Book Talk: Irish author was told 'didn't fit niche'

By Verity Watkins

LONDON (Reuters) – At 27, Eimear McBride was a young Irish author with a string of rejections from agents and publishers.

“They said my writing was very bold, and brave, but they didn’t know how to sell it. It didn’t fit into any niche,” she told Reuters.

One publisher even offered to produce her novel as memoir.

“They didn’t seem concerned that this hadn’t happened to me. The attitude was, ‘Oh well, some of it’s true’.”

Ten years later she is holding a clutch of nominations for literary prizes for the same debut book: “A Girl is a Half–formed Thing.”

Winner of the Goldsmiths Prize 2013, shortlisted for the Folio Prize, the Bailey’s Prize for Fiction, the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award; and longlisted for the Desmond Elliot Prize – what does all that recognition feel like?

“Wonderful. I thought it would be in the drawer forever, so to have recognition, see people react and know that I have achieved the effect I wanted to achieve, is great.”

McBride’s work is a dark story of a young woman’s relationship with her brother, set in an Ireland of religious oppression and sexual abuse. Her protagonist goes on a journey of spectacular self-destruction in an attempt to flee her demons.

“I really didn’t want to write that sort of character,’ McBride said. “Especially I didn’t want to write about sex and religion in Ireland, but it just became that story that I had to tell, so I just had to go with it. Maybe there are some things you have to get out of your system.”

What is remarkable about McBride as an author is not her subject matter, but the style of her prose, which is almost alchemical in effect. Sentences are disordered, word order reinvented, words themselves created new.

To read her work requires both intense concentration and letting go of convention. As McBride says, you have to “experience the book from the inside out”.

Hailed as a brave new voice in fiction, she has been likened to another Irish literary great, James Joyce. Eventually finding an outlet in micro-publisher Galley Beggar Press, (it was their second book, and she was paid an advance of 600 pounds ($1,000)) she has now been championed by Faber Faber, who have recently published “A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing” to a wider readership.

This is what else McBride had to say about her writing:

Q: What an extraordinary book. Did you set out to write something that challenges the perceived view of what good writing is?

A: I was interested to explore if there was another way for a reader to experience a book: to experience reading. What I wanted was for the writing to be visceral. I use simple vocabulary, it’s not worthy, or complicated. It was making the language work harder, constructing the phrases. So that the book is not in the words, it’s in the phrase.

Q: You have been compared to James Joyce because of a similarity in style to his novel “Ulysses” and your Irish upbringing. What are your influences?

A: Really, Joyce. Really, “Ulysses”. It changed how I thought about writing. He pointed the way that there was this part of human experience that can’t be described in grammatical, in literal ways. That caught my interest. But I think we’re after very different things. I’m after a more human experience for the reader, than intellectual.

Q: Why this tortured character?

A: When I was writing the book I was very angry and disillusioned and wanted to write about what was happening in Ireland, what religion has done to the women in my country. At the time, there was a case where a teenage girl was raped but prevented from travelling to England for an abortion. It made an impression on me.

Q: Do you see sexual abuse as a particular problem in Ireland?

A: Sexual abuse is not more prevalent in Ireland, but how hidden it is can be a problem. The Irish response to a problem is denial, which links back to religion: the inability to have an adult conversation about sex, let alone talk about sexual abuse.

Q: Religious guilt and sexual abuse – critics might say this is familiar territory for an Irish writer?

A: That’s a lazy, easy thing to say. She’s not a victim. She’s constantly trying to make choices, even though it goes disastrously wrong. She suffers, but she’s not just a weak, wounded female. She grows up in a society where there is no vocabulary to speak about sex. Her promiscuity is her trying to keep control. She chooses: she can make this choice. Whatever people’s moral perspective on that, it is her choice to make.

Q: The novel is about a relationship between a brother and sister. How would you describe that relationship?

A: I think it is a love story between a brother and sister and they are emotionally bound up. It’s about love and the complexities of that. Often people think that sibling relationships are simple, but actually sibling relationship can be complicated as well. It never tips over into incest.

Q: Publishers in the past have offered to produce the book as memoir. Is there anything autobiographical in the book?

A: I did lose one of my brothers in a similar way. He was ill with a brain tumour and died. But it is definitely not memoir; it is fiction. Memoir is the monster of publishing; it’s taking over everything. As if because you say ‘it happened’ it gives your writing legitimacy: you have something for nothing because the reader is on your side and believes every word.

Q: You no longer live in Ireland. Why?

A: No particular reason. Although Ireland is a difficult place to live. It’s a country that’s very approachable when you visit – but there’s a point of cut-off that unless you are family, or part of that community for generations, you are always on the outside.

Q: How does it feel to create so much expectation about what you next publish?

A: It is odd. Because I haven’t worked my way through publishing, there are lots of things I don’t know. I’m very naive. I’m always asking at Faber, ‘What do you do?’ I feel like a complete beginner.

(Editing by Michael Roddy and Mark Heinrich)