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Eimear McBride interview: 'God save us from novelists who want to create role models'

McBride’s radical debut novel, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, is racking up awards and deserved acclaim

Photograph: Jemma Mickleburgh

Eimear McBride spent nine years trying to publish her first book, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing. Finally, a small British press accepted the challenging novel, and the Irish novelist went on to win (count ’em): the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, the Desmond Elliott Prize, the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award and the Goldsmiths Prize. Just released in the U.S. from Coffee House Press, McBride’s linguistically innovative novel reveals the influence of fellow Irish writers James Joyce and Edna O’Brien; the author uses a fragmented, stream-of-conscious voice to construct a jolting story about family, sexuality and the life of the titular girl—one of the most vividly sympathetic characters in recent literature. I caught up with McBride to discuss the long road to publication, writing tips for young authors and New York’s best sandwiches.

First, can you tell me a bit about the origin of the book? Did it start with a voice, the story idea, a particular scene?
I originally sat down to work on a very different idea, but after two to three weeks of fruitless hammering away, I hit on the first words of Girl and knew that, whatever it was, this was the start of something completely different. So both the voice and story came out of the language, and I just followed where it led.

Can you tell me a bit about your life as a writer, how and when you felt drawn to this creative endeavor? What did you write before this novel?
I had been writing fairly consistently ever since I was a child and always thought I would, but after finishing secondary school I trained as an actress. However, during a period of time spent in Russia in 2000, I realized that writing would have to take precedence. When I returned to the UK, I began to get up to write at 5am every day before heading out to my various rent-paying temp jobs. All of that writing, though, was just practice, a way of learning the discipline required to write and not of any particular value in itself. In 2003 I started work on Girl, and it was the first piece of work I ever completed.

It took nine years to find a publisher for the book. What has the experience been like, returning to the story after having written it almost a decade ago?

Well, it was a very long nine years and not an experience I recommend! When I finally returned to the book before publication, I had so thoroughly forgotten the details that I read an early draft thinking it was a later one and felt rather dispirited by what I found. Luckily I realized this soon afterward and read the proper draft, which cheered me up again. But it’s very odd to return to your writing, which, despite being fiction, is inevitably personal to you, and yet it feels as though the version of yourself that wrote it belongs so utterly to your past.

Was it difficult to get into the narrator’s mindset or, more so, to escape it? She must have been very consuming.
I didn’t find it difficult to enter the Girl’s mindset. It was a blessed relief to write a female character who was released from the traditional models of the fictional female—and God save us from novelists who want to create role models, especially in those molds. Extracting myself from her was much harder work, but I knew I had reached the end of the novel when I eventually could.

I recently spoke with Marilynne Robinson, who has revisited the same set of characters for the third time in her new novel, Lila. She’s stated elsewhere that she misses her characters after finishing a story. Do you miss these characters? Can you imagine returning to this story from a different angle in the future?
No, for me those characters have lived out their entire narrative arc, and their stories, very definitely, end where they do. Some of the themes of the novel remain interesting to me, but I couldn’t imagine looking at them from the same perspective again.

The narrator calls herself a sinner: “Let sin to sinner return.” Do you think she is? Or is that a too narrowly focused view of morality?
Part of the reason behind writing the book the way I did was to remove the author’s opinion, to show the story rather than tell it in order that the reader be left to make up their own mind about what they had read. But I certainly think that the girl thinks she’s a sinner and that her brother is an innocent. This belief about herself is an inevitable consequence of the society she grows up in and what its opinion of women is—especially women whose sexuality does not conform to traditional notions of morality.

Do you think stories of particular emotional destruction and hardship necessitate a rejection of the formal constraints of language and punctuation, relying more on sound and impressionism? Could this story be told differently, in a more matter-of-fact manner, and still express the same pain?
I don’t think this is the only way to write about trauma, but I was interested in exploring whether or not the reader’s understanding of those experiences could be deepened by trying to go around traditional methods of storytelling and literary expression. By seeking to make the language itself complicit in the experience of the girl’s story, I wanted the reader to recognize it almost on the inside of themselves rather than through an intellectual process of assimilation. I don’t know if the story could be told through straighter language and have the same impact. I suppose that would depend on who was doing the writing!

Are you surprised by the book’s tremendous success? What would you say to a young writer in a similar position, with a book they believe in but can’t seem to sell?
After nine years staring down the barrel of failure, I am extremely surprised by this turn of events! But what I’d say to a young writer facing the same thing is: Be sure you have written the best book you can. Knowing that will help you to live with whatever responses come after, almost none of which you will have any control over.

The novel has actually already been adapted for the stage. Are there any plans, of which you can speak, to bring the play to the U.S.?
The book was adapted for the stage and directed by Annie Ryan from the Corn Exchange in Dublin. It’s a one-woman show, and she cast an outstanding Irish actress, Aoife Duffin, as the girl. The show was the hit of the Dublin Theatre Festival this year, and I was very impressed by what they had done. There has been a great deal of interest in international bookings, and I very much hope it will travel to the U.S. next year.

Are there any writers or books you’re particularly excited about right now?
I found Mira Corpora by Jeff Jackson pretty impressive, and From the Mouth of the Whale by the Icelandic writer Sjon is a current obsession.

Do you have any fun plans for your time in New York during the book tour?
New York is so full of everything, but it’s also a really interesting city to just walk around, so I’m hoping to have time to do a bit of that and possibly eat some good sandwiches—I seem to remember New York being very good at sandwiches!

What are you working on now?
I’ve been working on my second novel for a number of years. I’d hoped to be finished this year but Girl finally got published and ruined my schedule. I’ll be sitting down properly again from January though, and I plan to get it finished in the summer.