Gordon Burn interview

Book and Magazine Collector, October 2006

The Chelsea Arts Club, tucked down a side-street off the King’s Road, provided the pleasantly idiosyncratic venue for my interview with Gordon Burn. Contrary to the severe-looking photos of him that adorn the dustjackets of his books, he turned out to be friendly and amusing, his speech coloured by a soft Geordie accent. Drinks in hand, we found a spare table in the far corner of the billiard room, where yards of mauve netting, a plywood proscenium arch and other props offered ample evidence of that week’s New Year’s Eve shindig. To the accompaniment of the echoey voices of other drinkers dotted round the cavernous room, I asked Burn where his passion for books started.

I came from one of those traditional 1950s households where there weren’t any books apart from pulp westerns and stuff like that. I got into writing thanks to a couple named Tom and Connie Pickard who opened Mordern Tower, a reading room in a turret on a stretch of the Roman wall just down the street from where I grew up in Newcastle.

I was at school with Barry McSweeney who became a poet. Barry and I used to go to the Tower where they used to stage readings by Allen Ginzberg and the other Beats. To a school-kid being taught Chaucer, Shakespeare and the usual narrow syllabus, these poets were tremendously exciting.

What did you do after you left school?

I ended up studying sociology at Birmingham College of Commerce. Funnily enough, Patrick McGrath was on the same course as me. Jim Crace was there as well. He was the editor of the Birmingham Sun, the college newspaper. 

Every summer, starting in 1967, I went to America. The first summer — the ‘Summer of Love’ — I worked for Rolling Stone magazine. At that time it was a tiny operation based above a garage. My interest in American ‘New Journalism’ was one of the main reasons why I wanted to work for the magazine. I was very aware of writers like Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese and Joan Didion.

Each time I went to America I’d buy one of those $99 tickets which allowed you unlimited travel for ninety-nine days. I didn’t have much money, so I couldn’t afford to rent a room. When I was in San Francisco, I’d get a 1:00am bus to San José or somewhere like that. I’d sleep on the bus, get off at the other end, then hang around for a few minutes before taking the bus back to San Francisco.

I recall reading In Cold Blood on a Greyhound bus travelling across the midwest. I was in the same area where the story had taken place. That made the whole thing profoundly affecting. I knew In Cold Blood was the type of book I wanted to write.”

Did you encounter the work of the New Journalists in the magazines in which it first appeared?

I always loved American Esquire. When I was in Birmingham, I used to make trips down to London just to buy it. There were two or three places around Soho which stocked it. Often the magazines were two or three months out of date, but I still enjoyed them.

There’s something very attractive about American magazines…

There’s also something very attractive about not simply finding something on the internet. Having to tramp the streets added a real frisson to the experience. If I heard there was a new piece by Mailer in the latest edition of Esquire, I’d be bitterly disappointed if I turned up at one of the newsagents only to find that the last copy had just been sold. 

For a while I was obsessed by American Esquire. It gave me a first taste of obsessive collecting. I used to buy back-issues from the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. The covers were as memorable as the contents.

After you left college, how did you make a living?

I went back to Newcastle and I carried on writing for Rolling Stone. Nothing grand, just short pieces, mostly reviews. I’d take the coach down to London and go to a concert. Back in my council flat, I’d write a review on a manual typewriter, then post it to San Francisco. The romance of being a struggling writer back in Newcastle fitted in with the ethos of Mordern Tower.”

You’ve said that the Beat movement was central to what Tom and Connie Pickard were doing. Are you still a fan of Kerouac and co.?

To be honest, I never much liked Beat writing, Ginzberg’s Howl excepted. Still, I love lots of the stuff that has its roots in the Beat movement. The music of Bob Dylan is an obvious example.

What did you think of Chronicles, the first volume of Dylan’s autobiography?

I was amazed that it could be that good. I couldn’t stop reading it. I’d pick it up and I’d be lost for the next thirty-six hours. Dylan has such an individual way of seeing the world. I was surprised that he’d managed to transfer that into a book. I’m on tenterhooks waiting for the second volume.

Going back to your early days as a writer, how did your parents react to your books and your increasing success?

I’m not sure they read the books, but they were very proud. All my books were on their living-room shelf, along with various awards I’d been given. These formed a slightly toe-curling little shrine.

In one of your essays, you wrote about growing up in the shadow of St James’s Park football ground. Is that the source of your interest in football?

I wouldn’t consider myself to be passionate about the game, though I loved the way in which the culture of football contributed to the place I grew up in. My parents used to go to the local Working Men’s Club where they’d mix with Jackie Milburn and other Newcastle United players. In those days, top players weren’t regarded as gold-plated heroes.

That’s one of the themes of your latest book, Best and Edwards, isn’t it?

Yes, it’s partly about the days when the players and the people who watched them came from the same place. The players weren’t earning £130,000 per week, so there wasn’t much distance between them and the fans.

If you don’t consider yourself to be passionate about the game, what prompted you to write the book?

You never quite know why you wrote a book. You’re always rationalising after the fact. I think I wrote it because George Best used to live near to me in Chelsea. I’d see him round at least once-a-month. In the last years, I’d see him sliding down walls and occasionally sleeping on a park bench. He was so much part of my everyday life that I stopped seeing him as a football star. 

About three years ago I wrote a piece about sport in literature. Sport is central to a lot of my favourite American novels: Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, Don DeLillo’s Underworld, and Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter. In the course of writing the article, I realised that George Best was akin to a character from one of those novels. Like some of the characters in them, he no longer resembled a legendary figure. 

All that tied in with my long-standing interest in the corrosive effects of fame. I liked the idea of taking someone who has been so heavily written about and trying to find something new. I ended up focusing on the gap between the private individual and the public face.

Also, I’ve always been fascinated by the Munich air crash. I’d been wanting to write about it for a long time. At first Faber wanted me to base a novel on it, but I felt that my admiration for the books of DeLillo, Ford and Roth would cast too dark a shadow over the project.

Best and Edwards clearly evolved in an unexpected way. Is that true of your other non-fiction books?

It’s certainly true of Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son, my book about Peter Sutcliffe. Fuelled by my interest in New Journalism, I approached the subject intending to write a barnstorming, flamboyant book, but it ended up being very different. 

I’d spent the Christmas of 1980 reading The Executioner’s Song which is, I think, Mailer’s masterpiece. I was sitting in front of the television when I read the last pages. On the 6:00pm news that day, there was an item about the arrest of the man supposedly responsible for the Yorkshire Ripper murders. I immediately knew what I wanted to do. Without even obtaining a commission for a book, I was in Bradford within thirty-six hours. I hung around the hotel in the city where the reporters were staying and eavesdropped on what they were saying.

The flatness of my book’s style came directly from the Mailer book, which is written in short, Hemingway-like sentences and paragraphs. To my mind, that was a huge improvement on Mailer’s often self-indulgent, whirligig style. Besides, a more flamboyant style didn’t seem appropriate when I was dealing with the lives of people who were still around. I didn’t want to use them as raw material for a display of literary pyrotechnics.

How long did it take you to research the book?

About three years. Everything had to be backed up by facts. For me at least, a single mistake could have capsized the entire enterprise and made it seem inauthentic. 

At one point I remember writing a passage about the stained-glass window in Sonia and Peter Sutcliffe’s house. I couldn’t remember the exact distribution of the colours. I made a special journey to Yorkshire to look at the window.

Several of the New Journalists felt they had, through extensive research, earned the right to describe someone else’s thought processes. D’you regard that as a legitimate technique?

If you can back it up, I reckon that’s fine. With Happy Like Murderers, my book about Fred and Rose West, I talked to their kids, their friends, their neighbours. In addition I had access to the police videos and audio tapes of the interviews. Every day for seven weeks, I also sat in the courtroom in Winchester and listened to Rose West’s trial, so I had the voices of the Wests in my head.

Researching the book must’ve been traumatic.

It was a horrible experience. When I agreed to write the book, the enormity of their crimes hadn’t been revealed. Because I’d written Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son, plus Alma Cogan, my novel that featured Myra Hindley, I was contacted by Penguin who wanted to know whether I was interested in doing a book about the case. At that point the investigation was in its early stages.

By then, I’d just started writing fullalove, my novel about a tabloid reporter. I loved the overlap between that and the West book. I found myself poised to write about a murder while I was simultaneously writing in the first-person from the perspective of an alcoholic hack. All the material for fullalove was culled from my experiences on the Sutcliffe book. In a sense I was blowing the whistle on myself, on the bad faith that writers indulge in. 

I didn’t realise the extent of the Wests’ depravity until I attended the committal proceedings for Rose West. I’ll never write another book that deals with a contemporary true crime. I couldn’t bear to live with all that horror again, with all the tapes and the scene of crime photos. It was just a terrible experience. I’ve tried to wipe the whole thing from my mind. I don’t think about it anymore, and I avoid talking about it.

How did the crime reporters respond to your involvement with the case?

fullalove came out just before Rose West’s trial. No doubt my novel contributed to the frosty reception from the tabloid reporters covering the case. They never trusted me or accepted me as one of them. I suppose that was partly because I didn’t stay in the same hotel as them. I was staying on a farm outside Winchester. I thought it was important for me not to listen to them going over and over the story, creating a collaborative version of it. I wanted to preserve my own line on it.

The first edition of Happy Like Murderers featured an image by Damien Hirst. Were you involved in the creation of that dust jacket?

Yes, I was. I used to get more involved with the design side of things than I do now. That’s because I don’t really understand the commercial aspect of publishing anymore. The publishers have a firmer idea of their audience than I do. That said, I did suggest that Faber should approach Sarah Lucas to design the cover for my next book—a collection of art essays.

Who are the art writers you most admire?

I used to like Robert Hughes’s work a lot. I hadn’t read him for a long time, then I dipped into one of his books recently. I found it too showy and flash, too intent on impressing the reader with a blend of the hip and the erudite.

Nowadays I prefer the art writing of John Alberry, the American poet who was, for a long time, employed as the art critic for Newsweek. Alberry’s poems are incredibly complicated and dense, yet his art writing is much more straightforward than Hughes’s stuff.

I presume your book of conversations with Damien Hirst, transcribed in On the Way To Work, must have been inspired by David Sylvester’s interviews with Francis Bacon.

Definitely, though I’m not a particular fan of Sylvester’s writing. My interviews with Damien were carried out over about ten years. At that point Damien was still drinking and drugging a lot, so I had problems catching him when he was in a suitable state for a serious conversation. In the end Damien and I went to an island off the Devon coast where we rented a house for five days. We recorded masses of stuff while we were there. Damien’s life was so chaotic and he was in such demand that this was the only way we could get the book finished.

Damien Hirst isn’t the first artist with whom you’ve worked, is he?

In Alma Cogan, my first novel, there’s a section of the book that’s an invented catalogue essay from Tate Britain about Peter Blake’s painting of Alma Cogan. The painting, created especially for the book, was supposed to go on the cover, but Peter works so slowly that his picture wasn’t ready when the publisher needed it for the dustjacket. Luckily he finished it in time for it to be inserted into the body of the book. By then, the publisher had come up with the Warhol-esque series of portraits which were used on the jacket.

Are you interested in other aspects of book design besides the covers?

Very much so. I love American books. I like the paper they use. I like the way they leave the edges untrimmed. I like the way they provide those little notes at the back about the typeface they’ve used. 

If I was buying Richard Ford’s new novel, The Lay of the Land, I’d invest in the Knopf version rather than the Bloomsbury one. Without seeing either, I’m confident that the American edition would look and feel far superior. The paper seems nicer than the paper in British books, and I like the way American publishers leave the edges untrimmed. Overall American books look as if they’ve been produced with more care than their British equivalents. You can see it in the way they often provide little notes on the typeface that’s been used.”

In your recent Guardian essay on Richard Ford, you mentioned that you’ve become friends with him. How does that influence your reading of his work?

It does with the Frank Bascombe novels, because Bascombe talks in exactly the same way as Richard. 

I first read Richard’s stories in American Esquire, long before he featured in the famous ‘Dirty Realism’ issue of Granta. At that time Raymond Carver was also unknown in Britain. I was invited to a drinks party in honour of Carver. While I was there, I met Ford who was pleasantly surprised that I knew his work. We’ve stayed in touch ever since. 

I was bowled over by The Sportswriter. As I mentioned in my Guardian piece, I only recently discovered the startling similarities between that book and The Moviegoer by Walker Percy. I felt strangely cheated, because Richard had never talked to me about Percy’s novel. He’s since said that he’s always felt ambivalent about the influence of Percy’s book on The Sportswriter. He told me that Percy was among the first people to whom he sent a copy of his novel. Percy was very enthusiastic about it. 

With Independence Day and The Lay of the Land, Richard has, I think, made a conscious effort to write in a different style to The Moviegoer. The Sportswriter remains my favourite of Richard’s books. His stories are also very good. The ones in Rock Springs are under-rated.”

Are you keen on the other writers bracketed together with Ford?

Carver is probably my second favourite. In fact, I re-read him on a regular basis. Along with John Cheever, he’s one of my short story-writing heroes. Every time I see Cheever’s Collected Stories in a secondhand bookshop, I can’t resist buying it. I’ve also bought the stories in the individual volumes in which they first appeared, volumes such as The Housebreaker of Shady Hill.

Did you read Cheever’s Journals?

I wrote a long review of it for the London Review of Books. For me, they demystify the stories which are his best work. To cram so much into a few pages, as he does in The Enormous Radio, is a triumph. His stories are so magical, so mysterious. I’d rather not know the sexual background to them. I feel equally unenthusiastic about the endless spin-offs—the memoirs and novels—written by his family.

Mention of you buying up the individual Cheever volumes reminds me of how subtly different stories feel when you read them in their original context. After all, they’ve often been carefully placed in a collection with the intention of achieving potent juxtapositions with neighbouring stories.

I agree with you. I know this is a Romantic notion, but I feel that the individual volumes feel as if they bring you closer to the writer, closer to what he or she intended, closer to the first edition which would have meant much more to that writer. You can imagine the author unwrapping it, examining the binding, taking the dustjacket off and inspecting the boards. For a writer, that’s always an exciting moment.

Reproduced by kind permission of Warners Group Publications.

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