Judy Burke was mentored by award-winning novelist Elmore (Dutch) Leonard, is a founding member of Michigan Sisters in Crime (a mystery writers’ association), snuck into Cuba before the travel ban was lifted to see Hemingway’s hideaway and will be signing copies of her novel, Blackrock Island, 1-3 p.m. on May 11 at the Barnes and Noble bookstore on Hall Road. It’s a writer’s life that she gladly shares with students in her classes at Macomb.
“In the seventh grade, I had a wonderful teacher who taught us how to read and write short stories,” relates Burke. “From then on, I knew I wanted to be a teacher, and I wanted to be a writer.”
Burke earned a Bachelor of Science Degree in Education – English from Villanova University in Pennsylvania and a Master of Arts Degree in English Language and Literature from the University of Michigan. She has been teaching English and communications at Macomb since 1980, and also teaches most of the creative writing courses offered by the college’s continuing education department.
“When you teach, it inspires you to keep writing,” says Burke, “and the students here are wonderful. I want them to be passionate about writing.”
At Macomb, Burke teaches classes on campus and online. To keep her lectures lively, she uses some of the method acting techniques she learned at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute in New York. “Method” also comes into play when she is researching a book project, which, in the case of Blackrock Island, took her to Ireland to get the setting right.
“I stayed for seven weeks and visited lighthouses,” says Burke, whose suspense thriller about the horseracing industry is set in County Mayo, where her father was from. Central to the plot is a lighthouse owned by a wealthy racehorse owner who may, or may not, be a villain in the story. “I love bad guys,” says Burke, but as she tells her creative writing students, the trick to their authenticity is “giving them a redeeming quality.”
Blackrock Island has been well received in Ireland, providing Burke with a great thrill: reading from it at the John B. Keane pub in the small Irish town of Listowel. Named for the Irish playwright and novelist, Burke was invited there by Billy Keane, John Keane’s son and the pub’s well-known proprietor.
Burke is now writing a second mystery novel set in Key West, which, like Cuba, was once home to Hemingway. It is one of two books that Burke is currently working on. The other is about a jewelry heist in Bordeaux, which will require a trip to France’s famed wine region for research. A children’s book, which she collaborated on with her granddaughters, is with a New York publisher.
“I write every day. You go into a zone when you are writing and all of a sudden you look up and you have been at it for 12 hours,” offers Burke. “I learned from Dutch, though, that when you are done for the day, write one more sentence that you can pick up on tomorrow.”