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24 October 2018

“I’ve been homeless myself: you start thinking, ‘I’m not entitled’”: novelist Anna Burns on winning the Booker Prize

The 2018 Man Booker Prize winner talks to Tom Gatti about living on benefits and using food banks, the psychology of stalking and the trauma of growing up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles.  

By Tom Gatti

When we meet it is less than 48 hours since Anna Burns was announced as the surprise winner of the 50th Man Booker Prize, and she is adjusting to her new reality. “Someone at my publishers said yesterday ‘Now that you’ve won the Booker Prize…’ and it really hit me for the first time,” she told me before we took the stage for a conversation at Foyles bookshop in central London.

Burns, who is 56, was born in Belfast and raised in the predominantly Catholic district of Ardoyne, the location of some of the city’s worst violence during the Troubles. In 1987 she moved to London, to study Russian, and a decade later she wrote her first novel, No Bones, a blackly comic, Belfast-set coming-of-age story that was shortlisted for the women’s Orange Prize in 2002.

Milkman (Faber & Faber), like No Bones and her second novel Little Constructions (2007), draws on Burns’s childhood. Set in a divided, unnamed city, the novel follows an 18-year-old girl who is being stalked by a sinister and much older man, known locally as “the milkman” (none of the characters are given names). Milkman’s restless, funny, dark and densely packed prose has been compared to Samuel Beckett, though Burns says she only read the Irish Nobel laureate after finishing her novel. It tells a story of power and how it is won and wielded: in the family, in society, by paramilitaries or the patriarchy, through the suggestion of sex and the threat of violence.

In conversation, words tumble from Burns at speed – just as they do from her on the page – and, occasionally, she apologises for forgetting her point, or my question: “I sit at home, I write,” she said, “and then suddenly there’s this limelight, and it’s terrifying.” But she radiates intelligence and humour, and is open about the difficulties in her life. Milkman had several rejections. “Getting published is very hard,” she says, before checking herself: “OK, maybe winning the Booker might help me with my next one.”

Tom Gatti: What was the genesis of Milkman?

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Anna Burns: I used to walk and read when I was younger, and I’d get all sorts of reactions from people in cafés and bars. They’d say, “I’ve seen you on Royal Avenue, you were reading Thomas Hardy.” I thought, “Is this even something to point out? Am I that noticeable?” I wanted to explore that in the novel I was writing but I couldn’t fit it in, so I thought, “Oh, I’ll do a short story.” As soon as I started, this teenage girl appeared – very intense – and she was reading Ivanhoe and walking down the Cliftonville Road – that was the main road from my house into town – and thinking about some row with her sister, who was blaming her for something. She felt it was unjust: “How dare she?” This tiny little scene was bursting with the energy of this character. I just write down these little pieces as they come to me, and then eventually they go together. And it wasn’t a short story – as you can see.

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You said recently that of all your books, this is the most directly about the Troubles. Why do you think you’ve been drawn closer to that as time has gone on?

In my first book, No Bones, the critics seemed to think I was writing about a dysfunctional family to show up the dysfunctional society, but it was actually the other way round. The Troubles was the backdrop and the family stuff felt more important and urgent. I think it’s because I’ve resolved something about family issues that I can now do the “bigger” issue – which actually, for me, is the lesser issue.

Presumably things take time to percolate, before they can be used in fiction?

It’s a big, messy process. When I write, maybe three quarters of the writing is just waiting, or attending. It seems like I’m not doing anything. But I have to go through this waiting period. Then the writing comes very fast. But I mustn’t panic, or get controlling, because I’d never do any writing if I started doing that.

The novel is very perceptive about stalking and the insidious way it involves coercion and control. Is that something that you’ve thought about a lot?

Well I think fear does erode a person’s confidence in themselves, and I’ve certainly felt fear in my life. And especially fear where you’re trapped in a situation, so there’s no way out. That can completely change a person, where they start to doubt, “Is this as bad as I think it is?” and the more something goes on like that, they might start to think, “This is just life, and yes, this is awful, but I have to put up with it.”

Your narrator doesn’t question her acceptance of the milkman’s behaviour until 20 years later – a process that seems to chime with the #MeToo movement. Did you follow the Brett Kavanaugh hearing?

I did follow some of it, but it felt like a foregone conclusion: their minds were made up. I finished Milkman in 2014, before #MeToo and Brexit and Trump, and I can see, yes, the publication was very timely, in terms of the sexual scandal and abuse issues, and whether you’re believed or not, but also in terms of barriers and boundaries and the dreaded “other”. When I’m doing it in the fiction, it’s kind of fascinating to explore, and it doesn’t frighten me. But when I come out of my fiction, I find it quite terrifying. Listening to the Kavanaugh and Weinstein stuff – I find that quite shocking and distressful, because it’s real life.

At one point your narrator asks “What sorrows and sadnesses? What troubles, what losses? I’m sorry, but this is unintelligent.” What does the phrase “the Troubles” mean to you?

It has a dual meaning. I can see that it’s playing down something that was absolutely horrific. But if someone dies, you say “I’m sorry for your troubles”; you’re really saying “I’m sorry for your sorrows” – so Troubles is another word for “the sorrows” – a meaning linked to loss.

The violence in the novel is kept mostly off-stage. But there’s one disturbing scene in which all the neighbourhood’s dogs have been killed and left in a huge mound. Was that an image that just came to you? 

No, that was real. I remember seeing that as a child. It was down the bottom of our street. I was seven or eight, so I don’t really know how high the pile was, but it did look like a mound of dead dogs, with their throats cut – I couldn’t see any heads, so I thought all their heads were missing. It was one of those images that stay with you.

The community behaves as if it has a hive mind. Did you think of it as its own character in the book?

It’s certainly important: it’s this unit, and everyone has to pull together. Growing up there, you had to conform, you couldn’t really criticise the area. It was very scary living there, very violent, but there was this feeling that you can’t say that, because it will somehow cause it to collapse. So you have to pretend we’re holding together.

There are a couple of characters who simply leave. Did you feel, growing up, that leaving was going to be an option? 

I did, but that was very, very unusual. There was this expectation that you would marry at about 16, and I knew, even when I was very young, that I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t know where to, I just knew I wanted to go. I absolutely hated school, because it was so violent, but I didn’t know that then. Because I didn’t reflect; when I lived there, I just reacted all the time, which is what the character does in the book.

What happened when you left?

I used to come to London a lot. A friend of mine worked in British Midland [Airways], she used to get me the cheap tickets, so I used to go over at the weekends and get really drunk. But then when I came to live, suddenly, it was different; I felt afraid.

I realised that it was Ireland I was afraid of. I found myself starting to read books about Ireland and the political situation and I’d get to a bit in the book which I’d remember from living there, and I’d have a terrible shock, as if it had just happened.

My feelings were coming back into the whole thought process – I think they’d separated when I lived there, which was my way of coping. I was getting my felt reality back. It didn’t come back easy; it came back with a breakdown. I got through that – then there was a big empty space, and that’s where the writing started coming, because something had opened up.

Last year a report came out suggesting that with falling book prices, sales and advances, authors of literary fiction are struggling. Is that picture familiar to you? 

Yes, absolutely. I’ve approached organisations like the Royal Literary Fund, and they’ve given me about four grants; the Society of Authors gave me a grant. Hampton Heating Company said “We’ll pay your heating bill for a while,” and I thought, “Wonderful!” I went to a food bank for a while, and I’ve been on benefits. Yes, I think it’s hard. But it’s what I want to do, you know. And then there have been times when it’s been OK: I haven’t been wealthy, but I’ve been able to keep myself.

You thank several organisations in the acknowledgements, including the Department for Work and Pensions.

I had an injury which meant I couldn’t work, and I had to go on benefits. It was hard: at one point, they said, “It doesn’t matter if you’re in pain as long as we think you can do a certain amount of work.” Luckily, someone helped me, changed their mind and decided they’d pay me. I haven’t yet told them: I mean, I got the cheque two days ago! I’ve just been busy… So I will be telling you, DWP, that I’m not expecting you to continue to give me benefits.

But even when I was earning something, I’d claim Working Tax Credit, which tops up. There are places in the world where you just wouldn’t get that. I know there’s an awful lot of homelessness and poverty here – and I have been homeless myself on occasion, when I was younger, and sometimes when I was not that younger – and you get into a mindset of thinking, like my character in the book, “I’m not entitled, and this is how it’s going to be.”

You have been described as an Irish writer, a Northern Irish writer, a British writer. Do any of those labels mean anything to you?

This is the complicated thing about Northern Ireland. Every time I fill in an application form, it’s just like, “Well, OK, what am I today?” I feel Irish, and I’ve always felt Irish. I’ve been in the UK for three decades, and almost everyone just assumes I’m Irish. And then on the Booker night, I felt one of the journalists was trying to wind me up by calling me British. I really don’t care. I’ve got both passports!

I’m glad I’m from Northern Ireland. It has been through a lot, and they’re a lovely, lovely people there, and it doesn’t matter what tea you drink or what side of the barricade you’re on. But there is also this awful pain, history and memory of trauma and suffering which people live with.

What do you think Brexit would mean for Northern Ireland?

It would be awful, though the emotional reality I have retained of that place might not be the emotional reality today. But if I thought it was the same, it would be absolutely disastrous and a tragic mistake.

This article appears in the 24 Oct 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit crash