Eimear McBride: ‘I really didn’t want to write about this’
The writer’s exceptional debut novel, about family, emigration and death, echoes her life – but it almost didn’t get published
Eimear McBride: ‘The big presses liked it but said they didn’t know what to do with it because anything experimental is deemed something that won’t sell’
Great publishing stories come around once in a while, usually involving multi-publisher fisticuffs and six-figure sum contracts. Eimear McBride’s story is not exactly one of those, but it’s a tale of tenacity and long-overdue recognition.
Her exceptional novel, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, has finally been published after a long struggle to find a home. “Nine years ago, there was a lot of interest in it. The big presses liked it but said they didn’t know what to do with it because anything experimental is deemed something that won’t sell. The most disheartening aspect was how near it got. I received all these lovely responses, saying that it was beautiful and affecting but they couldn’t publish it. If they’d said, ‘This is terrible!” it would have been easier,” she laughs.
We are sitting outside a Dublin cafe the night after McBride’s book was launched at Hodges Figgis. As her name suggests, she is Irish but has lived a peripatetic life. She was born in Liverpool to Irish parents. When she was 14 the family moved to Sligo, and then on to Mayo. At 17, she left for London.
She lives in Norwich now with her husband and daughter, and her Irish accent has a Norfolk tinge. That is also the hometown of Galley Beggar Press, the publisher that took a punt on her.
The book is unlike most you will read this year. It is written in an interior voice that eschews grammar and prepositions. It has lyrical cadences and often rhymes, but its beauty is at odds with its dark themes. “Girl”, the unnamed narrator, guides us through her chaotic life in stream-of-consciousness, and McBride heard the word “experimental” a lot from publishers who were turning her down.
Raised by a violent mother, who has been abandoned by her husband, the girl and her unwell brother find solace in each other. “I wanted to try something different with voice,” says McBride, “and see if there was a way of relating one person’s experience very directly to the reader. I tried to write what I saw in my head. So it was based on images, not words.”
There is a musicality to the language. I ask if she writes poetry. “No, but I would say that Yeats is definitely an influence, and a lot of that is to do with growing up in Sligo. The Stolen Child is definitely in there, too.”