Writer Eimear McBride previews her appearance at Peggy's Skylight

Words: Kate Hewett
Thursday 05 March 2020
reading time: min, words

Ahead of her appearance at Peggy's Skylight on Tuesday 17 March, we talk to writer Eimear McBride about the highly-anticipated event - which is part of a series of literary events organised by Jon McGregor of the University of Nottingham -  during which she will be appearing in conversation alongside Ruby Cowling...


Eimear McBride is one of the most innovative and exciting writers currently working. With three novels and a string of awards under her belt, the Irish writer, who spent three years studying at the Drama Centre in London, will be making a rare visit to Nottingham later this month in the second in a series of events presented by The Letters Page, the University of Nottingham's literary journal in letters, hosted by Jon McGregor...

Your three novels, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, The Lesser Bohemians, and Strange Hotel are all written in an experimental style, with their stylistic roots in 1920’s Modernism. How much did your theatrical training have an effect on your writing style?
When I first started to write I had a different background that I brought to the writing process, rather than a traditional English Literature or Creative Writing degree. I’m primarily interested in character, it has been useful to use the Stanislavski method that I learned while at Drama School. I was taught to try and recreate the inner world of the character and to really embody their physical life. This became about making language do those things rather than the body. Also, I am naturally inclined to experimental writing and I think Modernism is a really useful tool for women to write about the experience of the body.

What is your writing process like?
I worried a little bit less about the writing process this time than I had done in the past. With my first book and like any debut novelist, I didn’t really know what I was doing and it was a matter of feeling my way along. I wrote the book quickly but it took a very long time to get published. The second book, however, took a very long time to write. I was writing about much younger protagonists in the first two books. I was interested in trying to break down the different language barriers and give the readers a deeper insight into the inner workings of those younger characters.

When I came to write the third book, I was writing about a middle-aged woman for a change which was interesting and timely since I am a middle-aged woman myself. I was more aware of how much more protective of ourselves we are, as we get older and how less willing we are to allow people in. Also, I thought about how language might work in a different way when writing this new character than it did before.

Did you draw from experience or from observation to write Strange Hotels?
In the last six years since I’ve been published, I’ve been to a lot of hotels on book tours and at the beginning that’s quite exciting, glamourous. Over time this becomes a lot more tedious and it feels like you spend a lot of time waiting in hotels. I suppose I thought a lot about those places and how they felt like time out of ordinary life. I wondered if I could make something useful out of this dead time - this was the beginning of writing Strange Hotel. I’ve stayed in all the hotels listed in the book. The particular rooms where the story happens, outside of the long lists, I have a particular association with those places and the atmosphere of those cities.”

The themes of isolation and restlessness came through as very striking in Strange Hotel...
I think that’s right although those themes are not what I set out to write about. I’m interested in how we think about ourselves. How we try not to think about ourselves and how we deal with memory and escape memory and the past. We don’t spend all our time going through the past, we spend a lot of time hiding from the past as well.

At the start, I began to write and I realised early on that the character was jaded and wasn’t excited or impressed to be in this hotel room. This naturally leads to her being older. The hotel rooms were places she had been before and these places were not new to her.

The publishing industry is notoriously difficult, especially for new writers. Is it true that The Girl is a Half-Formed Thing took years to be published after it was written?
I had put six years of work into the second work before the first was published. It was slightly odd because I was not thinking about the first one. I was really involved imaginatively with The Lesser Bohemians so it was odd to go out into the world and talk about a book I hadn’t thought about in a long time. This time, with Strange Hotel, is the first time I’ve started from the beginning. I’ve found once you have a book that is successful everything gets easier in terms of publishing.

You've been awarded the Goldsmith Prize, the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and Irish Novel of the Year. How important are the awards to you?
It was a useful thing, my first book is often described as being very difficult to read. I think the fact it won a lot of prizes, gave it access to a readership that it probably wouldn’t have had otherwise so that was important. I don’t think it was important to the writing process, or for the writing of the next book or the book after that. But of course, it gives you a readership and that is what you want when you write a book, you want people to read it. I won the prizes when I needed to win them. Which was with the first book and anything else that might come after that would be a cherry on top.

Are you working on anything new?
I’ve been working on doing an adaptation of The Lesser Bohemians for the last two years and that has been a big departure, one I hadn’t thought about before. It’s very interesting, it’s different, it's much less private than writing a novel. When you write a novel, you write it and then send it to the editor. You are able to make all the decisions, it’s the perfect control freak form. When you’re working on a script you have to show it to people and when you’re new to that form they have pointers, notes, they can see how things might work that you cannot see. However, actually I really like it. The process has elements of what I liked about the theatre. It’s nice to be around people for a change.

The Letters Page presents: Eimear McBride and Ruby Cowling takes place from 8pm, Tuesday 17 March at Peggy's Skylight.

For more information and tickets, visit the event page

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