#Open journalism No news is bad news

Your contributions will help us continue to deliver the stories that are important to you

Support The Journal
Dublin: 11°C Tuesday 27 October 2020
Advertisement

Eimear McBride: 'The amount of 'she's not a genius, she's a very naughty girl' I've got is just ridiculous'

The critically-acclaimed Irish author speaks to us about her new novel Strange Hotel.

Image: JMA Photography

EIMEAR MCBRIDE’S DEBUT novel A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing arrived in 2013 as a fully-formed, special thing. The story of the coming-of-age journey of a young Irish woman is so uncompromising that it had Anne Enright pausing a third of the way through to tell her husband that McBride was a genius.

McBride’s vision with her debut was forthright. In the spirit of modernism it was about writing in a way that felt true, and real, but wasn’t bound to conventional rules around prose. That meant the narrator didn’t ‘speak’ to us in the full sentences that we’re used to. Instead, we were in her mind with her, watching as her thoughts – often heavy and troubling – unspooled.

To read it was to feel the hot sweat of a fever-dream prick your skin. It wasn’t comfortable, but that was the point. Life isn’t supposed to be slipped on easily like a soft suit. The vitality to the book came from its rawness.

McBride currently lives in London, where she and her husband and child moved after some years in Norwich (it was the Norwich-based Galley Beggar Press that published her first novel). She was born in Liverpool to Irish parents, and the family moved back to Ireland when she was three. She spent the bulk of her childhood in the west.

Words and language

Those who expect McBride’s third book to carry on in a similar vein to her debut, or to be chock-full of sex scenes like her second novel, 2016′s The Lesser Bohemians, will be surprised by what awaits them.

Strange Hotel isn’t McBride deciding to throw the modernist anti-rule book out the window, but it does feature her most straightforward prose yet. That’s for a very specific reason, as she tells TheJournal.ie.

The more formal language to Strange Hotel has “the reader slipping in mid-thought process and getting to see what [the protagonist] is thinking about.”

As she puts it, we “don’t tell our story every time we have a thought or a memory, we don’t go through the whole thing right from the start again and work out why we feel this way about something – we go in and out and we stop thinking about things, or we distract ourselves from things”

McBride laughs at how her newer more formal prose might be viewed by others, calling it  “ironic because of all the complaints about the [previous] two books, that they were too difficult to read”.

The irony, too, lies in how the more straightforward prose is being used to highlight a problem in communication.

“I thought OK, now I’ll use completely grammatical language: linear sentences, sub-clauses, all the punctuation in the right place and that’s supposed to facilitate communication. But actually true communication can really obfuscate and really push people away, keep them at a distance. And that’s what [the narrator is] doing to herself with her very long, normal sentences.”

Aha. You think you have the measure of what she’s doing, and McBride pulls the rug from under you – and you enjoy it.

“There’s a line in the book which is something like ‘it’s all to keep the world at the end of a very long sentence’, and I think that’s the key for the way the language is, that it’s about keeping people away.”

baileys-womens-prize-for-fiction-awards-london Eimear McBride in 2014, when she won the Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction award for A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. Source: Lexie Appleby/Geisler-Fotopress

An accidental novel

Her first two books had long gestation periods before landing on shelves – famously, her debut took nine years before it was published by an indie bookseller, and then went on to win major awards. Her second took nine years to write. But Strange Hotel was written over a period of a few months, almost unintentionally.

She describes the book as a surprise. She was working on a screenplay for the Lesser Bohemians, and also had a fellowship to work with Samuel Beckett’s archive, “and I just thought, well, that’s my year.”

But in the gaps between work, pen began to meet the page: “I didn’t even really think it was a novel, I thought it was going to be a short story.” She wrote it over the course of a year but says it was about three months’ work in all.

“It was a very, very short process. So much so that I just thought, ‘oh that’s weird, I’ve accidentally written a novel’.”

She half-jokes that ”it just felt perhaps that I had not suffered enough to produce a third novel”, compared to what had gone before.

Strange Hotel began with a mental image of a middle-aged woman in a hotel room.

“I was intrigued by what her attitude might be to it, and also how language might be different, work in a different way in middle age, and that was the beginning.”

Hotel rooms are weird, liminal places, so it makes sense to test what might happen when you place a character in one. “It’s sort of odd – it’s like you exist outside of your own life in those places,” she says. “I suppose in those places you’re thrown back on yourself so any kind of angst you might be suffering, anything that might be turning around in your mind is harder to escape in those places .”

The novel is about a woman alone, even when she is with others. A woman who is not interested in performing or putting on a mask.

“The idea of constantly being ‘on’, of having to give the performance, of having to judge yourself, of having to be inside yourself but also simultaneously view yourself from the outside, that’s a big part of women’s lives and a difficult thing,” says McBride. “And I was interested in that, in that she’s in a room on her own, she can do whatever she wants, and she’s still feeling she has to explain herself to someone who doesn’t even exist. And she knows that herself and she still can’t stop doing it.” 

In each of her novels, we meet female protagonists who are at a certain stage of life. “I am that age now myself, I’m in my forties, and I do think there’s not a lot of interesting complex writing about being a middle-aged woman,” says McBride of her Strange Hotel protagonist. “A lot of it is dealing with all the subjects that middle-aged women are supposed to be obsessed with, as opposed to things middle-aged women are interested in.”

She wanted to address that, but not by giving us a character whose CV we are presented with on page one. You don’t know her name, and you don’t even know why she’s in the various hotel rooms.

“I didn’t really want to write a certain kind of woman, that a certain kind of woman would recognise,” says McBride. “I wanted to write about the really internal, more universal experience of of getting older as a woman, and not a woman in opposition to society but something that is really about the inner.”

‘Sex is not important to her’

Sex features prominently in McBride’s novels, and she says that she “wanted to write about sex in a different way”, in order to “get inside this myth of: women, if they have casual sex it’s an act of self hatred”.

“Or that really underneath what women want is to be loved, and to love someone more importantly, and [the assumption that] this is really when it comes down to it, no matter what all these feminists say – that’s what women really want.”

The sex the protagonist has in Strange Hotel is not “something important to her, it’s just loneliness or boredom or to pass the time or whatever”. It’s made clear though that there is some risk involved for her, I suggest. 

“Yes, the risk is always there and nothing terrible happens to her in the book but it could, really, really easily,” says McBride. “And that’s always there for women in every aspect of [your] life, you come home late at night, you go out too early in the morning, in all kinds of social interactions, in all kinds of everything the risk is there.”

She says that sex is “an endlessly fascinating subject”, and also interesting is the reaction of others to her writing about sex. “I think with Lesser Bohemians it was very marked, the division – which was a lot of women were like ‘hooray, here is some interesting writing about sex for a change’, and there was a lot of men going ‘oh no, mummy make it stop. We don’t like this. This isn’t nice at all.’”

McBride describes the latter attitude as “quite bizarre and also just really very telling that a lot of male reviewers just couldn’t -  like really, really couldn’t – cope with the explicitness of it”. As she puts it, the sex in Lesser Bohemians wasn’t “decorative”, it was the story, “and that’s how you understood who the characters were, was through their sexual interaction”.

Fine for a woman

Conversation turns to how female and male writers are treated, particularly given the attitudes McBride has encountered with regard to her work.

“I think most women writers will say yeah, that they’ve had that experience, of being patronised, being told that their work, you know, was ‘it’s fine – for a woman’,” she says. “Even if that’s not said, it’s quite often implied, and I think you see that in the way that women’s books are reviewed, the female editors tend to choose much better reviewers to review women’s work and male editors tend to take entirely unsuitable people to review work, which is kind of interesting.”

“And you know I’ve seen it with other women’s work where clearly a reviewer has been chosen because they will go on the attack against her for daring to stick her head above the parapet,” she says. “It’s not just the reviews, it’s who’s doing the reviews, and that’s really problematic because there are not a lot of women in charge of making those choices, and when they are it’s really noticeable, the difference.”

And I think obviously editors know that and when they try to race out the first crappy reviews, that’s not something that’s happening by accident, that’s happening on purpose. This is all the politics of it and it’s frustrating and it is very much weighted against women but also this has nothing to do with writing, this is to do with publishing and a problem of publishing.

Does it feel like things are changing at all?

“I think they are. I think at an agonisingly slow pace and I think there’s a lot of cherry-picking and favouritism,” she says. “And that women are subjected to that. I think men are not in the same way, that they are given a kind of a base level of status, that’s their starting point. That women have to – even really good women – have to scrabble up in order to be treated with that same baseline level of respect.”

There are more women authors being published, she says, “but I think the reaction against them is also really strong”.

“I think there’s a lot of angry old men in the publishing industry and in the media who really, really object to having to take this foolish female business seriously. And they don’t really hide it and they don’t have to, and that’s a problem.”

There is “a lot of terrible writing” by men and “a lot of really despicable attitudes that they don’t get called on and questioned about that they’re just congratulated on, being anarchic geniuses”, she says.

“Whereas, you know, my god – the amount of ‘she’s not a genius, she’s a very naughty girl’ I’ve got is just ridiculous,” she says, mimicking the Monty Python quote.

When it comes to claims about a writer’s ‘genius’ (not that McBride necessarily is on board with the idea of ‘genius’ being meaningful or not), she sees a difference in how women and men writers view their own work.

“This is something that women, that we all have to think about, that [men] claim that immediately for themselves with complete confidence and often based on nothing and very little talent. But women who have achieved a lot still don’t feel like they can say that, that women are always supposed to be so surprised and grateful for their success,” she says.

“Rather than ‘yeah I worked hard and I wrote a good book and I earned it’. You are supposed to be ‘oh really, I can’t believe this happened to me, oh wow’. Whereas the amount of male moaning about ‘oh why wasn’t my amazing book an award-winning success reviewed everywhere’. It’s from very average, not very good writers, outraged at the way they’ve been treated.”

The book world has recently been preoccupied with the discussion around who gets to tell whose story in fiction – the female authors of the novels American Dirt and My Dark Vanessa have (for different reasons) found themselves at the centre of online storms. The former related to questions about cultural appropriation, while the latter led to a discussion about how much of their own lives women are expected the excavate for fiction.

“You always have to keep your eyes open with that sort of thing and where is it coming from and why. And it’s not that the cultural appropriation argument isn’t an argument worth having, but when women get kicked for it more than men do, that’s something else, there’s something additional going on there,” says McBride.

“I think generally with the way people talk about women’s rights you have to watch out for where the shame is.” Often the shaming comments involve “talking about the woman themselves in a context which is completely inappropriate to talk about”.

She’s noticed that in some of the reviews for Strange Hotel, people have been calling it “solipsistic”. “That’s a little one isn’t it,” she says. “It’s like ooh, women aren’t supposed to be solipsistic, they’re supposed to be thinking of others at all times, right? Oh, ok. No one calls Beckett solipsistic. And he’s far more interior than me over a very, very much longer time.”

Which brings us back to Anne Enright, who recently told us at TheJournal.ie that she found having to do the work of feminist activism in her writing a “trap”, saying: “Why do you have to fix the situation when you’re not causing the problem?”

Does McBride agree? She does. “I do object to [having to do] that. I want to just talk about ‘this is my book, and this is why I think it’s great and you should think it’s great because of this’,” she says, as our conversation draws to a close.

“But instead you can’t write a book about being a middle-aged woman without having to talk about all the clichés about being a middle-aged woman and then being a middle-aged woman in the publishing industry. It is all very time-consuming, it’s a waste of women’s time but we have to do it – all the time.”

A slight pause and then: “One day we’ll have revenge on them all.”

A joke.

Perhaps.

Strange Hotel, published by Faber and Faber, is out now.

Read next:

COMMENTS (1)

This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
write a comment

    Leave a commentcancel