Man Booker winner Anna Burns on her own extraordinary story from mitching school, the Troubles and giving up alcohol
The author, whose novel Milkman this week won one of literary world's most prestigious prizes, talks to Malachi O'Doherty about growing up in Northern Ireland, working as a copytaker for the Belfast Telegraph... and why she is wary of journalists
She laughs when I tell her the INLA joke. It’s what the initials stand for: I Never Leave Ardoyne. “Fantastic,” she says. Anna Burns says that her book Milkman is not specifically about life in Ardoyne. It creates, perhaps, a parallel Ardoyne, not quite the real world. This one is unnamed — like the characters in her book.
It is the product of the fiction writing process, not a deliberate attempt to make a statement about the place she grew up.
She says: “I just write down what I get. I wait for the writing to come.
“I don’t plot it out. I wait till I hear a voice telling me.”
There is no plot, no plan, no deliberate intention to describe the world she grew up in.
We are sitting in the Faber & Faber boardroom in Bloomsbury, virtually next door to the British Museum.
There is a framed cover of Sylvia Plath’s Ariel on the wall. There have been some big writers in this room. She is the publisher’s hottest property today because she has just won the Man Booker Prize for Milkman.
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This is the story of a young woman living in a place that sounds a lot like Ardoyne, keeping her head down and her nose in a book much of the time for fear of violating the social codes of a community caught up in the Troubles.
The tightness and reserve of that community goes beyond keeping itself safe from the violent forces within and beyond. Imagination itself is diminished there.
In one extraordinary chapter, a teacher in a night class tries to persuade people to look at the sky and see that there are more colours than blue there.
But it is not only in Seventies Ardoyne that people do your thinking for you. She sees current parallels in the behaviour of journalists.
“Things do get twisted, even here in interviews,” she says.
She has taken offence at a newspaper article that says she was bankrupt before she won the Booker.
It’s not true, though she has been candid about how she can now clear her credit card debt.
“There are journalists who turn up with their narrative in their head, which is the opposite to how I write,” she continues.
She doesn’t know when she starts a book where her stories are going and only finds out in the writing, but suspects that journalists work in the opposite direction, having the story already written in their heads before they meet her.
She adds: “I’ll go where the energy is, always. I follow my instinct. I believe in holding my nerve through those bits of intuitiveness where I don’t know what is coming after the first step.”
I think that she is a little guarded in her initial responses to me after her encounters with the media.
She rebukes me for butting in while she is answering a question.
One of the judges said of Milkman that it is not an easy read. She is a bit miffed about that too. I’m not surprised.
The book is the reflections of an intelligent teenage girl, her observations tumbling out of a lively mind and the style presents no problems or glitches at all.
But perhaps it is easier on an ear accustomed to Belfast rhythms of speech.
The narrator, a young woman being harassed by a manipulative predator who is feared for his connections, shares her fascination with everything.
While the book is about the ghastly intrusiveness of an evil and sneaky thug, she also exudes a love of some men. This isn’t a tirade about the awfulness of men but is a celebration of the best of men too, though sometimes the knowing female gaze sees through the crust of the confident man to marvel at the childlike qualities underneath.
Yet even the good men that she loves and admires have the local habit of trying to do her thinking for her.
We jog round the Waterworks with her, see men playing with cars, their ways of arguing with each other, the horrific way in which minor intimations of disloyalty grow into violence.
The understanding throughout a community that there is an obligation to disdain the other and adhere to the tribal mores.
She describes a society which is utterly stifling yet does so with the vigour and extravagance of language of one who is not remotely stifled.
As a child in Ardoyne she had been most shocked by tarring and feathering attacks on women who had mixed with soldiers. And then of course kneecapping.
“I was going to a disco once at the bottom of Etna Drive. We went into the shops, my friends and I to get sweeties or crisps and I remember this man — obviously he’d got drunk before they’d kneecapped him. They used to let you get drunk first. He was lying just outside the door and to me, the way his legs were, it was as if he had about eight legs.”
She says she coped with violence by not reflecting on it.
“Of course there were other people who watched every news programme, they had the TV on all the time, they were always talking about the Troubles. It was as if they had maps on the wall moving pins about. I could see it was their way of coping. Now I can see that. But I used to stay away from them.
“They were too scary with their intensity about the Troubles.’
Anna Burns did not get much of an education because she mitched school. Unlike most mitchers, she studied alone in derelict buildings, at first from a book on accountancy that she borrowed after persuading a teacher to enrol her in an accountancy O-level.
Later she took night classes at the College of Business Studies.
She went to English class after work. She had moved to the university area and got occasional work as a copytaker for the Belfast Telegraph and the Irish News.
“I was always tired and there was a teacher who was boring. It was very hot and we would doze off. Then one day this teacher strode in — Pat McCann — and he said: ‘What are you all doing? You are all sleeping. This is English!’
“He just woke us all up and he introduced me to literature.
“After that one class I went home buzzing — I wanted to go to his class. I wanted him to teach me.”
She went to university in London to study Russian and dropped out to get sober. She had been drinking from an early age and says weaning herself off drink through the 12-step programme was one of the hardest things she has ever done.
She says: “When I got sober, there was this awful grief. How can I be social again and go out for a night? Everything was around drink. But it all came out of Twelve Step. I made some absolutely amazing friends and I could see, okay, this is another way to be in the world. Sober and reflective.”
From there she discovered Spiritual Healing, a group she attends now.
When she was in England she started reading about the Troubles.
She says: “And I started getting my feelings. I would read about something I remembered but which hadn’t engaged my feelings at the time. And then I would start to get my feelings. Fifteen or 20 years later I would be sitting in my room in London having a reaction emotionally to something that happened 15 or 20 years ago.
“That’s how it started to get reconnected. I got my felt reality about that experience.”
Milkman is the product of that eruption of feeling, but she says that the emotions coming first, through the reading, enabled her to approach the book “on an even keel”.
“It came out in the reading rather than in the writing, so when I started writing there was a bit more of an even keel,” she explains.
The result is a truly wonderful book, the voice of a survivor.
Milkman by Anna Burns, Faber & Faber, £12.99