Eimear McBride on A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing

'Publishers should stop patronising readers.' The new author on the remarkable success of her experimental debut novel

One of the most daringly experimental novels of the past year, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, tackles difficult themes of untimely death and sexual abuse in unique prose poetry. But Eimear McBride’s ascent to the heights of literary glory came unexpectedly, after ten long years of relentless rejections from publishers.

Born in Liverpool to a mother from Belfast and father from Ballycastle, McBride grew up in Tubbercurry and Mayo and first harboured dreams of becoming an actress. But, failing to find her niche, she turned to writing and it is literature’s profound gain that she began to devote herself to constructing experimental, hugely poetic, visceral sentences.

Her debut novel scooped a slew of glittering awards, from the Bailey’s Prize for Fiction to the inaugural Goldsmith’s Prize. Joycean in style, agrammatical and unblinking in its probing of dark themes – from the central female character’s experience of sexual abuse, to familial cruelty and the untimely death of the unnamed protagonist’s brother to cancer – the novel is challenging, difficult and unconventional in form.

Written in 2004, McBride’s novel was continually rejected by publishers until Norwich-based independent Galley Beggar Press chose to publish it a decade later. Like Hemingway and Hunter S Thompson before her, McBride kept many of the rejection slips and pondered whether she should simply accept what seemed an inevitable fate as a failed writer.

Now critics are hailing her as a genius capable of the kind of writing that leaves you reeling and rattled for weeks afterwards.

Appearing at the Ulster Hall's latest Literary Lunchtimes event, the lauded author – who now lives in Norwich with her husband and daughter – gave a reading and spoke exclusively with Culture NI about her work. Incisive and sharp, her conversation sparkles even while her themes are dark.

For McBride the unprecedented success of her debut is a triumph for less-watered down and accessible fiction, for high literary art after Joyce and Beckett, but with a gutsy feminine twist.

'There used to be a lot more writers who broke with form, who broke with traditional representation, but I think publishers have stamped that out because they don’t see it as marketable,' says McBride. 'They want to force literature into one form only and experimental styles of writing have been hugely discouraged.

'I think the fact that this book has done so well is proof that there is a readership for fiction of this kind and of course I hope that might encourage publishers to let more difficult fiction out there and to really stop patronising their readers. I think to suggest that readers are too stupid or lazy to understand work of this kind is really an abuse of the relationship between publisher and reader.'

The 36-year-old author wrote her first novel at white heat in just six months. The unique poetry and disjointed imagery of it all, the rhythmic, unrelenting pace of inventive metaphor and the frequency of engagement with deep emotion give the impression of a writer at the peak of her craft. And yet McBride almost gave up on writing.

'It was hard to keep going for all those years when publishers just said no and no. It really took it out of me. But I always believed in the book. I didn’t know that it was great but I knew that I couldn’t have written anything better. I knew that it was right and I knew it was true. I felt I would possibly have to accept that it was not a book that would ever reach bookshelves. I did a lot of temping for some of those years and I often felt like a failure.'

How much sweeter success must now seem. McBride credits reading Joyce’s Ulysses at age 25 with having a formative influence on the style of the work, but what is spectacular is how McBride has transmuted experimental form to make it truly her own; this is her voice and her voice alone.

'I see Joyce as the gatekeeper and the person who really pointed the way. He showed me, this is the way you need to go, there are themes and parts of life that have never been explored. He displayed that certain emotions or ideas are not best explored in conventional grammatical language, that a more experimental style does justice to this.

'Although I feel Joyce showed me the way, I certainly didn’t feel that he was looking over my shoulder when I was writing. If I had not been able to let go of and transcend influence then I wouldn’t have been able to cultivate my own style," she explains. 'This book was hard to write, intense, it didn’t leave much room for anything else.'

One brave aspect of the novel is the fearlessness with which it approaches the issue of sexual abuse. McBride never shies away from delineating the cruelty in human relationships, to look despair right between the eyes, and to try to understand the complex dynamic between abuser and victim.

'I wanted to be more open about the insidious nature of sexual abuse,' she comments. 'I think a lot of authors feel awkward about it. There are traditional ways of writing about it but I wanted to explore it in a different way and to be more open than is often comfortable.

'What I hope I have done is pare back all the veils. With the uncle – the predator in the novel – it was important not to make him into some kind of caricature monster, to show him as human, not in any way to vindicate, but to show how all of us are naturally a mix of good and bad.

'The unnamed girl is raped when she is 13 and then this event shapes how she feels about herself and so she begins to put herself in situations where she demands that people be cruel to her. This isn’t a book for everyone but it raises questions, and if I have dispensed with hope in places I felt that was essential to my art.'

Lovers of experimental fiction await her second novel with anticipation. Just don’t expect sugar-coated plotlines or abiding optimism, for Eimear McBride is so much more Beckett than Binchy, never afraid to walk through those dark nights of the soul.

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is out now, a co-publication between Faber & Faber and Galley Beggar Press. The next Literary Lunchtime takes place at the Ulster Hall, Belfast on February 25, featuring the poets Jean Bleakney, Paula Cunningham and Moyra Donaldson.