As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Will Burns on the research process behind his novel The Paper Lantern (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2021).
The Paper Lantern belongs to the long, complex tradition of how we represent rural England, and I feel as though the novel is conscious of that throughout. Pastoral ideals of the English countryside are presented explicitly as conventions that are available to be manipulated freely, even by those who have no interest in the countryside or the people who live there except as financial or political capital. In light of this, do you feel the dream of rural England is still alive in the collective unconscious? And why is it so vulnerable to being co-opted and exploited?
I think it’s absolutely still alive, in the conscious and unconscious – you only have to see the disjunct between how ‘rural’ the country as a whole sees itself and the actual state of our environment. We’re a people who perceive ourselves as essentially ‘nature-loving’, whatever that means, and yet seem perfectly happy, politically, with a totally degraded river system, a depleted insect and bird population, uplands basically denuded of natural features in order to exploit them for grouse shooting. I think quite simply it’s vulnerable because so much of the relationship between people and the land is affected with old class tensions, running from a sort of cap-doffing acceptance of whatever the moneyed class want to do with ‘their land’, right down to the urbanisation of so much of British life, which has also perhaps informed the last 50 years or so of our ‘nature-loving’ national myth in the face of a life that’s actually, for most people, turned away from the rural and towards the city.
Obviously this is a feature of British life, the cultivation of that national myth, but I’m curious as to whether that might resonate elsewhere. In a novel about the English countryside, I was surprised to see the influence of so many North American nature writers like Tim Lilburn and Wendell Berry. More explicitly, your narrator talks of a longing for the USA’s ‘vast and apparently wild places’, something that essentially we have very little of in the UK. I wonder how North American nature writing has fed into your ideas behind The Paper Lantern, particularly how it might have influenced your ideas about the English natural landscape. Are there points of tension there?
Certainly. I was interested in trying to articulate how strange the relationship is, culturally, between the US and the UK. The pressure, I suppose, that’s been almost constantly applied since the explosion of what we might call ‘pop’ culture – rock’n’roll, American fashion, TV etc… and for me, there was also this constant corollary to that with a love of those particular kinds of writers too, and a kind of yearning for that whole landscape. It felt a part of it, to me, my love of American music – country music in particular – and the land itself. In the novel, it’s also a feature of the narrator’s particular homesickness – their inability to leave, as well as their sickness at, or with, their own place. America seems like a kind of depository for all the speaker’s dreams and imaginings of what somewhere else, somewhere bigger perhaps, might feel like.
I’m reading a lot of rural novels at the moment, and one thing that strikes me is how many stories in that tradition build and utilise a community of ensemble characters. Within a novel set around a village pub I think that’s a particularly natural device, as we see through the motley crew of ‘Petes’ that populate the area, but I’m curious to know if you feel there’s a reason so many rural novels employ these broad casts of characters and caricatures. Is there something intrinsic to our conception of rurality that necessitates this kind of communal representation?
Well, it’s hard to address what anyone else is trying to do artistically, but what I do think is true, in real life, is that smaller, perhaps rural but even suburban, communities have a different kind of communion to those found in big cities. If you live somewhere with very little choice about where you can go out, or what you can do for work, or where your kids go to school, you’ll end up seeing the same people a lot of the time, and I think the casts of characters you refer to reflect that reality in a way. The wording of your question is interesting though and suggests maybe there’s something else going on – that we perhaps desire that aspect of rural life in depictions of rurality, and so maybe we build that reality, when faced with those places, out of that desire. Hard to say which might come first, I suppose…
At the centre of The Paper Lantern is the son of the pub’s landlord, a reflective narrator who uses his experiences around the pub to meditate on the social fabric of rural England. Among one of his most resonant feelings is the sense of his guilt as a young, rural male watching (and not preventing) the world degrade under the weight of a status quo that he hoped the pandemic might unbalance. This is a difficult and complex emotion to navigate, compounded by the ‘everyday violence’ (p.149) of the climate crisis, and I wonder if this comes from a personal place.
Without a doubt, yes. There’s no way to avoid that sense of guilt, I don’t think, living in a relatively comfortable way in a comfortable part of the world and watching the disaster of our environmental problems unfold on an almost daily basis. I think the speaker is trying to articulate that sense of helplessness as well as implication. They are essentially inert, I think, incapable of action beyond simply walking and thinking. Drinking, perhaps, but that’s another issue… Maybe that inactivity is a symptom of our individual helplessness in the face of systematic ‘violence’ of the kind you refer to, or perhaps it’s a manifestation of its causes. It feels, on a personal level, like a bit of both for me. I’m as implicated as anybody is, living a normal kind of capitalistic life, but I’m also angry, heartbroken, hyper-aware… I try and do what I can. Grow things, garden with sensitivity, pay attention, consume as little as we can. Talk about it in my work. Is that enough? Certainly not, but then again is anything going to be when the game is rigged against us in almost unimaginably huge, monolithic ways?
Finally I’d like to ask about the future of the countryside. The Paper Lantern is at times quite pessimistic about this, particularly in the light of continuing cultural and environmental degradation in the form of projects like HS2. I’m keen to know if you feel there’s room for hope for the soul of the English countryside, and if so, where might that hope be found?
I think the ‘soul’ of it is probably okay. We seem as connected to it as ever – look at the popularity of TV programmes like Springwatch, The Detectorists, Bob and Paul Go Fishing. And of course I have to make the obligatory mention of our collective love of ‘nature writing’. It seems like all these things are opening up a bit, very gradually, to more and more sections of the population, which is great, though that could always be improved. The imaginative countryside, then, would seem to be safe and well. But the real thing, the actual material spaces – it’s hard not to feel like that is under constant threat. I mean, the state of the rivers is a national disgrace, and I think emblematic of the wider problems the countryside faces. It’s an issue caused by all these things being inexorably drawn into our other national obsession – ‘the market’. And it’s never seemed truer or more obvious to me that the market simply cannot solve everything. In the case of our rivers, it’s just made things shittier. Literally.
Will was born in London and lives in Buckinghamshire. Among much else he likes gardening, sports and birds and is Poet-In-Residence at Caught By The River. He was named as one of the 4 Faber & Faber New Poets for 2014 with his debut pamphlet, praised in The Guardian for its ‘quiet intelligence and subtle ways of seeing’, in that series published in October 2014. In 2019 he released Chalk Hill Blue, a collaborative album made with the composer Hannah Peel, which set his poems to her music. The pair toured extensively, finishing the run with a sold-out night at the Barbican, which also featured a contribution from the esteemed sound artist Chris Watson. Will’s first full collection, Country Music, was published with Offord Road Books in 2020, and his debut novel, The Paper Lantern, was published in July 2021 with Weidenfeld & Nicholson for which he was named as one of The Observer’s Top 10 Debut Novelists of 2021.
Joe Bedford’s interview series Writers on Research is made possible with National Lottery funding via Arts Council England.