A Girl is a Half-formed Thing was one of the most exciting breakthrough debut novels of recent years. Irish novelist Eimear McBride joins the Edinburgh International Book Festival to discuss The Lesser Bohemians, a memorable story of a young woman who arrives in London from Ireland in the 1990s, moving through innocence, discovery, joy and love.
“The second novel is an absolute bastard.”
“I really wanted to write a book about joy,” explains Eimear, laughing that she owed people some joy after her first book. With Girl she kept much of the outside world out – this book she felt very strongly that she wanted to look at the world around and how it impacted the characters.
She previously lived in London, but doesn’t any more – did the distance help her with writing it? If she had stayed in London, she doesn’t think this book would have been written. She’d probably be bitter about how hard it is to live in London.
Her debut was a staggering success – was following something so major difficult? “The second novel is an absolute bastard,” she notes. Girl took her six months to write, The Lesser Bohemians took her nine years; it is extremely hard – she had to think a lot more about characters and structure than her previous book.
The story follows a young woman who meets an older man – for Eimear, she was interested to create a big gap in age, to start with a stereotype but dig down into the humanity of that. It became more about them as characters, the idea of being not just a failure, but feeling that you’re a failed human being and trying to explore that feeling.
When it comes to writing what is essentially hidden, could that be more challenging? Well, it’s in fact the very bit she likes best, or as she eloquently says: “Stick in a knife, slit open the stomach and see what’s inside.”
“There’s nothing like a novel if you’re a control freak.”
Speaking of what’s inside stuff – sex is a prominent feature. It wasn’t something she intended, but she became interested in sex as a form of communication – how they change. Both the characters don’t know how to talk about what goes on inside them, and this can be their form of communicating.
“Every time I tried to cut out more shagging, it just kept coming back in,” Eimear says. She wanted to find the middle ground between the comets moving and it being dirty, but it’s very easy to slip into pornography as you write sex scenes. She tried to keep the internal experience going along with the physical, overlaying the two. It’s hard to write about because there’s such a narrow vocabulary; she immediately challenged herself by having a banned list, including ‘thrusting’ and ‘grinding’.
The event looks at the responsibility in writing or lack thereof, the removal of morals and judgements from a writer in their work, and the interesting language in which critics approached Girl and the implications of that. It’s basically an hour in which you realise (had you not already come to that conclusion) that you could listen to Eimear read from her book eternally, and if not that, then listen to her chat for that eternity instead. At the very least, you leave itching to pick up a copy. But in everything, it seems like the crafting of language is where Eimear enjoys herself most.
She writes, and what comes comes, then she tries to find the logic, work on all the details and dig into the language. “There’s nothing like a novel if you’re a control freak.”