Writing Life Under Pressure
An Interview with Anna Burns
In March, The New School hosted this year’s National Book Critics Circle awards, which honor literature published in the United States in the previous year. The awards are presented in six categories — autobiography, biography, criticism, fiction, nonfiction, and poetry — and are the only U.S. literary awards chosen by critics themselves.
Milkman is a book unlike anything I’ve ever read before. It is surprising. I was surprised by its pink cover. I was even more surprised, when I opened it, to discover its narrative voice. The first line: “The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died.” The language is innovative and unexpected. It requires concentration but still moves. I was so immersed in the narrator’s mind, an unnamed 18-year-old girl trying to navigate through the complications of sexual and political predators in a world based on Belfast at the height of the Troubles in the nineteen seventies.
It is the narrator’s unique perspective on the effects of tribalism, fear, paranoia, and sexism on her violent and unstable world that are at the core of my questions for Anna Burns. Milkman is told in a unique narrative style that allows for the strange and beautiful combination of humor and pain. With none of the names of objects provided in the narration, the story becomes one that is about Belfast during the violent period of the Troubles in the 1970s but also takes on a dreamlike universal quality which allows the reader to look inwards and explore our modern-day world while also reading about horrors that were not so long ago.
Aubrey Moraif [AM]: What inspired you to write Milkman?
Anna Burns [AB]: Initially I had the idea to take a few hundred words of notes from another book I was writing at the time to start me off into a short story to send to a magazine. These notes were about reading-while-walking which I used to do a lot. People would say to me, including strangers in clubs and shops and bars and cafés, ‘You’re that girl who reads and walks!’ I would continually be startled at having this pointed out, mainly because it seemed an activity not particularly worthy of note. And also, I was surprised to be noticed doing it by so many people. I wanted to try to write something around the possible reasons why this was being pointed out to me, rather than about the activity of reading while walking itself.
When I started to write these notes up to make a fiction, a character appeared, a teenage girl. She was reading Ivanhoe while walking down an interface road in Belfast (or what I took to be Belfast). I went with her and she told me thoughts. She wasn’t concentrating on her book but instead was preoccupied with thoughts of her elder sister, who had told her off recently for something. After that, another tiny bit of prose came, again of this same character, now in a bar with her best friend. This friend was berating her also over something. After that, the scene changed to one that eventually became the start of the last chapter of the book. This was where her elder sister suddenly slapped her face.
And those three scenes became the beginning of the writing of Milkman. Not a short story after all.
AM: What was your artistic process?
AB: I wait for my characters to turn up and tell me their story. I discover the book from them as I write it. Frequently I am surprised and astonished by what they come and say. They are their own people. There are no guarantees. That’s the bargain. There is no bargain. They call the shots. They also tend to give me information backwards. So it’s a messy process. Eventually though, the book cleans itself.
AM: The narrative voice provides an intimate exploration of trauma and a veracious perspective of womanhood in this backwards, broken society. What inspired you to write in this stream-of-consciousness style?
AB: The language of the novel appeared at the same time as the teenage narrator, with its mix of high literary, archaic, cartoon, conversational and vernacular. This is the language of this entire fictional world. I don’t consider it stream of consciousness myself.
AM: Humor is not something I would expect to find in a novel with a society in which car bombs are commonplace, civilians caught in the crossfire of political violence are expected casualties, and sexual harassment is brushed aside and turned into neighborhood gossip. Yet, this novel associated with the Troubles incorporates comedy into the tragedy. What is the role of humor in Milkman?
AB: Humor has an important place in that society, perhaps in any society under prolonged stress. It’s another way of coping and responding to trauma and tragedy — with laughter and a different understanding. Also, one never knows for sure, for absolutely sure, what might make one laugh or cry — and when.
AM: In Milkman, none of the characters and places are given names. Instead, their name is determined by their relationship to others — middle sister, maybe-boyfriend, the country ‘over-the-water’ — which allows for the setting to resemble Belfast during the Troubles without being explicit. How did that impact your writing and the story as a whole?
AB: The book didn’t work with names. It lost power and atmosphere. In the early days I tried out a few names, really out of curiosity rather than conviction. The book wouldn’t stand for it and it was right.
I think the lack of proper names adds to the atmosphere and tension in the book, to the sense of paranoia, the under-the-surface panic and unease, even if it also seems to offer an apparent protection to the characters of their real selves against the surveillance world they are living in. Also, throughout the book there is a sense of an imposed collective mind-set, with obedience to it being of more importance in terms of survival than individual autonomy and identity. The individual, for the sake of survival, is required to be subsumed into the collective and hence the narrator’s harmless behaviors — looking at the sky, reading-while-walking, going to a night class down the town, having a maybe-boyfriend instead of getting married at sixteen, etc. — are seen as huge rebellions which pose a threat to the status quo.
This is also the case with the behaviors of some of the other characters: the issue women having their meetings; the pious women after they become the ex-pious women, the French teacher; the relationship of chef and maybe-boyfriend; the international couple; wee sisters studying their forbidden publications from ‘across the water’; third brother and tablets girl’s sister daring to be together as right spouses; the beyond the pales; those district inhabitants who dare to go to hospital; second sister marrying-out.
AM: One of the most memorable quotes in Milkman is middle sister’s reaction to longest friend’s scrutiny over her habit of reading while walking. She says, “Are you saying it’s okay to go around with Semtex but not okay for me to read Jane Eyre in public?” “Semtex isn’t unusual. It’s to be expected,” longest friend replies. How do norms and expectations play into the cautious society found in your novel?
AB: My book is a fiction about an entire society affected by long-term violence and existing under intense pressure. It is about how societies and individuals react and fragment through living their everyday lives in fear and paranoia and who are suffering both the conscious and unconscious damage that sneaks into every fiber of their being. It is a place where hypervigilance, distrustfulness and surveillance has become the norm. They are the coping mechanisms everyone uses to try to survive in their claustrophobic, totalitarian world.
AM: How does the setting resemble the setting upon which it was based? How is it different?
AB: It is recognizably a skewed form of a segregated, violent Belfast in the 1970s. I hope though, I have written it in such a way that it could also represent any closed society existing under similar restrictive circumstances.
Rather than trying to depict an 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, with its own inner logic and connections and emotional reality. I do this by writing what comes. The reality of the fictional world may end up being askew from the actual place it seems to be based on. To what extent that turns out to be the case is dictated by the story and the characters.
AM: Although set in the nineteen seventies, this book is able to explore many current issues: abuse of power, sexual abuse, violence, oppression, borders, and the feared “other”. What compels you to explore these concepts in your work?
AB: My own history and experience of growing up in Ardoyne in Belfast at this time of huge pressure undeniably informs my interest in these issues. This is based on my need to understand and explore how these pressures built up and worked out in that specific time and place, as well as of what this might mean for similar places throughout the world in all different timeframes.
Anna Burns was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland. She is the author of Milkman and two previous novels, No Bones and Little Constructions, as well as the novella, Mostly Hero. No Bones won the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction. She lives in East Sussex, England.
Aubrey Moraif is an MFA candidate in Fiction at The New School. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming inBella Grace Magazine, The Hidden Scribes, and Equinox: Poetry & Prose. She is a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University and received a Master of Science in Education from Johns Hopkins University. She is currently writing a novel inspired by her experiences living and teaching special education in Hawaii for several years. You can find her on twitter @aubreymoraif. This interview was first published on the Creative Writing at The New School blog.