"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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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser