'Women are a lot angrier and they're not all looking for love'
Published 09/08/2014 | 00:00
When you read a book as distinct and unusual as Eimear McBride's debut, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, meeting the person who created that work is a strange experience. You can't help but imagine what is behind the friendly exterior - so normal! - that came up with what is undoubtedly a game changer in Irish literary fiction.
A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing tells the story of a brother and sister growing up in the west of Ireland in the 1980s and early 1990s. The girl's brother suffered a brain tumour in early childhood, which left him impaired. And the story looks at the difficulties of their relationship, as well as the experience of growing up in a closed religious society at that point in history.
We see the world from the girl's experience, as she grapples with these difficulties and there is also a theme of sexual abuse. And so it is hard not to discuss the recent revelations of institutional abuse, both secular and religious and McBride is surprised that there is not more outrage.
"The make-up of the national character is 'ah sure, it's grand, we'll all be fine, let's go for a drink and it'll be fine'. It's skimming over; an unwillingness to dig down into the truth of events and experience and the fact that no one's out on the streets, that there's just acceptance and disappointment and 'what can you do?'.The fact that the Catholic Church hasn't been run out of a town is an outrage and the fact that no one is outraged by it is a large proportion of the problem."
The book is not autobiographical, although one of McBride's brothers died of a brain tumour when she was in her 20s and living and studying in London.
"I didn't know what I was doing and I ended up going to St Petersburg for four months. That was where I got myself together and realised it was time to start taking writing seriously and that that was what I wanted to do. I just went and did some teaching English and that paid for my bed and board. I would teach in the mornings and have the rest of the day to wander around and look at things. It was a really interesting time.
"I was in a bit of a state for a long time after my brother died. There was something about being on my own, being incredibly lonely, not speaking the language and having all that time - it just really helped me. It could have gone very, very badly. Mercifully it didn't."
She laughs and it is a surprisingly big and hearty laugh. McBride is now mother to a two-year-old girl. She is brilliantly unassuming, dressed in a cool blend of understated and feminine fashion on a hot summer's evening in Dublin. We meet in Lock's restaurant, overlooking the canal in Portobello, Dublin. McBride has been locked in rehearsals all day, working the adaptation of her book by Corn Exchange Theatre Company, who will stage the one-woman show starring Aoife Duffin of Moone Boy at the Theatre Festival next month. McBride is almost a household name at this stage, but just over a year ago, she was a complete unknown. A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing had long been completed.
She wrote the book in just six months when she was 27 and after that spent the next 10 years trying to get it published. She started sending it out to agents immediately after writing it and getting what she describes as 'glowing rejection letters'. Publishers said, they liked it and admired it but didn't know how their publicity department would sell it. It was surprising and disheartening at the same time because she realised the problem was not with her book but with the industry. She felt publishers were being conservative and narrow-minded. "But knowing that didn't really help and, after five years, I put the book in a drawer and thought that I would get on with writing the second book.
"The truth is, I did lose faith. I never lost faith in the book. I always believed it was the best that I could do. I didn't think I could improve it in any way and I wasn't willing to rewrite it to make it more commercial or what is perceived to be accessible.
"I certainly did lose hope that it may not be published and I had to go through that process of deciding, if I was going to be a failed writer, would I continue to write? And it was a very tough decision to make because no one wants to be a failure all their life and 10 years of it is pretty hard.
"Essentially, a writer is what I am and even if I wasn't going to get anywhere, I would still have to continue writing and that's what I decided. I'm glad now because it would be tricky to be starting a novel at this point."
Her big break finally came when McBride's husband was "having a gossip" in a local bookshop in Norwich. "The man behind the counter said, 'what does your wife do?' And he ended up telling him the long, sorry tale of rejection. He said, 'oh that's interesting because some friends and I are thinking of setting up a press and do you think she'd let us read the book?' So I did. I had had so many rejections at that point that I didn't even bother to get excited about this one.
"I just thought, you never know and I gave it to them. And they came back and said, 'oh we love it, we really love it. We'd love to publish it but we don't have any money and we don't know anything about publishing. We're about to publish our own book and when we see how that goes, can we come back to you?' And I'd heard similar things from small presses in the past and then never heard anything from them again, so I said fine and didn't expect to hear more. A year later they came back and said, 'we still have no money but we know a little more about what we're doing, can we publish the book?' I said yes."
No one could have guessed what happened next. When McBride's long-overdue book was published, it was reviewed in The Times Literary Supplement, which makes important people take note. Then The London Review of Books followed suit and once Anne Enright reviewed it in the Guardian, calling McBride a genius in the process, it was all over. "It just went on a roll." She won the Goldsmiths Prize for experimental fiction, the Kerrygroup Irish Novel of the Year, the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize) and finally the Desmond Elliott First Novel Award. Suddenly, McBride's 'failure' was the little book that could.
But with the glowing reviews and prizes came some negative attention too and McBride was irritated by being represented by the Irish press as a British writer taking shots from the outside. "I do get quite annoyed with the British writer thing. If I had lived in Germany for the first two years of my life, no one would be calling me German. I grew up in Ireland in the 80s and 90s and have as much right as anyone to talk about that experience.
"I didn't really want to write a book with all of these themes because they are in a lot of ways traditional Irish themes. I wanted to go away from that, but those themes are a big part of Irish life and they're still so unresolved and therefore still interesting to writers, and interesting to me, and while the book may be critical of that time in Irish history, I really object to the idea that I hate Ireland or that I am in some way opposed to Ireland, especially because I live in the UK, that I'm sitting on the outside and carping from the sidelines.
"For me, it's really a matter of loving the sinner while hating the sin and that's not the same thing as hating the sinner."
McBride moved to Castlebar from Tubbercurry when she was a teenager. "I grew up in Tubbercurry until I was 14. We were always blow-ins. It was very impenetrable, quite a vicious place. I had a really unpleasant time at school, a lot of being picked on. Of course, then I sort of encouraged it. I was interested in drama and that was not the done thing to be interested in, anything other than sport and tractors. Because I'm quite a stubborn person it made me worse and I started wearing lots of fringey skirts and crazy stuff just to emphasise it, just to revel in it in the end.
"But yeah, I don't have any fond memories of Tubbercurry. And also, my father died when we lived there and it was tricky. I was eight. It was a big shock. He died of cancer within three months of being diagnosed. And then we moved to Castlebar when I was 14 and I have much fonder memories of Castlebar."
She's almost finished her second novel, which she has been writing over the past five years, and describes as very joyful, 'the inside-out' of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing.
One of the most remarkable things about the book is hearing the thoughts of a woman from the inside out. There are very few authentic literary examples of the inner workings of a woman's mind.
"Molly Bloom is the most famous interior monologue by a woman and it's great, but it's not what happens inside a woman," says McBride. "It's what happens inside a man thinking about what it might be like to be inside a woman. I think the inside a woman is a much more brutal thing than is ever spoken about and than we are allowed to own for ourselves. I think that women are a lot angrier, that life is hard for them, that things are complicated, that not every woman is looking for love and not every woman feels she would become fulfilled in life should she become a mother.
"A lot of that is still quite taboo and, for me, writing this was very important to explore a more human woman from the inside."
A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is published by Faber. The theatre adaptation will run at the Dublin Theatre Festival from September 25 to October 5.