Eimear McBride...Writing her way into history
It took ten years to get her ground-breaking novel published, but now Eimear McBride is hailed as one of the most important writers of her generation, says Julia Molony
About five years ago, Eimear McBride put her first novel, the product of six months' intense creative struggle, into a drawer and tried to come to terms with the fact that it might never be published.
Today, her name is splashed in bold print across the sides of double decker buses in London. That book from the drawer has won her a Baileys Women's prize for fiction, and the inaugural Goldsmiths prize, worth £10,000. And McBride seems slowly, if a little diffidently, to be coming to inhabit her new standing as a major talent.
In some ways, this kind trajectory is common in publishing. In the offices of Faber and Faber in Bloomsbury where we sit, the meeting room walls are decorated with rejection letters sent to some of the greatest authors in history - a knowing wink to the industry's often vexed relationship with posterity.
But McBride has conquered tougher odds than most. In an age where little but hard commerce is tolerated in publishing, her work is an unapologetically artistic endeavour. Now 37, she wrote A Girl is a Half-formed Thing a decade ago. Until last year, it had been passed around many publishers, all of whom rejected it. Despite praising her talent they thought it too experimental, too demanding a text to ever find a wide audience. Until finally, last year Galley Beggar Press, a tiny publishing house in Norwich took a chance on it.
But A Girl is Half-formed Thing proves that writing doesn't have to be structured or linear to be compelling. McBride's narrator, the nameless "girl" of the title tells her stark, desperate and sometimes violently shocking story in an intimate, deeply subjective way. The language is expressionistic, confiding, and plays havoc with the normal rules of syntax and structure. For the reader, the impression is of a voice so close to your ear that you can almost hear the breathing.
McBride didn't set out to tear down conventional forms. Her first inkling of what she'd begun came only after she'd committed the first words to the page; "For you. You'll soon. You'll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she'll wear your say. Mammy me? Yes you. Bounce the bed, I'd say. I'd say that's what you did. Then lay you down. They cut you round. Wait and hour and day." It was only then, that she knew she wanted to use words for a new purpose- to convey "the moment before language becomes formatted thought," as she has described it in the past. She'd hit on a way to mainline internal emotionality to the reader, without the interference of external structure.
Nor she says, did she intend to plough head-first into that ancient, sorrowful triumvirate of Irish literary themes; brutalising religion, transgressive sex, and toxic family ties. Quite frankly, she'd hoped to sidestep all that. But the act of writing led her like a divining rod, so she followed it. "I really wanted to avoid those themes because they are so Irish," she says today. She is soft-spoken, but her conversational style is clear and firm. "But they are Irish for a reason. And Irish writers write about them for that reason. They are part of the culture, they are part of who we are. And maybe every Irish writer has to go through it and get it out of their system before they can go and do other things." Now, she says with a laugh, "the 1980s Ireland is purged for me."
A former actress, she was born in Liverpool to Irish parents, the only girl of four, and grew up in Sligo before moving to London aged 17 to study drama. Her parents worked in psychiatric care, so even as a child, she possessed a cleared-eyed awareness of the wide spectrum of human distress. McBride's father died when she was eight. The household in which she was raised was a strictly religious one. Both are features of her early life that she shares with the protagonist of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. And there is another important parallel, too. The 'you' in the first line of the book is the narrator's brother, and the whole story is addressed to him. Like McBride's own brother, Donagh, he dies in his twenties from a brain tumour. It's tempting then, to suggest that Girl is a work of fictionalised autobiography. Indeed, one publishing house offered to publish it as memoir. But McBride refused the offer. It's not her story.
"I had the actual experience of losing a brother to cancer," she says. "But the boy in the book is not my brother. My brother had a very different life. He had a very independent life, and he was a care worker and he lived on his own, and so the boy's disabilities were not my brother's. (A childhood tumour has left the fictional brother of Girl with developmental delays). And again, I think I didn't want to write about this because it seems too close, or people will think that it's about Donagh . . . Although I had the experience of losing someone that way, that is not my brother. And it was not a cathartic experience to write the book. It was not dealing with that bereavement."
Write what you know, they say. McBride knows loss, but there is nothing more to it.
"There was no therapy," she says. "And to be honest, if you've read the book, there is nothing therapeutic about it."
She was familiar, too, with the grinding agony of terminal illness, the drawn-out slow drip of bad news, the monotony and dread of hospital life. Those passages which deal with illness and death are powerfully described. It must have been tough to dive back, imaginatively into that experience.
"Yeah, it was," she agrees. "And obviously a lot of the very literal detail, of hospitals and that sort of thing, derived from my experience. And they were hard - very hard to write. And also very technically hard to write. For me that was the hardest aspect of writing the book. To go from this very intimate register, to people having to explain things. It's very hard. Because the whole book is about showing rather than telling."
In fiction, McBride's 'girl' is sexually abused by her uncle when she is 13, just at the point when she is beginning to discover desire. The damage this wreaks on her life in adulthood is unflinchingly described, but from the messy, complicated perspective of pure subjectivity, the author does not simplify or condemn.
The abusing uncle is not a stock monster; he is by turns affectionate, monumentally selfish, and remorseful. Even in the darkest corners of experience, McBride allows for nuance. If anything, pure villainy is reserved for the draconian voice of religion, personified by the girl's grandfather. McBride's anger at cold, church-moralising is clear.
"When I was growing up, I really believed, and I really wanted to believe," she explains. "And it was, I think, also part of losing my father - the afterlife and all of that was very important. I was always bored by mass, but the idea of God was very important to me. It was really in my early teens that I started to realise what a load of old bullshit it was. I became very disillusioned and very angry that whenever you asked a question you never got any kind of a reasonable answer. And then things like the X Case and stuff about contraception and all this crazy stuff that happened in the early 1990s just kind of blew it all apart for me."
Her next book, currently in progress, is about joy.
"I'm still interested in language and trying to use it in different ways. But the writing has to suit the book, and each book is different." she says. On joy, no doubt she also has plenty to say. Perhaps now more than ever. After all, she has a lovely husband (the theatre director William Galinsky) who is also her champion, and a two-year-old daughter. And as the icing on the cake, a couple of statuettes to show-off on their mantelpiece at home.
A Girl is A Half-formed Thing, by Eimear McBride, Galley Beggar Press, €7.49
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