Anna Burns sounded almost giddy one recent Monday as we sat in a restaurant here in Brighton, on England’s southern coast. The week before she had won the Man Booker Prize for Milkman, her third novel, about an unnamed 18-year-old coerced into a relationship at the height of Northern Ireland’s Troubles. The win wasn’t the only reason for her excitement.
“I can feel I’m on the cusp of something,” she said.
Burns suffers from “lower back and nerve pain,” she said, the result of a botched operation. “Nerves pain,” she suddenly added, correcting herself. “There’s plenty of nerves involved.” Thanks to the Booker, which includes a $64,000 prize, she may get treatment in Germany without having to worry about the cost.
“If it’s successful, I’ll be able to write again,” she said. “I haven’t written in four and a half years.” The last writing she did was finishing Milkman, a process that dragged out for months because of the pain.
She had tried standing desks, she said. And various chairs. “But it’s not just the physical pain. It’s the whole emotional stress that goes with it.”
“Can we just move off the health?” she added with an awkward laugh.
She then got out of the chair and leaned against a pillar to make herself more comfortable. “Don’t worry, I do this a lot,” she said.
Burns is one of the more surprising recent winners of the Booker, one of literature’s biggest awards. Milkman was this year’s outsider, up against Richard Powers’ ecological epic The Overstory and Esi Edugyan’s heralded slavery-era Washington Black, among others. It was also labelled an “experimental novel” because its characters are nameless and its paragraphs sometimes run for several pages. Her victory provoked think pieces about the “bold choice”.
“I don’t understand,” said Burns, when asked why it had picked up such an awkward label. “Is it the whole nameless thing? Is it really difficult? The book just didn’t want names.” (The tag does not seem to have put many off buying it. Faber, her British publisher, has sold over 350,000 copies so far. The book will be published by Graywolf Press in the United States on December 4.)
But even with the fuss around it, Burns’s victory touched many with her honesty about what the prize meant to her financially (“I will pay my debts,” she told the BBC the morning after her win). In the acknowledgments’ section of Milkman, she thanks her local food bank, which she has relied on to get by; Homelink, a charity that gave her a low-interest loan to pay her rent; and Britain’s “Housing and Council Tax Benefit system”.
She even thanks the British courts service because, she said, judges restored her disability benefit after it was cut.
Milkman tells the story of “Middle Sister” who stands out in her neighbourhood for her habit of reading while walking (“Are you saying it’s okay for him to go around with Semtex but not okay for me to read Jane Eyre in public?’” she asks at one point).
The Milkman of the title is an apparent paramilitary, who stalks Middle Sister, insinuates he’ll murder her “Maybe-Boyfriend” and talks himself into her life. The book is told from Middle Sister’s perspective, most of which are the thoughts rushing through her head as events force themselves upon her.
The book is filled with an oppressive air, giving a distinct impression of what parts of Belfast were like in the ’70s but also a surprising amount of humour.
Kwame Anthony Appiah, the chairman of this year’s Booker judges, said its focus on men abusing power and what happens when rumours spiral out of control gives it wide resonance. But Milkman also stood out thanks to Burns’s unique voice. “There are moments when I had to read it out loud, just for the pleasure of it, the way it sounds,” he said. He read it in a bad Ulster accent.
Burns denies “Middle Sister” is her — “All we share is the reading while walking,” she said — but it is easy for a reader to jump to conclusions based on Burns’ life story.
Burns, 56, grew up in a working-class family in Ardoyne, a mainly Roman Catholic district of Belfast. She lived with her aunt across the road from her parents and six siblings. “I’d go over to the house so I had all that rowdiness, which was important, then I’d go back to my aunt’s for the quietness,” she said.
The Troubles started when she was six, and that forms the backdrop for her novels. (A writer and former senior member of the Sinn Fein political party dismissed her debut novel, No Bones, as a “misanthropic portrayal of the nationalist people” of Ardoyne.)
“There was an awful lot of violence, shocking amount of violence, apart from the Troubles,” Burns said when asked about her childhood. “Just adults fighting in the street with each other over anything, and children fighting and dogs biting anybody. And then of course there’d be bloodstains all over the place.” She remembers petrol bombs being stacked at the entrances to certain areas and riots on her way to and from school.
In 1969, Ardoyne was evacuated because homes were getting burned down. The soldiers manning the refugee camp south of the border in the Republic of Ireland, where she and her family were sent, brought her more food than she had seen before, she said. She couldn’t have been more upset when she was sent back to school.
Burns’s aunt turned her onto reading by making her go to the library, she said. “I’d always have a book in my bag, even if it was a clutch and I was made up to go clubbing.” But her habit of walking while reading soon became a source of local bafflement. “Complete strangers would say to me, ‘You’re that girl who walks and reads’ or ‘I saw you on the something road reading.’ And I thought ‘Why would they comment on it? Am I that noticeable?’” Thinking about those reactions kick-started Milkman, she said.
Burns moved to London when she was 25 to study Russian at Queen Mary College, but dropped out. She worked odd jobs — in a friends’ Celtic jewellery shop, for one — until writing came to her. “I just went through some very dark times and I think at the end something was cleared out of me and there was a space and the writing came through,” she said. A lot of it had to do with getting sober, she added.
She reveals few details about that period, which is partly because she likes her privacy, but it’s also not to “lose the energy” in stories that could help form another book, she said. Part of her writing process involves simply waiting for stories and characters to appear, the ones with such energy. She gets anxious when other writers tell her they write to daily word counts.
Burns already knows what her next book is about. “It gave itself to me, like almost all of it, and then it kind of said, ‘Back later.’ That was years ago,” she said. Its characters still pop into her thoughts now and then, she added. “They’re about. They’ve been giving me bits and pieces. So that does give me hope that maybe I am going to get some treatment and write again.”
How would she feel if an operation isn’t possible, or doesn’t work, and she can’t write that book or anything else? “Yeah, I can’t go there,” Burns said. “That’s actually quite scary.”
She has been getting hope from another source recently, she said. About a year ago, she joined a local choir, the Hullabaloo Community Quire in Brighton and rediscovered a love of singing.
After leaving the restaurant, Burns walked 20 minutes or so to that week’s rehearsal, held in a high school gym halfway up a hill. As she arrived, the choir, almost 80 strong, was already practising a song especially for Burns’s arrival: a doo-wop cover of Billy Bragg’s “Milkman of Human Kindness”, about a rather different milkman to her book’s title character (“I am the milkman of human kindness, I will leave an extra pint,” the chorus goes).
Burns seemed overcome by the tribute. “This is the first thing I’ve done after a long illness,” she said, when called on to give a speech.
And then she rushed back to her place and learned the song herself, staying standing as everyone else sat, nodding along to the beat.
© 2018 The New York Times