Irish writer and Goldsmiths Prize recipient Eimear McBride on her debut novel, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing.
Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing was published in June last year to great critical acclaim—almost ten years after it was first completed. McBride was the recipient of the Goldsmiths Prize in 2013, and has been shortlisted for both the Folio Prize and the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2014.
In A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, narrative emerges through fragments and evocations that comprise a “stream of pre-consciousness.” Strings of pared-back interruptions articulate the protagonist’s dark and unsparing psychological journey. The result is affecting and visceral. Words seem to step over themselves as thoughts are paused by undulating emotion. McBride’s syntax has a kinaesthetic, tangible quality. Harrowing, beautiful, and uniquely eloquent, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is uncompromising in its originality. Ahead of this year’s Auckland Writers Festival, I talked to the intelligent, engaging McBride on female sexuality, gender politics, theatre’s influence, and the role of fiction.
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LAURA SUZUKI: It’s been almost ten years now since you completed A Girl is a Half Formed Thing. What was happening for you during that interim period before its publication last year?
EIMEAR MCBRIDE: Well, for the first few years after I had finished it and was sending it out a lot, I was doing temping work, and worked at the Wellcome Library, which is a medical history library in London. As temping work goes, it wasn’t too bad. Then my husband got a job in Ireland. We moved back to Ireland and at that point I started writing again full time. So I started work on my second novel.
LS: Will it be in a similar vein to A Girl?
EM: No. It’s odd in that story-wise, everything is completely new. I’m still interested in language and trying to use language in a different way, but it’s expanded. It’s about more than one person. There’s more than one story told in it and so I feel as though it’s sort of an evolution, there are some similar themes to A Girl. I often think of it really as an inside-out version of A Girl.
LS: So, stylistically unconventional?
EM: Yeah, I think so. I’m not interested in doing the straight writing; I am interested in seeing what language can be made to do.
LS: What literary formats are exciting for you at the moment then?
EM: I read a very interesting book called The Notebook, by a Hungarian writer called Agota Kristof—which sounds a bit like Agatha Christie but isn’t! [laughs]—and she uses a very pared down style, but not that terrible Hemingway rip-off that a lot of writers do. It was very interesting, very effective, and very chilling. And so it’s quite interesting to see people going in the opposite direction that I’m doing and having a grand effect on the reader as well.
LS: You’ve spoken before about the literalism of literature and how that’s becoming a pointless thing, in your view. What do you think that the role of fiction should be right now?
EM: I think fiction is fighting for its purpose at the moment because for so long, it was about describing experience in a way that doesn’t need to be described any more, which is what I meant by the excessive literalism. It’s something that’s changing at the moment, and I think it has to be about describing part of the human experience that cannot be described in any other way, that cannot be seen from the outside, that cannot be filmed, that cannot sound like music, that cannot be described in other forms. And that’s really what I’m trying to do—to find what it is, and what is the purpose.
LS: When you’re trying to capture that unique quality that writing has, do other such disciplines inform that as well? You have a background in theatre, for instance.
EM: Yeah, absolutely, and that was a big part of why I wrote the book the way I did. Having had that background in drama, the approach to character is very different to what you’re taught if you do a creative writing course, an English BA or something like that. You’re talking about a much more physical experience of another person, and I was interested to see if that could be translated into words.
LS: To me, A Girl felt like a series of fragments and intersections coming from the girl’s mind and the world she inhabits, rather than a fluid stream of thought. Yet, I’ve heard your writing style described as “stream-of-consciousness.” Is that a label that resonates with you?
EM: Yes it does. The idea behind the stream-of-consciousness technique was an important starting point for me—and some sections of the book were directly written in that way—but I also wanted to widen and deepen its reach. So I began to work towards something I have dubbed “stream-of-preconsciousness,” which is an attempt to take it one step further back again, to the point before language has had the time to format correctly, or thoughts have had a chance to coalesce into coherent ideas. I think the most representative examples of what I was trying for are in the scenes involving sex and/or violence.
LS: When did you first conceive of writing a novel, and where did that journey begin?
EM: I had been working towards the idea of writing a novel for about two years before I was able to sit down and just work. I think reading Ulysses was a big part of that approach, of being interested in language and just seeing where it can go. But the story itself, the original story I sat down to work on, was completely different, and I spent a couple of weeks pushing away at it, and nothing really clicked. Then at one point I wrote the first line of A Girl, and at that point I knew that that was what I was going to be writing about instead. It wasn’t really a story that I wanted to write about. I thought, it’s a terrible cliché being Irish and writing this kind of story, but those clichés are there because that’s part of life, and if you’re an Irish person, that is there for you. Those stories are there. So really the story came out of the first line.
LS: In terms of that Irish lineage, obviously there’s a long history of novels and stories about unhappy Irish Catholic childhoods. Once you’d decided to be a part of that, what did you hope to contribute to that discourse?
EM: What I thought was missing from those stories was the women. Those stories usually focus on the victims who are battered by terrible men. I was interested in looking at female sexuality, the kind that isn’t just about “Oh I want someone to love me and then I’ll be happy,” and about sexuality that starts to work in a different way, that is used for another purpose other than love, or even for pleasure. That this was a girl who was trying to find her way into the world, and using this as one of the tools. I think that’s what makes this book different to other stories of great ‘Irish Miserablism’!
“Most women are reared with a very particular idea of what their sexuality is supposed to be, and don’t necessarily have the vocabulary with which to discuss a more complex sexual narrative within themselves… There’s very little nuance available, especially in the media, in terms of discussing female sexuality. It’s really ‘you are this’ or ‘you are that,’ and that hasn’t changed greatly.”
LS: In terms of that sexuality in the novel, the relationship that the main character has with her sexuality takes on different shapes, both empowering and violating. It seems to flip and change. To what extent do you think that all women walk that line in relation to their sexuality?
EM: I think it is something that most women deal with. The book is very extreme. I think in smaller ways, it is something that most women wrestle with in their lives, especially because most women are reared with a very particular idea of what their sexuality is supposed to be, and don’t necessarily have the vocabulary with which to discuss a more complex sexual narrative within themselves. We are all told what sexuality is and what women are like, and if they’re not exactly like that, then they’re a little bit more laddy, and then they’re like that. There’s very little nuance available, especially in the media, in terms of discussing female sexuality. It’s really “you are this” or “you are that,” and that hasn’t changed greatly.
LS: In A Girl it turns into this quite destructive path for the protagonist. Did you ever think things might have been more hopeful?
EM: No, I didn’t know the book would finish the way it did, until about twenty pages before. The story came as I wrote. I didn’t have anything plotted out for the end. I think in the abstract, there are lots of points in the girl’s life where things could have been different. It’s important to me to say that this is a story of one girl. This is not a story about “this is what happens if you are sexually promiscuous.” This is the story: everything that happens is a result of everything that happens, and if you’ve taken the component away of her brother being ill, then maybe she… because when she goes to university, she starts to find a sexuality that suits herself, that does empower her, that makes her free, but it’s everything that happens after that traps her back in. That means she doesn’t really get to live through that and she gets swallowed back by it, and that’s all part of the family experience and not being able to get away. So I think things could have been different, but with what happened, that was the only thing that could happen.
LS: Would you say that the people in her life had failed her, or that perhaps she had failed herself in some way? Or does the story reflect a failure of society?
EM: It’s broader than someone failing themselves. Because really the girl—as I was just saying—she has no vocabulary with which to discuss these feelings and what’s happened to her. And certainly at the time when the book is set, Ireland was a much more closed place than it is now, and there really wasn’t anywhere to go to. Also, although the girl’s mother is a harsh character, she isn’t in a position to help her daughter because she also doesn’t understand. It is definitely about a broader failing of society and nowadays, a failing of the media.
LS: Ireland has undergone significant ups and downs in the last decade. Do you think you would conceive of the novel differently if you had started writing it now?
EM: At the time I was writing the book, a lot of things were opening up, and a lot of the original scandals were coming out about sexual abuse within families or the church based scandals. I think if the book was set now it would be very different. Certainly, there are places to go, and in that time before there was nowhere to go.
LS: Do you think things are continuing to improve for women?
EM: I think they are improving. They could do with a lot more improving, but it certainly is vastly improved. The country is vastly improved in its relationship to women and to sex in general, compared to how it was when I was growing up. Ireland is now starting to have a grown-up relationship to sex and to sexual abuse, in a way that it was really… the figures of authority behaved like frightened children for so many years, and that is now no longer accepted.
LS: You’ve called A Girl a feminist perspective rather than a post-feminist viewpoint. Do you believe that post-feminism exists? You’ve already briefly said there that gender equality is a battle still being fought.
EM: I don’t really believe in it. I don’t think that the fight is anywhere near done. I think when people talk about it I suppose they mean that the law is at least on our side, and so now it’s social problems rather than legal, it’s an issue for society rather than an issue for the law anymore. And it [the law] is so poorly implemented, and there are difficulties that women in society face on a daily basis in big and small ways, everywhere. I think the culture has become very, very sneery about the problems that women face. Younger women than me, girls in their teens, are now sort of brought up to sneer at the idea of feminism, or to feel that the way to deal with sexism is to laugh along, rather than confront it; that it can be embarrassing in standing up for themselves, or things that make them uncomfortable, things that are inappropriate. So I don’t really think that post-feminism exists in the world. It exists in academia.
LS: On that topic, you’re up for the Women’s Prize. In terms of the literary world, do you think that there remains a difference in the treatment and reception of male and female authors?
EM: Personally I haven’t had a difficult time with that, because I think that the form I was writing in and modernism interests quite a lot of men [laughs], so I haven’t really had a difficult time in terms of that. But there is generally a very different attitude towards male and female writers in the media. When people say, “What’s the difference between a male and female writer?” the answer is, when was the last time a male writer had to sit with a woman, with a stupid looking face on her, saying, “Oh, I don’t read male writers”? That’s the difference between male and female writers. It’s not what we do.
LS: Which female writers do you find influential?
EM: When I was writing A Girl, a big influence on me was Sarah Kane, the playwright. She killed herself in 1999. She wrote five or six plays and they were considered incredibly shocking at the time and she was very confrontational. She was ferocious and uncompromising. Very early on in the writing of Girl, I saw a production of Crave, and it just opened my mind to the idea of writing with that kind of ferocity and brutality, and not shying away from that; feeling that it was something that a woman could do, that a woman could write in that way, and that it was not just the area for men to write nasty things about women; that women also own this kind of rage and can express that, and should express that. That was a very big influence on me. Still today, I think of her work as a really important milestone in female writing, and in writing in general.
LS: All the characters in A Girl, both female and male, seem to face some kind of corruption or be generally quite unhappy. Is there any root cause for all of the violence and the cruelty that occurs in their lives?
EM: I think it being such a closed society was a cause of a lot of evil in Ireland, and having such a regimented social structure and sexual structure caused a lot of harm to people. Certainly for women: having this very Victorian attitude towards them, that they were to be wives and homemakers; if their husband beat them they had to accept it; if their husband left them they were at fault; that they were outcast from society if it happened; that they were forced to have child after child, with no recourse to contraception, with no recourse to abortion, with no recourse to divorce, with the law ignoring their existence or their importance. I think that not only poisoned the lives of Irish women, it poisoned the lives of Irish men too—because you can’t live in a society where one half of the population is rampantly discriminated against, and that not have a detrimental effect on everyone in that society.
“I think that most women understand the idea of women being treated as ‘things’. Women are treated as ‘things’ on page three of The Sun newspaper every single day, which is the ‘tits out’ newspaper over here! The fact that it is considered completely normal and reasonable, and that it should be sitting on a shelf within eye range of my two-year-old daughter when I push her in her pram, is an outrage. That is what the ‘thing’ is.”
LS: What are your views on Pope Francis and the sort of ‘modern Catholicism’ that some claim he represents?
EM: Obviously his stance on poverty is very important, and that is the best that the Catholic Church has to offer. But continuing these ridiculous sexual teachings and interference in people’s personal and private lives will continue to be detrimental. I try not to get too involved in thinking about the doings of the Catholic Church any more, because it is an irrelevance, and the best it can do is to be a charitable organisation helping people, and it really should be ignored in every other way. For those who continue to pursue a relationship with it, I don’t think it will have any benefit to their lives. It will have the same benefit that it always had—it’s a comfort in bad times, and it’s an excuse not to take responsibility for your own life.
LS: How did you intend the title to frame the novel? Whose ‘voice’ is it?
EM: It’s the author’s voice. It’s me. It’s a description of what you will find inside the book!
LS: Does your use of the word ‘thing’ carry any particular significance?
EM: Yeah. I think that most women understand the idea of women being treated as ‘things’. Women are treated as ‘things’ on page three of The Sun newspaper every single day, which is the ‘tits out’ newspaper over here! The fact that it is considered completely normal and reasonable, and that it should be sitting on a shelf within eye range of my two-year-old daughter when I push her in her pram, is an outrage. That is what the ‘thing’ is.
LS: What do you think we can do to make a positive change from that?
EM: With those kinds of things, with media and the newspapers, unfortunately it seems to have to reach a critical mass before anything gets done about it, but it does happen! And a lot of those really horrible lads’ mags that started up in the nineties have disappeared now, or have cleaned up their act quite a lot. I think that on an individual basis, it is just about pulling people up. When things happen, when things are said, instead of just swallowing it, or thinking ‘leave it’, it is about taking it on, piece-by-piece and step-by-step. It’s also about the way we rear our children, and the kinds of people we expect them to be.
LS: To what extent do you think expectations can affect women negatively? The mother in A Girl seems to carry a lot of guilt.
EM: Certainly for women at that point in Ireland, nothing they could do was enough. Nothing that they could do could be right, either. They were trapped in a very particular cycle of self-loathing, and really the only way for a woman to have any control over the situation was to set herself up as some kind of pious overlord through which to torment other people who were not making the standard. So I think expectation for the mother’s generation was a big problem.
LS: Do you envisage yourself branching out into other formats?
EM: The short story thing is interesting, but I find it rather hard and not particularly satisfying. But I would be interested in maybe writing for the theatre, but again, probably not in a sort of straight play format. I would be interested to see if there was something new that can be done there.
LS: Do you think that it’s possible for the qualities you capture in your writing to be translated to television, or any other type of popular media?
EM: My hunch is that yes, of course it is, but someone has to understand how to do that. I’ve had a bit of interest for film rights for A Girl, and I’m quite interested when they talk about what they would do, and what their approach would be, because it’s one thing to just break it down and tell a story, but I’m interested to see if someone can translate the ‘doing’ experience so it’s similar to the reading experience.
LS: Do you see yourself working on a potential film project any time soon?
EM: Oh, that would be quite far down the road at the moment, I think. I’m really focused on the second novel, that’s what I need to get done next. But after that, maybe, who knows!
LS: How does autobiography inform your work?
EM: Obviously I had a brother who died in a similar way, and that became part of the story. It informed it initially in that I was really determined with myself that it was not something that I would ever write about and that I would not want to do that. And in the way those things do, it became the one thing that I couldn’t not write about, I just had to write about it. But it’s a novel… I had three brothers, and I grew up in a very different way and I had a very different relationship with my mother, but I think having a cornerstone of something autobiographical that you then leap off from seems to work quite well for me. But then it’s important to go as far away from your own life as you can.
LS: Did you find that the process of writing shed any light on the past?
EM: I don’t know. People often ask me if I found it a cathartic process, and I don’t think that I did. For me the parts in the book that are autobiographical are quite close to me. There was something quite nice about placing them in time, and putting them somewhere where they would always be, and it’s not important to me that people know what they are or not—that’s not really the point—but it made me break the order.