Anna Burns

Friday - - AUTHORSPEAK -

Milk­man

Some­one said to me re­cently: “I’m not go­ing to ask you what your book’s about. I want you to tell me what you in­tended your book to do.” He stressed that end bit and I thought, what a ques­tion from this per­son I’ve only just been in­tro­duced to at this party. I an­swered: “I can’t say any­thing more about my book. I’m talked out. My brain has pulled over the cur­tains.” Although true, this was also code for, “Please don’t. I need a rest. Stop.”

Later, with no stop­watch tick­ing down the sec­onds to hurry me into a sound­bite an­swer, I thought about his ques­tion. It had seemed strange, unan­tic­i­pated. The ones I had been get­ting about Milk­man , and so have started more and more to ex­pect, are: “Why have you not put names?”; “Why pages of para­graphs?”; “Is this re­ally you in the book?”; “Why Ire­land again when you could be get­ting on with your life?”; “About this lan­guage you use in the book ...” I can see - now that my brain has opened the cur­tains again - that the man’s ques­tion was the same as: “What started you writ­ing your book?” The only an­swer I can give is that I started writ­ing it be­cause it wanted to come.

I can’t de­mand any­thing of my writ­ing. I have no idea when I turn up what is go­ing to come. Ex­cept the char­ac­ters

I don’t mean this as a brush-off. I mean, this is how I write. 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. 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’s go­ing to come.

Ex­cept the char­ac­ters. They come. Usu­ally. Un­less I’m be­ing se­ri­ously des­per­ate and grabby and con­trol­ling and fear­ful and in a hurry and show­ing it. They don’t like that. I don’t blame them. Also, they would be as­ton­ished, then amused, if they thought they were to show only for me to give them in­struc­tions. My char­ac­ters tell me who they are - and what it is they want me to do. I’m al­lowed to en­thu­si­as­ti­cally sec­ond-guess, they don’t mind that, which is nice of them. They let me have this fan­tasy, and they don’t frown on my au­dac­ity or mock or hin­der me or push on my in­se­cu­rity com­plexes. How­ever, they also pay no at­ten­tion to me.

When it comes to the end, to wrap up time, I re­alise once again that my char­ac­ters have ig­nored all my clever guess­work as to the pro­gres­sion of our novel. They’ll have deleted bits of writ­ing that they al­lowed me for the du­ra­tion but to which they never had any in­ten­tion of giv­ing the con­fir­ma­tory thumbs up. Or I’ll awake in the morn­ing and they’ll have dashed out of the com­puter on to the liv­ing room floor all my lat­est squashed-in bits of great ideas. Ruth­lessly, it is they who kill my dar­lings, then shrug and sug­gest I get over it. You need a strong con­sti­tu­tion in my po­si­tion, also a cer­tain amount of for­giv­ing for­bear­ance, in or­der to deal with the de­sire, also the dread, of work­ing with that lot.

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