Monday, February 19, 2018

In conversación / Neil Gaiman talks to Shaun Tan

Illustration by Shaun Tan

In conversation: Neil Gaiman talks to Shaun Tan

'I use text as the grout between the tiles of the pictures. I always overwrite and then trim it down to the bare bones'

Neil Gaiman (right) and Shaun Tan
Illustrator, author and Oscar-winning film-maker Shaun Tan (left), with Neil Gaiman. Photograph: Colin McPherson
I met Shaun Tan for the first time in 1996, at a science-fiction convention in Perth, and only half-remember meeting him. He's quiet, shy, generally unassuming. I got to know him slightly better with each subsequent trip to Australia, and he got used to me introducing myself to him and him telling me that actually we'd already met. He's an artist and a writer and now a director, possessor of a peculiar and singular vision. As an artist he combines real drawing skill with a profoundly off-kilter imagination, his characters, human and otherwise, are at the same time funny and enticing; as a writer and storyteller he creates stories, sometimes wordless, always told with an economy of words, which manage to be both alienating and embracing: a child on a beach finds an alien monster inside something (a box? a house? a spaceship?) and brings it home, dealing with a Kafkaesque bureaucracy; an immigrant comes to live in a distant country where everything is different and inexplicable; a foreign exchange student is a tiny, leaf-like botanist; surreal images of depression and hopelessness almost, but do not, overwhelm a small girl, and at the last there is magic and hope.
Tan's vision is intensely personal, but not exclusionary. People love what he does. I've had Australians press his books on me in Australia and bring them as visiting gifts when abroad. His film The Lost Thing won an Oscar as best animated short (fellow Perthling Tim Minchin does the voiceover). He was given the 2010 Astrid Lindgren Memorial award, the only children's award that comes with real money, and the other people on the longlist did not mind. Well, I didn't, anyway, and I was nominated.
He lives in Melbourne. He's not very tall, and he has an easy smile when he relaxes. He does not seem to mind that I only spell his first name right half the time.
He told me once that he began writing after The Rabbits, his award-winning book, started life as a 16-line fax from Australian author John Marsden, which took Shaun a year to illustrate. "And he got half the royalties," he said. But his pictures and his stories are all of a piece.
I had a Shaun Tan painting done on a bottlecap hanging on my wall for a year.

A life in writing / George Saunders

George Saunders by Austin Kleon




'I want to do as much weirdness and experimentalism as is necessary to access the emotional core; no more, no less. It's not a fancy side-project'

Emma Brockes
Saturday 12 January 2013

He calls Tenth of December, his new collection, "my least disturbing book" – a good indication of the slant of his work. The stories are still extremely sinister, turning on a threat of violence all the more powerful for being withheld, but they allow also for the possibility of people doing the right thing. And while the tone and setting of the stories is often satirical, the interactions are deeply, realistically human. "My habit," says Saunders, "would have been to veer towards the dark – to prove I was something; edgy, or maybe to prove that I was cognisant of the dark side. Now, with age and confidence, I can say, yeah, that's true, but I am cognisant of the fact that people can do things well. And can be more loving than you expect."
We are in a meeting room in Manhattan, in a complex owned by Syracuse University, where Saunders has a residency and is down for the day from his home in upstate New York. He looks, at 54, like a younger version of William H Macy: affably dishevelled, fundamentally amused and, in conversation, ignited by the force of his passion. Tenth of December is alive with ideas, driven by his talent for subtly reframing the world. It took him a long time to get here, says Saunders, who came relatively late to writing and had to overcome a hefty inferiority complex before he found his voice. By training he is a geophysicist, and in his early 20s he spent a few years working in the oil fields of Sumatra – the kind of life experience that, one might have thought, would have emboldened him to write.
The problem, he says, was one of authority; he hadn't read enough, then, to feel he had a right to contribute, or any sense of what idiom his contribution might take. "If you haven't read you don't have the voice," he says. "The lack of voice eliminates experience. I was having all these experiences but they were kind of blocked to me."
The experiences were pretty wild. "I mean, the material was electric. These crazy nightclubs, transvestite clubs, and Sikh bouncers who were rumoured to actually kill people when they bounced them. I had read so little that I didn't know how to … I would look at that experience and try to Joseph Conrad-ise it; or Somerset Maugham it. And it didn't cohere. If I'd read Kerouac I would have had a diction. So I remember at that time my magnum opus was about a very old man in a senior citizen's home who was looking back on his years in Asia." He laughs and hammily wheezes: "'Oh, I can hardly move. But I lived once!' And then I'd write down what I did last week.'"
That it occurred to him to be a writer at all is something he still can't entirely explain. "I just wanted it so much. And I didn't have any other means of imagining myself into the future. I played music, and I tried to do that, but I didn't really have the fire. There was just this feeling that I can do this. And unfortunately, I had a kind of a dispositional stubbornness."
He had grown up on the south side of Chicago in a mixed neighbourhood. "It wasn't John Cheever, but it also wasn't The Grapes of Wrath. It was just home." His father worked for a coal company; his mother was a homemaker. It was a comfortable childhood; it was later, in his 20s and after returning from Indonesia, that Saunders experienced a period of poverty that would deeply inform his moral view of the world, particularly as it appeared in his writing. It was this, twinned with his years spent as a tech writer, that shaped Saunders's style: pared down, thrillingly compact, with everything stripped to its essence. (As a tech writer, he billed for his hours and was rewarded for shedding anything fancy).
"The thing I found," says Saunders, "was if you want to avoid creating a world that looks habituated, compression is a great way to do it. Because we're habituated, both in life and in fiction, to certain ways of expressing things. So – if someone asks how do you get to the hospital? The answer is four blocks and turn left. But the actual experience of going to the hospital is a thousand pointillistic things that are probably sub-articulable. And then: what are the linguistic corollaries that I can make, that actually come alive anew?"

It can be a risky venture, writing like this, playing a game of chicken with the readers' expectations. But, says Saunders, why invite them in and then waste their time with a lot of extraneous material? Compression, he says, is a "courtesy", as well as a "form of intimacy". He teaches his students thus: "When I'm explaining something to you, if I'm being long-winded, and twisty in a non-productive way, I could make you feel vaguely insulted. And you'd have a right to be. You brought me into this book and now you're farting around? If somebody respects you enough … if we're in this game together, it's like a motorcycle and sidecar. If they're very close together, they can go around corners together. But if it's way out here – waaaaah."
Saunders has never worried too much about the commercial impact of these aesthetic decisions, but he does worry about "excluding readers because of a weakness in your own approach. In other words, is your edginess a kind of defence mechanism?" He would say the same thing about his gravitational pull towards the negative versus the positive experience. In all things, he is motivated by the ambition, just once, "in prose, to represent the way life actually feels to me. So I don't really care about commercial so much, except if I was failing to be commercial because I was failing to be human, because I was too afraid, or too technically deficient. Then I would care. Commercially" – he smiles – "I'm almost dead, so it doesn't matter."
The period of poverty he went through in his 20s is the moral underlay to all this; it taught him, in a different way, to be lean and efficient and, if he didn't already, to regard the truisms of his country with a certain scepticism. He was unemployed when he returned from Indonesia, and "to come back and be a dope with a college degree who couldn't find work – to see what America feels like when that happens … it was short term, but I got enough to see. When you butt up against capitalism in that way, it leaves a scar that stays. Terry Eagleton says capitalism plunders the sensuality of the body and to get that experience first hand, I think you've got something to work with for the rest of your life." It is true of many writers, he says: "They may not have the facts, but if they've had any kind of encounter with the moral universe, that may be enough. That's it."
There were other fallouts from this experience, not least in his attitude towards money. To this day, Saunders says, he flinches when using a credit card. When presented with a choice, he instinctively goes for the cheapest option. It also did something to his productivity. Before he won the 2006 MacArthur fellowship, which comes with a $500,000 bursary, Saunders combined writing with full-time teaching and if that meant he only had eight minutes to write in a day, he took them. "I set up the computer at just the right angle to make it maximally hard for somebody to get around and see what I was doing. So having written under those conditions, it was great training. I abandoned a lot of grad student habits: what sort of research should I do? Let me burn some incense before I get started. It was like, if you don't do this now you're out of luck for the day."
Winning the prize was a real game-changer psychologically too, given his earlier anxieties. "It had a very strange effect: having a bunch of strangers go 'you're worth something', and you thought, 'alright then, I will be worth something'. And this book is actually the result of feeling a little more sanctioned, to take the bigger swing at the ball. These people I don't know honoured me with this thing; I'm going to do better."
Saunders is often considered a postmodern writer, an accidental side-effect of his efforts to push through the limitations of existing modes of expression. For a long time, he felt "very vulnerable around postmodernism" and stuck, in his reading, to Steinbeck, Hemingway, Dos Passos and Thomas Wolfe. "So then it was a long process of trying to not become a 1930s writer, when it was actually 1980." He didn't, at that point, set out to be postmodern. "My thing is to say: I want to do as much weirdness and experimentalism as is necessary to access the emotional core; no more, no less. It's not a fancy side-project." It's central to the project of making it real? "Exactly. Toby Wolff said all good writing is experimental by definition. If it's not experimental, it's just a museum piece."
Apart from the technical difficulties of pulling off such ambitious stories as as Saunders', the biggest problem is keeping himself interested over the weeks and months and eventually years of a project. He is strict with himself about not working on something if it doesn't enthuse him, even if that means putting a half-finished story away for a decade. The key to his engagement, he says, is the not knowing; how it turns out, or what exactly he is aiming for. "It's kind of a circular thing. You're writing to find out what the scene is for. Once you find it out, you're going back and doing some horticulture. So for me, my whole schtick is, doing short fiction is like trying to suspend your conceptual understanding of the story for as long as possible."
There is nothing worse, he says, than plodding through the plot points of a story that is dead before it hits the page. "Donald Barthelme has this great essay called "Not Knowing", where he says that your job as a fiction writer is to keep yourself confused for as long as you can. And the text will actually have an energy that will start talking to you. If you can keep your own designs a little quiet."
It's something of a brain melt: trying to understand the mechanisms of keeping one's own self in the dark without blowing the ability to do it. Actually, says Saunders, it's a subtle but definite distinction.
"There's the ability to articulate a knowledge and there's the ability to enact it. And I was never that interested in the first. It's sort of a job hazard. You have to do it, and in teaching you do it. But the real reason I got into this is that I wanted to actually be able to do it. Be able to write a story. And there's whole tracts of knowledge in there that you can do without being able to articulate it."
These days, with both a MacArthur and a Guggenheim fellowship behind him, he has the luxury of dividing his time between writing and teaching, taking refuge in each when the other gets too much. The mental state most conducive to his writing is, he says, "to be a little bit happy. I goof around until I feel that" – and if he doesn't, he puts his work in a drawer until he feels like returning to it. To this end, Tenth of December took years to complete, interrupted by other writing, and any planned thematic link between stories is coincidental – or, rather, unconscious. By the end, Saunders saw, there was a broad, shared landscape between the stories of either a near future or a parallel present, a kind of Saunders-land that is instantly recognisable to his readers. (Those ornaments in the garden? Turned out to be made of live, developing-world women, rented from an agency and hung from a kind of clothes line – the new, must-have status symbol of the American suburbs.)
Saunders has always been fiercely ambitious for his writing, but lately has refined his idea of what constitutes trying hard. "I don't want to get to the end of my life and not have done my best," he says. "And I'm starting to realise that I always thought the answer was just to work hard. And it's true, but there's another component, which is that you have to keep pushing yourself to open up to the widest possible vision of the world. And find a prose style that will make that compelling. And that is a beautiful challenge."
Saunders feels under no particular pressure to turn out another "nine, 12, 15" books since, he says wryly, "I think I'll probably still die at the end." The interesting thing is somehow to get "a story down that is true to the way this has all felt. Even if it's a four-page story. That would be very nice."
He thinks for a moment. The ambition is this: "I want you to read my book and have it actually matter to you. Not to your constructed literary self. But to you. To the person who has issues and confusions."
To Saunders, that's what a moral is; nothing preachy. Just the fact "that one human being can speak to another and say something that isn't bullshit".



A life in writing / John Burnside 


A life in writing / Javier Marías


Sunday, February 18, 2018

A life in writing / Margaret Atwood / ‘I am not a prophet. Science fiction is really about now’

 ‘I’m not much interested in my deep, dark psyche, fascinating though it may be’ …
 Margaret Atwood
Photograph by Murdo Macleod for the Guardian


Margaret Atwood: ‘I am not a prophet. Science fiction is really about now’

The TV adaptation of her dystopian classic The Handmaid’s Tale captured the political moment. Ahead of a new series, Atwood talks bestsellers, bonnets and the backlash against her views on #MeToo

Lisa Allardice
Saturday 20 Jan 2018
“It was not my fault!” says Margaret Atwood of 2017. But it was certainly her year. Now, just a few weeks into January, she is already making headlines with typically trenchant comments on the #MeToo movement. And, of course, the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale returns this spring: she has read the first eight scripts and has “no fingernails left”. While the world – and Gilead – show no sign of getting any cheerier, Atwood is seemingly unstoppable. In March the New Yorker crowned her “the prophet of dystopia” and the TV adaptations of The Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace has orbited her into an international stardom seldom experienced by novelists. Atwood was a consultant on both productions, and has cameo performances in each: as one of the aunts in The Handmaid’s Tale, slapping Elisabeth Moss’s Offred round the face, and as “Disapproving Woman” (the sign on her trailer) in Alias Grace. She will be on set in Toronto for the second season soon, again as a consultant, but not in a nasty aunt outfit this time. “Once was enough.” She has very much been cast to type. “Sometimes I pretend to be a scary old lady,” she confesses over coffee. “Yes I do,” she drawls menacingly. It is a complete coincidence that her near-future dystopia and her historical novel based on a real 19th-century murder have come at the same time, she says. “But they do have something in common: bonnets. So many bonnets.”

“I’m not a prophet,” she says. “Let’s get rid of that idea right now. Prophecies are really about now. In science fiction it’s always about now. What else could it be about? There is no future. There are many possibilities, but we do not know which one we are going to have.” She is, however, “sorry to have been so right”. But, with her high forehead and electric halo of curls, there is something otherworldly about Atwood. Dressed in one of her trademark jewel-coloured scarfs and a necklace of tiny skulls, she cuts a striking figure outside the cafe in Piccadilly where we are huddled.
Our chat ranges from the hermaphroditic Barramundi fish to Game of Thrones, to the card she is making for Diana Athill’s 100 birthday. Hers is a bird-like inquisitiveness and lethal intellectual agility: magpie and falcon (she’s a keen ornithologist). She talks in a distinctive low monotone, and is given to quizzical rhetorical questioning: “And why is that?” The Handmaid’s Tale was written in 1984 in West Berlin – when else? where else? – to answer the question: if there was a totalitarian regime in the United States what kind of regime would it be?

Elisabeth Moss, right as Offred in the TV adaptation of Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale. Photograph: George Kraychyk/Hulu
Post Trump’s election, the novel is back on the bestseller lists, placards reading “Make Atwood fiction again” appear on the streets, and women have adopted her red robes in silent protest at threatened anti-abortion legislation. Much to her amusement, Handmaid-influenced outfits were even sashaying down catwalks, a far cry from the unglamorous original inspiration – an illustration on the 1940s Old Dutch cleaning product for sinks. We are living in an Atwellian era, and it’s not pretty.

She can’t deny her timing is spookily prescient. “Evidemment,” she replies with characteristic sang-froid. Lauded as the stand-out TV event of the year, the Hulu adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale did not so much strike a nerve as send Taser-like shots through its viewers. The Netflix production of Alias Grace, her 1996 meditation on truth, memory and complicity, hinging on the veracity of a woman’s testimony, landed amid the torrent of Weinstein allegations. Even the book of her 2008 lecture series, Payback, written in a hurry to suit her publisher’s schedule, arrived bang on time for the financial crash: “Everybody thought I knew something. I thought I was writing a book about the Victorian novel.”
Her new-found celebrity (she likes being in London, she confides, because she’s not stopped so often for selfies) has come despite her “doing nothing”, she says. “They weren’t actually my accomplishments, it was all those other people, who acted, designed, wrote the shows.”
During her visits on set, she was struck by the actors’ total immersion in her almost unbearable world. “They did the whole thing without makeup. All of them. That’s dedication!” Moss worked 14-hour days, she says. “She told me, ‘Those bags under my eyes were real. The dark circles, they were real.’”
Atwood speaks equally warmly about Sarah Polley, the actor, screenwriter and producer on the nearly all-female team behind Alias Grace. Polley first wrote to her asking to adapt the novel when she was 17. They held off for 20 years – during which time she had two children – until she was ready to make the show. “This is going to make her career,” the author predicts.
While updating Gilead to a disturbingly recognisable present day, “lattes had not been deployed in North America in 1985”, the series honours Atwood’s rule of not including anything that hasn’t happened somewhere in the world already; the addition of modern horrors makes it all the more chillingly plausible. Female genital mutilation was taking place, she says “but if I had put it in 1985 probably people wouldn’t have known what I was talking about. They do now.”
We are accustomed to our dystopias being dusty ruins, and part of what makes the show so disquieting is its eerie beauty: the lushness, the hush (silenced cars, creepily amplified birdsong), the saturated colour and light. Does it look like she imagined? “It’s pretty close. Of course I can’t remember exactly the picture I had. But I know what the place looked like because it was a real place, Cambridge Massachusetts. It’s changed somewhat since that time, but essentially those residential streets look the same.”

Sarah Gadon, who plays the lead role in the TV adaptation of Alias Grace. Photograph: Sabrina Lantos/Netflix

Another question behind the novel was how, “now that the box has been opened and the butterflies are out flitting about”, could you make women return to the home, as some on the Christian right in the 80s were advocating? “By what method?” Her answer: reproductive slavery.
Raising the inevitable F-word with Atwood can be risky. “It is always – ‘What do you mean by the word?’ For instance, some feminists have historically been against lipstick and letting transgender women into women’s washrooms. Those are not positions I have agreed with.” Last weekend, Atwood provoked a Twitter storm with an op-ed piece in the Canadian Globe and Mail under the headline “Am I a bad feminist?”, in which she calls the #MeToo moment “a symptom of a broken system”. She adds: “The choices are: fix the system; circumvent the system; or burn it down and substitute something different entirely. Sexual assault is rarer in countries with less wealth imbalance, so why not start there? While we are at it, depriving women of contraceptive information, reproductive rights, a living wage, and prenatal and maternal care – as some states in the US want to do – is practically a death sentence, and is a contravention of basic human rights. But Gilead, being totalitarian, does not respect universal human rights.”
The central theme in Atwood’s fiction is power, inequality or abuse of power, against women or anyone else. “I’m afraid it is all about power for a lot of people,” she says. “A lot of these things don’t come out of a wish for power, they come out of fear. Not to be that one. Remember Julia in Nineteen Eighty-Four: ‘Do it to Julia! Not me!’” Social mobbings on Twitter are about being “on the side of those doing it rather than on the side of those having it done to them”.
Her 1988 novel Cat’s Eye, dubbed “Lord of the Flies for girls” and written immediately after The Handmaid’s Tale, is an all too realistic story of schoolgirl bullying. The power structures of boys, Atwood says now, “are fairly simple and overt … hierarchical and stable”. Whereas with girls “it is much more like Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel: byzantine, covert … You can never quite figure out why that person is popular and suddenly not.”
Atwood recently met a young Korean woman who had been comforted by reading Cat’s Eye after having a horrible time at her all-girls school in British Columbia. Her mother had suggested she write down four things that she wanted to do in her life and put them in an envelope until she was 21. “And one of the things was meeting you,” the woman told Atwood, “and now I’ve done it.”
Pause. “Gee,” the novelist says, with tears in those terrifying blue eyes.
Although Cat’s Eye clearly draws on Atwood’s experience of moving from the Canadian wilderness to school in Toronto, memoir has never tempted her: “I’m more interested in what’s going on in the world than I am in myself,” she says drily. “I’m not much interested in my deep, dark psyche, fascinating though it may be.”
She has written nearly the equivalent of a book a year in over six decades. Her current project is adapting her comic series Angel Catbird into an audiobook: there is the vexed question of feathery superhero pants. “Nobody told me not to,” she says of her own polymath super powers. “That’s the secret. I was in a time and a place where there weren’t any professional anythings, so people just did those things.” So how does she do it? “I’m not a perfectionist. That’s one clue.” And she’s not fussy about when or where she writes. “I’m a downhill skier. I get to the bottom. Once I’ve gotten to the end I do a lot of rewriting. I start rewriting from the front while I’m still writing at the back, just to remind myself what I’ve written.”
This makes her process sound more spontaneous than it is: in fact, she plots graphs for each character from the year they are born. “I want to know how old they are exactly – so I don’t mess up.” For Atwood, the defining fact of her life is being born in 1939. “There’s no question!” Of all the referents that informed The Handmaid’s Tale – slavery, the Salem witch trials, the Soviet system (the list, as she says, is long) – Nazi Germany is its rotten heart: the idea that stability can be overturned overnight.
American democracy has never felt so challenged, she has said. But today she is a more chipper, or at least more contrary, Cassandra. “Why are you so shocked by it all?” she demands. “Look at their history. Come on! The real reason people expect so much of America in modern times is that it set out to be a utopia. That didn’t last very long. Nathaniel Hawthorne nailed it when he said the first thing they did when they got to America was build a scaffold and a prison.”
Things might be “very scary” right now, but “can we remember world wars one and two, just for a minute? And in the 50s we all thought we were going to be blown up with nuclear bombs. So there are different kinds of scary.”
A committed environmentalist, Atwood blames the state of the planet for “driving social unrest, wars and revolutions. You get those things when people feel they are running out of food. Why would you not?”
As we brace ourselves for the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale, is there hope? For Offred? For us? It’s there in the book, she reminds me – in the epilogue Gilead is over. “There is always hope. Otherwise why get up in the morning?” she says. And as for human nature: “We are capable of the most amazing altruism and wonderfulness and we are also capable of the most vile atrocities and horrible acts. It’s not news. We behave well when times are good.”

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Joan McFadden / The best sex of my life

The best sex of my life

They are the sexual encounters that linger long after the event, the memorable moments of joy when you suddenly see what all the fuss is about – here 10 people share their bliss

Margaret Hunter, 88
I was 26 and a week away from marrying John. We’d been engaged for three years and sex scared me senseless because I was desperate to try it, but I’m from “the good girls don’t” era. I was more worried about being an unmarried mum than dying of flu when it hit our village after the war. My father had done up a tiny cottage for us on his farm and both sets of parents gave us furniture. We went over with big bags of linen and pots and pans to make sure that everything was ready for moving in after our wedding. We were making up our double bed and we fell on each other. It was such a glorious feeling I was nearly crying and so was John – it was the first time for both of us. And we’ve never really stopped since.
Gary Roberts, 42
Our marriage was falling apart and my wife had an affair. That shocked us both into realising we wanted to be together and we went for counselling because it was something I’d done that pushed her towards the other guy. I knew that but I couldn’t get him out of my head and our sex life was dead – we’d start cuddling and I’d get upset or angry and start dragging up the past. I knew I was doing it but I just couldn’t seem to stop. Then we went to see a comedy one night and laughed so much we were crying and we walked home with our arms round each other, talking about our favourite comedies. We got into the house and it was dark and she went to put the kettle on and I just grabbed her and we made love on the kitchen floor and it was like everything worked again.
Kate Murray, 41
Sex never meant that much to me. I’d had a couple of boyfriends and we sort of jogged along – I got engaged to one and we started half-heartedly planning a wedding but neither of us was devastated when I ended it. Then I had a few years just concentrating on my career and friends but when I met Janie at a wedding I was completely swept off my feet. I had never thought I was gay and in a strange way I still don’t – it’s just that Janie is meant for me. There were no nerves or anything and I’ll never forget our first night together because it just confirmed that we were meant to be together. Sometimes I wonder how I ever thought sex didn’t matter because it’s the glue that keeps us together no matter what else happens – and we fight a lot!

Kevin Barker, 29
I was 16 and at a festival. The first couple of nights had been too much of everything and I was recovering from a blinding hangover when I met Magda. She was a few years older than me and I forgot about my friends and spent the day with her before dragging her back to meet them. I didn’t need any more drink and I was full of myself, convinced I was in love. She took me back to her tent and we spent the night together and I thought we’d at least spend the rest of the weekend together but she moved on to someone else and I was shattered. I still think about her and no sexual experience has ever lived up to that hot sweaty night in her little tent – if I ever meet another woman who makes me feel like that, I’ll marry her.
Heather Brown, 60
When I had breast cancer 15 years ago my husband couldn’t cope. He left me for a younger woman a year later and my self-esteem was rock bottom as I’d put on weight and didn’t care how I looked, especially as I retired early due to ill health and just sat around doing nothing. Five years ago, my best friend had had enough and yelled at me to get a grip and get sorted. I was so stunned I obeyed her, losing three stones and taking up jogging in a big way. I started seeing a lovely man and I was so nervous as I’d only ever slept with my husband, but my first sex in 10 years was wonderful and we saw each other for a while. I’ve had a couple of relationships since then and never lost my confidence in sex again.
Grant Earl, 38
I was desperate to take my girlfriend on a cycling tour of the Outer Hebrides as I’d done it before and the weather was spectacular. She had to be talked into it and when it started raining and didn’t stop I felt guilty and she was totally fed up. We were pitching our tent in sand dunes in a brief spell of no rain and I was wittering about how beautiful it was with the sun shining when there was a crack of thunder and the heavens opened. She started laughing, stripped off her clothes and boots, threw them into the tent and stood there naked with the rain bouncing off her. My mouth was hanging open in shock until she said “Get your kit off now!” and we didn’t even make the tent. The sand got everywhere and she chucked me when we got back, but that’s still my best sex ever.
Thomas Ryan, 57
I’d known I was gay since I was very young but was paralysed by the thought of telling my parents as they are devout Irish Catholics. For years they actually thought being gay was an illness and I just couldn’t tell them – it made me feel ill when I thought of their reaction. All my friends at university knew I was gay and I was madly promiscuous but always felt so guilty. I was in my late 30s before I finally told my parents and they were amazing, totally accepting. It was like having my whole life smoothed out. The next time I had sex it was with the man who’s still my partner and I’m sure feeling so comfortable with myself at last played a huge part in finally enjoying sex and being ready for a relationship.

Lorrae Bradbury, 26
Sex was always a performance to me. An interactive, contrived production inspired by women’s magazines that told me to “unleash my inner sex kitten”, learned from porn’s exaggerated movements and sounds, and practised during sex that lacked connection. Until I slept with him. He said, “You don’t have to do that just because I like it. Do what you like.” I realised “what I like” never occurred to me. It only occurred to me to be someone else’s fantasy. To be the hot story they told their friends and the memory they recall when they are alone. At first, his words sounded like just a sweet, gentlemanly gesture designed to make me comfortable. But as he looked at me deeply, I eventually saw that the porn-star persona I’d so carefully constructed had never been necessary. I could be me. Just me. Intimate, imperfect and genuinely present with him.
Emily Yates, 24
I’m a travel writer, so spend a lot of time away from home. It’s often hard to keep the romance alive without it involving jet lag, time-delayed Skypes and heavily filtered “wish you were here” photos. I’m also a wheelchair user and it took me a while to accept myself, flaws and all. I’m single now, but whenever I landed back on UK soil was when we’d have our best sex. The anticipation would have me grinning on the flight home, and the long drive back up north from Heathrow would give us time to debrief on our months apart and get to know each other again, almost like it was the first time. There’s nothing quite like “I’ve missed you” sex (as long as you mind the sunburn).
Anonymous, 47
Our teenage daughters are patronisingly rude about how boring we are, especially as I’m a minister. Twenty years ago we were at a church camp in the US and spent our last night with another minister and his wife. Apparently she never drank but we had two bottles of wine between us and she got really amorous with him in front of us and they stripped off and had sex, so we did the same. It wasn’t a foursome, just in the same room. We couldn’t look at them the next morning as they drove us to the airport. But every time the girls go on about how boring we are, Liz and I have a snigger because we both have the same memory and the girls know we’re hiding something. But we’ll never ever share that one with them.
As told to Joan McFadden

Friday, February 16, 2018

A life in writing / John Burnside

John Burnsdide

John Burnside: a life in writing

'Having been, as it were, mad, and lived with horror I believed in, I know that rationality doesn't carry you all the way'

Sarah Crown
Friday 26 August 2011 22.54 BST

"What I'm interested in just now," says John Burnside, "is the Schrödinger's cat novel: two mutually exclusive possibilities sitting together without cancelling each other out." He achieves just such a balancing act in his latest novel, A Summer of Drowning, in which the narrator, Liv, wrestles with the question of whether a series of unexplained deaths in her island community can be laid at the door of a malign spirit – the huldra – said to haunt the Arctic forests where she lives. "I wanted readers to be able to believe that the huldra exists, at the same time as rationally thinking 'this cannot be'," Burnside explains. "Because, you know, that's how we live our lives."
It's certainly how Burnside has lived his. Here is a man whose first poetry volume, published in 1988 when he was in his 30s, turned out to be the pebble that called forth the avalanche: in the quarter-century since, he has written compulsively, pouring out an astonishing (and astonishingly well-received) 13 collections and eight novels. But here, too, is a man whose early life, set out in a pair of bleached and harrowing memoirs, was so catastrophic that it tipped him into a spiral of LSD binges, psychiatric wards and, finally insanity. In a scene at the beginning of his second volume of memoir, Waking Up in Toytown, he comes to on a bed, surrounded by bottles holding "a mixture of blood, honey, alcohol, olive oil and urine" with "a single feather, balanced precariously on each rim". The intention, as far as he can recall, was "to cast a spell that would stop the world from disintegrating . . . if one feather falls, then the spell fails". Rationally, it is impossible to square this vision of disintegration with the thoughtful, cheerful man currently sipping a beer across the table – but perhaps that explains why Burnside gives short shrift to rationality and its adherents. "I always feel saddened by intelligent people who say, this can't be true because it doesn't work in terms of rationality," he says. "What does? Inspiration? Art? Romantic love? Having been, as it were, mad, and lived with horror which at that moment I completely believed in, I know that rationality doesn't carry you all the way. Irrationality interests me more than anything: sometimes it's very dangerous, but it can be incredibly beautiful."

In A Summer of Drowning, it is both. The book has its roots in a family trip to the Arctic circle over a decade ago, when Burnside and his wife, Sarah, decamped to north Norway for the summer with their infant son. "Lucas's first birthday was on the island of Kvaløya, where the book's set," Burnside remembers (the couple now have two sons). "You sat outside your hut and gazed for miles: nothing but wind and sea and Arctic terns. It was gorgeous; it was like heaven to me. That's when I started this book. It took me 10 years to write it."
The magic of that summer infuses the book: a wide, white canvas lit by splashes of prismatic colour, it is at once the most ravishing novel I've read all year, and the most intellectually provoking. Liv, the young narrator, lives in beautiful seclusion on Kvaløya with her mother, a gifted but reclusive painter. A loner herself, Liv has little to do with her classmates, preferring to train her gaze on her environment, and visit her elderly neighbour, Kyrre, who beguiles her with local stories of trolls and lost children. When two teenaged boys drown in calm water under the midnight sun, "that still, silvery-white gloaming that makes everything spectral", Kyrre maintains that a huldra, a malevolent forest-spirit which takes the form of a beautiful young girl, drove them to it. At first Liv disregards him, but as the novel winds towards its convulsive ending, she becomes convinced of the literal truth of his tale. And we, who see everything through her eyes, grow simultaneously more aware of her profound unreliability as a narrator and less certain of what, precisely, it is that we're seeing.
For seasoned Burnside readers, the real wonder of the novel isn't the slippery subject matter, but that this is the first time he has fully succeeded in fusing the opposing strengths of his prose and his poetry in one book. In the past, the two have inhabited very different arenas – the first obsessively occupied with darkness and violence, the second with the gloriously mystical. But in A Summer of Drowning, bloodshed is balanced by beauty: the sensuousness of Liv's gaze, which lingers on food and flowers and the sea's "endlessly shifting maze of grey and silver and salt-blue", offsets the patches of pitch-blackness in a story that, like the legend of the huldra itself, has "chaos at its heart". Just as his fiction is beginning to incorporate some of the mysticism of his poetry, so Burnside's poetry appears to be absorbing the firmness of his fiction. Over the years he has established himself as a laureate of the transcendental, but his new collection, Black Cat Bone, shows a perceptible change of tack. "I realised I'd spent a lot of time in my poetry trying to find a way of talking about that whereof we cannot speak," he says. "This new book is about things that nobody can deny. I'm always referred to as being interested in the numinous, the immanent, those kinds of words. I decided not to do it any more. This book still deals with the evanescent, but it's about sex, love, death – solid, real-life things." The two books, taken together, read like the works of a man in the process of making peace with himself.

There has been much to reconcile. Burnside was born in Dunfermline in 1955, to a mother fast realising she'd made a terrible mistake and a father who would cast a polluting shadow over his son's life well beyond his own death from a heart attack between the bar and the cigarette machine of the Silver Band Club many years later. Hard-drinking, hard-gambling, simmeringly violent, he was determined to bludgeon any trace of softness or sweetness out of his son. "What he wanted," Burnside says, in 2006's superb A Lie About My Father, "was to warn me against hope, against any expectation of someone from my background being treated as a human being in the big hard world. He wanted to kill off my finer – and so, weaker – self. Art. Music. Books. Imagination. Signs of weakness, all. A man was defined, in my father's circles, by what he could bear, the pain he could shrug off, the warmth or comfort he could deny himself."
This lesson in working-class Catholic masculinity was achieved through a series of viciously petty acts of cruelty, such as the burning of a favourite teddy bear, that continue to haunt Burnside's dreams decades later. Although his subsequent discovery that his father had been abandoned as an infant allowed him to forgive the man, he was unable to forget. "I cannot talk about him without talking about myself," he writes, "just as I can never look at myself in the mirror without seeing his face." Eventually, inevitably, Burnside followed his father into the same vortex of repression and release through alcohol – but in his case the vortex went deeper, ending in drug abuse and mental breakdown.
'I didn't set out to write about my early life," Burnside says. "One day I was talking about what I was going to do next, and just found myself announcing it: I'm going to write a book about my father. We were expecting Lucas at the time, and I suddenly thought, what stories do I have for my son? I didn't even have a family album with pictures of me as a kid: I'd refused all of that. My father told all these versions of his life – he'd been adopted by his uncle, he was the son of an industrialist and a factory girl, or of a lay preacher who'd strayed – so I went to see my aunt to find out what was true, what was false. She told me the full story, the whole foundling thing. After that the book had to happen."
He followed it four years later with Waking Up in Toytown, which details his struggle to shake off the shadow. He wanted "a normal life. Sober. Drug-free. Dreamless. In gainful employment. A householder. A taxpayer. A name on the electoral roll", and on the surface, at least, he achieved it. For 10 years, he slipped himself into a textbook middle-class existence: house in Surrey, job in computing, numbing visits to cinema and garden centre. But beneath the surface, this book is, if anything, more desperate even than the first. Despite his best efforts, alcohol sneaked back in, turning his nights into uneasy odysseys, leading him to a series of encounters with equally damaged souls: the mother who dopes her kids with valium-laced orange juice; the fellow-drinker who tries to persuade Burnside to bump off his wife. The suburbia he finds for himself turns out to be a fatally debased version of the television fantasy, not the safe haven he'd imagined.

"I realised I'd been faking 'normal' for 10 years, pretty much," Burnside says. "And I knew it had to stop. I ended up walking into my boss's office and saying, 'That's it, I'm done'. And he looked at me – I was a 40-ish guy, he knew I wrote poetry – and said 'I suppose you're off to write a novel?'. In the end he told me to do some consultancy work to ease the transition."
By now, the poetry that had welled through the cracks of his suburban life was flowing, and he was several collections in, despite a shaky start. "My first book was a car crash. I tried to find all the copies and destroy them. I'd sent some poems to Carcanet, and Michael Schmidt [the editor] was very encouraging and suggested a book. I assumed this was the first stage of a long process of honing, but instead they just put my poems together, with a picture of me in a tank top on the back. They sent me a copy, and I said 'oh, this is the proof, is it?'. I thought, god, I'm not doing that again."
He decided to give up poetry there and then, but felt obliged to do a couple of readings on the back of publication. At one, he met the poet Sarah Maguire, who persuaded him to send some poems to Robin Robertson, poetry editor at Jonathan Cape, before jacking it in. "I began working with Robin and everything changed."
Burnside got married at about the time he published his first novel, The Dumb House, and moved back to Scotland where he took up a writer's residency at Dundee University. Though he was well known and admired within the poetry world (he'd been shortlisted for the TS Eliot prize and the Forward prize, and had taken the Whitbread poetry award for his 2000 collection, The Asylum Dance), his longer writing took time to gel. The Dumb House, in which a Mengele-esque narrator attempts to discover "the locus of the soul" by carrying out surgical experiments on his twin children, was reasonably well received, but the follow-ups were, Burnside says, "disastrous".
"The second one, The Mercy Boys, was an emotional response to going back to Scotland, and probably an early way of trying to deal with some of the issues around my father – the gambling, the booze, the tension in that men's world. I shouldn't have written it. Then came The Locust Room," a curiously affectless tale about the 1970s Cambridge rapist, "which was very self-indulgent: a book-length apology for having been a dick when I was growing up, for having treated my sisters and my mother the way my father did." The next book, Living Nowhere, was "better", but he still hadn't hit his fictional stride. After the memoirs were written, much of the personal stuff he'd been trying to smuggle into the fiction was cleared out.
Nowadays, he says, for the first time he is "happy with what I'm doing. I feel as if I know where I'm going now – I can see four or five books ahead." Despite the forward planning, however, when it comes to the act of writing, he's sticking with irrationality. "I imagine the mind as a big house. You've got the parlour where you sit and have tea, your bedroom, your kitchen, your bathroom. But actually there are endless rooms around you that you don't use, and there's one room way at the back – the furnace room, maybe – where your thoughts begin. Sometimes they walk all the way up to the parlour to find you before you even realised they were coming. That's how it feels for me. I think good ideas work like that."