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Sunday 19 May 2019

Milking it: From Booker to bestseller - ‘I grew up in a place that was rife with violence, distrust and paranoia’

Sales of Anna Burns's novel Milkman are rocketing after the Belfast writer won the prestigious award, reports Tanya Sweeney

Surprise success: Author Anna Burns won the Booker against the odds. Photo: PA
Surprise success: Author Anna Burns won the Booker against the odds. Photo: PA

Tanya Sweeney

Julian Barnes famously described the Booker Prize as 'posh bingo', but there was little doubting that this year's shortlist was a fast and furious race with some truly feted writers in the running. Much garlanded titles like Sally Rooney's Normal People or Sophie Mackintosh's The Water Cure fell in the furlongs between the longlist and shortlist, leaving a shortlist of six, whittled down from a list of 170.

Richard Powers' The Overstory was the favourite for some time, although there was a late surge of betting for 27-year-old Daisy Johnson and her debut Everything Under.

Yet of the six, Northern Irish writer - and a consistent outsider in the bookies' odds - Anna Burns emerged victorious with the £50,000 prize and, one should think, the literary world now at her feet.

It was her third novel, Milkman, that saw the Booker judges - among them writers Jacqueline Rose and Val McDermid - award a very clearly stunned Burns the top prize. Indeed, the writer seemed at a loss for words as she accepted the trophy from the Duchess Of Cornwall at a glittering London ceremony earlier this week.

The judging panel concluded unanimously that Burns' imaginative and deft novel, set during the Troubles and charting the story of an unnamed woman who is pursued by a shadowy paramilitary figure, was the deserving winner.

The novel was hailed not just for its astute nod to #MeToo, but its experimental, often challenging, writing style.

Some pundits were every bit as surprised as the author herself. "Not since New Zealander Keri Hulme got that call in 1985 for The Bone People has a Booker jury delivered a bigger bombshell," noted The Guardian newspaper earlier this week. "It is a smartly provocative choice, one that has been waiting to be made as the publishing industry searches for the soul of its next generation."

Milkman makes Burns - who was shortlisted for what was then the prestigious Orange Prize in 2002 for her debut novel No Bones - the first female winner of the Booker since 2013.

That year, Eleanor Catton, still in her 20s, took the award for The Luminaries.

Burns (56) now joins a glittering roll call of Irish Booker Prize winners, including Roddy Doyle, John Banville and Anne Enright (and is the first Northern Irish winner of the prize).

Asked by reporters what she will do with her prize money, Belfast-born Burns, who now lives in Sussex, replied: "I'll clear my debts and live on what's left."

It's a testament not just to the book, but the perennial influence of the Booker Prize itself, that fewer than 24 hours after the announcement of Burns' win, Milkman shot to number one on the Amazon bestseller chart. And of the six shortlisted titles, Milkman, despite its experimental bent, became one of the books that enjoyed a sharp spike in sales even before the winner was announced.

When the shortlist was announced in September, Milkman had sold 4,019 copies in Ireland, outselling her nearest rival, Daisy Johnson, whose debut novel, Everything Under, has sold 2,467 copies in the last four weeks (according to figures by Nielsen Book Scan).

Milkman has outsold the rest of the shortlist combined in Ireland in recent weeks, and is the most popular title in the combined British and Irish markets, with total sales of 6,442 copies since mid-September.

According to the Booker Prize Foundation, on winning the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, an author can readily expect international recognition plus a dramatic increase in book sales.

In the week following the 2017 winner announcement, sales of Lincoln in the Bardo by the American author George Saunders increased by a whopping 1,227pc.

Burns may seem like an overnight success to the casual book industry follower, but the truth is that the writer has already put in many hard yards down the years.

Born in Belfast and raised in the working class Catholic area of Ardoyne, she moved to Notting Hill in London in 1997 to go to university, and published her first novel, No Bones, in 2001.

As a child, she was a voracious reader and became something of a prodigious young writer: "As a child I'd be stuck fast in Enid Blytons, Agatha Christies, Russian fairytales… one day I thought, hold on, I'm gonna write a book. So I was whatever age I was and I started writing this book which I envisaged as a school book. I mean one with a fictional boarding school setting," she said recently.

In her mid-30s the writing "began all of a sudden, in a rush... I did have a feeling something was coming before it came, and that it was going to be a lovely something for me to do, or be, or have."

No Bones, too, was set amid the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and Burns drew heavily on her own memories of growing up in Ardoyne.

Of writing with past experiences in mind, Burns has said: "I grew up in a place that was rife with violence, distrust and paranoia, and peopled by individuals trying to navigate and survive in that world as best as they could."

Whatever her inspiration, it certainly worked from the outset. In 2001, she had won the Winfred Holtby Memorial Prize, an award given to No Bones for the best regional novel.

A year later, she was shortlisted for the 2002 Orange Prize for her first novella. Other prominent works include Little Constructions, a novella published in 2007 and Mostly Hero in 2014.

In a bid to keep the wolf from the door, Burns has also reportedly worked in commercial events.

For now, she plans to return to the book that she started after Little Constructions; an unnamed title that she spent most of the years between 2006 and 2009 working on.

Of her writing style, she has said: "A creative writing instructor giving a talk once when I was starting to write, said to his audience of budding writers that there are writers who plot out every last detail before they put pen to paper and there are writers who don't know what's coming at the end of a sentence.

"If you're the former, he said, be prepared to change things, to open up, to adjust your thought-out plot. If you're the latter (like me), he suggested every so often taking stock of your work to see what you've got and to realise what your writing is saying or trying to say to you, and where it is going."

Milkman by Anna Burns is out now via Faber & Faber books

What the critics said:

  • The Guardian's Claire Kilroy enthused: "The narrator of Milkman disrupts the status quo... because she is original, funny, disarmingly oblique and unique.
  • The Irish Times' Catherine Toal noted: "Milkman needs to be recognised as a book that sounds the soul of the people."
  • Tanya Sweeney in the Irish Independent: "It's an astute account of Northern Ireland's social landscape, but also a coming-of-age tale with flecks of dark humour, and a damning portrait of rape culture."

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