One of the highlights of the 2014 Sydney Writers’ Festival was seeing Irishwoman Eimear McBride talk with Geordie Williamson about her stunning, award-winning debut novel A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (my review here). The novel was shortlisted for the inaugural Folio Prize, won the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize in 2013 and the Baileys Prize (previously the Orange Prize for fiction) in 2014 (announced this past week). The Goldsmiths Prize was set up to ‘reward fiction that breaks the mould or opens up new possibilities for the novel form’, which gives you an idea of where A Girl is placed.
Geordie asked Eimear to set up their discussion by doing a reading. And what a pleasure it was to hear McBride read from the work that is so stylistically different to pretty much everything you’re likely to read. She read from the opening, which I confess I had to re-read a couple of times before I got what was going on, what with the jagged short sentence structure she employs. And although in my own head the writing quickly came alive, it was another thing to hear it spoken aloud by its creator.
The risk with the experimental style McBride employs, said Williamson, is that it could have fallen into an idiolect that no one understands, a modern companion to Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, which many regard as a dead-end of high modernism. This is something that McBride avoids. But, asked Williamson, ‘we have to talk about punctuation: what have you got against the comma?!’
The comma is overrated, joked McBride, before she went on to say the use of the full stop shows the reader that something else is going on in the story. It’s an immediate signal. Williamson noted Henry James as a great user of commas, the master of building up tension in a sentence for as long as possible, holding completion at bay. McBride said the truncated sentences match the experience of the unnamed girl narrator.
How did the style develop? She said she spent a long time writing and then, aged twenty-five, she read Joyce’s Ulysses, and everything changed. All the work she had done went into the bin. She felt there is a lot of room left in the modernist tradition to plumb. Proper sentences don’t necessarily allow us to show all of human experience.
Williamson said Irish writers typically choose between Joyce and Beckett as their inspiration, but McBride said she didn’t see the difference between the two. Language is key for both of them. Williamson mentioned another possible influencer, likening short sentences to the ultimate ‘bloke’: Ernest Hemingway. Did McBride consider choice of gender and flip it? She said, you’re not conscious of gender as a writer. You ‘don’t write as a woman’.
The discussion then went into the area of plot, the story being about the relationship between a girl and her mentally challenged brother in a close Irish Catholic community as she comes of age. In many ways, noted Williamson, this is the traditional Irish story. It was, said McBride, a horror to me that that was the story I was going to write. She did not set out to write that story, but that was what she found.
McBride spoke briefly about her upbringing. Born in Liverpool to Northern Irish parents, she moved to the west coast of Ireland when she was two. She went to convent school with all the associated bad nun experiences. At seventeen she moved to London to go to drama school as a means of escaping all of it, thinking she’d never go back to Ireland. And when she did go back she found out she had been right to think she should have never gone back!
The conversation returned to Beckett and Joyce, the two giants of Irish literature who cast very long shadows. It seems you have to get them out of your system to be an Irish writer. Another influence McBride noted was renowned Irish author Edna O’Brien. Experimenting is not done with yet, said McBride. Finnegan’s Wake scared people into moving back towards realism. But there’s an appetite in readers for brave and different books. Readers are adventurous, she said, something publishers forget. She described the nine year wait from finishing the manuscript before she found a publisher to take the book on, arguing that the increasing commercialisation of publishing houses has played a detrimental part in cutting down variety. To be a writer and a reader, she said, is to be an adventurer, a point that was welcomed with applause from the audience. Here, here, I say.
It took her six months to write three drafts in 2004, and then sent it out to publishers. Some said it was brave, and of good quality, but they couldn’t see the market for it. This went on for four years before she gave up and put it in a draw. It was a series of fortunate connections she made in Norwich that led to the manuscript getting to a brand new publisher run by people who admitted they knew very little about publishing, and even then it took a while for it to come together. Kudos to Galley Beggar Press in Norwich for picking it up; (it’s published by Text Publishing in Australia). It was reviewed positively in the Times Literary Supplement in London, and the rest, as they say, is history.
What next? Her novel in development is an evolution of the style featured in A Girl. She is most interested in indescribable human emotion. Success does not make writing any easier or harder.
In response to questions, McBride detailed the writing process for A Girl as being one more of addition that subtracting through editing. She has a goal of 1000 words a day, and starts each day by reading the previous day’s work, something Peter Carey and many other authors do too. She then picks up at the most interesting sentence and continues on. She constantly asked herself whether a reader would understand what was going on, and she knew she was asking a lot of the reader. She read it aloud a lot, particularly in the second and third drafts. The darker parts were difficult to write emotionally, but ‘you need to give of yourself, a drop of your blood’.
She said she may well do an audio book version herself, which was greeted with applause, and it is difficult to imagine anyone else being able to read it like McBride does. And Geordie Williamson, who had made an earlier reference to a well-known curmudgeonly reviewer and his praise in the London Review of Books, said the final line of his review was ‘the nicest thing he has ever written’, which gives you a measure of the status of this gem of a novel. What was his line? Wondering about McBride’s ability to back up A Girl and create a new style for a new story, he wrote: “That’s a project for another day, when this little book is famous.”
A great session. A treat to savour.