‘It’s the last thing I wanted to write about: God, sex, death, incest, guilt’

Eimear McBride’s debut novel, A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing, took 10 years to get published, in which time she felt she had failed. That it has won the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year award is more than simple vindication

‘No one had wanted to give the book a chance.’ Eimear McBride at Malahide Castle. Photograph: Dave Meehan

‘No one had wanted to give the book a chance.’ Eimear McBride at Malahide Castle. Photograph: Dave Meehan

Tue, Jun 3, 2014, 01:00

Eimear McBride is sitting down. At first glance she appears calm, even serene. But a closer look suggests she may be feeling relieved. She agrees that she has gone beyond simple vindication. “I always believed in my book, but it got hard and harder. And, well . . .” Her sigh is followed by an expressive shrug.

The busy bar we meet in could as easily be a waiting room at a railway station. McBride spent a great deal of time waiting and wondering. “I felt like I’d failed, wasted my time. Or rather, no, I didn’t feel that I had wasted my time; I felt that my time had been wasted. No one had wanted to give it a chance; I had people saying they liked it but didn’t think they could sell it.”

It is a familiar complaint among writers. As readers, however, we don’t tend to give much thought to the publishing process: we think of books as wonders, not sales units. Is fiction only a product? She smiles her world-weary smile. In the years before winning the inaugural Goldsmith Prize and this year’s Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year award (which I adjudicated, along with David Park), as well as having been shortlisted for three other prizes (the outcome of two are still pending), she had learned a great deal about the complicated relationship that exists between the act of writing and the business of publishing.

 

A low, resonant tone

There is a brief silence before I ask her to read to me from the book, and she does, in a low, resonant tone that is steady and confident, alert to the staccato rhythms of her narrative, a cryptic, theatrical, at times shocking inner monologue issuing from an unnamed girl who is damaged yet determined to make her own decisions.

“I wanted to act and I did my three years at Drama Centre London. It wasn’t easy,” she says. “We did 10 hours a day. It is a very intense experience. It was a method school, so you are using every part of your body and your mind, your emotions. You react to language, break it down. Simplify it.” She may as well be speaking about her challenging, driven novel. “Exactly, that’s why I wrote it like that. Words are about emotions, articulating sensations. We don’t think in perfect sentences.”

McBride is 37 and is easy company, far less intense than A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing. Yet she is logical, as deliberate as a scientist. It is difficult to imagine her acting. “It’s funny, I really did want to act, and loved the idea of becoming these various characters, trying to get to the essence of them.

“Then, about six months after I had graduated and I was ready to begin a career, my brother Donagh [to whom the book is dedicated] became ill, and he died after about a year. He was 28. Suddenly I wasn’t interested in acting any more, and I felt I had to change everything about my life. I had to figure out what I was going to do with myself. Nothing could be the same any more.” She became a writer.

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