Interview: John Burnside on Glister
John Burnside is a Scottish novelist and poet of considerable acclaim – he won the Forward poetry prize for his collection Black Cat Bone in October this year, and his latest novel, A Summer of Drowning, is on the shortlist for the current Costa Fiction prize. Here he tells us about some of the ideas and concepts behind his novel Glister, Book Talk's featured book for December. [Spoiler note: this discussion covers plot details and the ending of the novel]
NB. This is an edited selection from a very long interview with John! If you'd like to listen to the whole thing, the audio is available here.
Glister is a story that begins at the end. Did you start writing it with the end in mind?
No, I never start from the beginning or the end with a book. I usually start in the middle. But with this I wanted to write a story with what I call a Schrödinger’s Cat ending, where two endings that are mutually exclusive have exactly the same valency, as it were, when you get to the end. I think there is something almost dictatorial or Stalinist about the [concept of] an “ending”. I hate books that end with an ending! I like books that just take you up and then leave you there. I wanted my character to come to a point where he could be murdered in this horrible way or he could be released in some way from this world that he is in.
I have to fight the impulse to write books that are essentially political. Because if you don’t watch out, a book written from a particular political position can be too preachy or didactic, or even too obvious. But I did want to write something about the way we have damaged our environment, and continue to do so in all kinds of inventive and subtle ways. For the town in Glister – Innertown - the chemical plant was a huge gift, it was employment for everyone, and the town was booming for a while. But of course they pay the price. And as so often happens when people pay for something that’s partly their own fault, they deny that it’s a bad thing for a long time.
The other shadow that’s hanging over the book is actually Moby Dick. But I’m kind of a Herman Melville groupie; for me he is the great imagination of the 19th Century, and married to active life too. He isn’t just sitting in his room writing his books. So the concern for environment, the obsession with Melville, the interesting technical problem that the book presented; these were all things that were there and I could feed off them. But if I didn’t watch out it would be like swimming with sharks, and they would start feeding off the book!
Leonard is something of an ‘unknowing narrator’ isn’t he? And this book seems to be on one level about the difficulty of knowing and being sure about anything?
Yes, but there are things that we can know, if we make an effort – or we could if the powers that be didn’t exert such control over the flow of information. The big problem for someone like Leonard, and I think he’s very contemporary, is that there is information there, but we don’t know what’s tainted, we don’t know what information is controlled by Brian Smith. Brian Smith is a kind of cardboard character in a way, he stands in for capitalism, effectively. He’s the man behind the scenes, and there’s no way to get to him.
So in terms of this bigger picture of the story, what can we learn from Leonard?
I think of that thing Donald Rumsfeld said: “we know what we know, we know what we don’t know, but there are things we don’t know that we don’t know”. Well, there are also things that we know we don’t want to know, and in our society that’s huge. I exaggerated with the community in the book, here everyone doesn’t want to know what’s going on. They feel powerless and don’t know what they can do about it anyway. But they don’t want to acknowledge what’s happened, because they’ll feel culpable. And I think penitence is important, because the first step towards action is to say mea culpa. Like, “I drove my 4x4 to the supermarket and bought stuff from Peru, cheating the workers there – I’m not going to do that any more”. And that’s painful to do, especially if you’re ground down [by those who have more].
To some extent Leonard is me at 15. I read those books that he reads - I was a lonely kid who was very, very alienated from the people around me, the adults around me, from the Catholics school I was in etc... and in many ways the kids in the book are a portrait of my generation, the more nihilistic ones. Our energy went into random sex and violence, drugs - we had no direction.
Is it fair to say then that Glister offers a pretty bleak perspective of humanity?
Mostly. But there is this one vision Leonard has near the end of the book when he imagines this group of revolutionary people moving from place to place, learning how to live a new kind of life, in new different ways. So I place my hope in people who are the age of my students now; they seem to me smarter and less naïve than my generation were.
So how did you get into writing, from what sounds like it was quite a directionless existence?
What actually made me stop living that life was the fact that I wanted to write. I thought, I can’t do anything else - by the time I started writing fiction I was in my late 30s. I’d written poems before but the first poems I wrote were more like a hobby. I worked in the computer industry which was fun, I earned good money. It was easy to blind yourself to the fact that you were doing nothing really. It’s like being paid to play Sudoku, as long as I was not thinking ‘But what I am actually doing?’ And I ended up working with banks and insurance companies. And then I thought – ‘What the hell am I doing here, in this big corporate office?’. So eventually I got out. But that’s partly because I’d started taking writing seriously, and started to learn about the world through trying to write about it. You start writing as a tool, an analytical tool to try and figure things out for yourself. And I think narrative often is that; an attempt to figure out what’s happened and where it might go.
So what can we get out of reading books together and talking about these things? Does that help us to move towards a better place?
Yes I certainly think so. I’d hope for someone reading one of my books that it would point outwards, that they might think, ‘Oh, I must go off and read Moby Dick’, and I want people to start thinking about books about the environment, and about some of the assumptions that I’ve made [in my writing]. I think all books are connected to other books. In many ways the measure of how good a book is, is how connected it is to the world of books. I think we find our real selves in books, the self that is unaffected by society’s conditioning. So books provoke people to ask questions. Sometimes just on a subconscious, subliminal level. It might just be a feeling of dissatisfaction, restlessness, and that makes people start looking for more.
Leonard’s whole world is shaped by the books he reads, and sometimes by the books he’s read and not understood. He’s read Anna Karenina but he’s not understood what it’s about. When I was his age I read it, but I didn’t really have any idea of what the book was really about – I loved the characters and the events – but I didn’t grasp the essence of the book.
There are a lot of references to the Bible in Glister, and in a way the book itself could almost be a Bible story in the way it plays out. How did the book come to have that strong biblical theme?
There’s always a tension in people who’ve been brought up in strict religious environments, and I wanted that tension to be in the book. I chose ‘The Fire Sermon’ and ‘The Book of Job’ as the two main essential elements of the book – the former is one of the scariest Buddhist texts, it’s all about suffering and horror; and Job was just a great story! I loved reading the Bible when I was a kid. I never thought of it as a religious experience, I just thought I was reading great literature. I always remember first reading the King James Version – the poetry of it was amazing. But the stories are great, and they tell you something – not about a God order, but about how human beings live their lives. There’s a great line of Tom Waits’: “You tell me it’s gospel but I know it’s only church”. And that’s what my distinction is. The texts, for me, are gospels, but I wanted to remove the stink of church from them. I don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater, but I really don’t want any of the bathwater!
You spoke earlier about the danger of getting too preachy, but this book does have an unignorable message about what Leonard calls ‘the sin of omission’, doesn’t it?
Well there’s always a fine balance. Nobody ever wants to preach, but I think unless you make your point there’s not much point in doing anything! I’m a huge fan of American poetry, because it takes on big ideas, and actually says something. For me what’s frustrating about British poetry is the ironic detachment and the idea of ‘far be it from me to actually say anything’. So I allowed myself that moment, because for me, our sin as a society right now is the sin of omission, of averting our eyes and saying ‘oh, it’s nothing to do with me’.
Interview by Paul Gallagher. Listen to the Book Talk podcast about Glister here.