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How an unpublishable manuscript became an international bestseller

Eimear McBride accepts the Bailey Award for Fiction
Eimear McBride accepts the Bailey Award for Fiction
Stuart C. Wilson/Getty

Eimear McBride's debut novel, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, sat in a drawer for 10 years. With its lack of commas and difficult subject matter, publishing houses were unwilling to take a risk on it. But in 2013, a small British press published the book, and it rocketed to fame by winning the Bailey Prize for Fiction, an annual award given in honor of superior writing by a woman.

The novel tells the story of a young woman's relationship with her brother, who has a childhood brain tumor. McBride's book can be difficult to read, because she chooses not to use commas and other forms of guiding punctuation, such as quotation marks, in order to insert the reader into the mind of the main character. Because this modernist form is so drastically different from the clean, perfect sentences readers are used to seeing, it takes a few chapters to grasp what McBride is doing and really delve into the lives of the characters. But that patience is worthwhile. Not only is McBride's technique impressive in terms of literary quality, but it also transports the reader into the mind of the main character as she tackles everything from family violence to intense sexual trauma. It's a beautifully written book that carries a weight that feels particularly relevant to the events of the past few months.

I spoke with McBride about her experience as a writer and today's American release of her first novel. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Kelsey McKinney: What was your process writing this book?

Eimear McBride: Really, I was interested in trying to explore storytelling from a different angle and trying to give the reader a very different experience. I saw a lot of this when I would read [James] Joyce. I suppose, when I was writing this book, it was almost like trying to show a life through a character's vision instead of a straightforward side.

I spent ages trying to find where this book was going, and then one day, I just hit upon the first words, and I knew that was the beginning. After that, I had a better understanding of where I was going and made steady progress.

Kelsey McKinney: How do you maintain a steady narrator?

Eimear McBride: The purpose of the style was so that the reader would feel that they were inside the voice of the character. I wanted to get rid of the authorial voice and make it feel for the reader that everything that happened, happened between them and the narrator. I didn't really know what I was doing. I had never written a book before, and I didn't know if I could.

I decided to write 1000 words a day, and then I would go back, and I would cut it, and pick out the good sentences and then write 1000 words after that. I think because I was constantly rereading and editing, it was easier for me to maintain a constant voice.

Kelsey McKinney: Why did you decide to write the book in this style, without commas or cues for the reader?

Eimear McBride: For me, I thought, yeah, there's so much of life that cannot be expressed through normal perfect sentences. Sometimes, life is messy and complicated, and so the grammar needs to reflect that. It needs to be messy and complicated.

Kelsey McKinney: This book was rejected several times, right?

Eimear McBride: I finished the book in the summer of 2004, and straight-away got back rejections from publishers that said even though they admired it and thought it was adventurous, they didn't know how they could sell it. A couple of times, it went further and got vetoed by marketing departments. It was too different. Too modern.

After about five years of that, I put it in the drawer. Then, we knew some people who were starting an independent publishing house, and I sent them the book.  I didn't think anything would come of it, and I tried not to even get excited, but they came back and said they really liked it.

Kelsey McKinney: What did the book's success tell you about the publishing industry?

Eimear McBride: I think it says a lot about the publishing industry. More than my fears of failure, the reception of this book has taught me that there's nothing wrong with it. I understood that it was risky, and it was a challenge, but the publishing industry wasn't willing to give it a chance. The big publishing houses are very clear about what they can sell and what they can't. But it turns out that they were wrong.

I'm really happy for myself that the book sold well, but also that it's proved that there is a market for challenging books.

Kelsey McKinney: Did you ever expect that the book would do as well as it has?

Eimear McBride: No one did. Even the publishers were only going to publish 500 copies, and then after a good review, they pushed it to 1000. I was being published by a small, provincial indie press run out of someone's bookshop by people with no experience in publishing.

I just thought, my God, I don't have to say I'm an unpublished novelist anymore.

Then, it had a big review in the London Book Review, and then The Guardian reviewed it, and it kind of took off from that point on. I find that it took on a life of its own.

Kelsey McKinney: And then it won the Bailey Prize.

Eimear McBride: I was incredibly surprised. I think obviously everyone thought Donna Tartt was going to win [for her book The Goldfinch], and I thought Donna Tartt was going to win. It was really exciting, and I knew then that the book would probably have a much greater readership. From the women's prize, it felt particularly moving, because this book deals with so many problems that women experience. To have that backing meant a lot.

Kelsey McKinney: What is it like being a female writer?

Eimear McBride: It's difficult. I think in some ways I've had it a lot easier than a lot of other female writers. I think because I'm interested in modernism, which is most often seen as a boys' club.

But, you know, I think certainly to write about a female experience is very difficult, and particularly to write about female sexuality is difficult because there's a very narrow vocabulary available. It's hard to think about female promiscuity without readers resorting to the wrong idea. I noticed in the reviews that people referred to her as a slut which I found appalling and completely missing the point. I really don't want to pass any judgement on her one way or another.

Kelsey McKinney: What are your hopes for the American release?

Eimear McBride: I hope that it'll get some good reviews. Obviously, when the book has done this well, you expect a backlash, and I hope it's not in America. I'm really interested to hear what audiences think of it. I think in many ways, American audiences have it a lot easier with the language than UK audiences do. I think American audiences will have an easier way into the book.

Kelsey McKinney: What are you working on now?

Eimear McBride: A second novel that I feel like is going to take me nine years to write. I thought I would be finished with it this year, but now I think it will be next year. In some ways it's the inside-out of Half Girl. I'm trying to write a book about joy, which is very different.

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is available in the United States today.

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