Bernie McGill is a novelist and short story writer from Co Derry. Her book The Watch House was nominated for the Ireland/European Union Prize for Literature in 2019. Her new short story collection, This Train is For, has just been published by No Alibis Press.
The books on your bedside table?
We Are Not in the World by Conor O’Callaghan, Dance Move by Wendy Erskine, Runaway by Alice Munro, In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri, A Shock by Keith Ridgway, Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro.
Your book of the year?
So far, The Promise by Damon Galgut. Set in South Africa as the country emerges from apartheid, it focuses on four members of the Swart family and follows their lives over a period of 40 years. It is beautifully and sparely written: my kind of family saga.
Your favourite literary character?
I have a soft spot for Merricat Blackwood from Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. She’s socially awkward, unflinching in her outlook, fiercely loyal to her sister. She’s unhinged, of course, but bright and funny and winning with it.
The first book you remember?
It would have been a school reading book, Ladybird or Penguin, in which Father smoked a pipe and Mother wore a frilled apron and they lived in a house with children with names like Dora and Dick. I had nine brothers and sisters.
My father was a brickie who smoked 40 Kensitas a day and my mother was run ragged. Reading those books was like reading about aliens.
A book that changed your life?
Milkman by Anna Burns. She writes about the Troubles in Belfast, about what happens to a society that is predicated on fear. How that experience normalises the abnormal, how it skews relationships, how it silences and belittles women.
She blows apart the ‘whatever you say, say nothing’ mantra that so many of us lived with for fear of giving offence. Her writing confirmed to me how important it is for us to acknowledge our experiences, however out of kilter they may seem, and to do our best in writing to be brave.
The book you couldn’t finish?
The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber. It began well. I was intrigued by the direct address, by the invitation issued to the 21st century reader to enter the seedy underworld of Victorian London, a world that comes to life in vivid sensory detail.
It is a very accomplished work but at times I found the reading experience uncomfortably voyeuristic, and eventually the narrator took me on one digression too many.
Your Covid comfort read?
The Wolf Hall trilogy by Hilary Mantel. I galloped through the first book during lockdown and immediately followed with Bring Up the Bodies and The Mirror and the Light. They are masterful works.
Mantel draws us in to the interior world of Thomas Cromwell, and then slips into the first person plural, inserting the reader into those mammoth crowd scenes, coronations and executions, making us feel complicit by our presence. The transitions are expert, seamless, absolutely envy-inducing.
The book you give as a gift?
The Snow and the Works on the Northern Line by Ruth Thomas: a witty, subtle, quiet, gorgeous read.
The writer who shaped you?
I didn’t read Margaret Atwood until after I’d left Queen’s. I hadn’t realised there were writers of brilliance who also told a cracking good story.
The book you would most like to be remembered for?
The last one, I suppose. Hopefully it’s also the best.