The Monthly Book for March is Eimear McBride’s novel A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (Text Publishing).
Here is my interview with Eimear McBride and the notes and transcript appear below.
Rarely do you find a new book that breaks new ground, but Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing (Text) does just that. This Irish first- time novelist has read her James Joyce, but applies her lessons to a subject matter that Joyce could never tackle: the inner turmoil of a girl whose deep connection to her unwell brother both saves and torments her in a life of self-destruction. I know it doesn’t sound cheery, but I’m enthusiastically recommending it for our reading this month for sheer original bravura.
As critic John Self said, “This isn’t – let’s not muck about – a gentle book. It is a wrenching book, full of the worst, so don’t say I didn’t warn you. It’s an aesthetic wonder all the same. It’s terrible beautiful.” And I concur with his analysis.
The book begins just before the birth of the young girl. We understand from half sentences and rhythms in the writing that she has a slightly older brother who has sustained some brain damage after surviving a tumour. They live with their mother, who is steeped in guilt and religion in rural Ireland; their father has left, and he later dies. The girl spends her days with her adored brother, protecting him from bullying at school. As she gets older she struggles with her home, her mother, her mother’s religious mania and – after abuse by her uncle – the power of her own sexuality, which turns in on her towards the end. She leaves the town and its strictures when she goes to university, and she comes back to help nurse her brother through his final illness.
McBride started writing the book with a quote from Joyce in her head: “One great part of every human existence is passed in a state which cannot be rendered sensible by the use of wideawake language, cutanddry grammar and goahead plot.” Her instinctive attempts to find different ways to use language to explore this part of our lives are very impressive. If you think the book sounds hard to read, trust me that McBride has tried to make it worth your while.
As she says, “I really wanted to give the reader something in return for making the effort. Because I understand that when you open a page and there are lots of sentences with two words and some of them end with the word “the”, that that is slightly alarming and possibly off-putting. But I think if you give it a go, you do get something that helps to pull you through, and the rhythm is certainly part of that, so at least you know that there is a thread that you can connect to.”
It may have taken McBride nine years to find a publisher for the book, but it has already won the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize for boldly original fiction. It has also been shortlisted for the Folio Prize, a major new award for English-language fiction from across the globe.
I’m interested in what you think of this month’s Monthly Book: Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing. Watch my interview with her, read the transcript, read the book, and let me know.
RAMONA KOVAL: Thanks for joining us from your home in Norwich in England. It’s really great to have you with us on the Monthly Book.
EIMEAR McBRIDE: That’s great. Thank you for having me.
RK: Well, I’d like to start our conversation by saying that this book is a great pleasure for me to talk about with you, because it’s so audacious in its ambition and its reach, and its success at achieving what it wants to achieve. And I say pleasure despite the subject matter itself being harrowing. As critic John Self said, “This isn’t – let’s not muck about – a gentle book. It is a wrenching book, full of the worst, so don’t say I didn’t warn you. It’s an aesthetic wonder all the same. It’s terrible beautiful.” And I concur with his analysis.
I think we probably should say very briefly, it’s the story of a young girl, and her slightly older brother who has had some damage after surviving a brain tumour. They live with their mother; their father has left, and then dies. Their mother’s steeped in guilt and religion in Ireland. [The girl] spends her days in relationship with him [her brother], loving him, protecting him from bullying at school, and we see her as she grows up through her life, I suppose, struggling with her home life, struggling with her mother, struggling with the power of her sexuality, which kind of turns in on her towards the end. She runs away – or she doesn’t run away, she goes to university; she comes back to help nurse him through his final illness.
Now that’s – for those people who haven’t read it yet, I suppose – a summary of the plot, but the way you have dealt with this is highly original, so I want to talk first about the ambition for this work and where it came from. What did you have in mind when you started to write this, your first book?
EM: Well, I was very interested in [James] Joyce, and stream of consciousness, but I also felt that there were still some areas left unexplored by modernism and by stream of consciousness particularly. And so I just wanted to see if I could find a new perspective to tell a story from, and I thought that a step further back from consciousness was one of the areas that really hadn’t been explored. So I was interested in writing something that would make the experience more immediate for the reader. Almost like a physical experience rather than an intellectual experience or even just an emotional experience. And so that was the starting point for the style, really, this idea of bringing the reader right in as close as I could.
RK: So the body is important in this matter of moving back from consciousness. I’m interested in that idea of taking it back, below consciousness. So if consciousness is the way we talk to ourselves about what we think, and what we see and our impressions of things, back from that involves a whole sense of ourselves as in the room or in the body. Is that what you meant?
EM: Yeah, it was really about a pre-conscious stage just at the point before thought becomes formalised and before ideas are conceptualised and that really it was about the reader being with the narrator at the point when life is hitting her, when things start occurring to her, when she physically reacts to something. And so, in a way, emotion comes after all of that. And I felt that if I made the physical and immediate concerns apparent, then the emotional reactions would just be more natural to the reader, would occur naturally to the reader, and they would understand what the emotional content was.
RK: Did this come naturally to you or had you been trying to read theories about how we evolve into the kind of creatures we are? In terms of the way our minds work.
EM: No, it really wasn’t. It was actually a quote from Joyce that pointed the way for me, which was, I can’t remember it exactly but it’s about one great part of human existence cannot be described in terms of cut-and-dry grammar and go-ahead plot and wide-awake language. And it was really about that, that there is a whole area of life that cannot be described or has not been described in language but which is a huge part of all of us. And it was really just trying to see if I could connect with that in some way. And so a lot of the writing, certainly in the first draft, was very instinctive. It wasn’t an intellectual exercise for me. I hadn’t read up on psychology or linguistics or development of language or anything like that. I really just wanted to try and work from an instinct. And then later, you know, sort of the writerly part shaped it and honed the language and tidied it.
RK: Well, you’re just going to give us a taste of the beginning of the book, which is, I suppose, at its most basic, this is a consciousness before it is born even. Give us a little taste of the type of writing I am talking about.
EM: 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 say that’s what you did. Then lay you down. They cut you round. Wait and hour and day.
Walking up corridors up the stairs. Are you alright? Will you sit, he says. No. I want she says. I want to see my son. Smell from dettol through her skin. Mops diamond floor tiles all as strong. All the burn your eyes out if you had some. Her heart going pat. Going dum dum dum. Don’t mind me she’s going to your room. See the. Jesus, What have they done? Jesus. Bile for. Tidals burn. Ssssh. All over. Mother. She cries. Oh no. Oh no no no.
RK: So, I think we can get the idea that there’s a great structure in rhythm, and in reading aloud, even if you’re not, kind of, understanding every sentence, you get a feeling of what might be evolving and the “you” is, you begin to realise, the girl talking to her brother. And that becomes apparent as the pages are moved through. I think it’s to your great talent to allow the reader to trust you, that, you know, it’s a little bit confusing at first, but I think the rhythm and the poetry in it is a hand out to the reader, to say, “Listen to the beat, and you might get it.” Is that what you intended?
EM: Yeah, I think so. Because my quibble with a lot of modernist writing is that it is very closed to the reader and demands a lot of study. There are great rewards but they don’t help you in any way. And I felt – and also because I am interested in language, very specifically in rhythms – I really wanted to give the reader something in return for making the effort. Because I understand that when you open a page and there are lots of sentences with two words and some of them end with the word “the”, that that is slightly alarming and possibly off-putting. But I think if you give it a go, you do get something that helps to pull you through, and the rhythm is certainly part of that, so at least you know that there is a thread that you can connect to.
RK: When did you first read Joyce?
EM: I didn’t read Joyce until I was about 25. I had been doing a lot of temping at the time, and I’d got a job at an awful bank in the City of London doing some records filing and that, and I decided that the only way to cope was to finally tackle Ulysses. I lived about 20 minutes away on the train at that point, and I remember getting on the train the first day, about six in the morning, and opening Ulysses and starting, and by the time I got off, 20 minutes later, I just thought, “That’s it. Everything, everything is different. I have to throw out everything that I have ever written and start again.”
RK: What had you written up till then?
EM: I had been doing a lot of writing. I mean, I was always working towards the idea of a novel. I wasn’t interested in short stories or poetry particularly. But there was nothing, it was just impressions, there was no structure, there was no real idea working. It was more just trying to get towards the idea, and I just realised that actually what I had been looking for was this. This was the way forward for me. So that was the start.
RK: So I’m still interested and fascinated in how you came to think that between Joyce and, say, Beckett there was room for Eimear McBride. I want to know what actually went into making you this kind of ambitious writer.
EM: Well, you know, I wasn’t interested in straight writing. It just didn’t excite me, and there are lots of great writers who do it and do it better than I ever could. It was just that it seemed to me that there just had to be something else, and I didn’t believe that it was all done. And I love Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, but I don’t really think that that is the inside of a woman at work. There is room there, there’s plenty of room there, it’s just, you know, writers get scared off. And it’s easy to get scared off; you just have to square up to them and jump in. There is still plenty of room in modernism, there’s plenty left. So I’m hoping that there’ll be a bit of a revival (laughs).
RK: Well, I think you’re leading something. But I agree with you about Molly Bloom. It’s a great soliloquy, but really it’s notable for its, kind of, shock value, given the time it was written and what it was writing about. And I want to talk to you about writing about sex, because I think you’ve taken it to a completely different end point, a different extreme than anything that Joyce did. But let’s just come back a little bit. I want you to read another piece, which is a piece that talks about the women who come and meet at the girl’s mother’s house. It gives you a bit of a taste of Ireland and the church and sin and the kind of culture that she’s come from. Could you do that reading? Do you want to set it up for us? Is there something you could say about what happens here?
EM: The girl’s mother becomes involved with a religious group called the Charismatics, which was a very evangelical Catholic movement that was very strong in Ireland during the ‘80s, and they would come to people’s houses. It was interesting because it was away from the church. It was slightly more “power to people”, but the same kind of power. People would have ecstatic experiences and speak in tongues, and all of this would happen in your front room on, you know, a Friday evening, and there was an oddity about that, about remembering those kind of things that have died away a lot now, that I wanted to keep and preserve in the book. So this is the piece:
They polyester tight-packed womanhood aflower in pink and blue or black and green coats if the day has rain. Their boots in the hallway, crusty with cow dung or wet muck. If in Sunday skirts, every pleat a landscape of their grown-up bodies. Tired. Under-touched. Flesh having run all night after the cows. Flesh carry sacks of turf up lanes from the shed and spurt out child and child and child. Son he has wanted. Girl he did not. Making frys at all hours and smell of cigarettes called fags by them. Lily of the valley and vaseline. This country’s awful in the winter. Brown skin nylons. Leatherette shoes. And they’ll just have a little cup there in their hand. Good for them they like God and Jesus the most. That’s what they come here to say and do. There’s in their bags holy books and books of it. I picked up this one. I’ll lend you that. Now you take this I read it and thought of you. Hold out their palms out and let the spirit in. To save them and to set them free.
Some most are women. In a blue moon a man. I like to eye. Sitting in the corner jugging as I can for all they say is interesting to me. Dress undressing no-neck cindy. Not stopping or I get look at little lugs there listening in. Oh taking it all in that one. Doesn’t miss a thing. Spelling I know but too quick to understand r.u.n.o.f.f with the s.a.c.r.i.s.t.a.n and they are living in s.i.n down in such and such a place. There’s stink girl’s mother and her sister with women’s troubles so peculiar all pointed down and asked and how’s ahem? Ah she’ll not sit down for years. Apparently the smell of it is something wicked but god knows it’s not her fault. Their brother’s second wife – ach the first died leaving five behind. Tell me where’s the sense? They’re wild as wild. As bold as brats. The P.P’s housekeeper – God rest her late husband. A lovely man. She gave him a hard life but sure. Mrs one whose husband ran the AIB. Uppity up in herself – behind palms in the scullery they whisper adding a splash to warm the pot. Great red hat she wears to mass. So we have a look at her and where’s the humility in that? Ah each to their own, they say. Then your woman who bought a knitting machine. A hundred and twenty pounds now where did she … Her little boy. Downs. God love him. She does school jumpers so she can get him toys that are ed-u-cat-ional nod nod. That’s right for God helps those who help themselves. The politician’s wife they’d normally spite but God help us her heart is broke. He’s running about with this one that one. She can’t look down on them. Her vows were sacred and he’ll not get her into mortal sin. Her heart may be pierced with a thousand spears but she’ll offer it as penance that’s a bit proud don’t you think? And the one whose husband’s a desperate drunk. Like his father before him you know the type, vicious. That’d kill you in it by mistake. Her blue eyes. Her black eyes. Is he on the bottle? they say and pray for sometimes giving up and the forgiveness of his sins.
RK: Well, I can hear them all. I can hear it all coming right down the line from Norwich, where you are, to Australia, where we are. Eimear McBride, how did you overcome any sense of not being able to achieve what you wanted? Or was it just sort of an all-encompassing fascinating problem for you that you didn’t have any self-doubts, you were just intrigued by the problem you wanted to solve? Is that what it was like?
EM: Well, I think I was mostly self-doubt (laughs), but also a sort of bloody-mindedness. It was very hard to write it, and I felt all the time that I was fighting with language and going against language and going against everything that I was supposed to do to make language beautiful and coherent and intelligent. And I didn’t feel at any moment that everything was going well; the whole thing was a struggle. Luckily, my husband and some friends who read the book were very encouraging and just kept saying, “Go on, go on, just keep going on” (laughs). As Beckett must.
RK: Like Beckett, yes, exactly (laughs). Ireland, when you were growing up, was it religion and suspicion and abuse and being a girl … I just wonder what was the place of books in your life, or was there only one book, was there a the Bible like Jeanette Winterson remembers growing up in her fundamentalist adoptive mother’s house?
EM: No, no, not at all. Reading was a very big part of family life in our house. Both of my parents were very keen readers and very keen that all of us should read, and my father taught us to read when I was about three and my brothers as well. So reading was very important. There wasn’t a lot of money in the house but I never asked for a book that I didn’t get, and it was always very, very important. Later on, I think my mother was possibly slightly more concerned about my choice of reading material, but she never forbade me anything. She may have raised an eyebrow, but she never said no.
RK: What was she raising an eyebrow at? What did you bring in?
EM: Well, I think she wasn’t so happy about Edna O’Brien (laughs).
RK: I was going to raise Edna O’Brien with you. The Country Girls, wasn’t it?
EM: Yes, that was my first great introduction to grown-up literature, really. And I loved Edna O’Brien as a teenager and I just read everything I could of hers, and, of course, because there was a sort of frisson about her that made her all the more enticing. Everyone would just be a bit, “Ooooh, Edna O’Brien, ooooh. Not so sure about that.”
RK: Yes, well, I draw a line between Edna O’Brien and Anne Enright and you. You’re writing about Irish womanhood in a sense, aren’t you, and the place of women in Ireland. Did you read Anne Enright, too?
EM: Only later, but yes, I mean, certainly, you know, it’s very interesting to read The Gathering, because there are similar themes at work there but handled in very, very different ways. But those parts of Irish women’s experience are just there all the time. I think it’s interesting, Anne Enright and I obviously approach things from different angles but those stories are the same and it’s interesting to see the different ways that they’re told. When I heard her speak recently at UEA [The University of East Anglia] she was very blunt about what she thought was coming for Ireland in terms of secrets that are yet to be revealed. The church scandals are still a big thing, but really it’s what happened in families that’s starting to come now, and that is the next wave of conscience that will have to be examined, I think.
RK: Let’s talk about writing about sex. I mentioned before when I tried to describe the book, the girl says there’s a lot of power she finds in saying yes, basically to anyone, and to anything, and then we see it sort of developed into sort of an abjectness, a masochist abjectness, I guess – that’s how I read it anyway. It’s a confronting way of writing, because it doesn’t play with sadomasochism, which I think is fashionable in some writing. It takes you to the real place it can go. Can you talk to me a little about what your ambition was for writing about this kind of sex?
EM: Well, you know, it’s very difficult to write about sex at all, because there’s such a narrow vocabulary available to discuss it, and it was very important to me not to fall into the clichés. I tried to not use any words that are normally used about sex. You know, “thrusting” does not appear in it. And also I think sex is much more complicated than we were reared to believe and ideas about it are much more complex. The idea of a girl using sex, and abuse of sex, for her own sense of empowerment was something that I hadn’t read much about at that point, when I wrote Girl. And again I wanted to write about the physical experience in a much more immediate way as well and not to romanticise or sentimentalise it, and that sex is not necessarily just about procreation or love or pleasure, that it can be about something completely different, and also what the danger is then, when that is what it becomes about for someone.
RK: The way the language is fractured by you around those elemental experiences, especially towards the end of the book. She fractures and language fractures in ways we haven’t even seen before in the book. You find new ways of expressing ineffables, I suppose.
EM: In a way I tried to treat sex the way I would treat other physical experiences, and this is why it’s hard to write about sex, because there is just this idea that you must use these type of words and this is the sort of thing that is said, and this is the way that people breathe and whatever. But actually to go down inside a person while they’re experiencing it and what happens when everything that you were doing to keep control over your life turns into the ultimate loss of control, it has to be described in a different way. And I think people are very anxious about women writing about sex in that way. It’s good to make people anxious, because I think women do deserve better than the way they are often served in literature.
RK: What do you think about the playing with sadomasochism that’s often done in literature?
EM: Well, I think there’s something quite childish about it, actually. I think, especially male writers who write about it, and actually a lot of women who write about it, tend to take on these very childish roles and speak about themselves in a rather childish fashion. Given the damage that can be caused when sex is used inappropriately, when a child is abused, when a woman is abused, sexually, I think you have to take it more seriously than that, and you should be careful about what you say, and you should mean what you say and think about what you say. It’s a dangerous thing, and that people do very dangerous things that cause themselves tremendous damage, that shouldn’t be trivialised, and, you know, sort of, people in plastic jumpsuits, that’s a game and that’s something else, and that’s just foolishness. But I think real sadomasochism is a dangerous thing.
RK: Above all of the relationships in the book, it’s the love for her brother, and his love for her, that I felt was the impetus for all the movements inward and outward in the book. How did you think about using language to convey the connection between them?
EM: Well, for me, that was the heart of the book. It’s difficult to say, really, what I was getting at, because a lot of that was very instinctive and it was really about trying to put myself in the position and then to write what was going on inside. Because I originally trained as an actress, and a lot of my approach to language is about creating characters in the way that I was taught to create characters for the stage. And so the language is again about just a very simple … I was very keen to use a very simple vocabulary, nothing sophisticated, so that everything was more immediate and no one stopped twice to think, “Oh that’s an interesting word she has used,” or “Oh, why has she used it that way,” or whatever. So it was the same, really, the whole way through the book, writing about love in that way and the vulnerability of that kind of love that is complicated but also innocent – yeah, it was tricky.
RK: I read an interview with you and you mentioned Joyce as an influence, but you also mentioned ‘The Rite of Spring’, Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring’, which makes sense, of course, as a sort of a way to go, but also WB Yeats’s poem ‘The Stolen Child’ as an important poem for you, and I read it and noticed, of course, that there’s a lake in that poem. And it’s a poem about faeries trying to entice a child into the lake with them, a human child. And then I thought about the lake in your book, which is the site of so much abject experience for the girl. And then I thought about the use of water and cleansing. Can you talk a little bit about water in the book?
EM: Well, I think it is used in that quite traditional way, that it is something about cleansing, it’s something about innocence, for her. Originally the lake is the place where she goes to escape, and, of course, as time goes on it becomes about a much darker kind of escape. But water is always about cleansing, and there’s a point in the book where she can’t go to the water, where she goes but she can’t touch it because she doesn’t feel that she can be clean again and she doesn’t feel that she can be innocent again. A lot of that imagery certainly came from Yeats. I mean, that was the first poem I ever learned at school, and I grew up in Sligo, which was saturated with Yeats and everything about his poetry, and, of course, the last chapter of the book is called ‘The Stolen Child’. And there’s a section where I read through the poem in my own way. Because it’s sort of lonely and dark and beautiful all at once, and I think that’s a lot of the girl’s experience.
RK: So this book lay fallow, I suppose, for some years – nine years, wasn’t it, from when you finished it?
RK: And I do admire your pluck that you didn’t succumb to any, kind of, changes. Were people suggesting that you rewrite it? Or that you write it in a different kind of way? Or that you tone it down or something?
EM: I had one person say that they would be interested in publishing it if I would say that it was a memoir.
RK: (Laughs) That’s a bit … Did you laugh?
EM: I laughed and I said no. But it’s very cruel, you know, because you’re so desperate to be published and you can see the temptation, how people get into trouble with that sort of thing. But I just, I couldn’t say something like that. That was just ridiculous. So there was that, because obviously if it was all true then that was a different kind of story, and they would be able to sell that, and the press …
RK: You could shop it around to Oprah and various other places.
EM: Yeah, exactly. And I did have someone say that they would take me on if I would rewrite it, according to their specifications. And I just couldn’t. I mean, it’s just silly. The book is so much itself that when I came to do the re-edit this time last year before publication, half the time I didn’t know what to do. While I was going through, I was thinking, “My god, how do I solve this, I can see there’s this bit or that bit, or is that all right,” and I think it’s a difficult book for someone to edit except in a very broad way, to sort of say, you know, “Less of this, more of this.” And certainly there was a discussion at Galley Beggar [the UK publisher], you know, “Could I cheer up the ending a bit?”
(EM and RK laugh.)
RK: Oh no.
EM: But they did realise in the end that that was–
RK: It was the only way it could end, actually.
EM: Yeah, yeah, I think so. So in a way there were people saying things and there were temptations there, but really I knew that the book was just what it was, and it can’t just be whimsically twisted around into something else because someone doesn’t like the notion of a sad ending, or whatever, you know?
RK: So there it was, and then it got presented again, kind of by accident, didn’t it?
EM: Completely by accident.
RK: Tell us the story of what happened.
EM: Well, my husband and I had been living in Ireland for a few years, and then he got a job here in Norwich, so we moved. And it was quite random. I’d never been here before, I didn’t know anything, and it was only the lure of his job, and he was very keen, that brought us here. And one day he was in the bookshop and got talking to the man behind the counter, who asked what I did. And he told him the story of the book and he said, “Oh well, actually, some friends and I are thinking of setting up a press. Do you think she’d let us have a read of it?” And so I did. And that was the start, that’s how it happened. Because, really, I just rolled my eyes when my husband said, “Oh, Henry from the bookshop said …” I’d heard it all before, I’d had every kind of rejection going, and I just thought, “Well, what the hell. Let them have a look. What does it matter?” I really had given up. I really thought, you know, “I need to write a second book and maybe if I can sell that there’ll be interest in the first and that’s how it will be published.” But no, they liked it. But at the time they had no money, and they were just publishing their very first book, and so at the end of the meeting I went to the park and sat and cried for half an hour and went, “Why did I get my hopes up? It’s not going to happen.” But a year later, they phoned and said, “OK, now we’re ready. Let’s go.” So we did, and yeah, it went from there.
RK: So you’re working on your second novel.
EM: I am.
RK: Had you started that before A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing was published? So did you think you needed to go in a completely different direction or did you think you needed to develop the direction you had started?
EM: Well, when I started writing the second book, I hadn’t written in about three years.
EM: Well, after I finished Girl, I had to temp again full-time, and I find it very hard to write and temp at the same time. And then my husband got a job in Ireland and we moved, and part of the deal to go back to Ireland was that I would write full-time, and we owned half a house at that point, so we swapped half a house for half a novel (laughs). So great forbearance let me basically subsidise my writing when we sold the house. And so I started and it felt like starting anew, actually, having not written in that time, and it took me a good year, really, to get muscles back in action again. I’ve been working on it for about five years now, on and off, mostly on, but I think I’ll be finished this year. Maybe the end of this year. That’s the plan.
RK: Well, Eimear McBride, thank you so much for speaking with the Monthly Book. It’s a fantastic book. It’s cheered me up immensely because when you do a lot of reading you hope that the novel is going to go somewhere else and you can’t imagine where it could go, but I think you’re taking it somewhere else, and I just think it’s marvellous. Thank you so much, and good luck with all of your work.
EM: Thank you very much.