commission one with my favourite books.

But then I’d have to decide what my favourite books are and oh God, that would be a nightmare.

Because how on earth do you choose your favourite books?

Do you choose the books that stunned you and made you gaze at the world / yourself / writing in a different way? (For me, that’d be – off the top of my head – A Farewell To Arms by Ernest Hemingway, A History Of The World In 10 1/2 Chapters by Julian Barnes, A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers.)

Or books that you couldn’t put down, that you kissed and stroked and nuzzled with delight as you were reading them? (For me: The Three Musketeers by Alexander Dumas, Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris, This Is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper, Persuasion by Jane Austen, Tess Of The D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, Evelina by Fanny Burney, The Best Of Everything by Rona Jaffe – oh golly, this particular list would be very, very long, I love a LOT of books.)

Or books that you loved passionately in the past but have since moved on from? (Anne Of Green Gables, The Babysitter’s Club, Pollyanna, Little Women, Wuthering Heights, anything by Judy Blume, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, etc.)

Or, last but certainly not least, do you choose the books that you’ve read over and over and over again and know like old friends? (Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, Heartburn by nora Ephron, anything by Jilly Cooper or Nancy Mitford, Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis and of course dear ol’ Bridget.)

The whole thing just stresses me out. What would you do?

On…. childhood movies

I was watching Back To The Future with Fox the other day, and impressing / annoying him with my ability to say all the lines, verbatim, a split-second before they’re said on-screen (“Stella! Another one of these damn kids jumped in fronta my car!”).

I’ve seen it about 6,214 times, because I grew up in Hong Kong, where television was incredibly, astonishingly bad. So bad that there was only one kids’ TV show, a no-budget piece of trash called Megaquiz (Gemma trivia: I was on the first ever episode).

So if we had something on video, I watched it to death.

At school, we bartered tapes of TV shows sent by cousins living in normal countries like they were gold dust. Saved By The Bell, Saturday Night Live, Beverly Hills 90210, Blossom… I watched those tapes so often I knew how long to press fastforward on the remote to skip each individual commercial break perfectly.

My sister and I were allowed to rent one movie a week each. And then we’d watch it non-goddamn-stop. And because the choice at the video store was not only outdated but deeply limited, we borrowed the same movies. Again and again. And again. And again. And… well, you get it.

An aside (what, you thought I’d write a blog post without an aside? Have we just met, or what?): when I was about 10 my mother picked a video for us and accidentally came back with a lovely movie about a lady mechanic looking for love. TOMBOY. It was soft porn. I kid you not. My mother will want me to point out that she realised during the opening shower scene that it wasn’t a jolly romcom and turned it off. (Between you and me, it was like 15 minutes after that that she realised.) This is the cover of Tomboy. In fairness, it was an easy mistake to make.

So, apart from Tomboy, these are the films that will always make me think of my childhood. And as a little killing-time-on-a-Friday present from me to you, all the original trailers.


As mentioned, one of the most perfect films of all time. Can still quote every line. Will watch entire thing whenever it is on. Man, I love Michael J Fox, he’s so great.

My sister and her best friend Jackie really, really, really loved Michael J Fox. Not as much as they loved Val Kilmer, which brings me to -


This is an incredibly funny film, funnier than Airplane! (Or Flying High! Depending on where in the world you grew up. Note to branding people: STOP FUCKING DOING THAT. It makes life really hard for international kids when we don’t know which goddamn film we saw. Like Adventures In Babysitting: apparently in England it was called Night On The Town. I don’t know, because I wasn’t here. Night On The Town: Talk about a soft porn title. Actually, let’s add that to the list too, because it was awesome.)


This is a great goddamn film. If you haven’t seen it, find it and watch it. It’s hilarious.

Also known as Night On The Town. Check it out:

Lamest. Poster. Ever. And shit copywriting. ‘After she finished with the crazy gangsters… cheating boyfriends… car chases… wild parties… climbing skyscrapers… staying alive was just part of the fun of… A Night On The Town’. Grow a brain, nameless copywriter from the past! The verb ‘climbing’ doesn’t fit, in fact, the entire sentence sucks ass. Also: why is there a picture of Brenda with the rat / kitten with the line ‘car chases’? So many things annoy me about this poster. And yes, I’m a pain in the ass when it comes to copywriting. I fight the urge to take out a red pen and correct bad copy everywhere I go.


Templeton the rat. Nuff said.


Every girl I know would probably name Grease as their No.1 childhood movie. It’s not our fault: it’s the law. And it’s in the Bible. (It is.) (Maybe.) It’s just one of those girl things, like everyone wanting to be Claudia in the Babysitter’s Club and making up extended dance routines and one-act plays and forcing their mother and sister to watch them – oh wait, that one was just me? Okay. Anyway, I can still close my eyes and play Grease in my head, word-for-word. You probably can too. We all can. Like I said, it’s the law.


The slutty cousin of Grease. Still kind of ace. Michael Carrington is hot. I totally would.

As an extra present, because I can’t resist: the Reproduction song…

…And the We’re Gonna Score Tonight song. Because IT. IS. AWESOME.


Yeah, I don’t know why either, but this was a major Burgess childhood movie. Includes the song ‘A Woman’s Touch’, with the immortal line: “A woman and a whiskbroom can accomplish so darn much!”. We embraced it without irony. We were just nuts for Doris Day. Full admission: these days, I’m not Little Miss Musicals (My friends: Gemma! We’re all seeing Rent / Joseph And His Technicolour Dreamcoat / Cabaret! Wanna come? Me: No freaking way. Friends: YOU HAVE NO SOUL). But when I was little, you could place me in front of anything with a long-dead MGM starlet and a jaunty dance routine and I was transfixed. I was basically a very short gay man with a blonde bowl cut.


I give you Danny Kaye: the Adam Sandler of his generation. And, allegedly, Laurence Olivier’s luvah.


This is such a great movie! You should totally find it and watch it. Like all musicals, it goes a bit nutso-slash-boring in the middle, with far too many long songs and dance routines instead of oh, I don’t know, plot / character development, but the first hour rocks. Interesting fact: the man who voiced Templeton the rat in Charlotte’s Web plays the father in this. (Okay, that wasn’t that interesting. Let’s move on.)

Also just for my sister: The Telephone Song. (“HUGO AND KIM?”)


Unlike most little girls, I didn’t want to be Annie. I wanted to be one of the nameless blond girls with their hair in braids who can do handless cartwheels in the Hard Knock Life song. Yes, I aimed low. I was also such a scaredy-cat that I never watched the helicopter-bridge scene. I’d hide and read Anne Of Green Gables or Malory Towers or something till I was sure it was over. As a result I am still not sure what happens in that scene. I think it’s something to do with the Sikh dude’s turban.


This movies pops into my head a lot, ie, when someone asks me ‘Do you have change for a twenty?’ and I say ‘Gosh, I don’t have anything smaller than a fifty!’ and then they look at me like I’m an asshole.

Again, made me wish I could do cartwheels. It just looks like such a cool thing to do, ya know?


Fact: Overboard was created to make kids obsess about it. Four kids having a crazy childhood? A reverse Cinderella story: the princess gets saved by the pauper? Mini golf?! COME ON! It’s also goddamn hilarious, ie, ‘a falsetto child?’ And the fact that she keeps calling one of the kids Roy. And the video cover had some seriously awesome liquidy stuff in the plastic wrapper so that made it even cooler.


Man, this is one cheap-ass looking film, it must have cost about a buck to make. I presume Faye Dunaway dumped her agent immediately after it came out. But anyway, I thought it was amazing. The chick went on to star in Secret of My Success with MJF and Ruthless People with Judge Reinhold, Bette Midler and Danny DeVito.


Like Grease, a sleepover classic. I distinctly remember being at a sleepover and when Johnny tells the old cougar lady that he can’t teach her how to dance, a very precocious nine-year-old turned to the rest of us and said crisply: “That means he doesn’t want to fuck her anymore.”


I once won a pub quiz at university when the tiebeater question started ‘born in Hawaii in 1947′ and I screamed ‘BETTE MIDLER!’ My street cred was HIGH after that, my friends. HIGH. I only stopped loving Bette Midler when I saw Beaches, which, even as a child, I realised was fucking lame. Big Business features two sets of identical twins separated at birth and reunited in NYC as adults! The jinx are so high! But I can’t find a trailer, dudes. Sorry.


This movie made me feel far cooler than I was. Also set me up for a mini-Winona obsession with repeated watching of Mermaids, Reality Bites, etc. I adored Winona. Then I grew weary of her. As did everyone. I also loved Christian Slater so much that I spent a long time training myself to raise one eyebrow. I combed Tiger Beat and Teen Beat and every other teen rag I could get my hands on and cut out photos of him, no matter how small. There is a photo somewhere of me at 13 in front of my Homage To Christian Slater wall. No, I will not post it. (Okay, I will. But it’s in Hong Kong. You wanna talk my folks through how to scan a photo, you go for it.)

The trailer is, frankly, shit. So let’s watch this scene instead:

It’s okay! It’s okay. He’s shooting blanks. (Titter.)

I’m sure I’m forgetting some absolute classics.

Even as I write this paragraph, I’m remembering She’s Out Of Control, My Stepmother Is An Alien, Teen Witch, Mr Mom, Mask, Foreign Exchange, My Secret Admirer, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure… but seriously, I have to get back to the day job (writing your next favourite book, my friends). You would not believe how long I have spent on youtube cackling at these trailers and then clicking through to best-of clips… And in case you’re wondering: I didn’t really get into John Hughes films till I was well into my teens and they were already retro. But then I OBSESSED ABOUT THEM. TO THE POINT WHERE I SHOUT WHENEVER SOMEONE EVEN SAYS JOHN HUGHES. ARGH. SIXTEEN CANDLES. FERRIS BUELLER. SOME KIND OF WONDERFUL. WEIRD SCIENCE. SO GOOD.


Trini reminded me about The Princess Bride.

YIKES! How could I have forgotten The Princess Bride? Such a classic that we watched over and over and over again. Have you seen it recently? The set looks like it’s made of cardboard. It’s also a gorgeous and hilarious book, written by William Goldman, who was also the screenwriter. In case you are interested. I hearted Cary Elwes, who recently surfaced with a beard and about two lines of dialogue in No Strings Attached. What the hell, Hollywood. That is WESTLEY. Aka THE DREAD PIRATE ROBERTS. Give the guy a decent part why doncha.

On… character-abuse

The other night I read an interesting piece in the New Yorker about Anna Faris. (Read it here if you’re on an iPad.)

I can’t stop thinking about this excerpt:

‘To make a woman adorable, one successful female screenwriter says, “you have to defeat her in the beginning. It’s a conscious thing I do. Abuse and break her, strip her of her dignity, and then she gets to live out our fantasies and have fun.”… Relatability is based upon vulnerability, which creates likeability.’


This is exactly – EXACTLY – what I do when I write. And yes, it’s deliberate. But to see it put in terms like that is kind of depressing.

My name is Gemma Burgess and I am a character-abuser.

Let’s analyse:

THE DATING DETOX, my first book, starts with Sass being cheated on at a horrific house party, resulting in her swearing off men. So even though she’s a flirty smart-arse with a lot of attitude, we know she’s just like us.

A GIRL LIKE YOU, my second book, starts with Abigail on a disastrous, panic-stricken date, so we can see that though she’s an investment banker who just left her long-term boyfriend without a second glance, she’s also just like us.

I’m currently finishing my third novel – the first in the UNION STREET series for St Martins Press, about a group of post-college girls sharing a house in Brooklyn through their 20s – and yet again, the protagonist’s life pretty much collapses in chapter one. I’ve plotted the second and third: again, a disaster followed by trials and tribulations followed by victory.

I also write romantic comedy movies. (In fact, I deliberately structure my books to be like romantic comedy movies: I read romantic comedy scripts, and books about plots and screenwriting, when I’m planning outlines. I write to entertain: heavily on the dialogue, light on prose.) At the moment I have three movie scripts that are in decent shape. Each also features a female character whose life disintegrates in the first 15 minutes. In one script, it happens in about four minutes.

See? Character-abuser.

I feel like such a bitch.

So why do I do it? Firstly, because I feel that a disastrous event is the fastest way to jumpstart the story and make you wonder ‘what next?’. (There are probably better ways, but I’m new at this, remember. I was an advertising copywriter for most of my 20s.)

Secondly, in a lot of chickflicks/chicklit books, it often seems like the main character is meant to be lovable because she’s a clueless idiot and I’m meant to feel sorry for her. And I’ve always hated that.

I don’t want to write about (or read about, or watch) clueless idiots. I want characters who feel real to me, who are funny (without being neurotic or crazy or pratfall-y), smart (not ditzy or streetsmart or too-smart-for-her-own-good), have real jobs (I swore I’d never write about a florist), work hard (without being harridans that sacrifice a lovelife for their corner office), who genuinely like men and sex (without being crazy sluts or insecure pining-for-their-devilish-boss types), and who are doing their best to figure out where they’re going in life. I want them to be funny, swear, drink, fuck, have real friendships, have a social life, make mistakes, dress the way real girls dress on a real girl’s budget, be a bitch/stupid sometimes, have a normal amount of confidence that isn’t lifted by a man alone, etc. A girl like you, in other words.

So when I first started writing, I quickly realised that if I wanted to keep my character as a non-loser, but make people like her whilst making her journey immediately compelling, I needed something bad-but-relatable to happen to her, fast, in order to establish a connection. And to keep her likeable, I needed it to be relayed in a first-person-present-tense, with a confiding, chatty tone of voice, so that the reactions and emotions feel immediate and real and personal.

And that’s what I did.

The result is more than just feeling sorry for her. (I hope.) We immediately recognise the universality of her experience. (I hope.) We empathise with her reaction/decisions and feel like we understand her / want to protect her. (I hope.) And – ta-da! – we feel euphoric when she ultimately succeeds and finds an emotionally satisfying happiness. (I really, really hope.)

I wonder if that’s emotionally manipulative character abuse? Or just an extension of how women make friends? We console each other – and ourselves – by sharing and empathising. If my friend has just been dumped/fired, I comfort her with similar stories so she knows she’s not alone. I always feel better when I know that what I’m going through is something someone else has gone through, and survived. Misery shared = bonding. So a disastrous event makes me care what happens next.

By the by, I also bank heavily on the hope that the reader/viewer finds my stuff so hilarious that they can’t stop reading/watching. But humour without plot and character is nothing. It has to all work together.

One day I might try to write, or plan, something that doesn’t involve an emotional Hiroshima before you know the character’s last name.

I wonder if it will work.