Interview with Eimear McBride
Author of A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing
Interviewed by JoAnna Novak
After reading an advanced copy of A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, Eimear McBride’s debut novel, I knew I wouldn’t be reading prose the same for a long, long time. McBride’s novel—about an Irish girl’s coming-of-age in the shadow of her brother’s off-and-on battle with brain cancer—is written in pulsing, feverish prose, prose that is chopped and diced and scrambled, devastating and erotic. After an arduous nine years of submitting, McBride published Girl with Galley Beggar in 2013 in the U.K.; the novel came out in the U.S. from Coffee House in September.
In the past year, McBride has been honored with a Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year nod, the Goldsmiths Prize, the Desmond Elliott Prize, and the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction. I was so excited to speak with Eimear that I woke up at three a.m. for our five a.m. Skype.
JN: First of all, I wanted to congratulate you on the fantastic write-up in The New York Times that Joshua Cohen just did of A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing. It must be amazing to have that. Were you anxious for The Times reception?
EM: Yeah, of course. That’s obviously the one, you’re always hoping it’s going to be good, and I knew it was coming and I didn’t know who was doing it…so you know, it was fantastic to finally read it.
JN: I loved what he said about—well, obviously, “a future classic”—but when he wrote about “familial intimacy inhering linguistically,” I thought that captured something I felt reading the novel. Did you feel aligned with what he said?
EM: Yeah, um, you know, intimacy, linguistic intimacy was really part of the whole thing for me. It was really what I wanted to achieve with it and to make the reader feel completely complicit in the experience and so, yeah, I was pleased he picked up on that.
JN: I wonder if you could speak a bit to your role in this greater tradition of Irish or UK writing, which to some American readers maybe a less familiar tradition. When I was reading, I was thinking about Joyce, Beckett, Woolf, but some of the other writers—Ann Quin and Edna O’Brien and people Cohen mentioned in his Times review—how firmly rooted do you feel in that tradition yourself?
EM: Well, I suppose … that was certainly my starting point. Joyce was a huge influence on me like every Irish writer—probably every writer—and so modernism was certainly where I felt I was coming from and I felt that that tradition had been closed down sort of unfairly, people felt that it was done, it had nothing left to say, which I really disagreed with, and I think particularly as a woman I felt there was a lot of room left there for … that modernism could be a really useful tool for talking about female experience and to speak about that in a very unsentimental way, which is traditionally how female emotion and female lives are spoken about, this quite sort of sentimental, slightly infantilized approach, and that actually taking a tradition which has—especially with Joyce and Beckett being the sort of great figures of it, a quite male lineage, although there are a lot wonderful female modernists, all the glory went to the men, obviously—and so it was, so I certainly feel that that was my basis and Edna O’Brien was a big influence on me certainly when I was younger and I remember reading The Country Girls when I was thirteen when I was away … I think it’s what Americans probably call Irish Language Camp … but in Ireland it was called the Gaeltacht and uh I was away, and I was kind of away from home and I was really homesick and I just remember reading this book, which was really quite illicit still, I had to read it under the covers, and it was just a huge revelation, just her use of language, I remember it being an incredibly overwhelming experience. And, so yeah, I do feel very connected to that, but I also, you know, I was also trying do something new as well.
JN: Totally. Unsentimental you mentioned: I really responded to that in the novel, how the prose and the treatment of those traditionally female subjects were so unsentimental and so, for me, the sentiment emerged from the relationship between the narrator and her brother. I wonder if you can talk a little bit more—you mention The Country Girls—about your other formative reading experiences that you can look back on in your life.
EM: Well I think in my teens, probably Edna O’Brien, reading a lot of Edna O’Brien, but then reading, I think actually reading Lady Chatterly’s Lover was a big thing for me and again, it was probably the idea of the illicit, kind of having to hide it from my mother because there was a picture of a naked woman on the front of it I think, and but again the use of language and that way language could be used to access experience in a different way, you know, was very important, and you know I find D.H. Lawrence a bit too much nowadays but at that point in my life it was just kind of opening things up, opening up possibilities. But then also reading a lot of Russian work and, you know, reading Dostoevsky was very important and Tolstoy just in terms of understanding the world, I suppose, and having come from this very small closed community and rural background, you know, long before there was any internet, you know, your access to the world and how you came to understand the world was through literature. That was all that I had. And then, you know, reading Ulysses but that was when I was twenty-five. I know people, they say that it’s kind of what you read in your teens makes you, but actually Ulysses made me.
JN: Did you study literature? I’ve read you studied acting, but did you read concurrently?
EM: Yeah. I read, well … when I was seventeen I went to London. I had to go to drama school in London, but it was a very odd school. It was very much based on the Method tradition and a lot, our main acting teacher had taught at the Actor’s Studio so and had all these great classic tales of back in the day and you know which we used to love. But the director of the school was very, very keen on kind of odd restoration tragedies and Greek drama, and we were expected to read very, very widely so you know just started with projects starting in Ancient Greece and read right up to, probably, Baldachin or something like that, you know. So, my sort of literary training … there’s lots of gaps in my, in my reading, but I’ve read a lot of theater texts and classic plays and so I’ve kind of gone through the ages in that way instead, and so and also that’s been useful because it’s … I think I’ve got away with feeling a bit less precious about language and about literature in a way and you know, having a much more physical approach to it and what it can do.
JN: That’s interesting, that idea of a physical approach because the language in A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing is so physical, so tied to the breath. Do you read poetry too?
EM: Yeah, um, no. A lot of people have asked me that. I’m not a big poetry fan. I probably was more in my teens, and but you know I grew up in Sligo, which is you know W.B. Yeats country and so I grew up very much steeped in Yeats and so I would say he, Yeats’ poetry is a huge influence on me, growing up, and certainly dealing with the rhythms and language and also the idea of nature and the imagery associated with that and obviously the book is sort of … it’s set in Mayo but it’s very close to Sligo and so you know there’s a lot of crossover there and obviously the end of the book is called The Stolen Child after the Yeats’ poem and you know there’s sort of sections referring to it in there.
JN: When you were in London, studying acting, were you writing at that time?
EM: I was writing all during that time. I had always assumed that I would write as well, that that would kind of go in tandem with it, and so yeah, I was writing, but it wasn’t really until a few years after that that I started to, to write seriously, and that was in 2000 and I went to Russia, for a four-month stint, on my own, and it was after my own brother had died and I was just, you know, I knew I didn’t want to act and I didn’t know what to do with myself and I was just quite lost and I went to Russia to be on my own and think about things and, you know, probably drink quite a lot.
EM: And um, and also just go and sort of experience the cultural life there, which is incredibly rich and incredibly close to peoples’ everyday life, which is something that is very powerful to experience when you’re not used to it. And, it was kind of there in those months when I realized it was time to start writing seriously. So when I came back, I just started doing temping work again, and would get up at five in the morning and write. But, you know, it was another three years before I sat down properly with a block of time and wrote A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing.
JN: I’m always interested in writer routines. I find them What were those six months when you sat down to write A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing like?
EM: They were quite panicked because I knew that I had a very short amount of time to write the book in and I didn’t know if I could write a book, I mean all the writing I’d been doing beforehand was sort of building around the idea of writing a book, but not actually writing a book, and then a couple of months before I sat down, my house was burgled and my notes were stolen.
JN: Oh my gosh, that’s horrible.
EM: Sort of like two years of preparation disappeared.
JN: I’m so sorry.
EM: Yeah, I had a massive panic about that, ran around looking in bins for months. And so then I just had this block of time, I just had to sit down and start from the beginning … with this kind of tremendous sense of urgency, and so I just decided that I would write a thousand words a day and that was the way to just get the words on the page. And you know, some days that was just writing the same word over and over again to get it down.
EM: But every day I would write it and then the next day I would get up and I would read it and then I would cut and usually cut 900 words, 800 words, and just start again from the most interesting sentence and just keep going. And so that was just how I got it out onto the page and I had no plot. I actually sat down with a completely idea and I think I spent about three weeks bashing away with this other idea and just feeling like nothing was really coming together and then one day I just wrote the first words of A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing and I knew that was it. And I thought, everything else goes in the bin. And then I just followed the story and tried to follow the logic and I didn’t know how it would end until twenty pages before the end.
JN: You mentioned plot. I’ve recently graduated from an MFA program here in the United States, and in the graduate fiction world, plot seems to be a particularly tricky word right now for young writers—they’re always skeptical to plot or clinging to plot. There’s a lot of charge to the word. Does that have the same slipperiness for you?
EM: No, it’s not a problematic thing for me because I’m not interested in it. I know what kind of writer I am, and that’s not where my talent lies, and I enjoy that when other people do it well, so you know, for me as a reader, I can enjoy it, but as a writer it doesn’t interest me. But story does interest me, and that is something that is quite different. And people interest me, and their lives, and what happens to them in their lives, and that is often not enhanced by intricate plots.
EM: You know you can discover lots of interesting things about people, about characters, by putting them in pressured situations, but the kind of … the artifice … doesn’t interest me, to end up having to make that work in other ways. As a writer, I want to put them in a situation and then just see what happens in a kind of horrible way.
JN: How do you differentiate for yourself between plot and story?
EM: I think for me story is a much more organic thing. It is something that emerges like life. Plot is a series of ideas that you impose upon your characters, whereas for me the writing process is about discovering who those characters are.
JN: The six months sound incredible and productive and lovely … but then I know that there were the nine years. Can you talk a little bit about …. now it’s Goldsmith Prize, Bailey’s Prize, Desmond Elliot Prize … do those nine years feel distant or does it still feel like they were nine long years?
EM: They definitely still exist within me and their legacy lingers on. I think, you know, it’s quite interesting, because obviously people reading it now, they’re coming to it fresh and they’ve very surprised by this nine-year story, but for me, this is kind of the long march of humiliation to get here, and that doesn’t stop being part of you because everything one day goes well. It’s been a great year, but there were nine years of failure before it and so it’s you know, I’m, really, obviously delighted that the book’s a success, but people ask me, ‘do you feel vindicated,’ but really what I feel is relieved. That’s what I mostly feel is just very relieved that actually my book is going to have a life now, for however long that will be, but you know, it has a life and it has readers and that’s what you want. But nine years is a ridiculously long time to wait.
JN: Were you sending it out to agents or submitting it to contests that whole time or … ?
EM: Well, after about a year and a half I got an … agent, and he was sending it out, and then I was sending out, and then everything went completely quiet, and after about five years I just put it in the drawer and decided that—well, first I thought about burning it, you know, just getting rid of it to be done with it, so I’d never think of it again, and then I just put it in the drawer, and decided I would get on with the second book and that was a very hard decision to make because I didn’t know if I was just going to be writing another book for the drawer. It’s very hard to take kind of the weight of failure off. You know, it’s hard enough to write as it is, without that kind of ‘oh my god, is this going to be another one of these.’
EM: And you know, every sort of year, something would pop up and someone would be interested for a while and then there’d be a flurry of excitement and then it would all just go away again. And so when I met up with Galley Beggar, when I moved to Norwich, it was the first time I just didn’t get excited. I just thought, ‘well, whatever.’ They can read and we’ll just see what happens, but I didn’t expect anything to happen. And they came back and said, ‘we really like but we have no money and we’re only about to publish our first book and we don’t know what we’re doing, can we come back to you when we’re ready?’ And I said, ‘yep,’ and just thought that was the end of it, because I’d heard that before as well. I was so world-weary, (joking) ‘Heard it all before.’
EM: But then a year later, they came back and said, ‘okay, we’ve now published the first book, it’s gone pretty well, we still don’t have any money but we know a little bit more about what we’re doing and we’ll publish it.’ And so I said yes, I mean I was completely surprised because I had just given up really.
JN: Is Galley Beggar—in the United States, publishing consists of large presses, sort of larger independents like Coffee House, and then small presses. Where does Galley Beggar fit—is it the same in the UK?
EM: Galley Beggar is people in their sitting room.
EM: It’s two people in their sitting room.
JN: Oh wow. So it’s tiny.
EM: Yeah, minute. Micro-press, you would say. I mean, Coffee House is like a big deal compared to Galley Beggar. It was only going to be the second book that they had published and originally they were only going to print 500 copies and then the TLS (Times Literary Supplement) review came in and they decided they would print a thousand. And you know, their first book I think had sold a thousand copies in a year so they were delighted, that was a great success. But Girl sold a thousand copies within a month, and that’s when we kind of … everyone realized that something else was happening.
JN: That’s incredible. I didn’t realize that dimension of your story, but that’s kind of amazing as well. So are you still working on that second book now?
EM: Well, I was until April, then everything just got too crazy. I was kind of clinging on to my sort of routine and it all got too much, the travel and everything. So I’ve put it on hold until the beginning of next year, so the beginning of next year I’m saying no to everyone and I’m just going to work and finish the book. And I thought it would be finished this year, if life had stayed the way it had been for the previous nine, it would have been finished. So next year.
JN: I don’t want to ask if you feel pressure because I think as writers we always feel pressure, either from ourselves or an outside source but … do you feel like motivated to deviate from the voice you’ve developed in Girl? Is that a conscious effort … ? Voice is the most interesting question for me, and so I’m interested in what your relationship is to that voice moving forward.
EM: Well, I mean, the thing is, I wrote Girl the way I did to tell that story, so nothing I write again will be the same because the language will always be fit to build the story and the second book, you know, is about two people so the language immediately has to open up to encompass that relationship. But I am, I am still interested in language; I am still interested in trying to find … trying to make language express those parts of life that are not straightforward, that are not clear. As Joyce said, it is ‘wide awake language,’ you know? There are parts of life that are not covered by ‘wide awake language,’ that are covered by working on the periphery of the mind and the vocabulary, maybe, and the system of grammar, and so yeah, I’ll be still doing that I think.
JN: So, you alluded to your brother dying of brain cancer. Can you talk a little bit about the role of your biography in A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing? Or, conversely, maybe, or, relatedly, what it’s been like to publish a book that shares some of your DNA?
EM: In some ways its complicated by the quite intimate nature of the book and hopefully intimate nature of the reader experience, I’ve had a lot of people ask me if it is an autobiography—really. If it is a memoir—really. And the truth is it isn’t, but I did have this experience and I really didn’t want to write about that, I set out consciously thinking ‘I’m not going to write about that’ because that’s just too personal and I don’t want … I mean, the chances of being very sentimental about that as well are high. But it, you know, that story—it came out. And The boy in the book is very, very different to my brother. You know, my own brother had a very different life, a very independent life, he was a care-worker, you know, all of these things, but he did share that disease … and so that’s hard when people assume that that was him. And that’s a difficult thing for me to live with. But that is the nature of the beast, and I understand that. Like a lot of first novels, you know, you use what you have, but for me it was very much a jumping off point. It was a, okay this is what I have and this is where I will go as a result of it and I think I would not have been able to write as an adventurous text if I had been writing a memoir, actually. I would have felt much more constrained linguistically as well as narratively.
JN: Absolutely … I lied. I have one more question. Do you work in other genres?
EM: Nope. Just fiction. And I think at some point, I would maybe like to write for the theater, but it would have to be under interesting circumstances. I’m not interested in writing a straight play.
JN: I would kind of have guessed that at this point.