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In conversation: Jamie Quatro and Eimear McBride

In September 2018, I was invited to speak at a seminar entitled ‘Sex & the Contemporary Novel’ at the University of Toronto. Jamie Quatro was listed as one of my co-panelists, so I went out and bought a copy of her debut novel Fire Sermon to prepare. But I wasn’t at all prepared for what I found, a novel which ripped right through the secular comfort zone of contemporary fiction. As the most lapsed of lapsed Catholics I was initially dismayed by the subject matter. The struggle of a white American Christian with her faith and marriage is hardly a sympathetic subject in the era of Trump. But as I read on through the cannily interwoven strands covering love, marital captivity, theological debate and erotic exploration, I was gripped. By the end, it’s no exaggeration to say, I was electrified. I couldn’t recall the last time I’d read a work so seriously engaged in these kinds of conversation. Where once everyone from Dante to Tolstoy, Flannery O’Connor to Graham Greene wrestled with going towards, or going away, from religious belief, there is now only silence. Indeed, who among us would not greet the news of a friend’s religious conversion with the same horror displayed by Virginia Woolf on hearing of T.S Eliot’s: ‘I have had a most shameful and distressing interview with dear Tom Eliot, who may be called dead to us all from this day forward.’ Well, perhaps we would not be quite so intolerant, but I think the point, generally, holds. Given the power wielded by the Christian faithful in today’s United States, isn’t it time we started to think about what life looks like from those perspectives again? And, in the light of the great global sweep of #MeToo, shouldn’t we also be looking out for those of us who have been left behind? Jamie Quatro and I discussed these ideas, and others, over too many drinks after our Toronto event. I’m delighted to have this opportunity to examine them further here. EIMEAR MCBRIDE

 

Q

Eimear McBride

— To open, then, I’d like to ask what it means to be a Christian writing in a literary world which tends to view religious belief and freedom of thought/imagination as mutually exclusive? In both your short story collection I Want to Show You More and Fire Sermon, you explore the conflict between religious faith and more contemporary concerns about female bodily autonomy, infidelity and sexual desire. Do you think of yourself as a ‘Christian writer’ or ‘a writer who’s a Christian’? Or does that question drive you round the bend?

A

Jamie Quatro

— I certainly don’t think of myself as a ‘Christian writer’. I’ve been dismayed to see myself called that in print. Firstly, in America the word ‘Christian’ has been hijacked by the Trump-supporting political right. I don’t recognise their version of Christianity. It runs counter to nearly everything Jesus embodied and taught. Yes, I am a writer, and yes, I am a Christian (and one can be a politically progressive Christian – see Bryan Mealer in The New Republic), but when the two terms are conflated I become deeply uncomfortable. Secondly, the label smacks of proselytising with dumbed-down prose, the kind of theologically and intellectually vapid books one finds in the religious self-help section. I was raised in a devout Protestant home, so I suppose the language and ideas of my upbringing can’t help but seep into my work. And I believe, like Flannery O’Connor, that as a writer I’m ‘operating at that peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity meet’. But the ways I’m writing about my particular crossroads – God and sex and women and ecstasy – might draw on other traditions besides the Christian one. My characters might be pushing against such traditions, or appropriating them subversively.

 

Anyhow, imagine if everyone had such labels attached to their professions. Imagine a doctor billed as a ‘Christian neurosurgeon’. I don’t care what religion my brain surgeon is. I just want him to be the best fucking surgeon out there.

 

Speaking of women and God and sex: the protagonists of both your novels – the Girl in A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing and Eily in The Lesser Bohemians – engage in complex and risky sexual activity. In Toronto we spoke about how certain readers seem put-off, or even offended, by a female character who uses her sexual agency in ways that they, the readers, think are ‘bad’ for her. Can we dig into this a bit more? What do you think is beneath that kind of response?

 

Q

Eimear McBride

— The idea of the ‘Christian neurosurgeon’ is appalling but, of course, the Irish state has only just had to stop insisting that medical professionals place Catholic teaching before the Hippocratic oath. As to your question, I think it’s to do with the collective sense of investment in, and entitlement to women’s bodies. The idea of a woman just wandering through life getting on with her own business is almost inconceivable. Whether we confront or ignore it, we all know that, one way or another, we will be left in no doubt that we are the wrong kind of woman. When it comes to sex, we may – tenuously – possess the right to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, but the notion of a woman making a personal choice to behave in a way which society deems to be ‘bad’ for her is still taboo. Women may experience ‘bad’ things, have ‘bad’ thrust upon us, but we must never choose it. No matter how extreme or traumatic our personal experience, we are also not allowed to be confused about what may or may not constitute ‘bad.’ And, whatever else happens, we’re not permitted to publicly return from our trauma in any other state than wiser, stronger and happier. I really object to this. In The Lesser Bohemians, Eily chooses risky sexual behaviours because she won’t accept the sexual self her abuser has bequeathed her. Being young, she doesn’t always look before she leaps, and so some encounters have negative outcomes on her sense of herself. Some, however, have the desired effect of releasing her into the sense of bodily autonomy she’s searching for. So, the notion of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ don’t apply there, as far as I’m concerned. What I’m interested in is the refusal of her adult sexual self to be anything other than the one who gets to choose, wherever that journey takes her and whatever choices she makes.

 

After my first novel was published, I was often angrily asked why there was no hope at the end? I even had readers suggest that if ‘she just met a nice boy’ everything would’ve been alright. People seemed genuinely perplexed and offended by it. So, I had to explain that 1. Quite often really bad things happen to women and they are not alright afterwards. 2. I was writing for adults and assumed they already knew that. 3. I do not believe literature’s primary purpose is to pretend the female experience is better than it is. I think this burning need for the ‘survivor’ rather than ‘victim’ narrative, while humanly understandable, robs women of our complexity and silences us at the very moment we most need to speak truthfully about what is often unspeakable.

 

There’s a different, but not unrelated problem, for Maggie in your novel Fire Sermon. She endures frequent marital rape and one of the aspects you explore is why she stays in the marriage. I’ve noticed there’s been a marked aversion to dealing with this aspect of the novel in the reviews. One reviewer I think referred to it as ‘the marital bed growing cold’, which I was pretty shocked by. Is this an unwillingness to engage in a conversation about women doing what’s ‘bad’ for them and why that might happen?

 

A

Jamie Quatro

— Well, it isn’t clear that Maggie does stay in the marriage. The last section is in the future tense, a hypothetical version of a possible ending she’s narrating for her interlocutor –therapist/priest/God/Maggie’s own conscience, take your pick. ‘There will be grandchildren,’ she begins. Some readers don’t notice the tense shift. They assume Maggie actually stays with Thomas into old age. But, physically and temporally, Fire Sermon ends in the hotel room in Florida, where she’s just lied to Thomas about her affair and is thinking about getting on a plane every day. We leave her in a space of wrestling, of not-knowing, which feels like the most truthful place to land.

 

And you’re right, the ‘marital bed growing cold’ is one of those euphemisms that borders on irresponsibility on the part of the critic, because, as you point out, it obscures and tacitly dismisses a desperately important topic I’d hoped Fire Sermon would bring to public light: marital rape. It happens. Are we talking about it? The #MeToo movement has been essential in calling out male gatekeepers and sexual coercion and abuse in the workplace. But what about sexual coercion and abuse within marriage? Especially in religious marriages, where traditional gender roles and prohibitions related to extramarital sex – even just sexual attraction to someone other than one’s spouse – might inhibit a woman’s courage to speak up. I’m thinking not just of conservative Christianity, but also cultures in which arranged marriages are still practised. There seems to be a silencing in these spaces in the same way there has been, until very recently, a silencing in the Catholic church related to sex abuse.

 

Abuses in the Catholic church aside, having been raised in a stripped-down Protestant church, I’ve always been attracted to the physicality of the Mass. The bells and smells. It seems to me that Catholicism honours the body and its inherent sensuality in ways Protestantism doesn’t Yet your Catholic characters experience the same existential splits – body vs. soul, physical vs. spiritual, the vast gulf between what they’re ‘supposed’ to do and what the flesh naturally longs for. The Girl in your first book intuits the utter wrongness of this split. From the moment she’s born, she’s seeking more body, more tangible physicality, at first in her religious imagination, as when she scribbles wounds and blood all over the picture of Christ, and later in sex. She’s a victim of horrific sexual abuse, which complicates her relationship with her own body and its sexual desires. Am I off base regarding Catholicism’s integration of body and spirit? I’ve only ever been an outside observer. Also, do you think there might be an inherent aversion to the religion in which one is raised, versus an attraction to whatever version of religion (or non-religion) one comes to as an adult?

 

Q

Eimear McBride

— Catholicism is certainly very prone to sensual theatrics and it’s those which elicit the only shred of feeling I still possess for it. However, twentieth- and twenty-first-century Irish Catholicism – as distinct from its European and South American iterations – is unrelentingly dissociative in its attitude to the body. I suppose this relates to the dismantling of Ireland’s traditional – and, supposedly, more sexually egalitarian – society by a Protestant colonial force and compounded by the Church’s power grab in the years after independence when it became convenient to sentimentalise Irish women onto their backs and into the kitchens, then brutally strip them of even the most basic human rights. In a country where rape was condoned at an institutional level, where access was denied to both contraception and abortion, when a woman – no matter what physical or emotional cruelty she experienced – could not legally free herself from a marriage and where exercising even the slightest sexual autonomy risked institutionalisation, how could it ever be possible for a girl to grow up with any kind of positive experience of herself as a physical being? The girls in both of my books have endured childhood sexual abuse. The difference between them is in A Girl, she never gets to view her experience through anything other than the condemnatory – and self-condemnatory – prism of the theocracy in which she’s been raised. Eily in The Lesser Bohemians however, makes a break for it. She gets to assess her experiences through secular eyes and can therefore avoid destroying herself from the inside out. I have a huge aversion to the Catholic church, and this isn’t due simply to rebelling against what I was raised in. I would say; having been raised in it I know it for what it is and what it is disgusts me. No amount of incense can cover up the reek of the dead bodies and destroyed lives it’s responsible for. Your reflection in Fire Sermon, about modern Christianity’s ongoing obsession with sexual morality being almost obscene in light of the political and environmental challenges facing the world, really caught my attention. Why do you think it’s still so hard for Christians to relinquish control of the body, and the female body particularly?

A

Jamie Quatro

— I appreciate your differentiation of Irish Catholicism from other iterations. If I was in any danger of converting, ‘the reek of dead bodies and destroyed lives’ has definitely talked me out of it! Why is it that for centuries, religion and politics have been considered bedfellows? It seems obvious to me that church and state are and should always remain two wholly distinct spheres.

 

Your question about controlling the female body – we could talk about that for thirty pages. You’re right, so much of the abuse of women has to do with the religious patriarchy’s need to maintain power, but I think it’s more systemic. In fact, today in the New York Times, I read a piece about gender bias among doctors related to the treatment of male and female pain. A Yale study found that adult participants who observed children receiving a finger prick attributed more pain to the child they thought was a male over the child they thought was a female. The study associates these findings with ‘explicit gender stereotypes’ that assume men are more stoic about their pain, women more emotional. When an obvious source of female pain can’t be immediately located, we are told it must be ‘stress-related,’ or that the pain is ‘psychosomatic.’ Now we’re learning at just how young an age this bias begins. A large percentage us grew up thinking a) I can’t trust what my own body is telling me; b) I can’t disagree with doctor, because doctor knows best; and c) if I’m suffering, I shouldn’t keep talking about it, because it’s shameful, and people will think I’m making it up, or that I’m a whiner.

 

Girls describing their own suffering, and the way adults respond: it’s a short, sickening leap to women narrating the stories of their sexual abuse into our still-rampant culture of disbelief. ‘An estimated one in five women are sexually assaulted in college, with only 20 per cent of those assaults being reported – fear of not being believed one of the biggest barriers,’ the Times piece says. This shaming, or scepticism, related to the female body seeps into even what I do as an artist. One of the most frustrating things about publishing female narrators who have illicit sex (or any sex) is the assumption, from readers, that I must be writing autobiographically. ‘Did you actually cheat on your husband?’ is a question I’ve been asked in a myriad of ways: ‘How much of your work is drawn from real life?’ ‘Why do you write about infidelity?’ ‘How does your husband feel about your novel?’ etc. Do you get similar questions about your novels? Like, ‘Did you run away and join an acting company in London and have sex with a famous actor?’ Why do you think some readers find it difficult to believe that the sex scenes might, in fact, be purely fiction?

 

Q

Eimear McBride

— There can’t be a female author alive or dead who hasn’t experienced the ‘It’s really just you, isn’t it?’ phenomenon. From men thrusting copies of A Girl into my face and demanding ‘Is this your Mum?’ to frequent enquiries into the true identity of Stephen in The Lesser Bohemians, I’ve encountered that a thousand times. It’s frustrating but also an interesting, multilayered problem. The top layer is the least interesting though: the fact it’s a question almost exclusively directed towards women. How could it be possible for the female brain to make the requisite leap from its preoccupations with shoes and throw cushions to the big bad world of imaginative thought? Surely our lumpen intellects are only capable of regurgitating actual life experiences, with a little self-help psychology thrown in for window dressing. For me it’s right up there with ‘How do you balance writing with being a mother?’ in terms of infuriation. Of course, it’s not new and I’m also not immune to wondering if Dostoyevsky really was a paedophile, or Emily Brontë had some roaring, clandestine affair up on the Yorkshire moors. But I’ve never wondered if Brett Easton Ellis actually did carve people up in his apartment or what Elena Ferrante’s real name was. I understand that fiction is fiction and that while it may draw on aspects of the author’s personal experience, I do not have a right to know where the overlap lies. If you want that right, read a memoir and if the writer had wished to write a memoir, it’s safe to assume they would have – it certainly pays better and it’s a ‘truth’. Ferrante is interesting in this regard, because I don’t believe a single one of her fans would have enjoyed her work more had they been privy to details about her private life, nor do I believe the not knowing added to her success. The sanctimonious hounding she was subjected to is probably the most public, and sinister, example of this gross sense of entitlement to a woman’s life and work. It was impermissible for her to be so hugely successful on her own terms. For a woman to withhold is shocking. For a successful woman it’s unforgivable. After all, the only mitigation for female success is to be publicly ‘amazed’, ‘shocked’ and ‘humbled’ by it. Maintaining her privacy was a bit too much as if maybe she thought she’d worked hard and earned it and didn’t want to be arsed with all the kowtowing. I don’t think any woman was fooled by the lie about her ‘lie’ or thought her ‘outing’ was anything other than punishment for protecting herself from public dismemberment.

 

But this brings me to the more interesting question, about why certain readers seem to need the reassurance that what they’ve read can be said to be objectively ‘true’. I suppose plain old nosiness plays its part, but I also wonder if it’s a means of dealing with the reader’s own emotion? Perhaps accepting that something which has provoked a strong reaction, or feeling, is essentially ‘untrue’ undermines the ‘trueness’ of how they felt in the moment? Naturally, I’d argue that good fiction is true, it’s just a different kind of truth. In a way, fiction permits the writer to touch deeper truths, ones they’re not always consciously in command of, or even agree with, themselves. But if they pursue them, that’s what they communicate and that’s what the reader responds to. I think the publishing industry has been guilty of trying to exploit this symbiotic relationship between writer and reader with its endless ‘No Daddy, don’t!’ torture memoirs and this has affected the way some readers now look at fiction. The way barriers between forms have broken down so much in recent years probably adds to the confusion. I like the collapse of walls though so perhaps this is just a logical repercussion which writers have to suck-it-up. One of the things I really liked in your I Want to Show You More is that, while it’s obviously a collection of short stories, you also play with our expectations of the form. Was that a conscious decision or something which occurred organically? Do you find the legacy of the American short story heavy and who do you like in the form?

 

A

Jamie Quatro

— Don’t get me started on the Ferrante exposure. Infuriating, that Gatti actually believed he was some kind of noble investigative journalist, alerting the literary world to deceit –effectively attempting to criminalise the author’s basic human right to privacy.

 

You’re absolutely spot-on re: how certain readers feel they’ve been ‘duped’ into experiencing powerful emotions if they find out the scenes and images that ignited such emotions did not, in fact, take place. I also agree with you that fiction gets at truths deeper than our own conscious, or chosen, beliefs and disbeliefs. Great fiction seems to bypass the conscious mind altogether. It stirs up the primal, what is most childlike and raw inside us – and in that sense it can be thrilling and electric on the one hand, or (if a reader is unprepared, or hasn’t ventured far afield of, say, Reader’s Digest) terrifying and threatening on the other. I don’t understand how the discovery that ‘these things actually happened in real life’ assuages such terror. Perhaps because if it actually happened, the reader can displace his or her own emotion onto the author. Still, the power to touch an individual soul via words – whatever ‘the soul’ is — it’s the reason I sit down each day to do this lonely, mentally-tortuous, ego-feeding, ego-defeating, financially-challenging, posture-ruining job.

 

When I was drafting the stories that eventually became I Want To Show You More, I had no idea what I was doing. I was working with a pit in my gut, in a sort of feverish sweat of aspiration and longing, nursing the hope that someday, someday I might publish a story in a journal somewhere. I’d tried off and on through the years and always got rejected. When I began my MFA program, I encountered many contemporary American story writers for the first time: Amy Hempel, Barry Hannah, Joy Williams, David Means, Steven Millhauser, Denis Johnson, George Saunders, Lydia Davis. But Joyce and Woolf were the writers whose fiction made me want to write fiction. I read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man for the first time when I was working on my MA in English at the College of William and Mary. The book was a revelation – the fusion of sacred and sexual, and Joyce’s experimentation with language and form. Looking back, I realise the ‘Hell Sermon’ in chapter three is probably a kind of Ur-text for Maggie’s ‘Fire Sermon’ at the end of my novel.

 

You write short stories as well as novels. Do you have a preference – shall we say a ‘native’ form?

 

Q

Eimear McBride

— I occasionally write short stories but mostly to commission. I wouldn’t describe myself as a short story writer. The form isn’t at all natural to me. I like the space and untidiness of the novel. The novel has to make sense in the way life makes sense, with no neatness, no certainty, no guarantees about the eternal significance of any given moment. Everything has to be right for a short story to really work and that requires a degree of craft which feels inauthentic to me – as a writer, not as a reader. That said, I enjoy trying to write them, but I also have a mild addiction to attempting things I don’t know how to do. I think it’s the risk of making myself unacceptable. It was the same with my novels. Both teeter right on the edge linguistically, intellectually, morally and, certainly, emotionally, which tends to mean people really get them or really don’t. But I like it when a writer puts themselves on the line, so I’d be a liar if I didn’t do it myself. Evenness of tone, a narrative not beyond the experience of your average middle-class graduate and characters experiencing little more than mild dissatisfaction seem to be the most lauded attributes in contemporary fiction but, as far as I’m concerned, if you want to write about inertia you better be Proust otherwise, I’m going home.

 

A

Jamie Quatro

— I’m guessing you’re not a Knausgaard fan, then? I stopped after number three. People have told me to finish the marathon, but – embarrassing to admit this – I haven’t finished The Brothers Karamazov. I haven’t read Middlemarch. There’s only so much time. What are you reading currently?

 

Q

Eimear McBride

— Actually, I am a Knausgaard fan. I like the specificity and vulnerability of the My Struggle books and, in the same way I’ve always harboured a fondness for ungainly novels – and I really recommend both you’ve mentioned – or durational/ endurance theatre, I quite like pushing through the boredom and irritation to the bigger picture beyond. I don’t particularly admire his use of language. I sometimes wish he’d stop indulging himself and get on with it, but I think the cumulative effect is worth it. And while I wholeheartedly support the view that female writers have been ridiculed and sidelined for covering similar territory in similar ways, I’m wary about making any one writer the lightning rod for the failings of an entire industry. As to what I’m reading? I’ve just finished Happening by Annie Ernaux, in which she writes about her experience of unwanted pregnancy and illegal abortion in 1960s France. Her book The Years was one of my favourite reads of last year and that same rigorous clarity of vision – even when dealing with the complex or ambiguous – is just as evident here again. The experience of living simultaneously on the inside and outside of your own body is very particular to the female experience I think – and not only in relation to pregnancy but in myriad other ways too. I like the measured, unforgiving way she works her way through the logic, or illogic, of that. I find her work extraordinary. What about you? And what’s guaranteed to catch your eye in a book? Or, if you’re feeling up to being controversial, what’s an invariable literary turn-off??
A

Jamie Quatro

— Notes to self: 1) finish My Struggle, 2) lose fear of writing big ungainly novel. I tend toward shorter forms, I think, because I’m afraid of exposing something unpolished or ungainly in myself. As if an unnecessary sentence or scene or descriptive passage would prove that I wasn’t a good writer after all, and I should probably quit while I’m ahead. There is something here, in our discussion of Knausgaard and mess, that I need to listen to. My tendency to procrastinate is very much tied to this ridiculous notion that one can write a Perfect Book. And of course my favourite books are ‘perfect’ to me in spite of – maybe, because of – their imperfections.

 

Last week I finally read Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend, which I found smart and charming and devastating and formally daring, especially the ending. I’m currently reading sixteenth-century source material for an essay about a female writer almost no one has heard of. She was a translator and poet and nonconformist activist with close ties to Calvin and Knox. I’ll keep her name mum for now so as to protect my energy and excitement about the project, but I found out about her because my son had to do an ancestry research project and told me she was one of my distant grandmothers. My ‘invariable literary turn-off,’ at least as a writer, is historical fiction, which is ironic because the more I read about this sixteenth-century woman the more I think, Damn, her life would make a great novel. I do adore period film. Perhaps I’ll write a screenplay next.

 

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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

is the author of two novels: The Lesser Bohemians (winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize) and A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (winner of the Women’s Prize, Goldsmiths Prize, Irish Novel of the Year and others). She was the inaugural Creative Fellow at the Beckett Research Centre, University of Reading and is a regular contributor to RTE and BBC radio. In the TLS survey of the best British and Irish contemporary writers she placed at #5. She writes and reviews for the Guardian, New Statesman, Irish Times and the TLS. She lives in London.

’s novel Fire Sermon was named a Best Book of 2018 by The Economist and San Francisco Chronicle. Her story collection I Want To Show You More was a New York Times Notable Book and was shortlisted for the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award, Georgia Townsend Fiction Prize, and National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Prize. Her fiction, essays, and reviews have appeared in Tin House, The New Yorker, Paris Review, New York Times Book Review, and elsewhere. A contributing editor at Oxford American, she lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

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