Language Before Thought: An Interview with Eimear McBride

Eimear McBride likes her characters unnamed. It’s hard to say whether her novels contain dialogue. Her scenes, sometimes, are written in plural. The repetition of an event—going to the pub for a pint, slipping into someone’s bed, or something much darker—establishes a pattern in order to be adequately ruptured. In beginning to read one of her novels, the reader undergoes an almost alchemic shift. At first, the choppy and inverted prose McBride has become known for feels acutely foreign. But after several pages, the instinctual rhythm McBride writes with kicks in and the reader enters an interiority of character that feels wonderfully singular.

McBride’s prose is bodily, meant to emulate experience from the inside out. Her writing flummoxes and thrills in a way that scared publishers for years, then captivated critics. As of now, the Irish born, stage-trained writer has written two novels, both received to serious acclaim. Her first novel, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, follows the interiority of a young girl in Ireland coming of age amidst a swamp of familial abuse and trauma. The novel contains no concrete details of place, time, or names. McBride wrote it in six months. Her second novel, The Lesser Bohemians, is told by an eighteen year old girl, Eily, who moves to London to study acting and falls into a torrential love affair with an older actor. The novel begins at a similarly abstract expression as her first book, and assembles itself into a more outward reaching, typically narrative shape as it moves forward. She wrote this novel over nine years.

Eimear McBride’s writing does not follow traditional narrative practices, logics, or solutions. The older actor character, Stephen, mid-way through The Lesser Bohemians, tells Eily that “there has to be a logic on stage that normal life doesn’t often have.” Books, too, hold a logic of their own, which Eimear McBride is invested in understanding, precisely to upend it.

Emma Cohen/Midinette: I wanted to begin by talking about a period of time when you went to Russia to write. This was after you finished drama school, but before you wrote A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. What kinds of things were you writing then?

Eimear McBride: Russia was really the beginning, because it was the moment I realized it was time to start taking writing seriously. Those months I spent in Russia were the moment I thought, okay, what are you going to do with your life? You don’t want to be an actor. That was the terrible trying to write about nothing phase. I think its a phase every writer goes through, an adolescent phase no matter what age you are. Where you think you can write the universal and not be attached to the world. A lot of the writing at that point was that, sketches, impressions. A lot of that was very conventional because this was before I had read Ulysses. I still had a very conventional attitude towards what form should be. There were no short stories, no proper book, god forbid any poems.

EC: Were you writing whatever came to you in order to establish a discipline of writing?

McBride: I thought that I was writing a novel, that I would write lots of things and magically that would form itself into a novel at the end of a lot of writing. Which of course it didn’t. So it’s in retrospect I would say that it was getting the muscles into working order. Like every young writer, I thought I was accidentally writing a masterpiece.

EC: Did you find that being in Russia had an influence on you? Does place or environment influence how you’re working?

McBride: I wrote A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing in London, and spent the first four years of writing The Lesser Bohemians writing about London while living in Ireland. In terms of Russia, what influenced me about that was immersing myself in the literary culture and the culture generally. I had always been very keen on Russian novelists and poetry. There was something about the seriousness with which literature was taken from people from all walks of life that I found really inspirational and unusual. The tourist industry in Ireland talks a lot about Ulysses, but I don’t think a whole lot of people have read Ulysses. But in Russia, I think a whole lot of people have read Dostoevsky.

EC: You’ve described your prose style as “presenting language before it becomes formatted thought,” and doing this through combining physical, emotional, and intellectual process into one expressive mode. I wonder if you find the attempt to do that overwhelming?

McBride: It is overwhelming, but that’s why I like it. I like a bit of suffering. I think writers should make themselves suffer more. For me, it’s about putting myself in a situation of being hyper aware of what all possibilities might be to all parts of the body and mind at once. It’s quite hard work but it’s quite exhilarating to do, and interesting and challenging to try to transfer that without it becoming completely solipsistic or sentimental. To do it purely, without allowing your ego to get in the way of it. That’s the challenge.

EC: In a talk she gives, the academic Avital Ronell says, “If we could communicate we wouldn’t need to communicate,” which reminds me of your prose style, that attempt at absolute communication. Do you see your style developing in other ways to reach towards that, or do you feel your style in the past two novels is as close as you can be?

McBride: If we talk about my style as an internal modernist monologue, I don’t know how interested I am in that now. I feel it did it’s work well in A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, and it progressed in The Lesser Bohemians from being internal to making connection in the world, and that changed it. I’m not interested in going backwards or doing what I’ve already done, I’m interested in evolving. In those books, Girl ends up with a girl being twenty years old, and Eily in Lesser is eighteen, and I’m forty-two. Those modes of expression are useful when talking about very young women, and I’m interested to see as a middle aged woman if there’s a different way.

EC: The physical and intellectual combination we spoke about with your prose style also happens so much in the main relationship in The Lesser Bohemians. The two main characters come to their intimacy through the body first. Both of them are actors as well, and I was wondering if coming to an emotional truth through the body first was something that you thought about during your time as an actor, in acting school?

McBride: I was seventeen, so I wasn’t really thinking about any of those things at that point. But when I came to write about Lesser I was thinking about that. So much of [the characters’] individual stories are about experiences of their bodies and I wanted to see how those experiences would interact off each other, which is why it was important to me to have the big age gap. Stephen [one main character] has already made a lot of choices in his life as a result of the experiences he’s had. Eily is at the beginning of that process and I wanted to see those things bounce off each other, see how they could interact.

EC: The central motivating force, or one of them, in Lesser is the romance between the two main characters. Were you thinking about how romance is portrayed in novels or in other forms of art?

McBride: What I was interested in was de-sentimentalizing the experience of two people falling in love. Making it ambiguous. We like to think of these things in very simplistic terms. But most of our experiences, especially sexual experiences, can be very ambiguous. How do we cope with the relationship when one of us fails to be the best person they can be? When one of us doesn’t behave well? Do we stop loving that person? If we don’t speak in a more truthful, more complex way, how do we learn how to improve problems within relationships?

EC: You’ve said while writing sex in your novels, particularly in Lesser, that you don’t want to write so much about the general act of sex, but to be able to get at a more emotional or sensory truth. How do you approach writing from that angle?

McBride: There’s such a lousy precedent for sex writing in literary history. Because there have been so many prohibitions on publishing writing about sex, it’s led to a real diminishment in the way we can think about it or write about it. The vocabulary available to us is really terrible, and that’s problematic because the minute you begin to write, well, if you’ve got to write “grinding” or “humping” or “thrusting.” Those images are so exhausted. How can they evoke any kind of response other then a groan from a reader? For me, the very first thing was to forbid myself use of any of the traditional sex vocabulary and to really force myself to think about it in a different way. In the same way that everything else about my writing happens, it’s about character. Once I realized that, the sex scenes had to be about learning about character, it became much easier to think about them. People bring their histories and expectations into the room with them. And when people leave each other, they are different because of that experience, whether they see each other again or not.

EC: It makes me think about how you’ve said that you didn’t do research to remember factual elements of the London, the Camden, of the time this novel takes place. It’s similar to this idea of writing the emotional truth around sex, and the emotional truth around a memory. How did you write setting, and how do you think about memory?

McBride: Thinking about Camden, it is a place that holds such a strong emotional pull in lots of directions [for me]. I included places there that have a certain feeling for me. I felt as if by including them I would be including their feeling, and that would build up a whole collage of that place and the emotion about that place. Filling in the emotion would give the reader a greater impression of being in that place and time.

EC: You’re very interested in Joyce. There’s a relation, I think, between the fragmentary nature of the time period he was writing in, where frameworks of meaning were really breaking down, and writers were responding to that, and our current era. There is such fragmentation occurring as a result of, for instance, the internet. Do you see your work as responsive at all to a fragmentary moment that’s occurring, and do you identify with modernism in your own body of work?

McBride: I do identify with modernism, and I certainly don’t identify with postmodernism. We are in an era where we have become trapped by postmodernism, and yet all the certainties that have allowed postmodernism to come about are breaking down. It really is the time to be making that connection with modernism again, a truthfulness and sincerity, which has for some reason become a dirty word. We have become so removed from ourselves and that’s been really exemplified by social media. We are so far from our own bodies. People are becoming more disgusted and disillusioned by social media, are turning away from it or trying to find new ways to use it. Modernism can make a connection with that, can be part of that argument.

EC: In The Lesser Bohemians, Eily dreams about the girl in A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. These two texts are in no way a series, and yet you chose to relate them to each other. It felt like a beautiful thing that literature can do in a very unique way.

McBride: There are a number of reasons I wanted that to happen. One is that Eily clearly comes from the same background as the girl, and we don’t know a lot about Eily’s upbringing, so that could have been her, in a way. There was a nod to the fact that she came out of that same place. But also, I wrote them both. They both share a lot of thematic concerns, but they’re not the same. A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is about the moment of violence, and someone being destroyed within that moment. And The Lesser Bohemians is about the life after trauma. How you pick up and where you go from that place. I wanted to put that on the surface, not pretend that that didn’t exist. There are big thematic overlaps. And I do feel that all my work is connected, and I don’t have a problem with that. They are connected, I wrote them all.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s