The most important thing was to find some way of writing about the lights and the sea

A Summer of Drowning

John Burnside is a Scottish poet and novelist. A Summer of Drowning is his 8th novel.

The title of the novel can be misleading: although the drowning is recalled by the protagonist Liv at the beginning, it is rather a haunting presence throughout the novel, like the huldra, or Liv’s interrogation about life before mankind. They seem to be ghosts wandering in her mind as she recalls the events of this summer when she was a teenager. Do ghosts motivate your writing as well?

Yes, of course. I think we all kind of carry our ghosts around: human ghosts, ghosts of ideas, ghosts of places… I was talking to somebody the other day about a dream I had. In the dream, I’m walking down the street in a city that I know, and then I turn the corner and I’m in another city. I’m looking for a place in the dream and I see a chemist shop or a florist shop around the corner, and I turn the corner and it’s a different city! These are all the ghosts cities that mattered to me in my life. They all became one. Sometimes, that’s what happens with characters—one character in a novel might be four or five of the ghosts come together.
I published a book this year, and part of it was about my first love. It was someone that I met, fell in love with and then rejected even though she responded to my feelings. I thought about it for a while, and then I stopped thinking about it and suddenly one day I started thinking about it all the time. I thought “why I am thinking about this? Why does this matter? It happened a long time ago, this has nothing to do with my life now, it was only one summer”, and eventually I realized that this was actually a ghost saying “give me some rest”. In the end, I learned a lot from accepting this ghost in my life.

A critic said that this novel was a “great thriller”. Is this a genre you are interested in, as a writer or as a reader?

I have a problem with genre. I recognize genre when I see it, but I have a problem with books having a classification. I had one novel which dealt with some crime in Cambridge, and since there was crime in the book, they put it in crime fiction. Of course, it wasn’t crime fiction at all. It was a coming of age story. It was about a young man who lived in a town who was haunted by the presence of this serial rapist who had raped 13 people, a really horrific character. It was in the shadows all around the town, and because there was no accurate description of him, it could have been any man.
I wanted to talk about that in the context of a young boy who grew up in the world I grew up, which is a working class life, very sexist, and suddenly arriving in Cambridge as it was in the 70’s, surrounded by radical feminists. The novel didn’t really work, but people were really angry that it was in crime fiction, they had bought this book thinking it would be a thriller… There are expectations which can be satisfied by calling a book a thriller, but I do not think that my work should be classified or categorized. I guess that, in some ways, we could say it is a supernatural thriller, in the way of Turn of the Screw by Henry James, which is a supernatural thriller.

The novel takes place in Kvaløya, a remote island in Norway, above the Arctic Circle. The location and the atmosphere it conveys seems to make people lose all notions of time or any sense of reality, heightened by the extreme length of days in the summer. In the midst of all these myths and legends surrounding the characters and permeating their story, the island is the only thing actually “real” and existing in the real world, defying fiction. Why did you choose this place in particular as the scene of the story?

I was invited to take part in a symposium on landscape at the university of Tromsø. When I was there, I went to Kvaløya, and as soon as I saw the place, I noticed these amazing lights. It was quiet and there were little beach houses, the sea all around, and I thought that I wanted to write about this place. I went back to the Arctic Circle, once every year for at least seven years. In 2001, I went with my wife and my son, who was one year old, and we spent the summer there. The more I spent time there, the more I wanted to write about it. I wrote some poems about it, and I started wanting to write a novel. The most important thing was to find some way of writing about the lights and the sea. I wanted to find what it was like to live there in the summer, a crazy and hallucinatory sensation. I rewrote the novel several times. It is the longest it has taken me to finish a novel. It took me ten years. I wrote one version in three years, but I threw it away, and this happened three times. The first version of the novel was actually told from the point of view of Martin Crosbie, and of course that was a different story. Then, I realized that he was not interesting as a narrator, because you had to see him from the outside. Then, I realized that Liv would be the storyteller, but it took me a long time to realize that the relationship that mattered to me was between the mother and the daughter. Then, I wrote the plot, the characters, the psychology, etc. But the first thing was to try and write about Kvaløya.
When I was in Berlin, I met a guy from the area, and he told me “I just want to tell you, in that book, you got it”. That was the best thing, because he is also a writer. Someone telling me “you went to that place and you described it right”, that’s great. I did not think it was important to describe the Norwegian background or culture, what mattered was to get the land.

Does it echo an imaginary place you need or you go back to as a writer?

I would love to live on an island. The writer John Donne said that ‘No man is an island’. It was also a very good song by Jefferson Airplane that said “No man is an island, he’s a peninsula”. Part of me would like to be an island. There is this fantasy about what you would buy if you won the lottery, and I always knew that I would buy an island. I would have my own island, and I would have my own boat to go there too. But in fact, nobody truly is an island. We are connected to the rest of the world. I’m not really a society person, I think writers have to work alone, and occasionally collaborate.
I actually had a collaboration with A.L. Kennedy for television. I did not want to work for television, but when they told me that it would be with A.L. Kennedy, I said yes. She is one of my favourite writers. We sat together and worked on the overall story, and then each of us wrote an episode, and we sent what we wrote by email. It was a collaboration but it was not really a collaboration—we bounced ideas off each other, but otherwise we were alone to write about the characters.
If you live in a societal way, your life will become too crowded, because you have these fiction characters in your head all the time. Wanting to be an island, almost be an island, but always remember that you are actually connected. It is the safest way, if I think about it.

What is striking in the novel is your ability to spark in a few words a really stark and powerful imagery. Poetry exudes from your prose. Since you are also a poet, do you consciously separate those two worlds?

I do not have to do anything, because the matters are so different. When I write poems, I do not write on paper, things build up in my head. The Russian poet Mandelstam said he wrote on the lips. He composed on the lips and he did not write down the poem until it was ready. That’s how I worked in poetry, and when I came to prose, I was completely confused because you cannot write prose like this. We cannot remember prose in the same way. There is music in poetry, you have a distinctive rhythmic quality, you keep it in your head for a long time. That is one way of doing things, and that is how I do poetry. But to write prose, I don’t do that at all, I have notes in my mind. When I come to write the actual stuff, I write my sentences down on paper, and then maybe I write three or four pages, in handwriting, then I look at it, and then I type it up.
It has been a piece-by-piece process of actually building something, whereas poetry is actually just making something in your head and then writing it down. Because the method of composition is so different, there is never actually the question of consciously having to separate them. A poem comes in one form, prose comes in a different form.

You published three memoirs, and the last to date I Put a Spell on You revolves around the topic of love, lost or fantasized, intertwined with music and the meaning it has had in your life. Do you actually feel that you tell more about yourself in these memoirs than in your fiction?

Interesting… I think that in the end, a writer reveals more of himself in fiction. Whenever you write a memoir or something autobiographical, you are creating something which is supposed to be documentary, but it is of course also partial. You also want to make an effort to contain some emotions. The thing about writing a memoir is that in the end you reveal what you want to reveal. You tell what you want to tell. But you can control what you say. Fiction reveals more, I think, than memoir or autobiography or history.