Martyn Burke's house, a spacious, book-filled semi in Toronto's Annex neighbourhood, sits empty much of the year. He spends most of his time in Santa Monica, Calif., where he lives with Laura Morton, his wife of 19 years. They once rented the Toronto house to tenants, Burke tells me, sitting at his kitchen table on a recent afternoon, but returned to find the place trashed.
"See those French doors over there?" he says, pointing. "The previous ones were torn in half and lying in the backyard. So I said, 'Never again.'"
He first went to California not long after the publication of his debut novel, Laughing War, in 1980. He arrived home one day, or so the story goes, to find a message on his answering machine from "Call me Dustin" Hoffman, who at the time might have been the biggest deal in Hollywood thanks to the box-office and Academy Award success of Tootsie. Hoffman had read Laughing War, and persuaded Columbia Pictures to snap up film rights. The next thing Burke knew he was "hanging off the coast of Malibu on a boogie board." He moved there for good a few years later.
Burke seems somewhat uncomfortable with his adopted home, a permanent fish out of water. "I have a very ambivalent relationship to L.A.," he says. "It's all the things people say it is." He spent time in Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion of the late 1980s – the resulting documentary was called Witnesses – and sees parallels between the two places. "They're both tribal," he says. "I learned all I needed to know about surviving in Hollywood from combat. … Keep watching before you act, and then really act quickly when you do."
Burke is not only a man torn between two countries, but two media. He considers himself a novelist, first and foremost ("If there was a celestial edict, with a huge finger pointing down at me, saying, 'You can only do one thing,' I'd write," he says), but Burke, 62, is probably better known for his film and television work, which has taken him around the world and netted him a slew of awards; most recently, in February, he was the recipient of the Auteur Award, which, frankly, sounds made up, but has in fact gone to the likes of Robert Altman, George Clooney and Baz Luhrmann in past years. "We drank all of Francis Ford Coppola's good wine," he says of the ceremony, "and I stood up, in front of the whole, huge ballroom, and told the dumbfounded Hollywood audience more than they ever wanted to know about growing up in Etobicoke."
Like its author, Music for Love or War, Burke's recently released seventh novel, divides its time between Hollywood and Toronto. It tells the story of two soldiers – Hank, a troubled American, and Danny, an introspective Canadian – who have come to Los Angeles seeking the help of a psychic named Constance, who they believe kept them safe while they were deployed in Afghanistan in the early days of the post-9/11 invasion. Now, the men hope she can reunite them with their respective lost loves: Annie, a model who years ago abandoned Hank for the glamour and vice of Hollywood, and Ariana, Danny's high school sweetheart, whose father forced her to marry a brutal warlord back in her native Afghanistan.
The idea of soldiers seeking advice from psychics may seem like a stretch, but it's based on Burke's own experience: A number of years ago, he worked on a reality show about Hollywood psychics. While some of the clients were big-time film executives, seeking advice regarding which films to green light and which stars to cast, Burke also heard stories of soldiers reaching out to these fortune tellers for guidance. While Burke himself is a skeptic, he writes about psychics and their beliefs with an empathy that may be rooted in his Toronto childhood.
"My sainted mother, who is no longer with us, claimed to have clairvoyant powers reading tea leaves," he says. "When my brother and I were little boys, five and six years old, we would creep up outside the dining room and we'd listen to her reading tea leaves. And after hearing this about three times, my brother and I could repeat, line-for-line, what was going to be said." He laughs to himself. "God, my brother and I could have told them the future when they walked in the door."
As far as his own future goes, Burke is currently working on an adaptation of his 1984 novel The Commissar's Report for HBO (he had a conference call scheduled with the network's executives the evening of our interview, and describes the project as "roaring ahead"), and was due back in California the following week. Still, despite not having lived here full-time in decades, Burke insists on keeping one foot in the city.
"Toronto is my psychic home," he says.