John Burnside grew up in Scotland and worked as a software engineer before dedicating his time to writing poetry and fiction. He recently worked with inmates at Moabit, one of Germany’s largest prison remand centres. The T.S. Eliot Prize-winning poet tells us about working in prisons, family life and the eeriness of English suburbs.
You’ve been interested in environmental issues for many years. What fascinates you about the natural world?
I wrote about growing up in industrial towns and people read that and think that’s my natural environment. If you live in that kind of place you realise how important the countryside is to human well-being. If you live in the middle of a steel town, you can cycle a couple of miles out into the countryside, come to woodlands and you can feel the difference.
In your novel ‘Waking Up in Toytown’ you describe your life in suburban Surrey in the 1980s. What was living in suburbia like?
I spent ten years living in a very strange halfway world, not doing very much and just drifting around. People tend to forget that the suburbs have a certain kind of beauty about them, too. It’s a bit like film noir. I used to love film noir movies where all the terrible things were happening in the suburbs. In Double Indemnity, Fred MacMurray goes to meet Barbara Stanwyck in a wealthy American suburb and they hatch a plot to kill her husband. There’s a lot of dark stuff going on behind the facade of the suburbs and I used to like that idea.
I used to spend a lot of time walking around the suburbs at night and I had a spell when I was trying to photograph that world by night, although I didn’t have the technical ability to do that. There’s a great American photographer called Todd Hido who does amazing photographs of people’s homes at night. They are usually a bit down-market and his images have a wonderful, eerie feel to them. So yes, life in the suburbs: it was hard to not want to go crazy.
You worked in computing before you decided to become a writer. Was it a difficult switch to make?
It wasn’t difficult, it was just a shame that I couldn’t do both because you got a lot of money as a software engineer. I considered it to be an enjoyable job. I grew up in a world where nobody could put the two things together: an enjoyable job and good pay. While I worked for the civil service, we would sometimes just sit around and do routine stuff for days, but you could order any publication that was being published in the UK and have it brought to your desk. So I got the Ecologist and the computer papers. You could also get access to Hansard and I would follow what was going on in parliament. At the time I was working for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF), and I got really interested in environmental issues.
When writing poetry, you used to form most of the lines in your head before writing them down. Is that still the case?
When I first started writing I had this fantasy that came from a great scene in Doctor Zhivago actually: Zhivago sits down at table in a cabin in the countryside and he’s writing his poems. The wolves are howling outside and he’s surrounded by snow with Julie Christie by his side. I thought that was good. And, of course, writing poetry isn’t like that – and Julie Christie hasn’t turned up yet, sadly. But that’s how I thought poets worked.
I took up poetry as a kind of hobby because I wanted to do something to exercise the other part of my brain. Then I found out how I had to write: I would go for a five- or ten-mile walk and if it was still in my head by the time I got home, maybe it was worth something. The funny thing is that I then started writing much longer poems but I couldn’t carry the whole poem in my head. I would get pieces here and there and would put them together like a jigsaw. I had a feeling that somewhere deep down somebody much smarter than me was sitting there figuring the whole thing out and would then send bits of poetry up to me, so that it would all fit together.
What kind of experience was it for you to work with inmates in the UK and Germany?
It was interesting because I’d never worked in a place like Moabit before, which is something like a remand centre where people are kept before they get moved out to other prisons. You haven’t got a stable population like in the prisons in the UK I’ve worked in before, mostly with murderers. In one prison, I worked with the patients in the infirmary and we sat in a circle and talked about the things they had been reading, but I also gave them feedback about the ideas they had about writing. The important thing in that situation, which is true for teaching as well, is that it’s all about them. My role is to be a kind of witness in that creative writing situation.
Very often somebody who has been to prison for a long time has got a very limited narrative. There’s not much scope. Life isn’t that rich if you’ve been in jail for nine years and have got three more years to go. Of course, there are dramas and there are narratives going on, but it’s not the same as being able to go into a bar or walk to the end of the street, or fall in love with somebody you’ve just met.
Your book ‘A Lie About My Father’ deals with the difficult relationship you had with your father. What does being a father mean to you?
That’s an interesting question. If there’s one thing fatherhood has taught me, it’s this: as a son you are determined not to make the same mistakes as your parents. Well, I was determined that I wasn’t going to have kids or get married, partly because I thought I would be a terrible father. I was impulsive and had a history of doing all kinds of crazy things. But also some part of me felt like it wasn’t my personality type to be a father. Still, one of the most satisfying things I’ve done is being a father.
The reason I started to look at the content of the book was because my eldest son was on the way and my wife was telling some of these stories of her family and I didn’t know any stories of my father that I knew were true for certain. I don’t think it would have done any harm if I had told my kids those stories because they came from their grandfather and a lot of family stories aren’t actually true. Then I had to write the book to explore that for myself.
One day my kids will read the book and they will find out some things about me, some of which people would think were shameful. I thought if I want to write this I want to write the truth about my dad, how I behaved with him and beyond. So I made it as factually true as possible.
What do you recall about your mother?
My mother was a really amazing person, considering her limitations in terms of her education and so forth. One thing my mother was good at was dealing with hardship. It meant she would walk around all the stores in town and make a mental note of all the prices of the goods she wanted to buy, then walk around again and buy the cheapest ones. During the process she would have saved a few pennies away, so there would be a Christmas gift or some kind of treat. I’ll always remember that a couple of weeks before Christmas I found two books in a drawer, in a strange place that I never thought you would keep books in. So I said ‘Hey mum, I found these books. Where did they come from?’ She got really upset and her face just crumpled. It took me a while until I realised that she had saved to give me the books as a Christmas gift.
In the past you have collaborated with visual and sound artists. How helpful is collaborating with artists who use other forms of expression?
I’ve not worked with writers — that doesn’t work generally, because you’re too close together in terms of the medium and you have your own idiosyncratic way of approaching it. But you can learn from an artist, a composer or a dancer about the things that you can do with text, or with language or with sound. This is the first lesson I learnt: I had to go back to a previous way of composing in order to compose at all. So I went back to the oral tradition because I couldn’t sit at a desk with a blank sheet of paper and start writing I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud. I had to go out, bring it back in my head and see if it was worth keeping.
John Burnside has taken part in the British Council Literature Seminar in Germany several times since its inception in 1986. Burnside currently lives in Berlin and is writing his next book as part of a German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) artist-in-residency programme, which the British Council in Germany endorses.