Anna Burns says her novels “wanted to come”, in the sense that she is not one for meticulous planning before she sits down to begin writing.
“I can’t demand anything of my writing. I have no idea when I turn up what is going to come. Except the characters,” Burns wrote for Britain’s The Guardian newspaper just before she was awarded the prize. The newspaper asked the six shortlisted authors for the 2018 Man Booker Prize for fiction to discuss the inspiration behind their work.
Burns, who won the prize for her novel Milkman on Oct 16 in London, grew up in a deeply divided, violent Northern Ireland. She left her native Belfast in her mid-20s for England, where she has written three published novels, including Milkman. (The other two are No Bones in 2001 and Little Constructions in 2007.)
“The smallest intention I could say I did have initially for Milkman, and one that fell away immediately on my attempting to put it into action, was that I thought to take a few hundred words that were superfluous in a novel I was currently writing, and see if I could write up a short story from them,” Burns continued in The Guardian.
“Instead, they turned into Milkman. The point is, I can’t intend anything in my writing, or demand anything of my writing. I have no idea what is going to come.”
Burns, 56, was born in Belfast in 1962, according to an official biography and media reports.
She grew up in the Northern Irish capital’s mainly Catholic Ardoyne area at the height of the sectarian conflict between Catholic and Protestant communities – euphemistically known as the Troubles.
She left the territory for university in England, living in London and, most recently, East Sussex.
“I grew up in a place that was rife with violence, distrust and paranoia, and peopled by individuals trying to navigate and survive in that world as best as they could,” she told the Man Booker Prize organisers when asked about her inspiration for Milkman.
The book follows a bookish 18-year-old woman who is “pressurised by an older, more powerful man with an unsettling sexual interest in her, and tormented by the vicious tongues of her neighbours”, according to the Man Booker Prize organisers.
Milkman examines the misuse of power and the role of gossip and rumour in small communities.
But philosopher and writer Kwame Anthony Appiah, 64, the chair of this year’s Man Booker judging panel, said it was chosen mainly because of Burns’ narrative voice.
“It is an amazing voice,” Appiah said, praising the uniqueness of the language used by the central character in the novel. “You hear her voice in your head and you’ve never heard one like it before,” he said.
The book uses few paragraphs and much vernacular, referring to the characters only by descriptive nouns or phrases, rather than personal names.
“The book didn’t work with names,” Burns told the prize committee ahead of Tuesday’s ceremony in London. “It lost power and atmosphere and turned into a lesser – or perhaps just a different – book.”
“In the early days I tried out names a few times, but the book wouldn’t stand for it.
“The narrative would become heavy and lifeless and refuse to move on until I took them out again,” she said. “Sometimes the book threw them out itself.”Apart from the two other novels mentioned before, Burns is also the author of the novella Mostly Hero (2014).
She won the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize in 2001, and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2002.
She told The Irish Times last month that her writing only began in her mid-30s “all of a sudden, in a rush”.
“I did have a feeling something was coming before it came, and that it was going to be a lovely something for me to do, or be, or have,” Burns said.
“My characters come to me and tell me themselves what they would say and how they would say it, and it seems I don’t have much control in the matter except for I either record what they’re saying or I do not.” – dpa