'Sex writing is like any other kind of writing; it’s got to be about character'

Novelist Eimear McBride

Novelist Eimear McBride.

Novelist Eimear McBride.

Perhaps I should start this interview with a disclaimer; despite our shared surname novelist Eimear McBride and I are entirely unrelated. Nor indeed, just for future reference, have I any connection to rugby great Willie John McBride, country star Big Tom McBride, or Brit-bashing ballad hero Arthur McBride.

Gentle readers of the Galway Advertiser; no nepotism was involved in the making of this article (but I do think Eimear McBride great! ). Indeed she is one of the hot tickets at this year’s Cúirt International Festival of Literature, on the back of her stylistically daring novels; A Girl is a Half Formed Thing and The Lesser Bohemians.

McBride was born in Liverpool to Irish parents in 1976; her father came from Ballycastle and her mother from Belfast. Both parents were psychiatric nurses and when Eimear was three the family moved back to Ireland. She grew up in Tubbercurry and Castlebar, the only girl amid three brothers. She was always an avid reader and fondly recalls literary excursions to Galway. “That was the great book buying opportunity of the year," she says. "My mother would drive down and we would go to Kennys and Easons and Sheelagh na Gig.”

At 17, Eimear moved to London to enrol in Drama Centre as a student actor. “I was ready for the big wide world and London didn’t disappoint in any way,” she asserts. “I think anyone who’s ever left a small town home for a big city will recognize that overwhelming feeling and enthusiasm for your new home, because you don’t know any of the pitfalls of life in a big city at that point. All you see is all the great stuff that you imagined would always be there.”

London is the pulsating setting for The Lesser Bohemians which immerses the reader in the intense relationship between student actor Eily and guilt-haunted older actor Stephen. The city is as strong a presence in the story as chief character Eily.

“That was the kicking off point for the whole novel actually,” Eimear declares. “I had just moved back to Ireland after living in London for a long time and I was quite homesick for it. I started to think about that London that I had known as a 17-year-old in 1994 and I started to write about it and the book emerged from that. So the London that is represented in The Lesser Bohemians is very much the London of my memory and I decided early on I wanted to give it that quality of excitement of when you are young, and you leave home, and you come to the big city, because it is such an extraordinary time in a young person’s life. To capture that I felt I needed to use my own memories of buildings and the city’s sights and smells.”

Eimear McBride seated

It was while at Drama Centre that McBride met her husband, theatre director William Galinsky who was then a fellow student. However she abandoned her budding acting career following the death of her brother Donagh from a brain tumour. Feeling adrift, she moved to St Petersburg for several months, a period which saw her rebirth as a committed writer.

“It was a very bleak time in my life, it was just a year after my brother had died, I had decided I didn’t want to act any more,” she recalls. “I was 22/23 and lost and I didn’t know what to do with myself but I had always wanted to go to Russia and so I went. It was a really important time for me; I immersed myself in the cultural life there. I had a student visa and I could go to theatre and concerts and ballet and I’d brought a big stack of Russian novels with me. It was where I decided to take writing seriously. I was very alone because I spoke just enough Russian to get by but it was the moment where I really found myself and when I came back I knew it was time to start writing seriously.”

It is often been told how it took nine years for her first novel A Girl is a Half Formed Thing to be published. After enduring numerous rejections, the book was accepted by the small Norwich outfit Gallery Beggar Press following a chance meeting in a bookshop. I ask Eimear whether during those lean years publishers were saying they would take the book if it was more stylistically orthodox or, were there people reassuring her that her writing was good.

“I didn’t really have either of those,” she replies. “People started to read Girl and I think a lot of them couldn’t get on with the style at all, before they even got as far as the content, so it was just a straight ‘No’ from that perspective. Then the people who did like it were the type who said ‘I like it but I can’t sell it’. So there wasn’t much encouragement to keep going, just my own stubbornness I suppose! I also at one point put it in a drawer and stopped sending it out and thought it just wasn’t going to get published and that I’d get on with writing The Lesser Bohemians. It was luck that got it published in the end.”

How did she feel when, in 2013, it was finally published and was greeted with rave reviews and rewards? “I mostly felt relief that I wasn’t going to be a bum anymore,” she laughs. “It was hard in my twenties and thirties being the mad person in the room who everyone thinks is deluding herself that she’s written a book but is actually not a writer and is wasting her time. So suddenly to have the book published and to have that vindication was a huge relief.”

Eimear McBride prize winning

In 2014, Corn Exchange Theatre Company did a much-praised stage version of Girl, adapted by Annie Ryan. McBride admits writing for theatre is something she might consider; “It is an area I would be interested in, if someone had an interesting idea and arrived at my door I would probably be quite easily tempted. It was lovely, when Corn Exchange were doing the adaptation, to be in a rehearsal room again. I felt a wave of nostalgia for that old life I had left behind so long ago. So I’d probably be up for that.”

Reviewers have remarked on the candour of McBride’s descriptions of sex in The Lesser Bohemians, a trait that was rare for many years in Irish literature. “There was obviously a lot of coyness in writing about sexual matters for lots of reasons,” she observes. “There were moral reasons, legal reasons, and also, in itself, it is a very hard thing to write about and to write about well, and I think a lot of writers feel anxious about really delving into it because of that awkward thing that hangs over it and the humiliation that would accompany getting it wrong.

"For me, the way that you deal with that agonising legacy is that you understand that sex writing isn’t different to any other kind of writing; it’s got to be about character. The whole point of writing explicitly about sex is that you want the reader to understand about these people from these scenes. That’s the difference and I think that with the sexual life becoming all the more automated these days through internet pornography, social media, and people being less physically present with each other, I think writing in a grown up explicit way but in a human way about sex is more important than ever.”

While both her novels to date have featured young women coming of age she reveals that her next work will be different; “Lesser Bohemians is the first book in a trilogy and the next book will be moving on from that perspective with the same characters. It’s not going to be a dramatic change but it will be a change – I’ve done enough with 18-year-old girls.”

Eimear McBride reads with Damon Galgut on Friday April 23 at 8.30pm in the Town Hall Theatre as part of the Cúirt International Festival of Literature. Tickets are available via 091 - 569777 or www.tht.ie

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