Gordon Burn is the author of acclaimed works of both fiction and non-fiction, including the novels Alma Cogan and Fullalove, and a study of Fred and Rosemary West, Happy Like Murderers. But in his new book, Born Yesterday: The News as A Novel, he made the ambitious decision to fashion a work of fiction from the news stories that were current at the time of writing and that continue to top the news agenda: stories that include the disappearance of Madeleine McCann and the end of Tony Blair’s government. Here, Granta’s Simon Willis asks Gordon Burn about the challenges he faced when writing the book.

 

SW: Writing a book set in the very recent past and the rolling present must throw up difficult technical and imaginative challenges for a novelist?

GB: From the outset, I approached the book as being a ‘found object’, in the sense of a Duchamp ready-made: the narrative was largely given, as were all of the main ‘characters’ – Blair, Brown, the McCanns, Kate Middleton, John Smeaton – other than the narrator. The imaginative challenge – and therefore what in my view makes Born Yesterday a novel – came in making connections that hadn’t previously been apparent. John Berger once said something that struck me very forcibly, and that I recalled continually in the writing of this book: ‘Imagination is not, as is sometimes thought, the ability to invent; it is the ability to disclose that which exists.’ So it was about looking; about sifting, and sitting still and thinking.

But large portions of the book are essayistic.

Well, it’s full of narrative – narrative, that is, as opposed to plot, which is something I have next to no interest in. Plot is something people want for television plays, as V.S. Naipaul once said. Narrative, on the other hand, is something large going on around you all the time. Plot assumes that the world has been explored and now this thing, plot, has to be added on.

It’s also a novel if you happen to agree, as I do, with the Berger quote above. It sets out to restore some ambiguity and complexity to stories that have been stripped of those things in their broad-brush retelling on TV, online and in the press. My intention was to re-complicate reality and, in doing that, to show that it can have the poetry and some of the mysterious resonance of fiction.

You’ve written books about Peter Sutcliffe and Fred and Rosemary West, but Born Yesterday represents an entirely different engagement with news events. Why did you feel compelled to write this book?

Reality is always changing. It changes constantly, and as a writer you have to find new ways of capturing the reality. The police leading the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper stored their data on thousands of cards in hundreds of shoe boxes in the incident room in Bradford. There was no computer. The journalists at the West trial had access to neither texting nor email. Blogging, rolling news, online interactivity – so ingrained have these things become that it is hard to remember that they are all recent developments and all contribute to our sense of being inundated by information, much of which calls itself ‘news’, when it is in fact – and increasingly – no more than rumour, gossip, spin, speculation. The instant a newsworthy event occurs, it is misrepresented in its reporting – fictionalized, really. The line between reality and its representation has become rivetingly porous. So the news as a novel made sense.

Born Yesterday is an audacious experiment. Are you pessimistic about the novel form?

Not so much pessimistic as uninterested in most contemporary fiction. It’s the ‘plot’ thing again. Imposing a plot inevitably distorts. I recently read an interview with the American writer Lydia Davis in which she said she was simply not interested, at this point, in creating narrative scenes between characters because of the artificiality. It’s a point of view I share; it’s a reiteration of what Naipaul (again) has been saying now for many years: that we are here to see things as they are; to take in the is-ness of what is. That consciousness is our only salvation.

You return, in Born Yesterday, to your novel Fullalove, which, with its story of the stolen child and the resilient father, has obvious parallels with the McCann kidnapping. How transgressive did writing about the McCanns’ unfinished story feel?

Hardly transgressive at all, apart from the section in which I describe Gerry McCann’s working life as a surgeon, ‘his hand in their chest, working under the rib-cage’, and the passages pointing up the curious parallel between the two groups of doctors and health professionals – the McCanns and their friends, ‘the Tapas Nine’, and the people arrested in connection with the failed car-bomb attacks in Glasgow and London – whose stories ran throughout that summer.

It was the McCanns’ media literacy, which some people believed sat awkwardly with their assigned public role of grieving parents, as well as their access to wealthy and powerful people, that was interpreted in some quarters as being transgressive – or, at least, worthy of comment – in itself. It was something unexpected and new in the world. Their appointment of an official press spokesman – a ‘spin doctor’ – was another intriguing development.

You wrote a piece in Granta 53 about the trial of Rosemary West in which you say that ‘there was nothing much to see and it was always much the same, but the heavy media presence was in itself justification for having the story high in the running order’. You wrote this in 1996. What sort of watershed do you think that McCann story marked?

The McCanns’ apparently instant decision to use the press rather than be used by it, which included their refusal to appear before the cameras as stereotypical ‘victims’, was riveting to observe. It made Gordon Brown and his cohorts’ naively ill-judged and frequently embarrassing performances in public at around the same time appear even more bizarre.

There are lots of fairly conventional ‘state of the nation’ novels being written at the moment that try to come to terms with the recent past. Philip Hensher’s The Northern Clemency is one example. How do you think Born Yesterday fits in?

Of course I would like to hope that, read in thirty or fifty years time, this book would give an accurate picture of the grain of the reality of this time. But it wasn’t written with posterity in mind.

You’ve written journalism, fiction, non-fiction and now a book that collapses all those categories. Which of your books means the most to you?

This one. I suppose every writer would say that. But I think it’s maybe opening up a little bit of new ground. It was exhilarating to write.

Martin Amis has been criticized for his engagement with current affairs since 9/11. The right of the novelist to be heard has been questioned. What role do you envision for the novelist in public life?

Novelists – the lucky ones – have the time and are, or should be, unaligned. They are able to make connections between the visible and the invisible world that maybe aren’t immediately apparent: how the sight of a prime minister so clearly uncomfortable in his own skin, or the rolling story of two middle-class parents who have been named official suspects in the disappearance of their daughter, can breed a wider, underlying unease which finds its way into the dream-life of those of us on the ground.

You write in Born Yesterday about being attracted to writers, like Naipaul, who have written on the road, and who have written about rootlessness. The erasure of community is a recurring theme in your work. Do you feel homeless, nostalgic?

Dislocated, perhaps, in the same way that I describe Gerry and Kate McCann as being between classes – born working-class, both now doctors – but really having roots nowhere. I feel it was another element in the widespread public antipathy towards them.

The novel ends with the line ‘Bye bye, everybody. Bye bye.’ What are we saying goodbye to?

Maybe an unmediated reality. Maybe a world where not everybody has an opinion and not everybody wants that opinion to be heard. It’s a phrase from children’s television – ‘The Sooty Show’. Maybe a goodbye to the kind of innocence that a 1950s tea-time TV show in grainy black and white represents.

 

Photograph by Sarah Lee

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