Image Credit: Eleni Stefanou
Anna Burns in conversation with Sheila McWade
Each year since 2018 the Seamus Heaney Centre has appointed three Seamus Heaney Centre Fellows who spend part of the second semester with us, meeting students one to one, conducting masterclasses and taking part in public events. Like every other aspect of all our lives, the programme this year has been greatly affected by the covid-19 pandemic. All three of our 2020 Fellows, though, Anna Burns, Vahni Capildeo, and Jed Mercurio, have responded to the changed circumstances with ingenuity and great generosity.
Over a few days in May, Anna Burns was in email conversation with Sheila McWade – herself the current Bookfinders Chair of Creative Writing (awarded annually to a recently completed PhD student) – and the result is this extraordinary, and inspiring, insight into the work of one of these islands’ most original and celebrated writers.
This was, first and foremost, for the benefit of our own Creative Writing students. We publish this interview, here on the Seamus Heaney Centre website with Anna’s, and Sheila’s, kind permission. Please note that the interview material is copyright of Anna Burns.
For all enquiries please contact Julia Wardropper, David Grossman Literary Agency Ltd email@example.com
Seamus Heaney Centre, May 2020
SM Anna, thank you so much for agreeing so generously to share your writerly insights and experience with us here at the Heaney Centre. Our creative writing students are in the early days of their writing lives, a period of curiosity and passion, fear perhaps and a burning desire to learn and explore the principles of fine writing. To paraphrase the book title by Dorothea Brande, how did you become a writer? Can you pinpoint for us the pivotal experiences and moments of becoming the writer Anna Burns.
AB One day when I was in my thirties a friend asked if I’d pop into her art supply shop with her so she could stock up. I’d never been in an art shop and while my friend was seeing to her creative appurtenances, I took a turn about the aisles. In the discount bin was a big sketch pad. It had a tartan cover and each page was a different colour and it was £1. I found myself picking it up. I loved its long length and its width, much bigger than A4. And I loved the friendly texture of the pages. As I was buying it, my friend came up with her stack of stuff and said, ‘Oh Anna. That’s lovely. You’re going to start drawing.’ This surprised me. Maybe startled me. ‘No,’ I said. ‘Not drawing.’ I had no interest in drawing. What though? I thought.
That was one pivotal experience.
Some days afterwards, another artist friend and I were having a chat on the phone. At one point she mentioned a particular book that recently she’d come across. It was about unfolding creativity and dealing with all sorts of obstacles to that unfolding. It was by a writer called Julia Cameron and it was called The Artist’s Way. As my friend was talking, my mind’s eye got a strong image of the Kentish Town bookshop in London, roughly a mile from my home. I said, ‘I think I have to go and buy that book.’ I got down the road, went in the shop and there it was, jumping off the shelf at me. That was the second pivotal experience. The third followed on from that right away.
I got home and before I could even set the book down, another friend rang to ask if I’d like to accompany her to a weekly adult evening night class. This was a one-term-only affair and it was starting nearby that night. It was called ‘Ways into Creative Writing’. My friend was keen, she said, but was afraid to go on her own. I have found in my life that when certain individuals say to me, ‘I want to try it. Afraid. Will you come with me?’, what’s happening is that it’s never me, doing them the big favour of helping them onto their next trajectory. It’s the opposite. It is they who are helping me onto mine.
Those three experiences felt to me the first strong indications as to where my focus was at that time turning. There was also a ripeness to the moment, as if the time for something else had come. After that, the writing came out of nowhere. It burst upon me and it arrived too, with no career intentions. In a rush of energy and of revelation and through a process that brought much joy and satisfaction to me, this new writing life had begun.
SM If you had the opportunity what would you do or think differently in the early period of your career?
AB I would have left a violent council estate on which I was living in London sooner rather than later, though I don’t beat myself up about this as, in my fear then, I could have become so frozen I might not have left at all. I was writing my first book at the time but when I had moved to this estate initially, the problems to erupt in it hadn’t yet kicked off. When they did, the violence and the intimidation quickly escalated, with nothing being done to help residents by the police or the local council. Eventually, we realised we were being left by the authorities to suffer the consequences of others’ destructive behaviour. Some people left and at first I didn’t because this was an affordable flat and I knew that what income I had would get eaten up in no time by the private rental market. Also, I’d made this flat into my home. To the degree my fears were mounting though, this newly found creative side of me was closing. My instinct prodded me to go, to take a chance, for it seemed inevitable the living situation I was in was only going to deteriorate. In the end, despite my worries of itinerancy or of possible future homelessness, I did leave and eventually the writing did pick up again. I would respectfully remark that living in a state of fear, no matter the reason, is not good for anything, definitely not for creativity. Apart from the living situation I was in though, I’d have changed nothing regarding my actual process of writing during that earlier period of my writing life.
SM Let’s talk about your process. Habits. Practice. The writer at work. What’s your routine at the desk, the act of creating at the desk, the “daily-ness” of your writing life? Presumably this changes according to what stage you are at in the creation of the piece, through the drafts, through the pages, through the paragraphs and sentences … How does it all start? How does it continue?
AB Yes, you’re right to surmise that the process has been different over the years. One thing I’ve noticed is that, no matter how it differs as times passes, it knows what it’s doing. As long as I do what it tells me, we get along fine. During the first three months when I started to write, and with a sense of pure joy. I made my way methodically through The Artist’s Way companion workbook. I loved this inspirational text which deeply resonated with me. It slotted right in there too, into the ‘is-ness’ of the moment, of everything coming time and being just right. So I worked through the exercises in that book - some concerned with writing, others with everyday living. Through it, I was introduced to other books on creativity in general, and on writing specifically. Most notable were those of Natalie Goldberg. I think it was she who then put me onto Brenda Ueland’s magnificent 1938 book, If You Want To Write. For me, these books had similar elements in common. They didn’t mythologize about writing. And they possessed a strong sense of instant and incredible honesty. They spoke of following your instinct, of not worrying too much about reasons when you write, or even about finishing anything. Just commit, turn up, do something, even if not much and even if you believe you’re not doing anything or can’t figure out what the heck it is you are doing. Let yourself feel free and easy, write utterly unplanned stories or anything else that takes your fancy. See what comes out of you. This worked for me, and even today, regarding the unplanned aspect, I haven’t been able to write any other way.
Also during those first few months, I attended that weekly beginner’s writing class. I not only filled up my big tartan artist sketchpad with writing which felt free and exhilarating and going in all directions, I also filled, and was continuing to fill, many more notepads as well. After the night class ended, and over the two years that followed, I carried on with other weekly classes and writing groups where I met a series of writing buddies. I found it fruitful and playful when I started, to show my work, to engage with likeminded others. Not all the writers in my classes were, of course, likeminded, but I tended to find my way instinctively to the ones who were. As my first book started to come into being though, which involved some of my writings falling away and other writing becoming much more deep and concentrated, I came to find the classes didn’t serve me so well anymore. The writing had decided to come mostly in jigsaw pieces by now, and these scenes and exchanges and interactions between characters were too short to share, too soon to share, and seemingly, at least on their surface, unconnected to each other to share. More than that, I felt they needed privacy at this point in order properly to come into being, then to embed into the main without interference. That included no interpretation on them from outside. Also me. I myself had to keep off from getting in there and rushing the writing to reveal itself. Grateful as I was and still am to the classes therefore, and for all of the benefits they had given me, I felt it had come time by this stage to leave.
After my first book was completed, then into my second, and then beyond, the jigsaw style of approach became the name of the game with most of my writing. Unlike an actual jigsaw in a box, however – picture displayed on the lid so at least you have a fair idea of what it is you’re supposed to be aiming for – my writing for those books didn’t come with any plan. What would come, leisurely and invisibly, was a massive process of underpinning. I could feel it happening, and I loved it happening, but I couldn’t gain access to it, nor did it seem I was meant to gain access. Least not consciously. Each book was forming itself more and more under the surface, with less writing as evidence, as it were – and sometimes for ages – on top. A huge part of what becomes the writing time of a book for me is all about that underpinning. You can’t share underpinning. It’s impossible to catch hold of. But it contains all the business and it comes to me with waiting, also with getting conditions as peaceful and as propitious for myself as I can. When I feel peaceful I feel powerful. I feel receptive and happy and creative. Many times I am overcome with happiness and excitement at my desk about something I haven’t yet written as if I have written it. That’s because I know it is knitting itself up in the undergrowth and that, even though I can’t see it, the joy and vibrancy I’m feeling is telling me it’s on its way.
Not being the sort of writer to work out plots and outlines then, my job was, and so far still is, to wait and to listen for what is coming. That is a big part of what I do at the desk. The better the day I’ve had, the more it carries on after I’ve left the desk and stopped my day’s writing. I make notes of all arrivals, also notes that concern themselves with refinement and rearrangement - especially with rhythm - of whatever jigsaw bits of the writing that I do have. These extras come, say, while I’m out walking or making my dinner, and they are then what I start with when I come to my desk to wait the next day. So you see, waiting is not doing nothing. It’s a particular type of waiting, probably influenced by the unconscious. I’m thinking the words ‘instinctive’ and ‘attending’ and ‘alert’ as qualities of this waiting. The conscious mind doesn’t play much of a part at this point. If I do happen to have an anxiety day where I think I must stop this waiting and daydreaming and instead plot and plan or try to rush this thing into being, whatever I do as a result (which I can never remember because it’s not memorable), falls away as soon as the characters and the truth of the story appear. Of course, the more jigsaw pieces I get, and the more they join up on the page to show me what the story is, the more tempting it becomes to blunder in like a big oaf and to try to second-guess next bits. Second-guessing is okay as long as I don’t push it by actually trying to write up and then squash in something, or to repurpose what I don’t understand to start with. All of those impetuosities call for a serious refrain. There’s something more in the undergrowth, you see, and often I can feel it but I cannot predict it. If I wait some more, maybe another bit more, what will come will always be better than what I, in my little anxious, prescriptive state, would have put myself.
So I don’t grab, try not to, but I turn up and while waiting for something to come to the surface, or for something out there to come in and get written, I move my notes about, read through things I’ve already got, have a look through bits and pieces. But as I say, I drop everything as soon as the business begins. So, to sum up: there is that waiting at the desk, hopefully with calm, even enjoyable expectancy. Then there is the state of intense excitement that grips me, not only when the story starts, but also in its lead-up. All during this though, there’s a third aspect and that is that I hold – in a kind of natural but intense fashion – the whole of the emerging book in my mind. I mean everything. All the bits and pieces, no matter how big or small. I hold every phrase, bit of phrase, where it is to be found, what chapter, whereabouts in that chapter, every adjustment and readjustment. This includes all the mix of polished sections, gaps, and the many, many ellipses I stick in myself as temporary stand-ins to help with the rhythm while waiting for the characters to fill in the blanks. I carry all of this around inside me during the process of the book forming. At the end of the day I come out of my writing with a lovely shattered feeling of work well done, with the nerve force spent and with a need for replenishment. Usually this is walking. And that is, in the main, my writing day.
SM And debate rages about “writer’s block.” I think it is allied to fear. Have you any advice or insight to share with students who are feeling discouraged at the desk?
AB I cannot separate the writer me from the rest of me. Nor do I want to. Whatever is going on in my life will affect my writing and the routine of my writing. So writer’s block for me doesn’t exist as something inherently or solely to do with the art. It could be that some other aspect of the person who is a writer is now calling for attention and that it’s got to the point where that bit of them is no longer going to let itself be ignored. But don’t worry – well, you will worry, so, in order not to cause writers in despair about their writing to sink down further, I’ll add that it might instead be the case that what’s called writer’s block is the writer trying to force something into the writing that isn’t meant to be. Or maybe the timing is wrong. Or maybe it isn’t wrong, but the writer for some reason doesn’t want to write it. If the latter is the way of things, maybe that person could think upon the reason for not wanting to write on that particular subject. I’m not saying they should. Just that maybe they could – and perhaps even think it on the page while they’re about it? But if that’s all just too harrowing to contemplate, then maybe ease off for a while and take a day or even more off or else go to another part of the writing. Trawl around. See where the energy is. Any little sparks glowing? And talking of harrowing, I’ve been harrowed myself upon hearing – not once but on a few occasions – about me – ‘Oh, she’s totally devoted to her writing.’ Also, ‘It’s all she lives for’. Oh my God. The second is even worse than the first. As I’ve just been explaining, to be totally devoted to writing to the exclusion of all else, is exactly what would stop my writing. And it’s not true. But on a lighter note, I’ve also had pronounced to me that I have mini-writer’s blocks all the time because I write slowly. Seems I should be writing faster. Seems I am entered into a race.
SM Let’s discuss writing’s twin: reading. The act of reading is central in Milkman. Middle sister’s “reading-while-walking” is deemed a subversive act by the community, but is essential for middle sister’s survival as well as an unwitting challenge, cheered on by the reader, to the status quo. How important is reading to you?
AB It’s important. Has been ever since I learnt how to do it. Everyone in my family read voraciously from an early age. We didn’t buy books often. Most people around me didn’t. But my whole family and practically our dog as well would try to ‘borrow without asking’ each others’ library tickets in order to get out even more books than officially allowed on just one. So tickets were to be kept to hand, and always we were down at the library. Lots of people were always down at it; libraries used to be jammed out. As for my choice of reading, I would have conversations in my head about whatever the latest book was that I had got stuck into, but when I was younger I’d never have thought to discuss the book with anybody else. There were loads of readers, yes, definitely they existed. But there was a privacy to reading then, maybe even a shameful secrecy. I don’t mean because it was viewed as a risible or a getting-above-yourself activity. It was more that a person’s choice of reading could reveal something of the character of that person to an onlooker, make vulnerable to the world aspects of him or her that they didn’t want to expose. I’m not talking hardcore pornography here. I’m only talking library books. Also, I’m not talking school, when books would be assigned and so they weren’t a choice, meaning you couldn’t be found out and held to account, or even to blame, for being yourself in your deepest soul by having them. Newspapers, comics and sports books seemed to be excepted from having your soul discovered as well. That was strange, that behaviour. It was sad and poignant also. I don’t know how deeply endemic it was in my society. But it was unspoken, and it seemed too, such a minuscule, uncomfortable practice. But really, it just shows how important reading must have been to everybody I knew in those early days, given the lengths we all went to, to keep prying eyes out of our choice of books.
SM What did you read in those early days?
AB Growing up, I read everything all at once: fairytales, Enid Blyton, Shakespeare, Agatha Christie, the Russians, oh, anything Russian. There would be lots I wouldn’t understand, but that didn’t stop me reading them. There was always enough in there that spoke to me of something. Something. Also, nineteenth century literature I read a lot. Mainly English. And French. And again those Russians. I found in it all a wonderful excitement, a great nourishment, hope, joy, clarity and, at times, pure escape. Until my thirties, I was mainly drawn to fiction. Non-fiction didn’t much attract me. It felt like it might not be true.
SM And what are you reading now?
AB I’ve just finished a non-fiction book called Ordinary Men by Christopher R Browning. It depicts and examines how a reserve battalion of approximately five hundred middle- aged, reserve policemen in Nazi Germany got involved in mass murder, and about why these ordinary individuals were able, so rapidly, to adapt to committing their horrendous deeds. At the end there is a section with scholars and academics, agreeing with, or refuting, their peers’ various interpretations, mainly as to whether or not these policemen were, indeed, as ordinary as described. One scholar in particular seemed to want to dissociate these men from the bulk of humanity, citing a widespread, bred-in-the-bone, monocausal national anti-Semitism for the men’s behaviour. According to this scholar, those men were not ordinary human beings at all. I took his meaning of ‘ordinary’ to mean his view of the rest of us, ie, the majority who, it seems, don’t carry out atrocities. On the contrary, and if I’ve read this right, the bulk of the other scholars think that under similar conditions (which are explored minutely and utterly and terrifyingly in the book) anybody might come capable of such concentrated and monumental attack. I think the latter is much more frightening, also much more plausible: that those men were not monsters but human beings behaving monstrously, then reverting back at the end of their ‘workday’ into once more ordinary us. When I read a book such as this, I have to temper it with something absolutely different, an astronomy book, say, or even something on the level of a PG Wodehouse. I never regret reading books such as Ordinary Men even though they take quite a bit of getting over without ever really being got over. I mean in this case, depiction of evil in the everyday - and what any individual’s every day could become.
SM How important is reading to your writing?
AB Apart from those particular ‘how to’ writing books that I mentioned earlier, as well as some others like them, I don’t know how important my reading in general is to my writing. The books on creativity certainly were influential, although as I’ve said, there was something about the prescience of that time in the Nineties that I can see in hindsight was going to have me writing anyway. I would say I’ve been influenced also by Alice Miller and Jeffrey Masson, two writers who wrote about the unconscious consequences of early abuse upon individuals, families and societies. I read them years before I had a clue I would also become a writer. Their books revolutionised my thinking about my own familial and societal background and that overhaul, I can see, has since fed into my writing. I do less reading now since I started writing. All the same, I couldn’t imagine getting through a day without opening up a book.
SM Let’s consider voice and character and creative decisions. How do you find characters to write about?
AB I wouldn’t describe the process as finding my characters. That feels too mind-active to me, and wouldn’t work at this stage of the writing. As I say, I turn up at my desk and I wait for my characters. It is they who find me. I listen and write down what they’re saying, and I do it in a way which is as true as I can make it to the fictional world they inhabit. I discover the book as I write it and frequently I am surprised, even astonished, by what they bring to me. They are their own people. There are no guarantees here. That’s the bargain. There is no bargain. They call the shots. Also, they don’t like being rushed and they won’t stand for desperation. Of course I love it when they come, for then I fall into that whole happy, delicious world – their world – and have a nice time playing about in there, that is, until they decide, ‘That’s it.’ They always leave first.
At that point I stop – well, what are my choices? I could do a bit of moving of notes about, which doesn’t require direction from the characters. They don’t care about notes. I think the bulk of my notes is just a little anxiety of my own, to help me emotionally cope with the times when I’m at the desk but not actually in the writing; also not relaxed enough to be at ease at the desk while not being in the writing. When it comes to it, about two per cent maybe of my copious note-taking ends up recognisably in the finished prose. Or, instead of notes, I might tell myself to do a bit of cleaning up of the narrative. But why? I don’t know how to do it, and when, in their time, the characters get round to sorting it, the narrative then seems to clean itself. It just means I have to let it be messy, sometimes unbelievably messy. This can go on a long time.
Or I’ll take myself out for that replenishing walk. I’ll have my Dictaphone with me, plus a notebook and pen, and that’s when it happens. The characters pop back and give me extra information. I have to be on the ball here, seriously on the ball, more so than when at the desk in order to get these comments. This is because they speak at speed and they don’t like repeating. Also, away from the writing desk, they say things back-to- front. I will get the end of a sentence before the beginning and I have to capture that end first exactly as they say it. If I don’t, if I put the beginning first, thinking to be ordered, I can never remember what they said was the end – I mean the bit that they had given me first. As I say, they don’t repeat so there’s no point in asking. That’s why I’ve learned through bitter, twisted experience of losing good words and good rhythm, to get that end down first. Quickly I jot it down, or record it on the Dictaphone. Then I jot the beginning. If the beginning doesn’t want to turn up at the same time as the end, it moseys along at some point and slots itself easily into place. That’s a big reason why my writing resembles that pile of jigsaw pieces I was talking about earlier, with various other bits of jigsaw in the undergrowth yet to appear. The thing is, you have to want to be a writer. You have to learn to be a writer. All that I’ve said is some of what I’ve learned so far.
SM How do you recognise ‘the one’ who can sustain a novel as middle sister does so compellingly in Milkman? The voice, the voices in the book are utterly convincing it’s in middle sister’s voice. How, why did she come to the fore but not the ma or real milkman or nearly-boyfriend?
AB The narrator of Milkman was the first character to appear. She was strong and clear in her thoughts and I had instant access to them. I didn’t arrive at the decision she was to be the main character. Simply, it became clear to me she was as we were going along. In my first book, initially I thought a character called Vincent was the main guy and I cannot remember now why I thought that. Maybe I was getting a lot about him, from him, or from the other characters. But he got pushed to the side by another character, Amelia, and it was she who turned out to be the main one. I wouldn’t say she took over in the book which is what I thought at the time when she came forward. I think now, this was a case of my being new to writing and to my own process. It took me a while to see what had always been there. I can’t imagine I’d ever worry about who is ‘the one’ to carry a story. I’m not interested in doing so. It sorts itself out. Same with other major and even minor characters. I get a lot of information about nearly everybody, you see, far more than ever goes into the final writing. I take notes on it all but I have to let it be for I couldn’t tell in the early stages who has what standing in the novel. That’s part of the messy bit of writing, also the ‘holding’ bit of my writing. When eventually everything falls into place, whatever isn’t needed falls away also. No need to work out what bits of a character are in and what bits are out. It’s an absolute necessity though, that I carry all the bits.
SM And language. Language flows beautifully, tremendously in Milkman in a dense Beckettian stream imbued with Belfast rhythms and vernacular. How did this language “get written”?
AB That would be through the characters, their voices, particularly that of the narrator. She came with her language intact, which is the language of the novel, and she obsesses and worries and circles round and takes her thoughts apart to try to understand what’s happening to her. I wrote it all down. Her digressions. Her digging herself into the sentence, covering herself in paragraphs. It is never so much about where it is leading. It’s about the way it is said.
SM So, can we talk specifically about Belfast idioms and vernacular in Milkman? And its seemingly impenetrable appearance on the page? The novel evokes the experience of reading the rural County Derry vernacular in No Mate for the Magpie (1994) by Frances Molloy. Once the reader’s eye and ear are quickly accustomed to the language, the story soars and the book is impossible to put down. Can you tease out the decisions you made with regard to language in Milkman? How did you coax, mould the language into literary coherence while maintaining a compelling veracity to the Belfast setting? For the Belfast reader there is a special joy in reading familiar phrases such as “for to”, “a good gawk” and “no one has heard tell of him since”.
AB As you say, there are Belfast idioms in the text, but there are also many Northern Irish expressions that would never have worked for Milkman. The word ‘youse’ comes to mind here. ‘What are youse doin’?’ Well, that would have been completely wrong for this fiction. I can’t say why, except that the word ‘youse’ didn’t come from the narrator and wasn’t used either by any of the characters. From time to time, when I’d try out sidelined Northern Irish expressions during my impartial, empirical, clinical, laboratory word experiments, I also tried ‘youse’. I can say with hand on heart that it didn’t feel right at all. I knew it wouldn’t work anyway, even before the experiment. And I didn’t want it. Or regret it. Or get down on my knees and beg the book to let me have it, which is something I do sometimes. That just shows how wrong it was.
Not one character then, would have said ‘youse’ in Milkman, whereas if I’d written some parallel but more realistic or naturalistic fiction, set in, say, the district of Ardoyne where I grew up, there would be ‘youses’ all over the place. Quite right too. I do like ‘youse’ but there is a time and a place and a vibration for it. That is just one example of what didn’t belong. What did go in, and which would not have belonged in the parallel, non-written version, is the rhetorical, old-fashioned coinages and archaisms, mixed with Belfast vernacular, words and expressions which in my opinion totally went with the upside-down world the characters were in. The language in Milkman is not traditional descriptive realism, even though I suppose it could be argued that life itself isn’t always traditional descriptive realism. However, no matter how surreal a reality can be, you would never meet the likes of a young guy in somewhere like Ardoyne coming out with, ‘Gingerly as I hesitate to voice an opinion’. But that type of expression felt right to me in Milkman as soon as yer man said it. Not only is it allowed, it’s required
That’s why years earlier, when my writing started to find its way, it also became increasingly difficult to read out work-in-progress. Apart from there being not much to bring because most of it was still in the underpinning, I couldn’t have explained to potential listeners why that type of language emotionally did fit regardless of it seeming as if it should not. Later though, I started to understand that the delicacy, the surprises within the process, and the importance of its invisible underpinning, plus the fact that I did not know yet myself where it was all going, did call, at least in its chrysalis stage, for a careful handling until a robustness sets in.Eventually, that robustness does come and it does set in, but prematurely revealed text can force the writing temporarily back down deep again underground. Even worse, it can permanently destroy it. Thank goodness then, I don’t consciously have to make decisions on the emergence of the big things. I do make some decisions during that tremulous ‘if I even dare to breathe everything will collapse’ stage, and these choices would be such as, ‘For goodness sake, do I want this comma here or not?’ I mean that sort of level, commas and what have you, which my characters don’t care about unless I put them in where they don’t want them. What matters to them supremely, is that it is they who bring the story, which they do in their way, at their leisure. And it is that that I have to respect.
SM Student writers are often advised if not exhorted to read their work aloud, most particularly their later drafts. Reading Milkman aloud is another great joy of the book with its perfectly captured Belfast rhythms and darkest “laugh out loud” humour. The reception your reading received at the Lyric last year is proof of this success! Do you read the work aloud during the writing of it?
AB Oh yes. Absolutely. That’s essential to my process. Nothing could get written without that. I said in answer to an earlier question that I keep my Dictaphone or notebook nearby at all times in order to catch any unexpected rhythm or pace or cadence that might be on offer. A big reason for my reading out loud is also to do this. It’s that it gets more refined and precise when spoken, with words that are already there reconfiguring themselves differently in the sentences. Ripples run through, reverberating one bit against the other bits, so that if even just one word changes, it automatically shifts other rhythms nearby. This is why it’s then just a case of cleaning that up rather than sitting in agony wondering what to put in the first place. And I like that cleaning bit. It’s really just deleting bits that have already gone.
Often I’ll read out a word too, or speak an expression in error that isn’t there but which clearly is letting me know that it wants to be. I love it when that happens. It’s like getting extras for nothing. Also, with other people’s writing, both fiction and non-fiction, I’ll read some aloud which I know is also to do with accessing rhythm and sense together. When I read poetry, it’s almost always out loud.
And thank you for your lovely compliment about my reading at the Lyric. I did so enjoy doing it with Anne [Enright] and felt moved by that gorgeous audience’s response.
SM You’re so welcome – that was such a memorable reading on a very special night! May we now talk about form? I’m thinking specifically about the short story which Queen’s students are writing as part of their degree. You are obviously accomplished and a wholly original voice in the long form, the novel. What about short stories? Have you ever considered writing and publishing stories in the short form?
AB I have published a few short stories in the past but when my first book got into its stride, nothing else wanted to happen. Same with second book. After that, I wrote a huge amount of another book which is not yet completed. During that time though, other writings unconnected to it started to come out onto the table as well. I thought initially these might be sudden-appearance short stories, butting in to get themselves written during that third novel’s progress. They weren’t short stories. One became Milkman, which ended up becoming my third completed book and my third published novel. Another ‘short story’ became 65,000 words. For a while I was writing the latter in tandem with Milkman. I remember this overload of material made holding everything inside slightly more complicated than usual. I also wrote a novella at this time which I thought at first was going to be – you got it – a short story. It was in a way, but it was a long short story of 25,000 words and, at the time, for all I knew, possibly to turn into yet another novel-in-progress. After a bit, these short stories that weren’t short stories calmed down and Milkman resumed centre stage. So far, no more short stories. Sometimes though, I will write something quickly and think, this is a poem, meant to be a poem, and I’ve tinkered and played about with a few of these and have very much enjoyed doing so. That’s a much more cerebral process for me though, as in, there’s no waiting for characters to appear with their distinctive voices to start me off writing. This is just as well, for unlike in my novel-writing sessions, and even if they end up appearing in these poems, characters for me, for driving the poetry, don’t come.
SM The Irish Times said that Milkman “confirms Anna Burns as one of our rising literary stars”. I have been researching silenced, forgotten women writers of fiction from post-war Northern Ireland, people such as yourself, Frances Molloy, Mary Beckett, Janet McNeill. How do you feel about such a tag when you’ve been writing and publishing for over 20 years?
AB How do I feel being thought a new writer when I’m not? I feel fine. I guess what the words convey to me is that I am a new writer to that person or to that newspaper. And they do say they think me a literary star, so that’s nice.
SM Have you ever yearned for or sought out a literary sorority from your own home place?
AB As for missing out on a kindred literary sorority, I wasn’t writing when I lived in Belfast, and it never occurred to me that at some time I would be. Although I was engrossed with books whilst there, to my knowledge, as far as I remember, I had never met any writers. I don’t belong to a literary sorority here in England either. To be honest, I don’t really think about it. Since the Man Booker happened, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting quite a few writers from Belfast as well as other Irish writers. I had the cherished honour too, of briefly knowing the writer and journalist Lyra McKee. Lyra had an immediate honest, decent way with her and that came out in her writing. Goodness knows how her life and writing would have progressed had she been able to carry on. Since the Man Booker I’ve also got to meet one my favourite writers, Eoin McNamee. As far as I know, he isn’t in any sorority. Then there’s Lucy Caldwell. Now, she’s pretty fab, isn’t she?
SM She most certainly is and a recent Heaney Centre Literary Fellow too. Continuing with the writing life, how do you endure as a writer and deal with rejection?
AB Again, this varies according to how I am in my life. When I started writing, it was busting out of me everywhere in all directions, so that I couldn’t stop. Before the beginnings of my first book focussed my attention, the pieces would come in a deluge, but they weren’t interested in completing themselves. A fresh bit would start up and immediately I’d be off onto it. I knew this was okay, that I didn’t need to finish bits. It wasn’t even about finishing. It was about learning to follow the thread wherever it was taking me, and to keep my conscious mind out of it and also out of worries that might try to creep in. I was attending my series of writing classes at this time and I remember quite a few of the students, as yet unpublished, were worried about who was publishing what, the necessity of getting an agent, the impossibility of getting an agent, the impossibility of getting a publisher. Also, you had to read ‘The Bookseller’ religiously, and you had to write publishable material which translated as finding out what everybody wanted to read instead of what it was you wanted to write. There were a whole lot of ‘you musts’ and ‘to dos’ and ‘what not to dos’ and so I’m relieved that instinctively I knew my time at the creative writing classes wasn’t, for me, about that. All I had to do at that stage was keep following that energy. So I did, and eventually short pieces did start to complete. When it came time, I decided to try sending them out to various publications and, because I didn’t have lots of finished pieces, often I’d send the same piece to various outlets at once. I had something like fifty-four rejections then I had two acceptances in one week, followed by two acceptances the following week, followed by an excellent commissioned book deal four months after that. During that first rejection stage though, I would hear writers in the class say, ‘You must put your rejection letters up on the wall as a spur to make you persevere and do better.’ I put them in the bin or else used the back of them for writing or for scrap paper. I’d feel disappointment in having my writing rejected, but it was during a time when it was coming at speed, so the feeling of disappointment would get buried in amongst newly created stuff in no time. I remember also reading in The Artist’s Way that the best way to deal with rejection was to create something soon afterwards. Well, that’s pretty much what was happening here.
As to how I dealt later with rejection, well, firstly, I don’t send out in the same way anymore. My writing takes longer to underpin itself and of course these are novels, long pieces. When Milkman was getting rejected, the disappointment I’d feel was more connected with my living circumstances and about needing money. In terms of the writing itself, of Milkman, I was fine. I knew I’d written the book that I wanted and that I had done so to the best of my ability. I believed too, that it was ready for publication which meant the individuals who rejected it were just not the people – for whatever reason – meant to have had it. I’ve always been aware that getting my writing accepted, and then what happens to it after it is published, is out of my hands. When I’ve completed the writing, sure, I can send out and have fingers and toes crossed that it will hit the desk of the right publisher or the right agent eventually. But that’s it. I am not the publisher. I am not the agent. I am not the public relations expert or some actuary or money prognosticator and I don’t ‘work rooms’ either. My writing came out of nowhere and I know it can disappear anytime right back into nowhere. I don’t want it to, but as long as it’s here, the best I can think of, if I need to shift myself from any sense of dejection around dismissal of something I’ve created, is to go to the next thing, to sink myself into the mystery and the process of whatever that wants to be.
SM You depict the feminine brilliantly. The women in Milkman endure a lot from both the patriarchy and trauma because of what the book describes as “the great Seventies hatred”, the Troubles. As with literary post-war NI women (until very recently), there is a similar silencing. For middle sister “feelings stopped expressing. Then they stopped existing.” Middle sister’s disturbed sleep when she wakes to the rattling house is a frighteningly memorable depiction of the constant threat she feels under with people constantly “having a go.” What was it like for you as a writer to revisit some of the darkest times of the Troubles? Was it scary?
AB Although the place where Milkman is set is never identified, it is a distorted version of Belfast in the late 1970s. Many readers who kindly shared their experiences of living there at that time have since told me how accurately they believe the book captures the feeling of what was happening, the atmosphere of threat that was prevalent all the time. The key word here for me is ‘feeling’ because, rather than try to depict the actual environment with its historical events and specific locations, what’s important to me as a novelist is to get the world of the fiction true to itself. My characters come first. Whatever they bring, no matter how seemingly inauthentic or incongruous, that is what I use. I try as faithfully as possible to get down what they reveal about their world, with its own inner logic and its social, political, familial, sane and crazy connections. They do not explain their world to me. They deliver it to me. This fictional world may end up feeling like Belfast as it was when I grew up in it, even if askew from that actual Belfast. But it isn’t fictional to my characters. And I think their story coming from them rather than from history is what makes it emotionally real.
So it’s their world, not mine, and that means no matter how closely aligned I might feel to it, I’m not really revisiting. For me the writing of it is an experience of light. I mean this both in the sense of the opposite of dark and the opposite of heavy. Dare I say it – I’m having a good time. Of course, there are those wobbly moments I’ve mentioned when I let myself fall into worry and set to, fruitlessly marshalling text about. Even then though, my fretting is not about Northern Ireland and the Troubles and my experience of having lived there. It’s because I need to stop and have a cup of tea. So no. Not scary. Instead, writing Milkman was mostly an exciting and creative adventure for me. And yes, I can sense in it the influence of my own grim experience of growing up in a place of two split, hostile and traumatised communities. But I can sense even more the very different trajectory I was on when writing it than I had been on whilst living it. I had a fun time writing it, even though lots of it isn’t at all about fun.
SM What role does memory play in your writing?
AB My use of memory as a research tool when writing also moves trajectories. And how it does this depends on what I’m writing, on what my characters show to me and on what they say. Concerning factual memory: the old Clifton Street Cemetery, say, might be on the right-hand side at the start of the Antrim Road just up from Carlisle Circus as you’re heading out countrywards, and it might have been closed during the Seventies and not reopened until many years later. However, if my characters want to put the Republican plot of Milltown Cemetery into it because that is where the renouncer plot is in their story, and if I want to get their story, Milltown’s going into Clifton, and Clifton’s opening up to the public, dead and alive, whether those two graveyards care to accommodate each other or not.
The importance of precise memory then, factual and also personal, as opposed to what my characters might do with that detail, might be handy and reassuring to me as the writer to have in the background, but I find it can get in the way of allowing the story to develop or even to come. The detail of my memories is, in the end, more and more similar to my note-taking: a type of research, the bulk of which I’ll eventually get rid of. Little gets into the prose except, once again, for that ‘feeling reality’. Transmutation into the truth of the fiction has to take place.
SM Was it cathartic?
AB No, writing Milkman wasn’t cathartic. It didn’t need to be. I did do a sizeable amount of cathartic writing at one point in my life during a short but concerted blitz spell about four or five years before I started fiction-writing. I didn’t invite it, least not consciously, and I didn’t want it, but I think that is what helped clear space inside me that eventually got me into that art shop and picking that tartan sketchpad up. For me, that type of writing felt like vomiting. It was dark and truthful and painful. Certainly it was necessary. It too, came at its proper time. Hardly pleasant, though. Definitely not a glorious experience. And I didn’t walk around either, with a jotter or tape recorder afterwards, making notes of refinements to add to it later. Although I was writing it, and it was revelatory, it was not meant to be creative. And like vomit, it wasn’t meant to keep. On the other hand, Milkman and all my other writings since that visit to the art shop have been different from that earlier catharsis. Distant cousins maybe; a tenuous connection recognisable. Like Milkman, the cathartic writing also wasn’t scary. I think it just looked scary. It was frightening though, during the time, unbeknownst to me, it was inside.
SM Did you turn to any other writers, fiction or non-fiction, for help with research to add to your own memories of that time?
AB Research for me, when it happens at all, tends towards a type of automatic research, or research after-the-fact. By this I mean specific information linking to something in my book will turn up after I’ve written it already. It seems to do this either to give confirmation of what I have written, which is satisfying. Or else it’s to offer extra juicy, pertinent bits to work into the already written-up stuff. Again, this is like getting goodies for nothing even though I know they’re not really for nothing because, with all that turning up and waiting and holding the nerve and keeping fidelity to the process and so on, there is a natural correspondence of even-stevens going on.
One example of this type of done-deal research happened when I was living in Edinburgh. This was while writing my second book. It was coming near the end and I had most of the material, but there were some sentences still with my temporary dots standing in for whatever hadn’t yet appeared there. One chapter in particular, containing a section on camouflage and surveillance, had many unfinished sentences and by that I mean the ends were finished but not the fronts. The characters hadn’t filled them in and, as I didn’t know what to do myself, I continued to trawl around each of the novel’s unfinished sections. Later that afternoon I went for a walk. Dandering down the main road, I saw a placard in the middle of the pavement, placed outside a building. It said, ‘CAMOUFLAGE EXHIBITION! LAST DAY. CLOSING 5PM’. It was 4pm. I went in with notebook and pen and spent a lovely hour, coming away happy with gems by the truckload. That camouflage and surveillance section was finished by the end of the day
So that’s what I do. I enjoy this way of getting material. It feels natural just to walk in upon it. I go to talks on everything, lots of things – lectures, events – but not specifically or even at all to do research. I attend for the sake of it, for the joy and novelty and relaxation of it. Sometimes too, instead of the main topic of the talk, some inadvertent sideline issue could become more interesting to me. If that happens, that sideline issue then moves centre stage. An example here would be a rocket science talk I went to during Milkman. It was open to the public and it looked interesting so I went in. Turns out it wasn’t beginner’s rocket science but that didn’t matter because an unexpected inadvertency had me quickly taking out my notebook. This was on how, during the Stalin purges, when the man himself had become so paranoid he was getting rid of all his experts, these experts, in their turn, out of panic, finger-pointed each other to save themselves and their own families from the gulag or death. After the war, when a lot of them came out of the gulags, with some then defecting and ending up in America, they found themselves stuck working, not only in a desert in the middle of nowhere – as in ‘Hello again, gulag’ – but also teamed up with those very same individuals they had denounced and been denounced by. I thought, gosh, that would make for an awkward work situation. And that’s what I mean. I remember jotting down many notes about the possible uncomfortable states of these various unhappy Soviet rocket scientists, while the rocket scientist on the stage continued to lecture at a level way above my paypacket, with the other rocket scientists, making up the rest of the audience, nodding heartily in agreement with him.
So it’s all out there. And as long as I don’t force it to be anything, all sorts of everything could decide to feed into my writing, or what one day might become my writing. But it does have to be material that speaks to me personally, for then it forges a link with the way in which I put together the world. This can be, too, enjoyable conversations struck up on the sudden with strangers. I love meeting experts-in-fields, even in fields.
SM While researching Milkman what did you discover, if anything, beyond the obvious?
AB I’ll end this research question with a sample of subjects that either I drifted into researching or else deliberately had a go at for Milkman. You ask if anything was beyond the obvious? Well, some of these were for me. I used bits of this researched information in the novel’s narrative, though mostly I didn’t, or else used them scantily, with them working their way in naturally, no forcing by me:
- menstruation (used this, got it from a medical dictionary; I knew that dictionary would come in handy one day);
- Blower Bentley cars and Bugatti Royal cars (two lovely passionate classic car perverts at a dinner party who filled me in on everything to do with them - used about 0.0000001 per cent of the material);
- witchcraft, particularly linked to poisoning (two herbalists, one witch and one library book);
- my character chef’s food talk (recipe books, particularly dishes the colour red - used a goodish amount and made some up);
- what a young working-class Catholic guy in 1970s from a place like Ardoyne in Belfast would have done if offered a Blower Bentley supercharger with or without a Union Jack on it (a 60-year-old man who had been a young working-class Catholic guy in Ardoyne in 1970s, growing up amid the mores and impositions of that area, who said, ‘Well, Anna, it’s like this, you’d want to keep the supercharger, but you wouldn’t keep the flag showing on it if it was there and it wouldn’t matter if it wasn’t there because it would be imagined to be there by everybody, but you wouldn’t take it off either because it’s part of the supercharger’s iconic status so you’d put something from the war but you wouldn’t put a German flag because of the Nazis so it would be an American Airforce sticker of a woman with a quare body on her to cover it up of course.’ He rattled off airforce stickers then, and I knew I could have stopped him and said thanks, you’re really kind, then looked up airforce stickers myself from America, but here was him in the flow, with me in the flow beside him, and he’s wanting to bring me to the particular instead of the general - used most of that, plus all its emotional reality).
And this is what I mean by linking with the passion while researching, either during the fact, after it, or even should you be one of those writers who always researches first before putting pen to paper. There is more that could be said on research, particularly on bringing long-standing sentence gaps to a close. But I’ll stop now.
SM A Belfast politician once described your 2007 Orange Prize-shortlisted novel No Bones as “a misanthropic portrayal of the nationalist people” while expressing “concern” that a readership outside NI would believe the fictional context to be a faithful representation of reality.” Obviously you completely ignored his “concerns” when writing a book as honest and challenging as Milkman. How do you deal with criticism? Without fear or favour you write what you want to write, yes? Indeed, you must?
AB In terms of reviews, my publishers and agent send me good ones and a friend also sends me snippets of things she comes across and thinks I’ll like. And I do. I don’t read bad reviews.
In the Nineties when I used to attend my writing classes, I would write everything down that was said about my writing after it had been my turn to read. I’d do this whether or not in the moment of hearing it, it sounded beneficial or irrelevant or insane. I’d take it away and think about it later, then decide whether to incorporate any of the comment or not.
I have spoken earlier too, about learning not to show work for comment when it is still being formed. I have found that even good, positive comment can slow it down, or stall it, or even kill it. And one other thing, I know there is that quip of everyone having a book in them and that for most it should remain in there. But I think not. If a person truly has a book in them then of course it must come out.
And yes, you’re right. I write what wants to come, which always ends up what I want to write. Neat.
SM Exile is associated with many writers. Your imaginative writing terrain is Belfast but you have not lived in the city for many years. How does it feel for you, the writer, being away from the place you write about so closely and memorably?
AB Just as I said earlier that I didn’t really revisit the dark times of the Troubles
in order to write about the fictional world of my characters, a similar process is going on here. The place I left in the Eighties isn’t there anymore, neither in time nor in exactly the same social, structural, political etc configurations. Most crucially, the emotional reality has shifted, even if some of the old one, sadly, still remains. Something new and good has come into play, though I’ve been gone so long that personally I wouldn’t know the feeling reality of that one. By this I mean the immersed, day-to-day experience of living now in Belfast. Before the Man Booker win, I hadn’t been back in fifteen years and I haven’t lived there at all for over three decades. When I did start going back, almost one of the first things I saw was a shop selling shillelaghs and leprechauns in the middle of Royal Avenue. I started laughing. It was delightful in all its normal tourist tattiness. The emotional reality of my time would never have been able to cope with that. I don’t mean the tattiness. I mean the green bits. Then there’s that recent mural up now in Northern Ireland of The Derry Girls, including James the English character. I heard some wee local lad commenting online, ‘Guys, look at this. I’ve never seen this before.’ Neither had I. Certainly not the usual type of mural I was brought up on: politically divisive giant reminders – in case we needed them – of what we were all dealing with. Not only was there not a paramilitary in this new one, what was in it was an Englishman. I know he’s an actor and all, so given that demographic, he’d be excused the old story anyway. But still, an Englishman up on a wall in Derry? In a nice way? That can only be making history: one, because of where he’s from and, two, because of good use of a wall.
So yes, things have changed. There is some relaxing and loosening, but what there is of the peace process today hadn’t at all been my world. Also, I’m no longer that exact person who had lived there. I was all over the place, didn’t know what I was about, having periods of depression, hardly helped by the physical and social landscape around me. Then again, I was in my twenties. Not exactly the decade for maturity. Exactly the decade for making a complete mess of your life. When I left, the only aspect of Northern Ireland I truly missed was my sister with whom I’d been sharing various flats all around the Queen’s area. So, though you mention exile, it didn’t feel to me like exile. And I know it might be said that maybe I, and countless others, wouldn’t have left if the place hadn’t been so violent. But I think, yes, for myself, I was young and I would have.
SM What would you do differently or say to your younger writer self to improve or preserve your way through to becoming a writer?
AB As I said, I’d tell her to leave that council estate flat earlier in order to help keep intact that vibrational and at times fragile link with creativity, which in my case for writing, comes through feeling peaceful and not through being panicked and under threat all the time. But I’m not sure she’d listen. Think of all the older people throughout world and time who have tried to inform, advise, warn or even cheer on young people. How many listen? History too, is always repeating itself which means even hindsight isn’t of much help here. Songs have been written about this.
SM Can you define “success” for a writer?
AB People write for different reasons, and some change their reasons during their writing life, which is probably normal. For me, the main success is managing to write what wants to come. If it is something that I wrote in the hope of getting it published, further success would be managing then to achieve that. As I said earlier though, that bit is out of my hands. Equally out of my hands, but definitely a lovely wonderful success if it happens, would be for my writing to find its right understanding and appreciative readership. Lastly, being able to earn a living from following my heart and from doing what I love to do would be high up in the realms of achievement for me. So, getting it written, getting it published, getting it read, getting it ‘got’ and earning enough to be able to continue – we’re talking glory days here.
SM Oh my, we certainly are! They are richly deserved as is winning the 2018 Man Booker Prize, another huge achievement. Has it changed you in any way as a writer or your outlook as a writer? Indeed, what in your opinion is the value or role of literary prizes?
AB The part of my life that changed first and most noticeably was my finances, also that long-term emotional state that goes along with not having any. When I write, it is to get the book that wants to come out of me, but that book and the characters in it, don’t concern themselves with how I keep myself during the process. They don’t care about anything that goes on outside of the book concerning me, my health, my wealth, my social life, the state of my nerves, the world, anything. Although I can say without doubt that following my instincts to write has given me the best job satisfaction I’ve ever experienced, it has also, up until the Man Booker, given me the smallest pay cheque. Winning the Man Booker (as it was called in 2018) changed that for me. It has brought to my writing a huge beneficial exposure that otherwise it would not have got. In its turn, that exposure has helped readers worldwide to find my book and for my book to find those readers. Since the Man Booker, my novel has been translated into many languages, I’ve received supportive letters, cards, gifts and invitations from people and organisations from everywhere who have taken the time to write to tell me what my book and my writing means to them. Not only is that an unexpected and a wonderful affirmation as well as an emotional nourishment of both me and my creativity personally, it’s also an indication of the enormous cultural reach and importance of this prize.
On a last note, and not as a writer of books but as a reader, I’d like to say that the various longlists, shortlists and the eventual winning books of literary prizes do bring me helpful suggestions of books that just might get my interest. Although the choices of the judges don’t always hit the mark for me, I’m always glad to discover gems that otherwise I would never have come across.
SM Finally, In October 2018 a Guardian journalist wrote that you were “desperate” to get back to writing your “real third book”, the book you’d started before Milkman, saying you could “feel it calling.” Can you describe that sensation of “calling”? And have you answered? If so, how’s the process going?
AB I wouldn’t have used the word desperate. Never would I use that about getting into writing. I think that links with the grab mentality. Being in that state would never bring writing – or probably anything – to me. It’s more likely I said I’d love to get back to it, but no, I have not yet done so, at least not fully. Years ago, the characters came and gave nearly the whole story to me, then they went away, saying, ‘Back later.’ They haven’t come back yet. I can feel them about the fringes, coming and going. And I do like that happening. And I’ve gone through too, a good chunk of the narrative to refresh myself as to what’s on top as well as feel for stirrings in the undergrowth. However, I’m still engaged with, and very much enjoying, various aspects of and offshoots from my Man Booker experience. So that’s where we’re at, me and the book and the characters. The regularity of the desk is, I think, still further up front.