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Interview with Eimear McBride

Eimear McBride’s first book, the radically experimental A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, was written when she was 27 and published in June 2013 to great critical acclaim. There have to date been no dissenting voices – McBride has arrived as a fully-formed talent who has created a new form of prose which deploys a spartan lexicon in fragmentary vernacular syncopations to represent the form of thought at the point before it becomes articulate speech. The impact on the reader is direct and convincing and frequently overwhelming. Few literary debuts in recent years have been so assured. Her writing combines the beautiful, the outrageous, the harrowing, the farcical and the heartbreaking in a courageously original, wholly uncommercial style, uncompromisingly experimental and an important addition to the literary avant-garde, its roots in 1920s modernism but also in contemporary life.

 

McBride was born in Liverpool to Northern Irish parents in 1976, one of four children and the only girl. In 1979 the family moved to Tubbercurry, County Sligo, in the Republic of Ireland. Her father died when she was 8 and in 1991 her mother moved the family to Castlebar, County Mayo. At the age of 17 she left Ireland for London and spent the next three years studying at Drama Centre. About six months after finishing the course her older brother Donagh became terminally ill and she spent most of the following year travelling back and forth to Ireland and the final four months there full time. In 2000 she spent four months in St Petersburg and the next few years were spent working as an office temp and travelling, mostly in Eastern Europe.

 

We had met twice before she agreed to an interview – briefly after a reading at a North London literary festival (her first public appearance) and a month later when I was invited by the publishers to contribute to the London launch of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. This interview is based on a series of email exchanges in August 2013. The growing media interest surrounding her book, the extraordinary reaction of readers and reviewers, complex negotiations with overseas publishers, the demands of a young daughter and work on the manuscript of her second book were all excellent reasons for her to turn down my request, or to reply to my many questions very briefly. In fact, her answers were thoughtful, unguarded, expansive and illuminating.

 

Q

The White Review

— Let’s begin with your family background. Were your parents first generation exiles? What prompted them to leave Liverpool and return to Ireland?

A

Eimear McBride

— Yes, they were first generation but always saw themselves as temporary exiles and, while that attitude wasn’t so unusual among Irish immigrants, it proved true in their case. They were only in the UK from 1970 to 1979 but returned to the Republic rather than the North because of the Troubles. Sligo just happened to be where the job came up. My father was a psychiatric nurse. Both of my parents were nurses. In the UK they worked in a number of institutions for what was then termed ‘the criminally insane’.

Q

The White Review

— Was there any sense of loss and dislocation?

A

Eimear McBride

— I was only two at the time so not for me. For my parents and older brothers the return was difficult enough, economically certainly, then being strangers in a place where belonging was prized above all else. It’s probably not much of an exaggeration to say that, in spite of all the years the family lived in Tubbercurry, we were still considered strangers when we left.

Q

The White Review

— What was on offer culturally in Sligo and Mayo when you were growing up?

A

Eimear McBride

— The source of most of my cultural experience growing up was the drama class I attended from age 9. Ireland was a hotbed of amateur dramatics in those days so I got to see a lot of Synge – not bad – and John B. Keane – very bad – though not much else. There was no proper library in Tubbercurry but my parents put a big emphasis on reading so no trip to Sligo town was complete without a visit to Keohanes’ bookshop. Better still were the occasional trips to Galway or Dublin from which we’d all return with as many books as we could carry. Castlebar was different. It was a much larger town. There was a bookshop, an old flea-pit cinema that played recent releases, a library that was very willing to order in if they didn’t have, and the Linenhall Arts Centre where you could see small-scale touring theatre and dance. I think the first Pinter I ever encountered was there and I remember it being particularly exciting because there was a parental warning about bad language on the poster.

Q

The White Review

— You once mentioned ‘lots of early writing’. Terrible or not, what sort of things did you write?

A

Eimear McBride

— I tried to write novels, or stories, even as a small child. ‘The Fastest Eagle in Sandom’ springs to mind – I was 7 or 8 at the time. It was about an eagle, living in a place called Sandom, who could fly very fast. There may also have been illustrations and a puppet made out of dead pheasants’ wings. But teenage poetry aside, that’s the only form I’ve ever really be interested in.

Q

The White Review

— You plagiarised Death in Venice?

A

Eimear McBride

— Yes, I was around 14 and was so bowled over by it that I immediately set out to write my own version – unfortunately it hadn’t occurred to me that Castlebar wasn’t particularly pestilential, at least not in that way. I can’t remember very much about it now except that an image from it (the plagiarism) shows up in Girl, in the final scene with the uncle – long divorced from Thomas Mann by that stage I should add.

Q

The White Review

— Were you interested in other literatures?

A

Eimear McBride

— I read a lot of Russian literature and quite a lot of German, also writers like Milan Kundera and Henrik Ibsen. Actually, it occurs to me now that most of my reading was in translation in my teens. I think it was a way to connect with some kind of world beyond my narrow own. Though I do remember D. H. Lawrence being a phase too and the Brontёs and Edna O’Brien. I was very fond of biographies as well. And I was mad about Tennessee Williams. Streetcar particularly.

 

Back when I was interested in poetry, I was all for the Russian Silver Age: Pasternak, Akhmatova, Tsvetayeva, etc. As a teenager – which probably goes without saying – I liked Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath. Growing up in Sligo meant that wherever you looked, Yeats was on the horizon. Luckily I liked that. Later, at Drama Centre, we had an epic poem voice project and were assigned Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. I remember really hoping I’d get to play Tatyana but ending up with the death of Lensky instead. Even now I remember the difficulty of having to drum up enthusiasm for the utter drama-sucking dryness of the translation. It put me off translated poetry altogether.

 

Years later, sitting, quite drunk, in the tiny kitchen of the flat in St Petersburg with a few equally drunk Russians, someone began to recite it in the original. I could hardly understand a word but I still understood more than I had. Now I can’t remember the last time I bought a book of poetry and it was mostly likely something I thought of as a gap in my reading than anything I was particularly interested in.

Q

The White Review

— What was Drama Centre like when you were there?

A

Eimear McBride

— What I remember most from my first year was being really poor and really happy. Right from the start it was like breathing properly for the first time in years. It was a very broad, very literary training. If anything, it was a slightly laborious one for an actor, and certainly involved fewer jazz hands and more Nietzsche than one might have expected, but it turned out to be an excellent training for a would-be experimental writer and all that running around in a toga was great preparation for the humiliations of publishing.

Q

The White Review

— I assume that you made close readings of Beckett at Drama Centre.

A

Eimear McBride

— We never touched Beckett there. He operated outside the ethos. The director was obsessed with obscure Restoration tragedies, Racine and Molière, while the acting teachers mostly plumped for twentieth-century Americans or nineteenth-century Russians.

Q

The White Review

— What about your theatre career after graduation?

A

Eimear McBride

— My actual career extended to some warm-propping, a bit of telly and a bedevilled production of Mishima’s Madame de Sade directed by William {Galinsky, her future husband}. I think the day I was called to audition for a BBC costume drama and thought ‘Oh fuck!’ instead of ‘Where’s my bonnet?’ was the day I realised I didn’t want to be an actress any more.

Q

The White Review

— You’ve said elsewhere that the playwright Sarah Kane was an influence.

A

Eimear McBride

— The week my brother Donagh died was the same week Sarah Kane killed herself. I didn’t know her work very well then but I often thought of her because of that and because they were the same age when they died. Then a short while after I started work on Girl, I happened to see a production of Crave and it was like lightning. I went home afterwards and immediately read all the rest of her work. I’d say that I share some of her thematic preoccupations – as well as a religious upbringing – but what I most admire about her writing, and tried to adopt in my own as a result, was the purity of her intent and the ferocity of her approach. What I mean by purity is her lack of cynicism. Her work is utterly confrontational and uncompromising. She stretches both characters and audience, out to the very edges of their humanity to see what they can see, and I find something incredibly beautiful and admirable about that.

Q

The White Review

— Were you writing much during the Drama Centre years? And was there a connection between your decision to leave acting and your commitment to being a writer?

A

Eimear McBride

— I continued writing the whole time I was there but the decision to leave acting came in the year my brother was dying, which began about six months after finishing Drama Centre. At first I decided that I just wanted a break. With everything else, I was finding it hard to cope with the rejection. Then when he died I was so shattered, my confidence was so shattered that I just couldn’t face it anymore. I think as a child, after my father died, I’d somehow managed to entangle the idea of being an actress with some notion of immunity from all future pain, so when my brother died, that fantasy was destroyed and I was left very lost for a very long time after.

Q

The White Review

— In an Irish Times interview you were reported as saying: ‘I really didn’t want to write about this, but in some ways it was cathartic. A year after my brother died, I went to Russia for two months because I wanted to be alone. I was in St Petersburg, with the white nights of summer and no darkness. I had insomnia for months so I wandered around, looking at everything. Then it hit me that I wanted to work towards writing.’

A

Eimear McBride

— There were a few factual errors in that interview and also in the use of the word ‘cathartic’. I actually spent four months in St Petersburg but, yes, I was alone. I didn’t go with anyone or have anyone I knew waiting for me. I had a job teaching English a few mornings a week which paid the rent for a room in an old communalka on Liteniy Prospekt owned by a very nice elderly Russian couple. It was a difficult time for me and a lonely time but very useful in terms of piecing myself back together and extremely rich culturally – which certainly helped with the task in hand. It was over the summer months so the White Nights were in full swing for much of my time there. They’re very beautiful in St Petersburg but can be quite disorientating and I ended up with roaring insomnia. So I spent a lot of time just walking the streets at very odd hours. It didn’t ‘hit me’ that I wanted to work towards writing; I was already doing that anyway. It just shifted something into place which helped me to make the leap from scribbling when the mood took hold, to being serious about what I wanted to do.

Q

The White Review

— What drew you to Eastern Europe?

A

Eimear McBride

— I’d been interested in Russia since my early teens and was and am a big fan of Russian literature. I wanted to see St Petersburg for the romance of Peter the Great and Diaghilev and Dostoyevsky. Growing up in Holy Catholic Ireland, my keenness for Russia and Eastern Europe probably contained more than a drop of contrariness too…

Q

The White Review

— How did you earn a living after you returned from Russia?

A

Eimear McBride

— Those years were mostly spent temping and usually of the lowest variety. Working on switchboards, filing, data entry, photocopying, licking envelopes. It was the dogsbody work of office life and being at the mercy of people who knew it. It was all pretty terrible – though in retrospect, useful – until I pitched up at the Wellcome Library {now the Wellcome Collection in London’s Euston Road} – which was after I’d written Girl and really wasn’t bad. It would have been great if only I’d been able to write alongside it. During that period I also managed quite an interesting journey to Khartoum and a bizarre road trip through the northern Sudanese desert with William and a bunch of Sudanese actors (William was researching Tayeb Saleh for an RSC new-work show), plus we spent some time in Egypt when he was on the judging panel for the Cairo Theatre Festival – you’ve not seen Sarah Kane until you’ve seen her in Armenian…

Q

The White Review

— So you settled in London, completed your first book, but then returned to Ireland?

A

Eimear McBride

— I was completely settled in London. I’d lived there for thirteen years at that point and had never imagined leaving. Then William was offered a job running the Midsummer Festival in Cork. Prior to that he’d been a freelance theatre director but that was beginning to lose its charm and by 2006 he’d arrived at a point where he wanted to change direction. I was reluctant to go back to Ireland but a combination of circumstances ranging from not having time to write to narrowly escaping being stabbed to death on my doorstep, persuaded me that change of any kind would be better than staying where I was. We spent four years in Cork. It wasn’t really the place for me and the only saving grace of this period was being able write full-time again – this was where I began my second novel. So when the Norfolk and Norwich Festival job came up, I was really hoping he’d get it. He did and so we moved to Norwich in 2011.

Q

The White Review

— When did you first begin writing A Girl? Did you abandon something else when you began the novel?

A

Eimear McBride

— I started writing in the autumn of 2003. In the previous June, our house in Tottenham had been burgled and about two years-worth of my longhand notes were stolen. At the time I was distraught but in retrospect it was a good thing. Starting afresh meant there was no temptation to worm in any half-dead ‘great ideas’, which made way for something more immediate.

Q

The White Review

— Do you write in longhand? Or on a laptop? Do you have any kind of regime?

A

Eimear McBride

— I began work in longhand but when William’s brother-in-law gave us an ancient desktop Mac – which took about thirty seconds for the words to appear once you’d finished typing – I moved to that, mostly because of losing the previous work and the difficulty of keeping up to date copies of longhand. I started work around nine and went through to four or five most days. I was very strict about it because the time was gift I didn’t want to waste. It was a good habit to get into and I still work that way now.

 

I did three drafts of Girl in six months so I suppose I wrote and re-wrote quite quickly. For the first draft, when I still didn’t know if I would be able to write at all, I gave myself a 1000-word a day rule and stuck to it. Every morning I re-read the previous days’ work, cut everything I didn’t like – the majority, usually – then continued from the most interesting line. The second draft involved reshuffling some sections, more cutting and a few fillings out. The third draft was mostly tuning, with the addition of only one scene, as far as I can remember. Then nine years later I did another draft, cutting a further 8,000 words.

Q

The White Review

— Perhaps you could say something about the composition of an episode. The grandfather’s wake, for example?

A

Eimear McBride

— When it comes to describing the writing of wake section – and this is not the answer you will be hoping for – the first draft is almost exactly as it appears in the final version, so I can’t say anything about it. I decided to include it purely as a way to move the plot forward and – somewhat depressingly – it appears to have written itself.

Q

The White Review

— It is, for want of a better word, a transgressive episode – a dispassionate look at a continuing tradition – the laying out of the body and so on.

A

Eimear McBride

— As far as it being transgressive to an Irish audience, I think this is to do with the fact that although Irish literature teems with wakes, descriptions of the old methods of preparing the corpse – packing the cavities etc. – are few and far between. Nowadays, even for the traditional laying out in the home, bodies are usually professionally prepared by an undertaker. So I wanted to note the unsavoury old ways before they disappear.

Q

The White Review

— The prose of A Girl has a cinematic quality and it often puts me in mind of rough cuts and outtakes without the slickness of a final edit. Adam Mars-Jones compared your style to a miniature camera attached to the narrator’s forehead. Could you say more about films and filmmakers who have influenced you?

A

Eimear McBride

— I can’t remember a time when I didn’t watch films. I can’t say there were specific films or filmmakers who influenced me as a writer though, not in terms of Girl anyway.

Q

The White Review

— Your spare, highly focused approach puts me in mind of Robert Bresson in particular, an austere Catholic filmmaker.

A

Eimear McBride

— I wouldn’t say I particularly align myself with Bresson’s aesthetic and I don’t think it could be argued that my work is comparably austere, but the underlying aim of stripping away layers of artifice is one I identify with, not accepting the accepted impurities of form. That may be about the unshieldable nature of the Catholic conscience but I doubt it. Irish Catholicism is all about accepting impurities of form.

Q

The White Review

— Impurities of form? Is purity always something to aim for? And to what extent does purity mean ‘less’ rather than ‘more’?

A

Eimear McBride

— I suppose the impurity in this instance refers to traditionally accepted drawbacks in any given form. For Bresson, one of those was the theatrical style of acting expected in films at the time. He dealt with it by stripping the actor out, almost completely, and the effect is powerful. So, yes, I do think purity is something to aim for and I can’t think of an instance when it means more rather than less.

Q

The White Review

— In a radio discussion of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing the Irish reviewer John Boland said: ‘There’s no reassurance here. There are no consolations. There are no redemptions.’ Do you agree? Is there any role for redemptive fiction?

A

Eimear McBride

— Whether or not the reader finds redemption in Girl depends on what they understand by redemption. For him it seemed to mean a happy or at least hopeful resolution, which the reader will certainly not find. As the novel itself states, ‘There is no God here’, so redemption in any Christian sense is automatically precluded. For me, though, redemption is about transcendence, of the past, of the situation and of the self, consciously achieved through the will of the individual, all of which does occur by the end, in my opinion. And while I am not as good an atheist as I would like to be, this idea is significant to me. In the year after my brother died I remember reading all of George Eliot and finding a great deal of comfort in her ideas about the individual’s capacity for transformation. Now the reader may not find that the girl has become – and I shudder to say it – ‘a better person’ by the end of the book but she has, undeniably, become herself.

Q

The White Review

— Is it fair to describe your book as an act of commemoration, or eulogy?

A

Eimear McBride

— There is a particular cruelty in the grief for someone who’s died young, before they’ve had children or appear to have made any permanent mark on the world, and those left behind often struggle to create some kind of memorial to redress the balance. Girl is, in part, my attempt.

 

My brother Donagh lived a very quiet and unassuming life. He survived his initial brain-tumour at the age of 5 but my parents were warned he would only receive a clean bill of health after twenty years had passed. Twenty did and two after that, it returned. He was quite an easy-going person, struggled at school, trained briefly for the priesthood and in the last few years of his life took great pleasure in his job as a care worker. He died aged 28 and the loss of him is the single most devastating experience of my life. So while Girl may not say much about Donagh’s own life – and the brother is a fictional character – it does try to say something about the awful unfairness of his death and at least leave some track of how much he was loved behind.

Q

The White Review

— How predetermined was your approach when it came to omitting almost all temporal and topographical detail? Did you exclude from the outset, or include then delete? Was this a gesture (as the posh critics put it) towards universalism? Or is it that grief and remorse have no temporal boundaries?

A

Eimear McBride

— It was there from the start and a kind of universalism – socialist rather than posh though – was certainly my aim. If I’d known how to place the story outside of time and space I would have. I think I probably could have written it plausibly enough but all the linguistic tricks in the world would have struggled to make that choice breathe.

Q

The White Review

— Your punctuation is a radical development – the elimination of commas. More radical I think, than the violent typographical outbreaks in the final section. What came first – the elimination of commas, or a decision to punctuate heavily with full stops?

A

Eimear McBride

— I decided to punctuate mainly with full stops in the first draft and that was because there’s nothing like misplacing one to indicate something else is going on in a text. The principle just got extended as the drafts went by. In fact, during the tortuous copy-edit it was once suggested I use a semi-colon, which I couldn’t for fear its solitary inclusion would bestow more significance than the tatty sentence merited!

Q

The White Review

— ’Chew it lurks me’ is one of many compacted but immediately comprehensible and naggingly memorable phrases. Did you arrive at such formulations directly, or was there much of a honing process?

A

Eimear McBride

— I find English a pretty blunt tool most of the time but studying other languages at school – Irish, German, French – and later learning a bit of Russian (though none to any great success I should add) offered plenty of ideas about alternative options to straightforward, grammatical writing. Also, I was interested to see how far it was possible to push word order and structure while still remaining comprehensible and – more importantly – engaging. Specific to the writing of Girl was the positioning of the narrative voice and I knew to achieve that effect I would have to make the language work in a different way.

 

It seemed to me that when attempting to tell a story from a point so far back in the mind that it is completely experiential, completely gut-reactive and balancing on the moment just before language becomes formatted thought, English needs to be made to pick up its feet and move. This clearly wasn’t going to be the place for bon mots or delvings into the farthest reaches of the Oxford English Dictionary. Every word had to be drawn from whatever would exist in anyone’s basic active vocabulary and this was the rule I pretty much stuck to. When I needed the language to do more, it had to come from the way a phrase was constructed. Luckily these sorts of phrases pop into my head all the time and I get a lot of nerdy pleasure in thinking of sentences then forcing the words to arrive at the same destination via an alternative route, so I can’t claim any great technical process is at work there. Of course there’s a huge amount of honing involved too, but that’s the best explanation I can offer of the basic plan.

Q

The White Review

— Passages of Catholic liturgy occur intermittently, as well as hymns and snatches of the Bible. These in their (relatively) grammatical coherence and ‘completeness’ seem to offer a sort of textual stability in the maelstrom of thoughts and feelings.

A

Eimear McBride

— As with other aspects of Girl this was an attempt to explore how opposing truths can nevertheless remain true, simultaneously. The girl is comforted by the ritual and hopeful of the magical solutions offered by religion while her personal experience of it is mostly oppressive and destructive. And further, she often seeks comfort in it from the very aspects of herself that have become problematic because of how her religious upbringing informs her view of that self. (Something of the church persuading women to cannibalise themselves in there too). From an aesthetic point of view though, I find most of the included prayers very beautiful so that, along with their fittingness and alien integrity, suggested another useful method of punctuation.

Q

The White Review

— Since your technique is (crudely out) to place the reader inside the narrator’s mind at a point before thought becomes (inarticulate) speech, was the decision to anonymise the narrator, and her brother and mother, made at the outset?

A

Eimear McBride

— Yes, I began with the intention everyone would be anonymous but hadn’t decided if that would change as the story progressed, and was equally dubious about my technical ability to sustain the conceit. However, the further I went the clearer it became that the epiphany, which a sudden flurry of names would require, was not about to happen for her and I had, in fact, made a rod for my own back.

Q

The White Review

— What response(s) do you expect to elicit from your readers? Does that response figure at all in your writing? Do you write with any notional reader in mind?

A

Eimear McBride

— I have no expectations about reader response to the story itself and, from the outset, had none in mind that I hoped to provoke. It’s quite interesting to now – finally – be in a position to hear reader’s responses – the diversity of which can be both delightful and alarming! And while I’d say I had no notional reader in mind, I was always aware that I wasn’t just ‘writing for myself’ – which I consider one of the laziest, ill-conceived pieces of advice ever offered to writers (If you want to ‘write for yourself’ keep a diary). This is not to say I think a writer should ever write to please readers, but the logical end point of ‘writing for yourself’ is The Making of Americans, possibly even Finnegans Wake and while it was important those experiments were carried out, they proved to be kamikaze missions leaving no viable legacy for the next generation.

 

In trying to find a new origin of perspective and coercing the language into working in a way that might plausibly suggest it, I was attempting to take what I considered to be the successes of that era, then turn them inside out to achieve the opposite effect. So while – in my very undereducated opinion – the non-specialist reader finds those books obtuse and alienating, I wanted mine to go in as close as the reader would reasonably permit. I wanted the simplicity of the vocabulary to allow the more complex construction to slip in under the radar so that the decoding would take place within the readers themselves, almost as though they were experiencing the story from the inside out rather than the outside in. All of which is a long-winded way of saying that even though every word selected and phrase constructed was held to a standard that was mine alone, the idea of communication was absolutely central – which was probably also the reason I was willing to take an editorial note about the opening.

 

On the technical side, Mammy etc. came about because of residual theatre-sense – directors don’t ask actors to deliver grand soliloquies with their backs’ to the audience. And while writers shouldn’t shy away from asking readers to work a bit, they should also offer a stick for the hill.

Q

The White Review

A Girl is an assault on ‘that most holy and catastrophic of constructs “Female purity”’, (as you say in your introduction to George Egerton’s Wedlock). This leads to a question about your own position. Would you describe yourself as feminist? Post-feminist?

A

Eimear McBride

— Feminist, decisively so, particularly in my personal reading of Girl and the exploration of sexuality. I am slightly surprised that no one’s raised any flags about this aspect of the book so far – apart from one online reviewer who seemed to think there was some ambiguity about whether a grown man having sex with a 13-year-old constitutes rape or seduction. In a way, I don’t want to say too much about the sexual element of the story because it’s extremely difficult to do so without having to use the very narrow, moralistic vocabulary available for discussion about sex. What I will say is that a 13-year-old having a crush on a 41-year-old and therefore allowing him to do what he wants to her will probably feel complicit in that act, but is not and cannot be and those unfounded feelings of complicity may ultimately prove as destructive as the initial violation.

 

The later ‘violations’ however are more complex – although certainly the product of the first. This is why I would describe it as feminist rather than post-feminist. Her sexual behaviour is not that of someone at peace with their sexuality and she generally utilises it for every reason but the two basics: physical pleasure and/or closeness to another person. There isn’t a single description of her deriving either from any of her encounters. The best she achieves is a moment of absence from her own inner turmoil which mostly leads to yet greater disconnect within herself. She is not someone enjoying the hard won fruits of sexual liberation, she is almost the opposite. The product of a system that could offer nothing to women but sexual shame, ignorance and servitude.

Q

The White Review

— What happened after you completed the original draft?

A

Eimear McBride

— I finished the third draft of Girl in the summer of 2004 so between then and publication in the summer of 2013, she had quite a bumpy ride. There was the glitzy agency who said they ‘might’ offer representation if I re-wrote it to their exact specifications and the publisher who said he was only interested if he could sell it as a memoir. Then all the major publishing houses turned it down with glowing refusals — although it was nearly taken up by two who shall remain nameless only to be vetoed later on the grounds of being unmarketable. A small press in Dublin showed interest for a while and then also backed off as they couldn’t ‘afford to take any risks’. When I pulled them up on this they said they’d reconsider, were just waiting to hear about their Arts Council funding and would be in touch. They never were. So eventually Girl was consigned to the drawer and over time I made some embittered peace with that.

Q

The White Review

— Then along came Galley Beggar Press, a tiny independent outfit right on your doorstep in Norwich.

A

Eimear McBride

— By the time William and I moved to Norwich in February 2011, I was pretty much resigned to Girl not going anywhere and was trying to keep the weight of that off my second novel. We’d only been here about three months when William arrived home one evening saying he’d been talking to the fella in The Book Hive {Henry Layte, proprietor of the independent Norwich bookshop} who’d asked what I did, said he was thinking of starting a press and wondered if I’d let him read Girl? Then followed several months of Feydeau when neither Henry nor I emailed each other because William had misinformed both about who would.

 

Luckily a chance conversation during which I was roundly cursing Henry as yet another time-waster revealed the mix-up and we got in touch. Our first meeting took place on my 35th birthday and finished with the – by now – ominous sounding, ‘We’re waiting to hear about our Arts Council Funding’. I expected to hear no more and didn’t, until the following year when Galley Beggar had just published their first book. {Simon Gough’s memoir The White Goddess: An Encounter; McBride’s novel was their second publication.} Things went on swiftly from there.

Q

The White Review

— I’d like to know more about your influences. Negative influences also – the type of writer/writing you most dislike.

A

Eimear McBride

— Well, I hate a moral and I’m not much keener on an inspirational tale of survival against the odds. I find the current vogue for heavyweight middlebrow fairly depressing too, but suspect this has more to do with what publishers are willing to publish than what writers are offering. Girl was recently turned down by a large publishing house in the US because they feared ‘…that broad-mindedness is a thing of the past and that McBride’s brilliant and moving novel will suffer in the marketplace as a result’.

 

I can’t count how many responses I’ve had in that vein and I don’t think they’re just a problem for me personally. Responses like that are a problem for everyone interested in serious writing. I will be eternally grateful to Galley Beggar for the risk they took in publishing Girl and for possessing the imagination to see beyond the narrow perimeters marketing departments offer to their giant international counterparts. That they have generated so much interest on a marketing budget of almost nothing is testament to their hard work but also to the fact that there is an audience out there for this kind of writing and while Girl isn’t going to make millionaires of any of us, it has a place and a value too. Publishing shouldn’t be about seeking out next year’s rip-off of last year’s hit. Both readers and writers deserve better.

Q

The White Review

— We’ve touched on this – are you especially interested in any experimental writing of the past? Do you have a sense of being part of a continuity?

A

Eimear McBride

— I wouldn’t say I’m interested in experimental writing purely for the sake of it but I am generally interested in modernist writing. This is mostly fuelled by romantic notions about experimenting with form and ignoble nosiness about the writers themselves, but also by admiration regarding their will for unseemly, almost anti-social literary adventure – which publishing houses and creative writing courses are still trying to kick out of writers to this day. In that sense I feel part of a continuity. I don’t have the cheek to claim any other.

Q

The White Review

— Do you see yourself specifically as an Irish writer?

A

Eimear McBride

— No. I’d like to set up my stall up as a European writer, but I don’t know if it’s up to me. I probably belong in the diaspora set because I only have clarity from a distance.

Q

The White Review

— ‘Silence, exile and cunning’?
A

Eimear McBride

— The silence, exile and cunning bit is a little worn out by now. Ireland has a history of rejecting at the teat. One day, you simply reject back and get on with it. There is no greater freedom than getting on with it.
 

 

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing won the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize in November 2013. It was reissued by Faber and Faber in April, and will be published in the United States by Coffee House Press in September.



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