Tripping in the midnight sunshine

John Burnside's new, Arctic Circle-set novel is full of visions and paradox. He talks LSD and Schrödinger's cat to Doug Johnstone
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The Independent Culture

John Burnside is not one for blowing his own trumpet.

Despite countless awards and critical acclaim for his novels, poetry and memoirs – 21 publications in all – he's not exactly shouting about it from the rooftops. At one point early in our interview – two hours of amiable, intelligent and self-deprecating banter – he says this: "My second, third and fourth novels were mistakes, essentially." Even from several hundred miles away, you could hear the sharp intake of breath at his London publisher's office.

We're chatting in a busy café in the centre of St Andrews, just around the corner from the university where Burnside is a professor in creative writing. He has squeezed his bulky frame, 16 and a half stone's worth by his own account, into a crumpled jacket, and he is periodically recognised by students nipping in for a quick latte. We're here to talk about his latest novel, A Summer of Drowning. It's his eighth piece of full-length fiction, and continues a trend from his previous two offerings, The Devil's Footprints and Glister, in that it deals with a malevolent kind of spirituality, and blurs boundaries between fantasy and reality.

The novel is set on Kvaloya, a remote Norwegian island within the Arctic Circle, where painter Angelika Rossdal lives in solitude with her daughter Liv, who narrates the tale. The book opens with the drowning of two boys, and follows a small cast of beautifully drawn characters through the white nights of an Arctic summer – a hallucinogenic and ethereal world haunted by folk tales and myths, specifically that of the huldra, an evil spirit that takes the form of a beautiful woman to lure young men to their deaths. According to Burnside, it's a story that's been brewing in his imagination for a long time.

"This book started in 2000," he says. "Usually I would mistrust a book if it took that long to write. Usually, if it isn't done in two years I suspect there's something wrong and throw it away. When I first began writing it, I wasn't really that thrilled. Plus, there was a huge lack of enthusiasm for the idea from my family, publishers, agent, everybody. Why write a book set in the Arctic Circle, where everything is possibly happening inside somebody's head? But I said, 'Well, I can't do anything else, this is what I want to write'."

Burnside has published four novels, four poetry collections and two memoirs since 2000, so he has hardly been sweating over this book 24 hours a day. But he admits it has had a certain grip on his mind over that time.

"You can't sit down and decide what you want to write about. You do what your passion makes you do, and there was something about this idea that I couldn't forget," he says. "I wrote this book three times, and threw it away twice. I literally threw them away and started again. Actually, one time I lost it – but I think that was deliberate."

Burnside confesses that A Summer of Drowning was written at least in part as a homage to Henry James's The Turn of the Screw. "I'm obsessed with that book," he says. "Someone convincingly tells a story that's impossible – so what do you believe? In my book, Liv knows that these things can't have happened, but she saw them happen. I wanted to see if I could make the ending work technically. I call it my Schrödinger's cat ending: the two things have to be simultaneously mutually exclusive and yet equally believable."

It's a testament to Burnside's skill at crafting prose that he pulls this off brilliantly, but then this idea of seeing the world differently has always been at the heart of Burnside's work. There is a general perception that his fiction is nasty while his poetry is nice, but for me such moralistic judgements miss the point. Burnside's work – all of it – seems to be about our perception of the world we live in, and how it can be altered by influencing factors. As detailed in his extraordinary memoirs, Burnside has suffered from psychological problems and drug abuse, both of which have coloured his worldview.

"A mad person isn't someone who sees what isn't there, he's someone who sees what is there, but that others can't see. I really believe that," he says. "LSD makes you know that this is the case. When you take LSD, you perceive things differently, it breaks down the filters in your brain, so normally all the stuff that you filter out now comes flooding in. I've got a brain that does that anyway, so I don't need to take LSD to make it worse. People presume I think this way because of drug use, but it predates that, back to when I was a child. Anyway, I don't think it's a drug; I really, really believe LSD is a sacrament. It can help people open up to that wider perceptual range of experience."

As the above quote demonstrates, Burnside is not shy about being outspoken. As we chat, he is fairly disparaging about British writers, including himself, compared to their American equivalents. And he is a confirmed anarchist, who refused to vote in the recent Scottish elections. "The lie that anarchy would be horrible chaos for everybody is told to us by the people in charge, who want to stay in charge for obvious reasons," he says.

He rails against big business, politicians and the class system, and I can't help wondering how such views play out in the rarefied academic air of St Andrews University? "I feel like an outsider here," he says. "But then I feel like that everywhere I go, not just in St Andrews."

With that he gives a little laugh, perhaps because being an outsider suits him just fine.

Doug Johnstone's thriller, Smokeheads, is published by Faber & Faber, £12.99

From A Summer of Drowning, By John Burnside (Cape £16.99)

"... because there are two ...ways of looking at the world and two kinds of seeing. The first is the way we learn from infancy onwards, the way of seeing what we are supposed to see, building the consensus of a world by looking out for, and finding, what we have always been told is there. But there's another way – and that is what I'm after. It's the way we see when we go out alone in the world."