Bernie McGill

‘The Cure for Too Much Feeling’ and the paradoxes of female experience.

Susanne Stich

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Bernie McGill’s short stories featured in two celebrated recent anthologies of women writers edited by Sinéad Gleeson, The Long Gaze Back (New Island Books, 2015) and The Glass Shore –Short Stories by Women Writers from the North of Ireland (New Island Books, 2016). Her story collection Sleepwalkers (Whittrick Press, 2013) was shortlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize, and, beside numerous other awards, she won the Zoetrope: All-Story Award in 2008. She is also a novelist and has written for theatre. Her acclaimed historical novel The Butterfly Cabinet (first published in 2010; re-published in 2016) is based on the mysterious events surrounding the death of a young girl in 1890s’ Portstewart, the Northern coastal town the author has lived in for many years. McGill’s new novel, The Watch House, set on Rathlin Island, will appear in August 2017 with Tinder Press. A short extract from this new work can be read as part of this edition of HU:

Susanne Stich: I first came across your writing when I read The Long Gaze Back, which includes the story ‘A Fuss’, one of my favourites in the anthology. Having read more of your work since, I’m struck by various recurring themes, many of them connected to the intricacies and entanglements of women’s lives. To set the table a little, perhaps we can start by looking at your roots in rural County Derry. In another interview with Eric Forbes you mentioned that you were introduced to Northern writers such as Seamus Heaney, Bernard MacLaverty and Brian Moore in secondary school, ‘people who wrote and spoke in our own voices about things that we recognised, knew about,’ and this made you feel ‘less alien’. You also have an MA in Irish literature from Queen’s University Belfast. Can you talk more about how Irish literature, and Northern literature especially, has shaped your writing over time?

Bernie McGill: The job of ‘writer’ wasn’t really one that would have been considered a career choice when I was growing up. When people asked what I wanted to do, I usually said ‘teacher’, sometimes ‘nurse’, and people would nod and say ‘very good’ and go on their way because, clearly, those were considered acceptable, even ambitious answers for a girl from my background at that time. I knew I was lying, though. If I’d been pushed on it, I might have answered ‘journalist’ since that was in the right area, but even that wouldn’t have been the whole truth. I always wanted to write fiction, but it took a long time to find a way to say that, and part of the reason for that was that I couldn’t see any evidence of anyone like me (Northern Irish, female, working-class) doing a job like that. Writers such as Heaney, MacLaverty and Moore had a big impact on me when I read them as a teenager. What would have made an even greater impact, would have been to have read the likes of Joan Lingard, Edna O’Brien, Jennifer Johnston, but contemporary Irish women’s voices in literature were seldom heard in the seventies and eighties, and no-one steered me towards them. When I went to Queen’s I encountered Janet McNeill, Elizabeth Bowen, Maria Edgeworth, Somerville & Ross, but they were few. I don’t want to keep on banging this drum, but I don’t think you can underestimate the importance for young and emerging writers of seeing themselves represented in the canon. When you’re not represented, the message that comes across is this: you’re not the right type; you’re not good enough; you have nothing to say worth hearing; no-one’s interested in what you have to write. Anthologies such as The Long Gaze Back and The Glass Shore and movements such as Women Aloud NI will, I hope, go some way towards redressing the balance.

It seems odd to say it now, but it wasn’t until after I’d left Queen’s that I discovered internationally acclaimed writers like Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker. I didn’t, of course, share a background with any of those writers, but they showed that women could write powerful contemporary literature about matters that readers could connect with, and do it with a skill and apparent ease that took my breath away when I first read them.

SS: As in much Irish writing, there is a strong sense of place in your work. Landscape and nature impact on both your storylines and descriptions, and you create a complex blend of history, reality and myth. In The Butterfly Cabinet the presence of the sea is reminiscent of Gothic storytelling at its finest as you explore its effect on your female characters’ psyches. In parallel, you consider the impact of the sea on the course of Irish history. In the short stories, your depiction of place and landscape is similarly layered. In ‘No Angel’, for instance, the female narrator’s memory of Belfast during the Troubles, where she used to live as a student, contrasts sharply with the rural area she hails from:

Eight girls on the landing in their pyjamas and then down to the kitchen to stand barefooted on the cracked, snail-slimed lino, warming our hands around cups of tea, listening for the sirens; second-hand drama. Not like a dark car in your own yard at night; not like a shotgun under the bed. (Sleepwalkers, 43)

In other stories, the North is scrutinised for its ambiguity and impenetrability. Here is an extract from ‘Islander’, where the young narrator, whose life is taking an unexpected turn, looks out from a train window:

The houses all have their backs to us; the entire population is facing the other way. I’m thinking that the people whose houses back on to railway lines don't travel by train and that if they did, they would remove the bottles from their windowsills, upright their overturned flower pots, clean up their back yards. They are exposing much more of their jumbled lives than they realise. (Sleepwalkers, 63)

In ‘A Fuss’ Rosa, who left the Northern countryside to work in Dublin, finds herself ‘travelling between the lights, a thing her father told her was dangerous to do. And she still has miles to go.’ (The Long Gaze Back, 229)

Even when your characters seek refuge in the Mediterranean, they are deeply connected to ‘Home’.  In the story of the same name, the narrator, who has come to the South of France in the wake of a tragedy, ‘imagines what it must be like to wake every day, for days on end, without the fear of rain. Nothing real could ever happen in such a place’ (Sleepwalkers, 10). In the title story ‘Sleepwalkers’ (which won the Zoetrope: All Story Award), during a summer break in Andalucia, a traumatised Irish family learn about survival as they reacquaint themselves with the elements, experiencing overwhelming heat, mosquitoes, and the soothing power of water.

Can you talk about the role of place (and home) in your writing?

BMcG: There are many things I find difficult about writing, but writing about place is not one of them. It’s a matter of being still and opening yourself to your surroundings, whatever they happen to be. When you do that – when you allow yourself to be present in a place and to look and to listen and to feel with real attention, stories begin themselves. It’s almost a form of meditation. What is difficult, I think, is to give ourselves permission to do it. We lead such busy lives, constantly bombarded with information: ‘read this’; ‘listen to this’; ‘watch this’. But to sit still – in a café, on a train, in a waiting room, on a bench outdoors, and really be alive to that environment, to the sights and sounds and tastes and smells and textures that surround you, is an invitation to let stories in. Often when I start to write in that way, a voice comes into my head and that voice is different from mine. That character has a personal history through which their response to that place is filtered. I don’t always start stories that way but I don’t think that method has ever failed me. I don’t want to give the impression that stories arrive fully-formed, that there’s no work involved. There’s lots of work involved: writing, re-writing, writing again, but that ‘tuning in’ to a place and a character is a big part of it for me.

The idea of home is very important, as is the idea of family. I have huge anxiety about the welfare of my family members and difficulty with the idea that I have no real control over their safety. A writer friend of mine says it’s one of the drawbacks of a creative mind – there’s no end to the three dimensional, technicolour dangers that you can envision awaiting your loved ones. The world feels increasingly dangerous, and home feels like a safe place to be.

SS: Let’s look at your female characters. In many cases their emotional selves do take them by surprise. Suppression of self, and the female experience as a source of conflict loom large. In some cases this makes for quiet and desperate lives where survival comes at a huge cost. ‘The Cure for Too Much Feeling’, for instance, introduces middle-aged Rita, who became pregnant as a teenager, left her family and gave the baby up for adoption. In her fifties, grief catches up with her, but when she chances upon the ‘casual intimacy’ of a mother-daughter relationship as depicted in an exhibition of paintings, she doesn’t give herself a chance to fully experience the healing that might be in store for her: ‘But Rita didn’t stay. She turned on her heel away from the painting and walked out the gallery door…’ (The Glass Shore, 324)

In The Butterfly Cabinet, Harriet Ormond, the mistress of a nineteenth century grand house, charged with the killing of her 4-year old daughter, illustrates the paradox at the core of much female experience in a fascinating plotline: the character’s prison sentence provides her with unexpected freedom of (self-) expression in the form of a secret diary.   

On a lighter note, the hilarious ‘The Importance of Being Rhonda’ tells of Rhonda, a brain injury survivor, who has no recollection of ‘being’ Rhonda, and therefore has to slowly get to know the woman she used to be:

We’re a poor fit, me and Rhonda, our contours don’t quite match. I haven’t found anything in her yet to like. I can’t help but wonder if she’s going about her business somewhere parallel to me. And now I know a new thing. I’m not climbing back inside the shell of that woman they want me to be. (Sleepwalkers, 29)

How do you go about writing such ‘paradoxical’ experience, and how have other women writers influenced your approach?

BMcG: I’m afraid I’m not a very methodical kind of writer so the idea of explaining how I go about doing anything is a challenging one. As I’ve said, stories often arrive with their own voice, their own attitude to a given experience. I know they’re all influenced by personal experience, but not in any definitive way – they’re amalgams of all kinds of histories – mine and others’ - from different stages of life. I’ve just been reading Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography Born to Run in which he writes ‘Most of my writing is emotionally autobiographical. I’ve learned you’ve got to pull up the things that mean something to you in order for them to mean anything to your audience.’ I wholly agree with this. Readers, as well as listeners, respond to emotional truth.

I try not to be too prescriptive about how the story develops – to be as open to ideas as possible, and for the most part to try and let the characters dictate their own journeys. If I attempt to steer events in a certain direction, to shoehorn plot twists in, or have characters behave in a particular way, it invariably fails. Harriet in The Butterfly Cabinet was a difficult character to write – I needed to get inside her head to compose her diaries, and inside the head of a woman responsible for the death of her own child was not a comfortable place to be. But I was also drawn to her – to the complexity of her character, to her contrariness, her obstinacy. Whatever you say about Harriet, she was no self-apologist and that forthrightness is something to admire, I think. I’m very fond of Rita and of Rhonda, for different reasons. I find people with quirky ways very appealing.

As for the influence of other women writers, I read as much and as often as I can. I look for a compelling story and a well-turned sentence. I can’t really engage with writing where one exists without the other. In terms of contemporary women writers I enjoy Kate Atkinson’s writing, Anne Enright, Christine Dwyer-Hickey, Claire Keegan, Alice Munro… the list is fairly long. I’m not very analytical about my reading, though. I try not to deconstruct other people’s writing – unless, of course, they ask me to. I like to read for enjoyment as much as possible. I do think that reading widely has a huge effect on a person’s writing. It drives me mad when aspiring writers say they don’t read. Reading is as much about tuning in to the music of writing as it is about anything else. If you ‘listen’ to enough of the good stuff, you begin to hear when your own prose jars; where the melody falters.

SS: Let’s stay with your female characters a little longer. I was intrigued by the huge subtlety in your women’s relationships, be it between (grand-) mothers and daughters, sisters, friends, or even strangers. You weave many intricate webs of mutual support and love, but also misunderstanding, suspicion, and absence (both emotional and physical).

In ‘The Cure for Too Much Feeling’, contemplating a tender painting of a mother and daughter, Rita has a sense that the figures are saying ‘We know who we are to one another and this is what we do.’ (The Glass Shore, 324)

The narrator in ‘The Importance of Being Rhonda’ finds herself dependent on her sister, another woman she cannot remember: ‘What do I know? It’s a hard thing to have your meal choices dictated by a woman whose eyebrows are pencilled on.’ (Sleepwalkers, 24)

In the story ‘Sleepwalkers’ the young daughter, in a gesture of silent consolation, hands her mother ‘a walnut, a blunt-nosed pock-marked thing, as dry and light as a heart can sometimes be.’ (62)

In ‘A Fuss’, Rosa, a lacklustre librarian, travels home from Dublin for her estranged father’s wake and funeral. Apprehensive about ‘the theatre of mourning’ (The Long Gaze Back, 222) awaiting her in the North, the encounter with a loquacious old woman in the train station prompts her to connect with her own pain.

Finally, in The Butterfly Cabinet you create a puzzling dynamic by introducing two very different narrators, Harriet, the mistress, and Maddie McGlade, the former nanny.

What is it about women’s relationships that fascinates you?

BMcG: I’m fascinated by all kinds of relationships but when I sit down to write, it’s always a woman’s voice I hear. I have, on occasion, tried to write in a man’s voice but so far, with limited success. I tried it again in the new novel, The Watch House, but I had to rewrite. I don’t know why this is. I grew up with seven older brothers, so you’d think the male voice would be dominant, but I also have two older sisters, and my mother was one of eight girls (and three boys) so for whatever reason, it’s always women’s voices I hear. To be honest, the men in my family are fairly taciturn. Maybe that’s got something to do with it.

SS: Let’s talk a little more about ‘No Angel’. The story stood out to me from the collection with its element of magic realist writing. Having won second place in the Sean O’Faolain short story competition, it features a series of encounters with the narrator’s deceased father, which are both hilarious and poignant. In the brilliantly captured finale during a theatre performance of The Bartered Bride the narrator gets a (magic realist) glimpse of the mechanics of mourning, and is finally free to move on. Can you talk a little about the background to this story?

BMcG: Like most stories, it has many sources. I can trace elements of it back to train journeys I’ve had; to my experiences as a student in the eighties in Belfast; to a time in the nineties when the situation felt particularly brittle here, when every time you switched on the news it was one retaliation shooting after another until it felt like the place was about to implode. The father in the story is not my father (although they do share a sense of humour and he did tell us the story of ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves’), nor am I the girl in the story. But I do remember one particular day not long after my own father died when I sat down in his chair and closed my eyes for what felt like a second and fell into a half doze. There was a sound in the room, a metallic click, that woke me with a start and for a moment I thought it was the exact sound his shoe used to make on the threshold, and then I knew it couldn’t be and that he wasn’t coming in through the door again. Around that time, my mother had a visit from a friend of my father’s. She said to him: ‘I can’t believe he’s gone,’ and his friend said, ‘He’s not gone yet,’ and I found that oddly comforting – the idea that he might still be hanging around until we got used to his going. I’m sure those strands fed into the story and the writing of it was a kind of mourning for him. He was a great reader and borrower of library books. If I hadn’t grown up to the familiar sight of him in his chair, legs crossed, immersed in the world of Agatha Christie or Ngaio Marsh, I’m not sure I would have found that love of books by myself.

SS: Some of your sentences are uniquely evocative. They almost seem to tell a story of their own. Here are three examples, including the opening sentence of the story we just discussed:

‘The first time I saw my father after he died I was in the shower, hair plastered with conditioner, when the water stuttered and turned cold.’ (‘No Angel’, Sleepwalkers, 37)

‘I am in the habit of collecting skies, and this one is a keeper.’ (‘What I Was Left’, Sleepwalkers, 70)

‘Nuala O’Reilly was between Hislop’s and the butcher’s when she forgot who she was.’ ( ‘The Bells Were Ringing Out’, Sleepwalkers, 76)

Your authentic, and frequently hilarious dialogue is another hallmark of your writing I noticed time and again. Here is a snippet from a conversation between Rhonda and her sister:

‘Does Rhonda live a fulsome life?’ I ask.

‘Fulsome? Where’d you get a word like that?’ (‘The Importance of Being Rhonda’, Sleepwalkers, 28)

In ‘No Angel’ the narrator listens to Bob Dylan while driving the car when her late father makes another appearance:

‘What’s that oul’ shite you’re listening to?’, he said, and near put me off the road. A twitter of a laugh. ‘That would deave you,’ and his hand reached out and turned down the dial. (Sleepwalkers, 43)

What are your thoughts on style when starting a new piece?

BMcG: Style is not something I spend much time considering. I spend a lot of time writing and rewriting stories, trying to hone them so they say whatever it is they seem to want to say, but a lot of that time is spent trying to listen as well. I do think that short stories are more akin to poetry or to music in that respect. When you read them aloud, when you actively listen, you can hear the bum notes, the ones that unintentionally break the rhythm. I know nothing about music but I can hear when the language grates – it’s telling you it’s not happy with what you’ve done to it and that you need to get back to work.

I think the style of a story may sometimes be dictated by the story’s origins. I can trace some of my published stories back to writing workshops when, prompted to  respond to an exercise, something new and interesting emerged. I would recommend that every writer attends a writing workshop every now and then as a participant. Many of us facilitate workshops but when I take part, I’m reminded of how terrifying it can be to sit in a room with people you’ve just met and read something you’ve just written. It’s good for you, I think. I nearly always come away with the beginning of a story.

SS: In another interview you called the short story your ‘guilty pleasure’ compared with the work that goes into your novels. Given the success of your stories and the publicity surrounding the two anthologies, has your thinking about the short story changed in any way?

BMcG: They’re still a guilty pleasure. I always feel like I’m playing hooky when I’m writing short stories – you’re never far from the crackle of electricity that started them. You can’t sustain that when you’re working on a novel. It can feel endless, although the novel is satisfying in other ways, of course. In her introduction to the Best American Short Stories 2004, Lorrie Moore wrote ‘A short story is a love affair; a novel is a marriage’. I’d say that just about sums it up.

SS: Can you tell us a little about the new novel The Watch House?

BMcG: With pleasure! It is set on Rathlin Island in the late nineteenth century, at the time Marconi’s engineers arrived to carry out their wireless experiments. The company was sponsored by Lloyds of London to report on the passage of ships, and to trial the sending of signals across the narrow channel to the mainland. I was fascinated by the idea that this technology – which is the same that is used in texting today – was being pioneered over a century ago, and in a place that knew all too well what it was to be cut off from the rest of the world. Rathlin abounds with stories of ghosts and goblins, of phantom horses, of hauntings, of fairy lore. In my head, Marconi’s engineers must have looked, to some of the island dwellers at least, like conjurers engaged in some brand of devilish magic. The story centres on the character of Nuala Byrne, an islander who is married to the ageing tailor, and who is shackled too to his controlling sister, Ginny. All their lives are altered by the new arrivals. The book opens with Ginny, speaking at the birth of Nuala’s baby - and events very quickly take a dark turn. It’s a story about the power – and the dangers – of words, of communication, of suspicion.

SS: You are also a highly respected teacher of creative writing, and you mentor writers through the Irish Writers Centre’s Mentoring scheme. How do you reconcile these roles with your own writing?

BMcG: Good question! I’ve been doing a lot of teaching recently and not very much writing, and I can feel myself getting quite twitchy. I love working with writers, either individually or in groups – it helps to consolidate the practice, but I also know that when I’m not finding enough time to write, I get pretty grumpy. Finding the balance isn’t always easy. Like most writers, I need to supplement my income through teaching and other work. There aren’t many writers around that can make a living through royalties alone. You make choices about what you can afford to give up in order to feed the writing habit. For some people that’s a social life, for some it’s part of their income, for others it might be time spent doing other things they enjoy. I’d say that, for me, each of those elements in turn has taken a battering from time to time. You don’t write a novel and not notice the dent that it makes in your life. Something’s got to give.

SS: Finally, would you like to share some recent reads that inspired you?

BMcG: I have loved Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies, Kevin Barry’s Beatlebone, Ali Smith’s How to be Both, and Sara Baume’s Spill Simmer Falter Wither. To varying degrees, they’re all fairly experimental in style and I found that very refreshing. I also love Niall Williams’ writing. A History of the Rain is the last book of his I read, and I’m a big fan of Jo Baker – A Country Road, A Tree, about Beckett’s years in France during the Second World War, is a fabulous book. I was very lucky to meet Marilynne Robinson recently. At the time I was reading Lila, the third in the Gilead trilogy. She writes such beautiful prose. And I’ve read, I think, everything that Maggie O’Farrell has written, her latest being This Must Be The Place. A little while ago, I read an article about the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. In the last 100 years, the prize has been won by a woman twenty-nine times. Some of the women writers I’d read (Elizabeth Strout, Jennifer Egan, Donna Tartt etc.) but I decided to honour them all by tracking down the books I didn’t have and start reading them. My most recent is The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty.

SS: What a great list! Here’s to much reading and writing in 2017. Many thanks, Bernie, for giving this your time and thought. Best of luck with The Watch House!

Photograph by Jane McComb