"I suppose this is some kind of masterpiece": how a prize-winning novel was rejected by the publishing industry

An interview with Eimear McBride, winner of the £10,000 Goldsmiths prize for fiction, on rejection, childhood and religion.

This interview is an exclusive preview from the Winter 2013 issue of New Humanist magazine, which is published by the Rationalist Association and relaunches on Thursday 21 November, with a new editor, new design and new contributors. You can subscribe here.

Eimear McBride was born in 1976 and grew up in western Ireland. Her stream-of-consciousness debut novel, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing – about grief, sexuality and life growing up in a stifling religious household – won this year's inaugural Goldsmith's prize for fiction. It was reviewed for the New Humanist by Toby Lichtig last month.

Toby Lichtig: We know very little about you other than a brief line of blurb at the back of your book. Tell us about your early life.

Eimear McBride: When I was three we moved from Liverpool to rural Ireland, a tiny, terrible village. And then to Castlebar in County Mayo. By the time I was seventeen I had to get out of Ireland, so I escaped to London to a hardcore method acting school. Then I did a lot of crappy temping jobs before starting my novel.

Had you written much before then?

I'd been making notes for around two years. Then I got married and my husband [the arts festival director William Galinsky] got a gig in Japan. The plan was for me to take some time off to write when we returned. But just before we left, our house got broken into. My handbag was stolen along with all my notes.

You didn’t have anything backed up?

I didn't even have a computer! This was in 2004.

What did you do?

I spent about three days looking through the bins and hedges of Tottenham. I was devastated. But it was probably a good thing for me to start afresh.

Very sanguine.

It's true though. By the time we returned I had a real sense of urgency. I needed to finish it before I began temping again. I wrote the first draft in about two months.

That's impressive. And it's an urgency reflected in your prose. But that was nine years ago. So I'm guessing the process of getting published was less urgent.

Yes. After I'd finished two more drafts I sent it off to agents. And then the long journey of failure commenced.

Were there positive rejections – if there is such a thing?

By and large yes. Someone scrawled across one of the standard rejection letters "I suppose this is some kind of masterpiece." But no one felt able to take the risk. And that was it. Occasionally someone else would read it. But nothing.

So what was the bridge between nothing and success?

A few years later we moved to Norwich and I met Henry Layte of Galley Beggar Press. He loved it but said they had no money. And then, finally, they bought it. For £600. They bargained me down from £1,000!

Did you feel you'd moved on from it by then?

Yes. I hadn't even looked at it in seven years.

Were you pleased with what you found?

No! When I first went back, I read the wrong draft. And I thought this is terrible. And then I worked out that it was the wrong one and the real one wasn't as bad as all that.

Was it hard territory to revisit? Both then and originally. Your brother, like the brother in the book, died from a brain tumour.

Yes. I hadn't originally wanted to write about the brother-sister relationship, but the story just kept coming back to that point. Going through the proofs, over and again, was the hardest part.

Was it difficult to show to your family? The mother character is rather fierce.

Yes. None of them even knew what it was about until this year. Thankfully my mother really liked it. She appreciated the writing.

The novel is very critical of religion. Did you grow up in a religious household?

Oh yes. We were brought up stern Catholics. I had to go to mass every week, confession every second week. There were pilgrimages. We used to have to say the rosary at night. It was a real pain in the arse.

Did you always feel that way?

When I was a child I was very taken by the romance of it. Then my father died when I was eight and it was a useful thing to cope with that. The idea that I would see him again. But as I got older, I got bored and annoyed.

Was that difficult for your mother?

Yes, we argued a lot. Later she became disillusioned with the Irish Catholic Church. She's more interested now in faith than in organized religion.

You're fantastically funny about religious hypocrisy in Girl. But there's also a lot of anger.

I was a lot angrier when I wrote it than I am now. I felt strangled. Religion was supposed to help. And it never did.

Ireland has changed a lot in recent years. Once copies of Edna O'Brien were publicly burned. Now I hear stories of nuns queuing up to buy A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing in local bookshops. Are you surprised by this?

Well I don't know if any of the nuns have actually read it! But it's true, Ireland is completely different from when I was growing up. After I left, the boom happened and then no-one gave a shit about God any more. But I think many people from my generation identify with the childhood they see in the book.

Winner of the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize: Eimear McBride.
SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle