Irish writer Eimear McBride’s debut novel A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing was initially rejected by dozens of publishers for being too experimental. Since its publication earlier this year it has received rave reviews and been hailed as an ‘instant classic’. McBride’s book relates a girl’s life from birth to age twenty as she grapples with family trauma, grief and sex. It is related in the protagonist’s irregular, disjointed voice.
McBride spoke to KYD’s Veronica Sullivan about crafting her unique voice, female sexuality, and how it feels to revisit a novel eight years after writing it.
The staccato narrative voice in A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing feels both natural and artful. Although it is initially disorienting, the intricacy of its construction becomes progressively apparent. Where does this voice come from? Is it a voice you inhabit intuitively in your writing?
I think there are elements of both artifice and instinct with the voice. I’m very interested in modernism and Irish writers, particularly Joyce and Beckett, so I was drawn to the idea of stream of consciousness, but also I wanted to do something else. I felt that maybe there was an unexplored area which was really about taking the voice back before consciousness, to the point where reaction, thought and physical activity are all together, before they become formatted into correct language and spoken word and even into coherent thought. It’s really just about reaction in the beginning. The reader is coming in at the moment when the narrator is experiencing it, rather than the narrator processing it or having already processed it. So then the writing of that was really just sitting down and banging it out, and then reading it out loud to myself and trying to work all of those elements in together.
You say you ‘banged it out’. You wrote A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing very quickly, a long time ago – have your feelings about the book changed over time?
I wrote the initial three drafts in around six months. I did a rewrite in January this year in about six weeks, and it was very odd to look at it again. I hadn’t read it or looked at it in about eight years, I would say. To be honest, once I started working on my second novel I kind of forgot about it and didn’t really think about it, so reading it again was quite surprising.
There were a lot of things I’d completely forgotten about. Working on it again was interesting in terms of trying to decide whether to try to go back to the mindset in which I’d originally written it, or to allow in the various things I felt I’d discovered about language and writing since. It was a very odd experience to rewrite it again after so many years, but all of the themes and the whole form of the novel stayed exactly the same.
Is it strange to now be continually revisiting a work that you finished years ago?
It is very odd now when people ask me because I’d also forgotten about the construction. Someone asked me about how I’d written the wake scene. I went back and had a look at the earlier draft and discovered that the first draft was almost exactly the same as the published version. Some of it just came straight away, and some of it required more work. It’s difficult to remember now which bits those were.
Do you retain similarly modernist influences in the writing you’ve done since?
I’m still following that path. I’m not very interested in straight writing. There are plenty of people who can do that, and are doing that very well. I don’t think the world needs any more straight writers. My writing now is not the same, and the style is evolving. When I was writing A Girl I felt like I was backing against language and always trying to turn it on itself. Now I feel much more as though I’m going with it. So in that way it is quite a different experience.
Sexuality is powerfully present in the protagonist’s life and mind. It’s a dark and urgent force, which she both controls and is controlled by. How do you see the role of sexuality for your narrator, but also for young women generally?
It’s quite extreme in the book. In order to explore it I wanted to push it to that extreme. I would certainly say that it’s written from a feminist rather than a post-feminist position. This is not the sexuality of a girl who is liberated. She is completely trapped by it. She begins by exploring the boundaries, but it’s not so much about her own sexuality as it is about power. As the book goes on she becomes, in a way, destroyed by her sexuality. It is not really a sexuality that is connected to her herself, but to other ideas of control and addiction.
I think that is something that women still grapple with. We won our sexual freedom, but at the same time, how free are we? Her sexuality devours her because it’s not really something that is hers. It’s something that she has come to believe about herself, rather than something she has pushed out the boundaries of herself to find.
Join us on Twitter on Wednesday 18 December, 3:00pm-4:00pm, to discuss A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing as part of this month’s #kydbookclub.