Bookworm

COSTA COINCIDENCES: Congratulations to John Burnside, shortlisted for the Costa Novel of the Year on Tuesday with a A Summer of Drowning – a book that even his own publishers thought would be a hard sell.

“When I had to explain what it was all about, I could see some of them thinking, ‘Yes, I see: a book set on an island inside the Arctic Circle where nothing happens except inside people’s heads. How is that going to work?’ ”

One of the reasons that it does is Burnside’s ability to convey the landscape of the Far North – one that has haunted his imagination ever since he first set eyes on it in the mid-1990s. But the story of how that happened in the first place is riven with the kind of coincidences that most novelists would reject as too outlandish.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

In 1994, Burnside gave a poetry reading in Durham. There were only about 30 people in the audience, yet one of them was a professor at Tromso university. He didn’t, however, introduce himself.

More than a year passed and Burnside found himself invited to a symposium at Tromso university. “This guy who picked me up at the airport – I’d thought he was just a volunteer, then he started talking about Heidegger and Benjamin and introduced himself as Dag Andersson, and mentioned he had been in that audience at Durham and I realised that he was the reason I was there.

“He took me to the island of Kvaloya [the novel’s setting] and I just fell in love with the place, so I started going to the north of Norway or Finland pretty much every year that I could.”

There was a further coincidence when Burnside sent Andersson a copy of his Whitbread-winning collection, The Asylum Dance. “When he got it, he asked me, ‘How did you know?’ Because when he was a child he used to visit a family run private asylum, and he always remembered the happiness of the patients whenever they’d put on a dance.”

ABLE KANE: Last week he was on Mastermind’s black chair answering questions on Evelyn Waugh’s novels for Children in Need on BBC2; this week comedian Russell Kane – last year’s winner of the Foster’s Edinburgh Comedy Award – announces a book deal for Simon & Schuster. The Humorist, published next April, is the story of of a man who understands all the secrets of comedy yet has never laughed in his life.