Anna Burns: ‘It’s nice to feel I’m solvent. That’s a huge gift’
The Man Booker winner on scraping by as a writer, and growing up during the Troubles
Anna Burns: ‘It feels wonderful, it feels dreamlike.’ Photograph: Eleni Stefanou
Winning the Man Booker Prize is clearly a life-changing event, but never more so than in the case of Tuesday night’s surprise success, Anna Burns, who became the first Northern Irish writer to win the £50,000, or €57,000, award, for her third novel, Milkman.
Go back four years and Burns was unable to write for excruciating back pain, living peripatetically around England, house-sitting when possible, struggling to make ends meet and using food banks (which she thanks in the acknowledgments of the book – and which in turn have now thanked her). When she was finally able to send the manuscript to her agent, it was turned down by several publishers. What an end to the story.
“I was thinking that when I got back to the hotel last night,” the 56-year-old author says when we meet on Wednesday. In good Booker tradition, she has only had a couple of hours’ sleep. “When I look back to 2014, with this horrendous pain, wondering, Will I even finish Milkman? And then Booker winner? The extremes… It feels wonderful, it feels dreamlike. Did that really happen?”
Although it is recognisable as this skewed form of Belfast, it’s not really Belfast in the 70s. I would like to think it could be seen as any sort of totalitarian, closed society
She is still in a lot of pain (the result of a surgical injury), and the interview is conducted with her perched on a low table or, periodically, standing up. “I still can’t get back to writing,” she says, “but let’s not talk about that today. It’s nice to feel I’m solvent. That’s a huge, huge gift.”
Milkman, a novel ostensibly about the trauma of growing up during the Troubles in 1970s Belfast, unexpectedly beat The Overstory, the eco-epic by the American heavyweight Richard Powers, and Washington Black, Esi Edugyan’s exuberant slave survival story, to the prize. It is actually set in an unnamed city, in an unknown era (references to Kate Bush, Sigourney Weaver and Freddie Mercury give us a clue), the characters known only in terms of their relationships to others.
“Although it is recognisable as this skewed form of Belfast, it’s not really Belfast in the 70s. I would like to think it could be seen as any sort of totalitarian, closed society existing in similarly oppressive conditions,” Burns explains. “I see it as a fiction about an entire society living under extreme pressure, with long-term violence seen as the norm.”
Her novel is, in many ways, an attempt to show how abnormal this normality was, the lack of names giving it an almost dystopian, futuristic quality. Many readers, especially younger ones not so familiar with recent Irish history, have found parallels with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
All three of Burns’s novels – Milkman, Little Constructions (2007) and No Bones, which was shortlisted for the then Orange Prize, in 2002 – have drawn on her background in conflict-ridden Belfast, exploring the psychological fallout of living in such “a hair-trigger society”. But Milkman, she says, is the most political, the most explicitly about the Troubles. She says people ask her: “Are you still writing about Ireland? You have to let go, you have to move on.”
“I think, How do I move on? The Troubles is such an enormous, immense occurrence in my life, and in other people’s lives, that it demands to be written about. Why should I apologise for it? It is a very rich, complex society in which to place a fiction.”
Burns belongs to the school of novelists for whom characters just “come and tell me their stories, in their voices”. She is not very comfortable talking about her writing. Now that the book is finished and the characters have gone, she says: “You just get me. I’m sure they’d give you a great interview, but you’ve got me.”
The novel started with her teenage narrator, 18-year-old “middle sister”, who has a “deviant” habit of walking while reading, something she shares with the author. “I’d go into a shop or a cafe or a pub and someone would say: ‘Oh, you’re that girl who walks and reads.’ I used to think, This is something to comment on? I wanted to write about why would people comment on that.” In the novel, middle sister asks longest friend: “Are you saying it’s okay to go around with Semtex but not okay for me to read Jane Eyre in public?” “Semtex isn’t unusual. It’s to be expected,” longest friend replies.
Her subject, she has said, is “absolutely and essentially” about “how power is used, both in a personal and in a societal sense”. Dealing as it does with oppression, brutality, identity, surveillance and resistance, Milkman might be set 40 years ago, but in many ways it couldn’t be more timely – something that was surely not lost on the Booker judges.
Despite being written four years ago, it uncannily pre-empts the #MeToo movement in the predatory figure of the eponymous milkman, a creepy 41-year-old, white-van driving, possible republican terrorist, whose stalking of middle sister is a metaphor for living under constant scrutiny. “I don’t know whose milkman he was,” our narrator tells us. “He wasn’t our milkman. I don’t think he was anybody’s… There was no milk about him. He didn’t ever deliver milk.” Burns is particularly good on the slipperiness and shame of sexual intimidation: “He didn’t seem rude, so I couldn’t be rude.”
Like middle sister with her head buried in her book, Burns did her best to avoid the political situation around her. ‘There was the disconnection of thoughts and feelings’
Like all her characters, the milkman just “came to her”, she says; “he just drove up in his car.” Burns never writes to make a point or explore an issue. “So I write it and then I see – oh yes, this is sexual abuse, this is sexual scandal, this is a book about rumours, gossip, the power of gossip, the power of history and also the power of fabricated history, when rumours become the history.”
And then, of course, there is Brexit. On the day of the prize, talks between the UK and the European Union reached another impasse over Theresa May’s border backstop promise. Once again the question of Irish borders is never out of the news. Burns voted to remain and was “heartbroken” at the result. But “as a writer I think it is absolutely fascinating to explore that whole theme of borders and barriers and the dreaded other”.
In the year that the Republic of Ireland voted to reform its abortion law, in Northern Ireland abortion and same-sex marriage are still illegal. Is the novel a comment on the inherent conservatism of her native country? “I am writing about a repressive, closed, insular society. Whether it is Northern Ireland or not, that is the sort of society I’m writing about,” she says. It is a place where “we have to keep it all together, even if we are falling apart inside”.
Burns grew up as one of seven siblings in a working-class Catholic family. As was common among large families living in the tiny homes known as “kitchen houses”, she explains, she lived with her unmarried aunt over the road. “I had the rowdiness of home, and then I could withdraw to my aunt’s quiet house. I liked that mix,” she says. They were a bookish family, but “it was very private. You wouldn’t say: ‘What’s that you’re reading?’ That would be a terrible insult.” There was a high currency on library cards, which were always being taken so someone could borrow extra books.
But, like middle sister with her head buried in her book, Burns did her best to avoid the political situation around her. “There was the disconnection of thoughts and feelings,” she says. “I think that was my way of coping. I didn’t want to know, basically. I wasn’t alone in that. Lots of people didn’t want to know.”
It was only when Burns left that she was able to assimilate her experience and began to feel an “urgency to know. I had to get away in order to do that. I couldn’t have done it living there.” She went to London to study Russian but never finished her degree for personal reasons: “things I had to deal with”, she says, “so that got in the way”. (She is extremely reticent about her private life.) She started reading everything she could about Northern Ireland and its history.
But it was almost by accident that she came to writing, what she calls the “ripeness of the moment”. An artist friend invited her on a trip to buy materials in Hampstead, in north London. She discovered a sketch pad in a sale bin. “I thought, It’s £1 – I’ll just buy it because it looks beautiful.” She kept it by her bed with a pen, and “it just sort of sat there. And then one day I woke up and wrote down my dream. And then I wrote something about that day.” Before long she had filled up that first pad, then “got another one, got another one”.
She cites Julia Cameron’s much-loved The Artist’s Way and Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg, saying their message really spoke to her. “Just turn up. Be free and easy in your writing. Don’t bring your reason to it too much. Just have a go and see what comes out.” And her fate was sealed when another friend asked if she would go to a creative-writing class with her because she was too scared to go on her own. Burns loved it.
Critics have run the length of the shelf of Irish writers in their comparisons, with Milkman recalling the shagginess of Tristram Shandy and the grim humour of Flann O’Brien
Her meandering, stream-of-consciousness style makes reading her an immersive, sometimes maddening experience. Critics have run the length of the shelf of Irish writers, from Beckett to Swift, in their comparisons, with the novel recalling the shagginess of Tristram Shandy and the grim humour of Flann O’Brien. Her favourite previous Booker winner is JG Farrell’s Troubles. She says she is flattered but unconvinced by being slotted into “the whole Irish-tradition thing”. A bit like Brexit and #MeToo, Beckett appeared in her life after the book was already written. She read him only a month ago. “I read Murphy. It was absolutely wonderful and heartbreaking. I was reeling after reading it.”
One reviewer praised the “ferocious levity” of her prose, a description she likes. When I suggest that levity isn’t something often associated with the Troubles, she corrects me. Humour can be “a way of coping”, she says. “That sounds very cliched and stereotypical, but I do think that is so.”
What next? Her first priority is to try to sort out her health. She is desperate to get back to a book she started before Milkman, her “real third book”; she can “feel it calling” to her. She hasn’t been back to Northern Ireland since 2003, but she has a feeling she might be going back soon.
“I would never have imagined that I would even write, let alone win the Booker,” she says. If she could go back and talk to that 18-year-old “walking while reading” younger self, she would like to warn her away from taking certain paths, but mostly she would tell her: “Something fantastic is coming your way.” – Guardian
Milkman is published by Faber & Faber