INTERVIEW: Bernie McGill

The Portstewart playwright  turns novelist, with a debut novel The Butterfly Cabinet. Click play for an exclusive reading.

Bernie McGill is having a good year. Not only is her play The Haunting of Helena Blunden currently touring Northern Ireland with Big Telly theatre company but her first novel The Butterfly Cabinet, a quietly gothic historical novel about the death of a butterfly collector’s daughter, is to be published this August by Headline Review.

At the Belfast Waterfront after a performance of The Haunting of Helena Blunden, McGill, a cheerful (and why wouldn’t she be?) woman with a ready smile, still seems a little bemused by it all.

‘It just seemed to all happen at once,’ the Portstewart writer admits.

Success might have arrived that way, but like most artists McGill has been preparing the ground for a long time.

Before embarking on her career as an author she worked as a theatre manager and events co-ordinator, eventually dipping her toe into creative waters with a children’s play The Weather Watchers. Produced by Cahoots NI, The Weather Watchers was performed all over Ireland and it was on the set of that play that McGill met actress Helena Bereen who plays the ‘canny oul one’ in The Haunting of Helena Blunden.

McGill is comfortable with the theatre. She talks confidently of the process of writing The Haunting of Helena Blunden and of  the value in utilising actors’ workshops and the input of dramaturg Hanna Slättne from Tinderbox to polish and revise the script.

Prose writing is different. The Butterfly Cabinet isn’t just her first published novel, it's the first novel she has written.

‘I’ve been involved with writers groups for years, but mostly with short stories and drama. Not poetry,' she explains. ‘I can’t do poetry.’

McGill credits an Arts Council of Northern Ireland funded creative writing mentoring programme with giving her the confidence to write The Butterfly Cabinet.

‘I was originally working on a collection of short stories, and The Butterfly Cabinet was just one of them. But all the stories kept linking back to it. Eventually Damian Gorman [her mentor] sat me down and told me that he thought it was trying to be a novel. The idea was terrifying.’

McGill was daunted by the commitment of a novel length piece of fiction, but Gorman convinced her to try.

'He got me to take my writing seriously. That was one of the best things about the mentoring programme for me. There are so many wonderful writers out there who never do.'

Even with Gorman's encouragement, however, after the six week mentoring process ended McGill was afraid that she’d never finish writing the novel without some sort of external goad, so she sent the first three chapters off to an agent.

Collective wisdom on the subject of submitting work to agents might gasp and clutch its pearls, but for McGill the gamble paid off. An agent liked the three chapters enough to tell McGill to send her the full manuscript when she finished it. And for McGill knowing that someone was interested in her novel was enough to keep her writing.

Originally called The Lepidopterist before being renamed the more user-friendly The Butterfly Cabinet the novel is an account of the death of Charlotte Ormond, the four-year-old only daughter of a big Irish estate, and its repercussions.

The dead child's mother, Harriet Osmond, is the owner of the eponymous butterfly cabinet, an aloof Englishwoman with a passion for collecting butterflies who is an easy target for the local communities condemnation. The story is recounted by Maddie McGlade, a servant in the house at the time of Charlotte's death, to a young woman who used to be one of her charges. Her account is supported, contradicted and expanded by Harriet Osmond's diaries, texts that McGlade has kept hidden away for years.

'Sometimes I think I hear her, her light foot on the stairs, feel the breath of her passing my ear. I think she might want something from me. I think she might want what all ghosts want: to hear the truth about what happened told.'

McGill admits that a lot of people find the book's subject matter disturbing - the butterfly collecting, not the dead child - but that is why it captured her.

'It creeps everyone out, because there is so much symbolism to do with butterflies,' she says, waving her hands to illustrate her words. 'One legend says that a white butterfly is the soul of a child, so you should never harm one. And then there is this woman, pinning them down in a cabinet ...'

It took McGill two years to finish the novel, but she recently received the final proofs from the publisher in the mail.

‘It’s very exciting,’ she smiles. ‘It looks like a real thing!’

Tammy Moore