'I’m a Human and Nothing Human is Alien to Me': An Interview With John Burnside

St Andrews beach in winter, 2012 © India Doyle
St Andrews beach in winter, 2012 © India Doyle
Photo of India Doyle
28 February 2017

With John Burnside’s new novel Ashland and Vine out this month, Culture Trip’s India Doyle headed north to Fife to speak with the novelist and poet.

I first had the joy of witnessing John Burnside’s knack for digression during my student days at St Andrews, where lectures on contemporary American poetry or ecology in literature often left me with few notes and many questions. What might begin as a study on Mark Doty’s work could quickly give way to musings on anything from the Weather Underground to the Big Bang Theory (as likely to be the TV show as it was to be science), and I always delighted in figuring out how to weave his threads into a coherent lesson. An anarchist, former computer programmer and environmental activist, John Burnside is an individual who sees the world as a connected series of layers or tapestry rather than independent happenings (or objects).

The cover of Ashland & Vine | Courtesy of Jonathan Cape

The T. S. Eliot Award-winning poet and renowned novelist is masterful at portraying experience through image and description; that some of his recent work departed from linear narratives is unsurprising. (I Put A Spell On You, most notably, is a hypnotic piece dwelling on love and relationships.) His previous works featured a range of disparate narrative forms, from the candid memoir A Lie About My Father to his acclaimed foray into thriller, Glister, as well as the brilliant short-story collections Burning Elvis and Something Like Happy.

In his latest book, Ashland and Vine, Burnside offers a fictional tale—a story built around a medley of American history, human fallibility and the possibility of hope. The novel centres around a young alcoholic film student named Kate and her relationship with Jean, an older recluse with a bank of experience—both her own, and of her family. On their first encounter, Jean offers to tell Kate a story, so long as she can stop drinking for five days. Like ripples from a pebble skimmed across the water, these characters connect hipster vegetarian cafés with revolutionary revolts in the 1960s; the man who gave away atomic bomb secrets with milk and cookies in a warm kitchen. They take us through the domestic and public tropes of American identity, while also unpacking notions of grief and hope—themes central to this mystical and compelling tale of America.

I met Burnside on the day of Trump’s inauguration, and while the Fife sky had done its best to seal itself in from the rest of the world, the interview timing was apt. “I had forgotten [my] presence in the world for too long,” Kate says, towards the end of the book: Ashland and Vine is an invitation to remember ourselves in the fabric of time and place—an essential call for reconciling ourselves with the present.

John Burnside, ein schottischer Autor sitzt an einer Landzuge Landschaft in der sich wie in seinen Romanen, Niedergang, Furcht, Krankheit und Tod angesiedelt haben kˆnnen, die Bucht befindet sich bei Anstruther einem ehemaligen Fischerdorf 80 km Nˆrdlich non Edinburgh am Montag den 28 September 2009.

India Doyle: How did the idea for this story come about, and why did you want to tell it now?

John Burnside: I started working on the novel five years ago, and the original idea was that it would be a history lesson in disguise. For me, what’s happening in America now means it’s possibly the worst or the best time. I’m not sure which. It’s partly dependent on the fact that we don’t read or know our own history. If you ask people who are the Black Panthers, they say “I don’t know, a football team?” So I felt it was really important that people understood the history that led to where we are.

If you’re reading history for history’s sake, then it’s interesting, but if you’re getting history rammed down your throat you get resentful. So I distanced it somewhat and made it to be seen through Jean’s eyes, who hasn’t experienced these things first hand. I wanted to keep distance for the reader, and I wanted people to be guessing about Jean. She’s someone who is very rigorous in her thinking, but she’s not very likeable. I hope she was a kind of neutral figure, and I hope there’s enough in the book for people to go on and read about the history for themselves.

The other thing that happened was that I kind of fell in love with Jean, and I wanted to tell the story of the relationship between the two women.

ID: I’m interested in who came to you first, and how you imaginatively assumed these characters?

JB: They came together actually, at the same time. My first imagining was their first meeting. I could hear the chopping logs as Kate walked up, and I knew that that was Jean. I really wanted to present a woman who was strong and self-reliant. In many ways she’s a female transcendentalist like Thoreau; she watches things around her without interfering. She tolerates Christina [a young, wild girl who lurks in Jean’s garden] without thinking, ‘someone should do something about this kid’. However, she looks at Kate and decides on the spot that something should be done about this pathetic fish out of water.

So they came together. Jean developed much more quickly as a character than Kate, but she was still developing as a character when Kate had been rounded off. I thought a lot about Jean’s past life. I originally had her tell the story of her relationship in a straight narrative but I thought: no, she can’t tell it straight because she was so hurt by it. So instead I have her tell a botched version of the story.

In the end, you have to go with the characters. And I think there are moments in the story where the reader wonders if Jean is falling in love with Kate, but at the end you see that it was about wanting someone who was like her to follow their true path and not end up with regrets. That’s what made the story more interesting to me.

Alongside history, the story is very much about grief. It’s definitely not a gender book; it’s history, how we reconcile history and grief and how we deal with grief. I’d also been writing a lot of poetry about it, but I’ve decided I’m not going to do that anymore. My new theme is hope.

ID: I think you write women well, in that I never felt aware of you trying to create a “female woman”—they read as honest character portrayals.

JD: I think that some female characters written by men are not very convincing, especially attractive younger or older women—Philip Roth, for example, give me a break! I love that guy but then for three books in a row… it gets sad. Women writers have always been interested in both male and female characters, partly because they are living in a male world and they have to otherwise they get stuck. I don’t feel like I’m doing anything artificial in writing female characters.

Americanah: A barn in rural Pennsylvania | © Pixabay

ID: Do you think that there should ever be limits on who an author, on who you, would imaginatively inhabit in terms of character?

JB: I would never write a black central character. I remember the story of Miles Davis who had a new car and was celebrating with a drive and the cops pulled him over and said ‘how can you afford a new car?’ To come back to the Weather Underground part of this: when they were writing those memoirs they said they knew that while they would be arrested and beaten, they knew they wouldn’t be shot. And no matter what kind of bad experiences they may have had with the law, I don’t think a white person can know what it’s like to be in black skin. I might write about black characters observed, but I wouldn’t put myself in the first-person narrative of a black male, even less so of a woman.

I don’t see sexuality as a barrier, because I don’t believe that anybody is just straight heterosexual or homosexual. I think we’re all pretty adaptable if we need to be. There’s a Christian saying, ‘I’m a human and nothing human is alien to me.’ We’re all capable of certain things under certain circumstances and I have much more time for the person who can say ‘I could have committed that sin’ than for the one that says ‘no I’m just a regular guy’.

Age isn’t a particular barrier, I mean I guess I wouldn’t have written Jean when I was 20. I’m more conscious of age now. I don’t feel inhibited by it.

ID: Why are the males in the story absent? They appear, but disappear again.

JB: Because of their conflicts with the system, men like Simon [Jean’s nephew] are shadowy figures who go into America to escape America. It’s like Thoreau‘s last book, where he goes to Cape Cod and he’s standing with his back to America. This is Thoreau who said informed young men should go West so they wouldn’t swallow the land. Then he saw slavery and was disgusted, but he didn’t leave America to turn his back on America. It’s a very ambiguous statement. I love America, ever since I was a kid I have loved America and the Constitution, the idea of trying to live a just, egalitarian life. And I feel grief at what’s happened recently.

ID: You mentioned earlier that your new theme is hope. If you were writing the book now, would you include anything different?

JB: I had been re-reading To Kill A Mockingbird and I was wondering if I liked it or disliked it as much as I once did. I decided that I liked it and disliked it in equal measure. Atticus—and lots of black critics wrote about this, it’s not my thinking—is not some kind, liberal guy. When Harper Lee writes Go Set A Watchmen, we see he’s actually more of a pragmatic racist. When I found out she was releasing it I didn’t want people to see Ashland and Vine as a response to that book—it wasn’t—but one of the thoughts I had in my mind is how it’s great in many ways, but awful in terms of how it tells the story of black people in American history. My question is: why is such a well-written book full of so many gaps in terms what real life is really like?

Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird | ©Universal Pictures

ID: Thinking a bit more about narrative omissions, I was interested in the relationship between fake news and storytelling.

JB: Respect for truth has been eroded by all kinds of things, but then there was that sudden trend for broadcasters like Fox [News] saying “okay, you have your views, you have mine” about something factual, which is ridiculous because one thing is true and one thing is false. Stephen Colbert called it post-factual. He wrote about how these people—news presenters, Boris Johnson or Nigel Farage—will not be reprimanded for lying to us.

Once it’s gone past a certain point, you can’t stop it. The will wasn’t there to have Bernie Sanders or Hilary Clinton, the will was to have another Republican. There’s has been a lot of talk about the need to unite the country and you think, why are they talk about uniting a country? They weren’t talking about uniting the country after eight disastrous years of Bill Clinton! The only reason they keep talking about uniting the country is because they had a black president and white people didn’t like it. Obama wasn’t Jesse Jackson, he wasn’t radical. I was in Brooklyn when Obama was elected and all along the alley were slogans saying ‘Obama will Save Us’ and that was heartbreaking because these people lived in poverty. All you could see was creeping gentrification on both sides. Obama didn’t do anything about gentrification… He was an honourable President, but not a radical one, and what we need is a radical one…

In the novel, Kate is suffering from grief, and also suffering as an artist, and then she takes up with someone who is going to undermine her further. But I felt that her blank sensitivity to begin with would point in the direction that one day she’ll make something that would be meaningful, creatively meaningful. I wanted to suggest that she was beginning to find her way as a filmmaker, not a manipulative one like Laurits, but somebody who was perhaps more open.

ID: So how do we take narrative forward, can it change? What role do you see virtual reality technologies playing in literature?

JB: Well there’s two answers. The first is that storytelling itself, how a story can satisfy human needs, will always be the same. You recognize and feel with the characters, and they make you laugh. So unless human beings change, storytelling will always stay the same. I think I probably feel all the same basic emotions that Saint Augustine did, for example. (Augustine is one of my heroes—growing up through life, no longer a Catholic teenager, I’d have little moments where I thought, ‘oh Augustine said that’!) Augustine famously said ‘God to make me chaste, but not yet’. And taking on Augustine began by being someone who’s not going to take on any social role. It’s much easier to live on your own as a spiritual person than living with others. I could deal with living on my own as a recluse, that’s very easy. You compromise one thing, that’s with your hunger, your appetites.

Technology is the other part. Obviously, we recognise now that a book is a piece of technology, that a scroll is a piece of technology. It’s new ways of experiencing it. I had an idea a few years ago about a dynamic e-book. The book would change at key points based on the reader’s response. It’s been done before in a very basic way—people meet, and they can choose to have sex with someone or murder someone—but this would be far more nuanced, investigating how a reader responds to a landscape. What happens when they get to a river, for example? I described this to my old agent and she said “that sounds very expensive.”

Stained-glass window of St. Augustine, in the Lightner Museum, St. Augustine, Florida. | ©Daderot/Wikimedia Commons

ID: A data-driven book? That’s sort of what’s happening in journalism at the moment. It will be interesting to see how it evolves.

JB: You mentioned hope earlier. Marianne Moore has this line, ‘hope not being hope until all grounds for hope have vanished’. If you have grounds to believe in something you don’t need hope. You need hope when there’s no reason to hope. But when the enemy gets to the situation where they’re so dominant—Trump and Putin can do anything they like—they’ll start making certain kinds of mistakes. It will be costly for all of us, but it might drive people who sit in the middle to say something. If you’re middle upper middle class in America you don’t want to make any fuss, but if it gets so bad for other people morally and also financially, and Americans are essentially moral people in terms of value, then people will start shifting to have more empathy with those further down the tree. We have become so worried about we’ve got ourselves and very disconnected from others. If you had seen Laurits being attacked, for example, I would have gone and tried to intervene. I feel sad to live in a world where if you saw violence happening you wouldn’t try and stop it. Marriage and parenthood are some of the ways in which the system tames us. When you’re a parent you have more to lose. I used to go to rallies all the time but I never got arrested, and I almost got annoyed that they didn’t come after me.

ID: Maybe they thought you were a double agent–

JB: An agent provocateur.

by John Burnside
Jonathan Cape
352 pp. | £16.99

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