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Sympathy for the devil

John Burnside looks as if, by the age of 57, he's done it all.

After a difficult start to life thanks to a drunken and unkind father, and his own youthful descent into drink and drugs, as described in painfully honest detail in two memoirs, he has become one of Britain's most feted poets and novelists. Author of 12 poetry collections and eight novels, winner of the TS Eliot and Forward prizes, the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize and the Whitbread Prize for poetry, only three weeks ago he published his latest work, the short story collection Something Like Happy. This led the Sunday Herald's reviewer, Todd McEwen, to reflect, "For at least 20 years I've found it impossible honestly to name a better writer in English than John Burnside."

With the chaos of his early life behind him and such praise ringing in his ears, what more could Burnside desire? Married with two sons, and professor of creative writing at the University of St Andrews, he has surely earned himself some breathing space. But no. Though Burnside's Catholic upbringing in Cowdenbeath and Corby is a frequent topic of wry conversation, he has a work ethic that, if not technically Protestant, is certainly dogged.

Describing his ideological position as "deep ecologist/anarchist", the companionable, hyperactive Burnside is currently consumed by fury over environmental destruction and failures of the political and democratic system, Scottish and beyond. As we walk from his office to the university's Old Union coffee-shop, he rails against wind farms and in particular the one planned beside a nature reserve a few miles south of St Andrews, where he lives. For the past year he's been campaigning against this and other such projects, not because they might spoil his view but because of the harm they do to birds, bats and other wildlife.

Seething with frustration, he could clearly talk about this and other environmental issues all day. Fortunately for his blood pressure, some of that anger is about to be channelled into his most ambitious writing project yet. This month, along with novelist Andrea Wulf, he takes up the post of Eccles British Library Writer in Residence, a position that won him £20,000 and means, he says, that as he flits between Fife and London, he "will be like a chicken with its head cut off".

The purpose of this award is two-fold: to allow the writer access to the Eccles Centre of American Studies, which is based at the British Library, and for him to promote the material it contains. The timing for Burnside could not be better. For years he has been mulling over the idea of a novel loosely inspired by Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird, in which he will take a brother and sister born in the Deep South, as were Scout and Jem, and follow them through the flashpoints of America's 20th century.

"I've always loved and hated that book, at the same time, almost in the same breath," he says, speaking at typically breakneck speed. "I love the book, it's a wonderful story, great characters. I don't like Atticus Finch too much – he's too idealised, maybe – but the kids are great." He laughs. "When I was a kid I wanted to be Boo Radley. I wanted to live on my own and every now and again go out and make sure all the kids were safe."

As he dives into the bowels of the British Library, Burnside will be looking for detail on the alternative political movements of the 1960s and 1970s, particularly the Weather Underground, a radical left group that took on the establishment, sometimes violently. A few of its activists died, several served time, and some are still in jail. His heroine, he tells me, will be a member of this outfit.

So, compared with previous works, is this the most heavily researched book Burnside has yet tackled? He nods, temporarily abandoning a fruit scone. "Yes, definitely. It's something I've wanted to do for a long time, and haven't felt up to it, for different reasons. Even as far back as when I first started writing fiction, I wanted to write something like this. My first ever novel, which has been destroyed now, thank goodness, it was much more a political novel. It was about somebody who'd escaped from South America, having been tortured - It was supposed to be a kind of political thriller. It was dreadful, it really was."

He explains his long apprenticeship before tackling his magnum opus. "I felt as though I had to learn to write prose gradually. Handling a big cast of characters and a big sweep of time isn't probably something you should do first time, unless you're some kind of genius. My great hero in writing is Don DeLillo. He had to work his way up to writing something like Underworld or White Noise or The Names. So I've always wanted to write that kind of book. This may fall flat on its face, I'm not sure I have the ability to write this type of book, but it's time to try."

Burnside has always been drawn to the US. "For my generation, imagine if you had the choice: Cowdenbeath/Corby, the Catholic Club disco, Cliff Richard. Or Elvis Presley, New York City - Every cultural artefact until, say, I was 15, was American. At the same time – I was 15 in 1970 – we'd seen Vietnam, we'd seen Kennedy's assassination, we'd seen Bobby Kennedy, so we knew it was this as well. So, for anybody growing up that's a hugely intriguing thing. This is the country that can produce Ralph Ellison, but then not let him eat in a diner."

Expelled from school for smoking dope and "childish pranks", Burnside managed to keep up his interest in the classics, even though they weren't taught at the next school he attended. "I was a Seneca nut in my twenties," he admits, a passion that sowed the seed from which the new novel has grown. "One of my favourite quotes of all time is that Seneca remark, what a narrow innocence it is just to be good according to the law. Surely a good person is someone whose goodness transcends just the law? Seneca points out that all the things we think of as being real virtues can't be legislated for, or aren't legislated for."

Among those, he says, is the idea of fides, or trust, something most of us have now lost in institutions we once considered honourable – banks, police, government, the medical profession, journalists, even the farming community. "All the things that were the virtues when I was a kid, they're now institutions owned by people we can't trust."

This brings him to the heart of what will make this novel tick – as in a timebomb.

"Why is it," he asks, "that so many ex-terrorists live such productive and useful lives now? If you go through this list, Bill Ayres, who was a central Weather Underground guy – he was in the press for a bit, he was 'Obama's terrorist friend' – he's now one of the most respected educationalists in America. Bernardine Dohrn was the first really important female leader of a political movement in America, albeit an underground one. Dohrn is now very important in children's advocacy and fighting for children's justice. Other members of the Weather Underground – these were terrorists, remember – are helping co-operative businesses to start, or working in child education, or working in remedial stuff, or in advocacy for poor people, beaten people. They're all working against the system in a different way but doing stuff that's hugely important. No matter what we've done to them – some ended up in prison for years – they still kept on believing in goodness."

So does he have a title for the novel yet?

"The working title," he tells me, "is Good." And so, rest assured, it will be.

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