A Q&A with Anna Burns

 

Anna Burns has been shortlisted for the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction with Milkman. We caught up with Anna to discuss characters appearing fully formed and the importance of being free and playful when writing.

You’ve said that when you write you don’t start with a specific narrative in your head – could you tell us about the process behind Milkman? What was your first flash of inspiration and how did the narrative start to take shape?

My creative process involves turning up at the desk and waiting. It’s a very active, receptive waiting for characters to turn up and to start telling me their stories. Milkman grew out of some notes I had about the reaction I used to get from others towards my teenage habit of reading while walking. This always surprised me – that I would be noticeable doing this, and that it was something worth commenting upon. I had only just begun to explore this in my writing when this teenager popped up. She was walking along what felt to me was an interface road. She was reading Ivanhoe but wasn’t paying attention really to her book because she was aggrieved at being wronged by her sister. This individual, whom I later found out was my narrator, simply started to tell me her story, using her own particular voice and language from the start. She came fully formed, as my characters do. I just had to keep listening and writing everything down as accurately as I could. This was the start of what eventually became Milkman.

Which women writers have had the most profound effect on your career as a writer and why?

Books by women which have inspired me to write would be Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg; If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland; Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande; The Artist’s Way and The Right to Write by Julia Cameron. These books don’t mythologize writing. They speak of following your instinct, not worrying too much about reasons when you write. The thing was to commit, to turn up, do something, even if not much and even if you believe you’re not really doing anything, or anything ‘worthy’, even if you don’t even know what it is you are doing. They speak of just letting yourself feel free and easy and as playful as you can when you write; also, to write utterly unplanned stories to see what comes out, which worked for me as I couldn’t write any other way.

Another writer who influenced my writing was Alice Miller who wrote on the consequences of the unconscious effects of child abuse on individuals as adults, and on families, and on society. A lot of my writing engages with the unconscious causes and effects of, mainly, mental violation.

It’s been said that the omission of any character names in Milkman lends the narrative an almost dystopian, futuristic quality – was this your intention? Or did you have something else in mind?

I can’t really comment on that other than to say I follow what my characters tell me. My responsibility is to get the world within the book as true to itself as I can, then to try to get it published. Readers, of course, will come to their own interpretation of it. When I was writing Milkman, my narrator gave me the story without any proper names – neither those of the other characters nor her own. Once, as an experiment, I added in names to see what would happen. One thing was, the narrator stopped talking. Second thing was, it didn’t work. After that, I stopped my little experiment and went back to my narrator’s choices. She too, came back and we carried on from where we’d left off.