"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.
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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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