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Tome On The Range

Things Come As They Will: A Q&A With John Burnside
Robert Bright , August 12th, 2018 10:30

Robert Bright talks to the award winning poet and novelist about his extraordinary life and visionary writing

The first thing I read by John Burnside was his memoir, A Lie About My Father (2006). It describes his working-class childhood in Cowdenbeath in the 1950s, and then, from the age of ten, in the Midlands town of Corby. As he puts it, he was “a child who grew up with a whole circus of exterminating angels and wilderness visions in my head.” He endured an embittered drunk of a father, became a drunk and an addict himself, discovered LSD in his teens and remains an advocate of the drug and other psychedelics, and bummed around from place to place, trying to keep it together, often failing spectacularly.

His second memoir, Waking Up in Toytown (2010), finds him in his 20s and 30s, working in the Home Counties as a civil servant and computer systems analyst, in search of the “suburbia of the mind”, a passable sense of normalcy to wear out into the world. But diagnosed with apophenia, a condition which causes a compulsion to see vast, transcendental connections in the stuff of existence and an abnormal state of meaningfulness in the otherwise quotidian – “Finding God or the Devil in the last scrapings of a Pot Noddle,” as he puts it – he realised this mythical suburb and its mythical normality was impossible for him.

In his twenties he started writing poetry, and his first collection, The Hoop, was published when he was in his early thirties. Over the three decades since then, he has published ten novels and short-story collections, fourteen collections of poetry (winning the Whitbread Poetry Award, the Forward Poetry Prize and the TS Eliot Prize), his two memoirs, and the essay collection, I Put a Spell on You.

For Burnside, writing is a means to “retain the hope and privilege of a life that might be my own, and not something foisted on me by circumstances and the expectations of others. To be whole – or rather, to continue in the pursuit of wholeness.”

As a poet, novelist, memoirist and essayist, how do you work the gauge between these different forms? Does the poet inform the novelist, the novelist the essayist and so forth? And do you have a routine that involves allocating specific time for each form or is the whole process quite fluid?

John Burnside: A routine! I wish… I write while walking, I write in airports, hotel rooms, in between meetings, during coffee breaks, in the middle of the night when I have insomnia. Best of all in the early morning, in a city I know just a little, with a dawn chorus somewhere. It’s not structured, or very disciplined, however. I write in notebooks, on bits of scrap paper, on the white spaces in magazines. (It is all longhand, as I have not mastered that gift of typing things into a machine, not even for prose.)

The one exception to this chaos has been when some kind foundation or sponsor has given me the chance to go and hide away, in one of those writer residences that are an absolute godsend to someone who has a full-time job and a family. So I am grateful for residencies, especially those that have allowed me to bring one or other of my sons with me.

As for separating out the forms, I have to say that things come as they will – ideas, images, rhythms. I compose poetry ‘on the lips’ (or to put it less lyrically, in my head) then write the lines down when they have formed (though not before). Prose, I get ideas while on the move, but I have to jot down notes, scribbles, impatient doodles, maps – just to try things out before I am ready to start writing. This means that I draft prose stuff on paper, but not poetry. So what separates the two mostly is the method. In prose, I’d say the ideas that interest me get tangled up with the characters I create. I think, broadly, that a character is, or can be, a way of exploring an idea, or a set of related ideas. A ‘landscape’, or piece of a terrain, can do this too. I am very fussy about placing my characters and situations. I need the right trees, or the right amount of sand, or the right light falling through the high windows of a city bar at opening time.

In A Lie About My Father you write at one point about your youthful experiences with LSD. You describe it as a “sacrament”, a substance that “allows the celebrant to win back some participation in his environment”. Experiments with psychotropic drugs are one way to disrupt, and potentially reconfigure, entrenched patterns of thought and behaviour, as well as one’s perspective on consciousness and the world at large. Inevitably though, revelatory experiences fade and old habits once more congeal around a life. Is the writing process another way to seek revelation, to keep sight of hard-won truths? And in relation to the quote, can you tell me a bit about the importance of this sense of “participation”? 

JB: The word ‘participation’ here is a sort of shorthand for the pagan. As a kid growing up in the world A Lie About My Father describes – the world I inhabited from birth to around sixteen years of age – the one great truth, the salient fact of my life, was that the world and pretty much everything in it belonged to other people. I’m not just talking about property here; I’m talking about belonging. About the right, not just to hold the land and reap the benefits, but also to describe, measure, attribute significance: all of that, everything, belonged to others. My social class – the way I walked, the clothes I wore, the lack of certain ‘manners’, a certain physicality – served to mark me out to those who knew as unworthy, not only of ownership, but of a meaningful cultural life. T.S. Eliot said it all too well, when he murmured gently, but with total conviction, that it was “the function of the superior members and superior families to preserve the group culture” just as they “preserve and communicate standards of manners” – and it wasn’t hard to work out where I sat in all this.

It is partly a romantic idea, but it is an idea worth exploring, that a pagan sensibility does not – cannot – accept this kind of ownership of the land. Or ownership of land, period. Which would mean that anybody could ‘commune’ with the land, anyone could swim in its sacred waters or drink from its holy wells, anyone could peel a thin sliver of bark from a tree to release its guiding spirit. So for me the release came with LSD, when the world around me exploded way beyond the bounds placed on it by others, and became, well, fields of energy, pulsating life, the force that through the green fuse drives the flower. Psychotropics – LSD, mescalin, mushrooms, etc. – returned the world to me as a fully functioning miracle. And this was mostly about a connection back to a pagan reality. Like the scene in Wind in the Willows where Pan appears, if you recall it? “All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered.”

That had been a kind of promise for me, along with the Celtic fairy stories I grew up with. I knew that justice and the land were inseparable: as long as one group or class could own the land, then justice would be that much more distant.

Growing up in a working-class background and wanting to be a novelist or a poet was, in my experience, regarded by many people from this background as stranger and more out-of-reach than declaring, for example, wanting to be an astronaut. They might even feel intimidated by it, or see it as a curious kind of betrayal. In your novel, Glister, this appears to manifest itself in Innertown, and elsewhere your writing alludes to the particular struggles and prejudices a working-class writer has to contend with. Do you think anything has changed for working-class writers? Has it got even harder? What working-class writers do you admire?

JB: If you come to it from a working class background, trying to find a place to work from in this culture is like arriving at a sprint race a few seconds before the starting gun. Everyone else is ready to go, in summer athletics gear, but you came from the North Pole and you have years’ worth of heavy clothes and baggage to get rid of before you even start. By the time you are ready, the race is already in mid flight. But then, nobody said anything was going to be fair. Social skills play a real part in ‘success’ as an artist, and that can be a problem. Working class people who get into some kind of creative activity are often bad at hypocrisy. They may be fairly damaged by the humiliation of poverty – perhaps more so by having seen their parents and others humiliated by the system – and that, in my case manifested itself for a long time in escaping from the more obviously toe-curling social occasions into heavy drinking, (usually topped off by some kind of speed). Though I shouldn’t generalise about this – I’m really talking about my own experience here.

When I wrote Glister the one criticism we all knew I’d face as the book emerged was that I refused to make my Everyman Capitalist of the Innertown a ‘complex figure’. I refused because he represented a certain kind of person – and by then I had met such people – who only really care about money. The advantage of the great capitalist is that everything can be translated into money terms – environment, human lives, whatever. So when I made my capitalist a one-dimensional man who only cared about money, some people criticised me. And then 2008 happened. Sorry, but I rest my case. The system may be complex as well as unjust, but you still need shitty, honourless people to make that system work, and many of those involved could see what was happening. And many of the same people are still working in financial institutions – which means if doing more harm benefits them, then harm will be done.

 You’re a fan of noir, not simply as a genre of film, but as a mood or atmosphere. You’ve written that noir “has nothing to do with the tragic, or the absurd; this is about desiring what you fear and fearing what you desire. This is about the perverse.” We’re in a Freudian realm here, aren’t we – Eros and Thanatos, the death-drive that remains an inevitable taboo, that needs to be repressed? Your writing seems determined to explore this kind of territory. Why is that?

JB: This may sound odd, but I like it that I am going to die. It beats the alternative of living forever. Imagine the horror of that. And I don’t think the ‘death drive’ should be repressed, any more than the sex drive. All repression is damaging: anything that sits in the depths, growing, feeding on the dark is going to go Creature From The Black Lagoon on us sooner or later. This is why people fear death – because they don’t look at it. Of course, we need to be more careful with the drive that pushes us to go out into the world and kill, as opposed to the part that says, along with Whitman:

The smallest sprouts show there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait
at the end to arrest it,
And ceased the moment life appeared.

All goes onward and outward... and nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and

To be honest, I write because I’m trying to work something out. For myself. I don’t have any answers, but I am ready to speculate. It’s the difference between lazy fantasies and good quality guesswork that separates one writer from another. I try to be good at guessing, but I hope I never pretend I’m doing anything other than that.

It’s often what we repress, the shadow self, that provides the lit life with its shape and direction of travel. In an age of mass data and mass consensus, where privacy is being eroded as never before, is the need for a secret life all the more essential? 

JB: Yes. And I can see a time when people will go to considerable lengths to have a secret life. It will end up being socially unacceptable, and people will commit crimes to protect themselves. I do not tweet. I don’t have Facebook. I don’t have a website, as such. I never use the phone except for short business-like calls. I’m not making a big virtue of this, and I know it costs me professionally sometimes, and will do so even more, but it’s not worth it. Also, I worked for a long time – ten years – in the computer industry and I know that, if ‘they’ can gather information on you, for whatever reason, however they choose to do it, they will. Even if they can’t use it immediately, they will see it as power. Of course, I know they are doing it anyway, but I find it odd that we would all collaborate so readily.

Your last novel, Ashland & Vine, is set in America. On a personal level, I’ve always been drawn to post-war American writers, and part of the reason for this is, I think, feeling alienated by the overtly middle-class flavour of so many of the British novels I grew up with. What does America mean to you?

JB: Well, certainly, for a while, American culture seemed to offer an escape from the class system. How ironic, to think that now! I liked the way American writers used language, how they made sentences. DeLillo, for example, could tell me somebody crossed the street and the way he did it would be amazing – like a poet, reinvesting that simple act with new valour. I love some of the writers who have not come over to us so easily or at all – I love Keith Banner, for example. The way those writers could talk about everyday matters and make them magical. Or impossibly dark.

I set Ashland & Vine in the US because I wanted to remind people of its history. Or rather, of a history they had chosen to suppress. The history of resistance to American imperialism, at home and abroad. The “extra-judicial killing” (murder) of Fred Hampton. The wholesale demonisation of everyone who was ‘different’. But then, I’m not a historian, I’m a storyteller, so I left my character, Jean, to tell things in outline to the younger woman, Kate, who had forgotten, or never acquired, knowledge of her country’s history – by which I mean, real history, not To Kill A Mockingbird and Gone With The Wind. I started all this long before Trump and, of course, it would probably seem timely now. But it was timelier then, because it was an ignorance of American history – and of the fact that most of American history has to do with race – that got Trump elected.

Could you tell me a bit about your writing process? DeLillo, for example, talks about how the words seem to reveal themselves, almost to each other, and that these words build to sentences and then to paragraphs and so on. It’s almost as if he sees something genuinely ‘magical’ or ‘occult’ at work in the process. Is there something in this – words as magical objects, incantations, spells, curses?

JB: Yes. Absolutely. There is something animate about language. You see it, of course, in DeLillo. You see it in a different way, but it’s equally magical, in Dylan Thomas’ best work. I don’t think there’s anything ‘supernatural’ about any of this. Languages are what we use to give expression to our imagination – and I believe what people have historically called magic is the ability some have, in a natural way, to imagine powerfully. That can be wonderful, or dangerous, (charisma, demagoguery etc.). The interesting thing is that there are two ways to work with the various languages we have (words, dance, music etc.) One is where the listener, audience, reader is given space to participate in the making of a work, (I mean, really, participate) and the other is where the audience is rendered passive, and simply employ entertainers to do their imagining for them. My old music teacher used to say, hearing is a faculty, but listening is an art. I’ve always resisted work that has seemed intent on manipulating me. Impressing me with its great performance. Clever art. I am looking for intelligence, which is usually a collaborative effort, and I hope it is when somebody reads my poems, or novels, or whatever. So language can weave a spell, but not too much, I hope, because the art / entertainment we just fall into doesn’t nourish us, long term. And we do need nourishment with images, ideas, metaphors and so on, to counteract all the crappy images that come to us through the ‘quick’ media.

John Burnside’s latest collection of poems, Still Life with Feeding Snake, published by Jonathan Cape, is out now