About The Author
Eimear McBride was born in Liverpool, but spent most of her upbringing in Country Sligo. She moved to London to study drama but now lives in Norwich.
Her first novel, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, tells the story of a young woman's relationship with her brother, and the long shadow cast by his childhood brain tumour. Not so much a stream of consciousness, as an unconscious railing against a life that makes little sense, and a shocking and intimate insight into the thoughts, feelings and chaotic sexuality of a vulnerable and isolated protagonist, to read A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing is to plunge inside its narrator's head, experiencing her world at first hand.
The novel won the inaugural Goldsmith Prize, a literary award set up to recognise works that 'open up new possibilities for the novel form'. It was also shortlisted for the Bailey's Prize for Women's Fiction and the first Folio Prize, and longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Award.
Her second novel, The Lesser Bohemians, now out in paperback, tells the intimate story of an eighteen-year-old Irish girl who arrives in London to study drama and falls violently in love with an older actor, both of them having to deal witht their own and each other's troubled past. This exquisite tale of sexual passion, innocence and its loss. At once epic and exquisitely intimate, it is a celebration of the dark and the light in love.
Exclusively for Foyles, Frances Gertler talked to Eimear about her immersive, experimental prose style, the notorious minefield of writing about sex and the difficulty of 'turning off' her characters' voices once the writing is finished.
Below the interview about The Lesser Bohemians, is an earlier interview by Jonathan Ruppin on A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, in which Eimear talks about how readers want more for the books they choose to buy, the pleasures of working with independent publishers and the importance to getting to grips with Ulysses.
Questions & Answers
The fragmentary, experimental, immersive prose style you used for your first novel seemed so uniquely suited to A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing that it was hard to imagine it working so well for anything else, and yet it does, though it changes as the novel progresses. Is voice always the starting point for your writing?
I don’t know if voice is always the starting point but writing certainly is. With The Lesser Bohemians, as with A Girl is a Half-formed Thing before it, I just sat down and began putting words on the page. There was no plan for how it would be written or even what it would be about. Both books grew from nothing. I was always a little surprised by the opinion that the style couldn’t work in other contexts. It seemed perfectly adaptable to me and that whatever uniqueness it possessed related to its symbiosis with the subject matter. I thought that, as long as I could allow it to evolve in line with different characters living out their experiences in different times and places, it could remain a useful tool. Girl is very much a closed circuit while The Lesser Bohemians isn’t. It has two central characters which meant the style had to change and open as the story progressed and the relationship required a deeper level of interaction between them.
London readers in particular will love the setting and recognise many of the streets, pubs and other landmarks, not to mention our own Foyles at Charing Cross Road! As well as the other kinds of love depicted in the novel, it also feels very much like a love letter to the city. Were you conscious of that as you wrote?
It didn’t start out that way but I quickly realised that it was a love letter to both a time and place. I had just moved back to Ireland when I started writing the book and I missed London very much. I thought a great deal about it, what it had been like in the 90’s when I first moved there and how much it had changed in the years since. Part of the wonder of life in any big city is that constant state of flux. Demographics shift. Buildings are torn down and rebuilt. Businesses are constantly changing hands. Even the Foyles of the novel is part of history now! I think I wanted to memorialise that small moment of the life of London in that very particular time.
There is a lot of – very beautifully depicted – and often very explicit sex in the novel. How hard was it to get the tone just right?
Well, I’m very glad you think I succeeded! There’s no real way of knowing whether you have, or not, until the book is read and readers react as you hoped they would. Depicting sex is a notorious minefield. It’s such a huge part of life and isn’t generally served well by literature. I wanted to get away from both the ‘comets collide’ and the ‘ain’t it just so grubby and depressing’ schools of sex writing - not to mention all that awful Henry Miller guff - that seem to predominate. To do that I knew I had to keep its purpose at the forefront at all times. How a person experiences sex is very much connected to why they’re having it and who they’re having it with so the action and intent had to be specific to those characters. She’s young and enthusiastic and wants to use it as a way out of her past. He’s older, more closed emotionally but quite accustomed to sex being recreational. So I was constantly trying to make those factors interact while also reflecting how the sex changed over the course of their relationship. And I wanted to keep a strong thread between the internal life and the physical life in order to avoid it just becoming pornography. I think I’ve manged that, although I have possibly spent too much time thinking about sex...
Shame, particularly sexual, is an important driver in both novels. Can you say more about that?
I find shame of all varieties incredibly interesting. By its very nature it’s not an emotion people are generally brought up to deal with openly and its causes are usually both hard to admit to and to free oneself from. Therefore it tends to become an insidious motivating factor in a lot of otherwise incomprehensible behaviour, which I very much enjoy picking at.
You have previously said that you tried – but failed – to avoid writing about child abuse in your first novel, and yet it is also one of the themes of your second novel. Can you explain the dynamic at play there?
I think what I was referring to was, when writing A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, I actively fought against writing on themes that are generally viewed as the province of Irish literature: sex, death, religion, guilt, child abuse etc. Obviously it didn’t work out quite that way. Child abuse specifically crops up again in The Lesser Bohemians and I think that probably relates to my continued interest in shame.
There is a harrowing scene at drama school where your protagonist relives a long-buried memory. You trained as an actor; were incidents such as these part of your experience? Did you find them cathartic, or damaging?
Yes, we did those exercises at Drama Centre which, in my time, had earned the nickname ‘Trauma Centre.’ But their purpose was intended to be neither cathartic nor damaging. The reason we did them was to look for emotional triggers that might help you, as an actor, engage more truthfully with the scene. While I’m sure I was quite upset at the time, I don’t think I was left with any lasting scars. As I recall -and this was a long time ago - it was often far harder to watch the distress of others going through them than to go through them yourself.
Do you agree with the girl that the opposite of love is not hate, but despair?
Yes, love is a state in which even frankly ridiculous things seem at least possible and a good dose of hate runs on pretty much the same juice. Despair is the opposite of that.
You’ve said that your first novel was recently turned down by a large publishing house in the US because they feared ‘…that broad-mindedness is a thing of the past.’ Are you aware of similar reservations about The Lesser Bohemians – or has your proven commercial success helped to ameliorate such concerns?
Well, that ‘recently’ is quite a few years ago now. These days Girl is published in paperback in the US by Hogarth Press, which is part of PRH. Everything that happened with Girl, both there and here, inevitably changed the weather around my writing and The Lesser Bohemians had no difficulty finding a US publisher. Whether this is specific to me, or is the result of a more general re-broadening of the publishing mind, I’m not sure. For all our sakes, in these increasingly conservative times, I hope publishing has decided to give it another go.
Girl took a short time to write and a long time to get published. Why did The Lesser Bohemians take so long to write?
I think with Girl I had that very classic debut novel experience. I sat down and out it came. With The Lesser Bohemians I had classic second novel-itis. I had to learn how to be a writer. It also took me a long time to really understand what I was writing about and, after that, a very long time to get the writing right.
Your novels take the reader extraordinarily deep into your characters’ consciousness. How hard is it to ‘turn off’ their voices after you’ve finished writing?
Very hard. On finishing Girl I thought she was dead inside me but four years later, when I finished the first draft of The Lesser Bohemians, I realised I had written a version of her again and that it was completely wrong. I only finished the final draft of The Lesser Bohemians at the end of last September, and was reworking parts of it up to the moment it went to the press, so I still wake up in the morning re-solving scenes. I fear it may take some time to get over...
Can you say anything about your next novel?
It’s smaller and quieter than the previous two and it has a great title!
Firstly, congratulations on your success at the Goldsmiths' Prize and on appearing on the Bailey's shortlist and the Desmond Elliott long list. It's to promote books like A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing that I became a bookseller. It's clearly struck a chord with readers, critics, and writers. Do you think there's a hunger for a more experimental approach to prose?
I do, although I say that with as much surprise as publishers are probably hearing it. Even before the years of trying to get the book published, I never expected there to be such a wide-rangingly positive response. I think readers aren't fooled by -and have increasingly weary of- the MOR 'hit rip-off' end of the market and are looking for work that asks a little more of them. Why else would they be readers?
There appears to be a lot of experimentation around at the moment, with books like Jenny Offill's Dept of Speculation and Joanna Walsh's collection Fractals. Are there any contemporary writers, perhaps under the radar, who have taken your eye recently?
The Notebook by Agota Kristof (who I realise may not strictly count as contemporary, but is new to me!) was a significant recent discovery for me. I'm not usually a great fan of overly-pared down prose but she does something new with it, to utterly spine-chilling effect.
The novel instantly became one of those books that reshaped my view of literature and of the world. It now sits on my pile of books that I could not do without. Which books form an indispensable part of your library?
I hate to, but have to say Ulysses. I wouldn't exist as a writer without it and the way it affected my understanding of what literature could be, changed the whole course of my life which I realise sounds very melodramatic but is still completely true. Dostoyevsky's The Devils is also pretty important, and although it may not be his greatest novel, it shifted a lot of things around inside of me.
I found myself reading pages of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing aloud and feel that the novel really lends itself to this. I was curious about the extent to which considerations of the sound or rhythm of a sentence or paragraph informed the novel's development?
While the story grew out of hitting on the first words of Girl, in the midst of trying to work on a completely different plot, I don't think it influenced the development greatly. In the first draft I was more preoccupied with getting the story out and testing whether what I was trying to achieve with the style was working. The second and third drafts were more focussed on getting the sounds and rhythms right, as well as trying to keep them consistent throughout. I do know what you mean though, and I can't say the temptation wasn't there to give in to a great rhyme every once in a while...
Having started out at the marvellous Galley Beggar Press, your novel now takes its place on Faber's list. How does this move feel? And do you see this collaboration between larger and smaller independent publishers occurring more often in the future?
I'm very happy with the move and the decision to go ahead with it was made when the time was right for everyone involved. Faber, with its long tradition of championing Irish, as well as modernist writing, feels like the perfect home for a book like Girl and I have no doubt it will benefit greatly from their knowledge and experience. I do think this kind of co-publishing deal -between small, risk-taking publishers and larger houses - is becoming increasingly popular. It allows the small press to continue to profit from their successful discovery - as well as freeing up their time to work on new ones - while giving the book the opportunity to reach a far wider audience than would have been otherwise possible.
Finally a question about Norwich. Of which, there should be one in every Q&A, I feel. Both Galley Beggar and you are based there. Where should a bibliophile start their tour of Norwich?
Well, the greatest independent book shop in the east of England, if not the east of the world, is The Book Hive on London Street. It's run by Henry Layte - who discovered A Girl is a Half-formed Thing from behind the counter during his stint at Galley Beggar Press- and stuffed with beautiful, carefully chosen books. It is now also the site of his new publishing enterprise, Propolis, and I urge interesting writers everywhere to torment him with their manuscripts!
Interview by Gary Perry, Deputy Head of Fiction at Foyles, Charing Cross Road