"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.
©HOLBURNE MUSEUM. THE FITZWILLIAM MUSEUM, CAMBRIDGE.
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A sketchy legacy? How Pieter's sons kept Brand Bruegel going

For all his business acumen, Pieter the Younger was no original and his skill was weedy compared to the robustness of his father’s.

One of the many complications that make the Bruegels the most confusing clan in art is the letter H. Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the founder of the dynasty and its greatest artist, was the painter of such celebrated works as The Hunters in the Snow (1565) and The Tower of Babel (1563). Contrary to the elegance and elevating tenets of the Italian Renaissance, he made the peasant life of the Low Countries his subject, in all its scatological, rambunctious and therefore human detail. In 1559 he dropped the H in his surname and started signing in Roman capital letters – Brueghel becoming the rather more stately Bruegel.

Bruegel had two sons, Pieter and Jan, aged four and one at the time of his death in 1569. Both became painters, too, and as their careers took off Pieter the Younger reinstated the H his father had discarded (though in later life, to add to the disorder, he reversed the order of the U and E) and it remained the moniker of the innumerable painting Brueghels who followed. Rather more confusing than this alphabet jiggery-pokery, though, is the sheer number of painters in the dynasty – some 15 blood relations over the course of 150 years, before a plethora of apprentices, collaborators and intermarriages is factored in.

It is partly to unknot this family tree that the Holburne Museum is running “Bruegel: Defining a Dynasty”, a small but choice exhibition of about thirty pictures that show the distinctiveness of the leading family members. What makes the ­early-generation Bruegels worth looking at in detail is that each was significant in a different way.

The geographer Abraham Ortelius wrote of Pieter the Elder: “That he was the most perfect painter of his age, no one – unless jealous, envious or ignorant of his art – could ever deny.” For all the earthiness of his peasant subjects and their rural pastimes, he was collected by the richest of Antwerp’s merchants, by the Spanish governor general of the Netherlands, Archduke Ernst, and by the Holy Roman emperor himself, Rudolf II in Prague. His patrons recognised that he was no mere Hieronymus Bosch derivative but a highly innovative artist (candlelit interiors, snow scenes, landscapes) whose depictions of human folly mixed the comedic with the serious, but nevertheless contained the belief that wisdom and virtue were the means for redemption.

When Bruegel died, his two sons were trained in painting by their maternal grandmother, Mayken Verhulst, an accomplished miniaturist in her own right, and came of age at a time of Bruegel mania, when there just weren’t enough of their father’s pictures left to go round. There are only three Bruegel the Elders in the whole of Britain, and the National Gallery has lent its Adoration of the Kings (1564) to the show, the first time in a century it has left Trafalgar Square.

Pieter the Younger set out to milk the market and painted large quantities of copies of his father’s most popular works by using the original preparatory cartoons – scale drawings with holes pricked around the figures, which, when dusted with charcoal, would transfer the outlines to a panel beneath. The resulting pictures were very saleable Bruegels by Brueghel: he painted 45 versions of his father’s Winter Landscape with a Bird Trap, 25 of The Peasant Lawyer, and 31 of the 100 existing versions of the riotous Wedding Dance in the Open Air. There’s a lot of Pieter the Younger about.

For all his business acumen, Pieter the Younger was no original and his skill was weedy compared to the robustness of his father’s. It was the second son, Jan “Velvet” Brueghel, who was an artistic pioneer. Nature was his topic and although he, too, repurposed his father’s peasant scenes in his work, as in A Flemish Fair (1600), he shrank the goings-on to make them merely an incident within a diaphanous landscape, rather than the main subject.

Jan painted works of great refinement in oil on copper rather than wood, and also developed the genre of pictures of vases of flowers of kaleidoscopic colour that then became such a popular strand of 17th-century Dutch art. He also frequently worked with collaborators, usually figure painters such as Rubens (who was godfather to at least one of his children), realising that a joint Brueghel-Rubens painting was worth more than one by himself alone.

To add to the mix, one of Jan’s daughters, Anna, married the Golden Age genre painter David Teniers, while another, Paschasia, married into the van Kessel family – their offspring becoming popular for their miniature paintings of insects and plants.

What emerges from this tangled genealogy is that though talent ran in the family, it did so unevenly: Pieter the Younger was a pretty competent painter, Jan a good one, but Pieter the Elder had a genius his descen­dants never got close to matching.

Runs until 4 June. More details: holburne.org

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 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times