Editorial Director Louisa Joyner on acquiring Milkman by Anna Burns
HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME
Now Albert’s coming back, make yourself a bit smart.
He’ll want to know what you done with that money he gave you
To get yourself some teeth. He did, I was there.
You have them all out, Lil, and get a nice set,
He said, I swear, I can’t bear to look at you.
And no more can’t I, I said, and think of Poor Albert,
He’s been in the army four years, he wants a good time,
And if you don’t give it him, there’s others will, I said.
Then I’ll know who to thank, she said, and gave me a straight look.
The Waste Land, ‘II. A Game of Chess’, T. S. Eliot
When I read and fall in love with a novel, I find it in conversation with other works in my mind. With Milkman two strands rang in my ears. The first was this passage from The Waste Land. The second wasn’t a book but a slew of memories, of sitting at my Auntie’s ‘breakfast bar’ in Co. Armagh (upgraded from a work surface sometime in the summer of 1985), listening to her tell us, with a great deal of urgency, about goings on in the Spar, which had been overheard by my Uncle when picking up the paper, and involving at least two neighbours and almost certainly someone’s sister-in-law. I adored these stories, always circuitous, but packed with information about people I didn’t know and would be looking out for when I went to buy cola cubes later.
That’s how it is when I read something transformative. The writing stuns, the technicality of the work begins to show itself in moments of joy or, in some instances, in tiny flaws (I always read with a pencil) that simply serve to throw the overall quality into relief. With Milkman my scribbles were almost imperceptible – not least because I would mark a clause only to realise that it served some secret yet essential purpose in a moment I had yet to reach. One of the things that marks this novel’s exceptional calibre is that it improves upon second reading; digressions are never as they appear but soaring loops always stitched perfectly back into the novel’s fabric, the seeming circuitousness actually more tightly plotted than most thrillers.
But it’s when I find the book in conversation with other works I have loved that I know I’m in the pages of something incredibly special, and the other works kept on coming. As I began to talk about Milkman with colleagues at Faber & Faber, Marilynne Robinson joined us, as did Anne Enright; then for others it was Eimear McBride and Edna O’Brien, then Beckett and Faulkner, the quality of the company always extraordinarily high. (One of the deep joys of working at Faber is, to borrow an expression from Kwame Anthony Appiah, that you get to be in the highest-functioning reading group every day, and it has over one hundred members). Already for us, Anna was in feted literary company, and I acquired the book from Anna’s deeply enthusiastic literary agent, David Grossman, just as soon as I was able.
In December 2016, we met and promised Anna Burns that we would publish her book in a way that would truly make her proud. I was beyond delighted when Anna entrusted us with her most precious work, and we all set about the business of publishing Milkman.
Over the last eighteen months the uniqueness of Faber’s publishing commitment to each and every work we produce has been at the heart of Milkman’s journey into the world. As Maria Garbutt-Lucero said in our first conversation, ‘To read Milkman is to love Milkman’, and all that wonder – now resounding and rebounding on a global stage – began with, and is manifested in, the pages themselves. The cover, for example, is a glorious rendering of a very funny description of a French evening class nestled about seventy pages into the novel. The designer took the description and embraced it to create something both deeply accessible and utterly true to the work.
The rave reviews, the wonderful endorsements, are all the product of the simple transaction of posting a book to a reader, writing carefully and with sincerity about why this book justifies the time they don’t have to give it in their already teeming lives, and asking them to find a moment to engage and to tell you what they think. Milkman did the rest.
I once heard the peerless bookseller Sheila O’Reilly explain to an audience that the reason she stocked books from publishers and not from those who had self-published was because of the forty or more silent chorus of people at a publishing house who support books through the publication process. The decision to devote eighteen months to this work, and not to any number of others, as well as the editors, designers, sales reps, reviewers, book groups, marketers, copy-editors, rights team, production staff, all of whom invest in that production, that singularity of selection and support, is part of what gives value to a publication.
Anna Burns’ chorus of fans was of operatic proportions even before the longlisting:
‘Utterly brilliant – a once-in-a-generation novel.’ Glenn Patterson
‘From the outset, Milkman is delivered in a breathless, hectic, glorious torrent. The pace doesn’t let up for a single moment . . . Anna Burns’ hectic, stream-of-consciousness writing, [is] not dissimilar to that of Eimear McBride or Flann O’Brien . . . Her writing has been described as “point-blank poetry”, and rightly so . . . an astute, exquisite account of Northern Ireland’s social landscape, but Milkman is much more than that, too. It’s also a coming-of-age story with flecks of dark humour, yet at other points it’s a damning portrait of rape culture, and how women are often regarded in communities like this one. Because of this, Milkman is a potent and urgent book, with more than a hint of barely contained fury.’ Irish independent
‘I thought this was an incredible book and I’m still reeling from it. Anna Burns brilliantly mines the interstices of language to give articulation to the slippery machinations of prejudice and intimidation. Her writing is uncompromising, powerful, essential.’ Michèle Forbes
‘It reminded me of China Miéville’s The City & the City where identity, names and seeing the Other are contentious acts. Milkman shares this level of ambition; it is an impressive, wordy, often funny book and confirms Anna Burns as one of our rising literary stars.’ Irish Times
‘Mercurial. Profound. Hilarious. Brilliant. I’ve been waiting for a book like this for thirty years.’ Eoin McNamee
‘A brilliantly realised extended metaphor for a totalitarian state . . . While Milkman is a work of timely universality, it is also a distinctly Irish novel, a darkly mirthful satire with a twist of Beckettian melancholy and an anarchic touch of Swift . . . Crackles with intellectual verve and droll verbosity . . . Burns supplies precise and richly observed back stories for her characters, a vital part of her establishing of a living community and a history . . . Burns builds an intense picture of a society under siege, in a state of fugue, subject to surreptitious forces of oppression.’ Catherine Taylor, New Statesman
To see such deep affection and profound respect for Milkman magnified by the Man Booker Prize is to witness a significant literary publication morph into an international cultural event, such is its power.
Milkman, though, isn’t worried about what it’s in conversation with; it is its own magnificent being. But for the thousands and thousands of readers now cracking its spine, I think the places it takes them and the voices they hear will resonate for years to come.
Dr Louisa Joyner
Milkman by Anna Burns is available now in paperback.