Wear Her Say

An interview with the novelist Eimear McBride

Darran Anderson

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Darran Anderson: The first thing I wanted to ask is in relation to the language you use in A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. Although it can be quite a harrowing subject, there’s a real beauty to the language and the rhythms you’ve created. I know you’ve mentioned the influences of Joyce and Beckett and you've talked previously about stream of consciousness but I found reading the book I had a very distinct voice speaking in my head. It doesn't happen often but I suddenly realised that I was reading it aloud. Were you influenced by poetry and the voices aspect of modernism?

Eimear McBride: I'm not a great reader of poetry but I would say the most important aspect of poetry, for me as a writer, is its license above anything else. I would've been influenced by Yeats and I think growing up in Sligo everything was very steeped in that. I read Yeats very young and learned his poems at school from when I was really a very small child. So Yeats, yes but poetry in general, not really. I do think though it’s important for prose writers not to become lazy when it comes to language. The current fashion is to just pare everything down to its bare bones and I think that’s gone as far as it can go. It’s become a bit of a dead-end. I think writers of prose need to start making a bit more effort.

DA: I have seen that online a lot recently, with these endless writing tips very much geared towards a Hemingway/Raymond Carver model as if that’s the ‘correct’ way of writing. There’s a danger that stripping it all down misses out a lot of the possibilities of language.

EMB: I think fiction, in some ways, has a similar problem to theatre now, since the advent of film. This sort of realism, what’s the purpose of it? In a way, the best theatre is something that’s much more theatrical now and isn't attempting to be realist as it was in the Fifties. I think literature needs to learn from that as well. You don’t need to be able to describe a shoe so that people understand exactly. You need to be doing something else.

DA: Is it important to get a balance, to trust in the reader, leaving gaps and a sense of mystery for the imagination to fill in whilst avoiding being reductive?  

EMB: Absolutely. I think a lot of modern writing is preoccupied with detail that seems completely extraneous to me. I don’t really understand what the purpose of it is. The reader doesn't need to know what brand of glasses someone is wearing. We need to be bigger than that. Writing needs to be bigger than that and to be about more than that. I don’t think it’s giving readers a different kind of experience.

DA: I don’t want to force you too much to explain the mechanics of the book but did you begin with that very distinctive voice in your head or did the plot come first?

EMB: Well I’d started out writing something else. I had a very different idea that I wanted to write about and within about two weeks I’d hit on the voice and found the voice was taking the story in a completely different direction. And really the plot grew out of the language rather than the other way around.

DA: Did you find at any stage that it had begun to write itself or that the character had taken over or is that maybe a bit too melodramatic?

EMB: No, I felt almost the opposite actually. I felt I was almost in a death-match the whole way through. I was going against everything that was normal to me in terms of ideas of writing. The character was someone I initially fought against. I didn't want to tell that story or rather that type of story especially being an Irish writer and an Irish woman. I thought, “Oh god, not this story. Can’t I write about something else?” Yet it was just insistent.

DA: As someone who grew up in Ireland as well, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is such a powerful read. Being a man, I'm sure there’s a lot I miss out on in terms of that side of upbringing but there’s so much that still resonated; particularly the scenes where deeper darker themes are overheard or glimpsed or insinuated in snatches of conversation. Did you find it cathartic at all or would that be to mistakenly assume that it’s personal?

EMB: I wouldn't say I found it cathartic. I think what was interesting about the personal elements of the story was the act of putting them into place. It doesn't matter to me if the reader knows which bits are very autobiographical and which aren't. It wasn't necessarily the big things as well, it was small things, small images or turns of phrase that were interesting to find a place for and preserve. So not cathartic as such but there was certainly an element of preservation there.

DA: In terms of the main character, did you have complete fidelity to her story or was there a sense of responsibility to talk about the macrocosm of Ireland through her?

EMB: That was secondary. It was always about the character for me. I wasn't working along a plot I’d mapped out. In the first draft, I didn't know what was going to happen until I arrived at it. I didn't know how the book would end until I was about twenty pages before the end. Other layers came in later drafts.

DA: One of the themes of the book comes obviously from the title; the girl is struggling to be fully formed, independent and in control of her own life and she’s being prevented by these various forces. As a reader, I picked up on that as, at least partially, an exploration of how dysfunctional Irish society has been in terms of sexual and gender repression. Was that a by-product of telling the story?

EMB: It was certainly integral to it. I am interested in how Ireland has been so self-hobbling in terms of its ability to mature as a nation, and mature socially. That was part of it. Whilst there's the struggle to make herself whole, really from the beginning there isn't much chance she ever will. It was interesting to investigate that.

DA: You said in an interview with the New Statesman that religion was supposed to help and it never did. I was wondering how you feel about religion now after writing the book?

EMB: I think I feel less angry than I did when I wrote it. It’s ten years since I wrote the book. I probably feel more hopeless about religion than I did then. I think back then I still felt disappointed, whereas now I don’t feel I even have the energy for disappointment any more. I did grow up believing and I wanted to believe. I can see the comfort it can bring but it’s not worth the price of the destruction.


DA: You mentioned the gap between writing the book and publishing it. Did you find your feelings towards the book had changed following that period? Reading back, did it seem like time travel?

EMB: It was very strange because I hadn't read it since I'd finished the third draft. I’d written all the drafts within a six month period so it was the best part of a decade since I’d even looked at it. When I opened it and started reading, there were parts that I’d completely forgotten, which was pretty weird. There were also some quite autobiographical bits I’d forgotten about in my life that then came back to me, which was strange.

DA: Did you recognise the person who’d written it?

EMB: I could definitely see myself at that point in my life writing it but that person was very different from the person now doing the final edit. It was quite tricky changing it and deciding which part of myself to give priority to: the person who’d written it or the writer looking back at it with a lot of hindsight.

DA: I understand your original notes for A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing were stolen...  

EMB: About two years before I wrote the book, I had been making notes to write a novel. Three months before the time when I knew I’d be able to sit down and work on it exclusively and not have to do any crappy temping jobs, my house was burgled. My notebook was in my handbag and the handbag was taken, so everything disappeared. It was all handwritten, I didn’t have a computer at that point. No backup. No copies. I was completely distraught, thinking “Bloody hell, now that I can finally write it, everything has gone.” So I was distracted for weeks but eventually I just sat down and worked and it was actually the best thing because I wasn't working through anything. It was all fresh. There was an increased sense of urgency as well. I knew I had a finite amount of money before I had to go back to temping so I had to get it all done as quick as I could. There was a silver lining, though it didn't feel like it at the time.

DA: You wrote the book very quickly then...

EMB: Six months.

DA: While it’s very precise and eloquent, there is a sense of momentum that propels the book along...

EMB: There probably is. I was in a panic for six months trying to get it out. There are some sections of the book, which people ask how I wrote, the grandfather’s wake for example, and I couldn't really remember writing them. So I went back and looked at the first draft and that section is almost exactly how it appears in the final book. There were some sections that just came out and I never really had to do anything else to them. And others took much more writing.

DA: I don’t want to get too much into the publication history, and the rejections involved, as I don’t think those particular publishers deserve any time or publicity but I'm interested in how you became involved with Galley Beggar Press?

EMB: My husband got a job in Norwich, we’d been living in Cork up until that point, so we moved over here. He was just having a chat with a man who ran the bookshop here and he was asked what his wife did and he told him the tale of woe and the reply came, “Me and my friends are thinking of setting up a press. You should let us read the manuscript.” That’s how it happened, as completely random as that.

DA: Destiny perhaps?

EMB: I think a lot of things just converged. It was also the first time in years I’d given the book out and thought, “Nothing is going to happen.” I didn't even bother to get excited.

DA: Had you given up on it? Did you think it would ever come out?

EMB: About five or six years in, I made peace with the idea that no-one would buy it and maybe I’d have to write and sell the second novel and there might be interest from that. Which puts a lot of pressure on the second novel. I'm glad that’s been taken off. Just the thought, “Oh god, am I writing another one for the drawer?” Soul-destroying. I had given up really, that it would be published first at least.

DA: The story that haunts me most is that of Flann O’Brien writing The Third Policeman, which was rejected and he just filed it away in a bedside cabinet and then died thinking it was a failure. And now it’s regarded as being a masterpiece. That seems a terrifying legacy to have.

EMB: Any writer who has been through massive quantities of rejection has thought about that as a possibility. I did have to accept that was going to be me and I’d be the writer who was never published. Did I still think it was worthwhile to keep writing if it just meant continuing to be a massive failure? I realised I didn't like doing anything more and I certainly couldn't do anything better. I just had to accept that and keep going.

DA: We’re always told that more adventurous books, books that are more imaginative and use different styles and techniques, are too experimental to sell and that readers don’t like them and yet we’re being continually surprised by the success of books like yours. Do you think mainstream publishers underestimate their readers?

EMB: I do, I really do. I didn't get rejections that said, “This is a pile of shit.” They always liked it. They could always see value in the writing. They always thought it was a worthwhile book. No-one ever said, “Don’t bother, you’re not a writer.” It was always, “Oh but our marketing team can’t sell it.” I found that the most crushing, dispiriting thing to have to deal with. If people didn't like it that’s fair enough but people said, “I like it but I'm not going to take a risk on it.” That’s very hard to take because then you realise it’s not just your problem, it’s a general problem. And something has been broken along the line. I think part of that is the bond of faith between publishers and readers. I really hope things like the Goldsmiths Prize [which McBride won in 2013] will help repair that and add an incentive.

DA: Hopefully this is the beginning of the fight-back...

EMB: I think there’s been a lot of surprise about how well this book has done, for me particularly. I think, in general, people have been pleased. Even if it’s not for them, they might be pleased that a book taking a risk is doing well. The interest is there.

DA: If you look at writers as interesting and popular as say Donna Tartt and David Foster Wallace, I mean those books aren't airport novels. There’s no valid reason for publishers to condescend or assume that their readers are idiots. People gobble this stuff up when they’re given it. The problem is they’re not offered it enough.

EMB: Yeah, it’s hidden away, it’s rejected and it’s ignored or it’s shoved out under odd titles that makes it very unenticing. I believe readers deserve a lot better than they’re getting. It looks like smaller presses are going to be the place where that happens.

DA: Can you reveal anything about what you’re currently working on?

EMB: It’s the second novel, which I've been working on for quite a while. I'm hoping it will be finished this year. I'm still interested in language and the slightly different narrative perspective. I suppose the big difference is I'm trying to write a book about joy this time. It’s really hard, much harder than despair.

DA: Will it be a Yin and Yang situation with the first book?

EMB: I think there’s a connection between the two. I almost see one as the inside-out of the other but don’t hold me to that.

DA: Finally, in a depressing variation of Desert Island Books, if you could save one book for a post-apocalyptic society in the future, what would it be?

EMB: I feel like I should probably not say this but the truth is it’s going to be Ulysses. It’s the whole universe clamped inside a little world. You don’t need anything else.