Eimear McBride was born in Liverpool in 1976 to Northern Irish parents who had moved to England for work during The Troubles. When she was just three they moved to Tubbercurry in County Sligo in the west of Ireland. Five years later she lost her father to cancer and by the time she reached her mid-teens the family decided to move once more, this time to Castlebar, County Mayo. Aged seventeen, Eimear left home to study acting at Drama Centre London.
She wrote her first novel A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing in just six months, at the age of 27. However, it took almost a decade to get published whereupon it was taken up by Galley Beggar Press in 2013. It went on to win several major literary prizes for its brilliance and linguistic experimentation. In 2016, her second novel, The Lesser Bohemians was published to great acclaim by Faber & Faber. She occasionally writes reviews for The Guardian, the TLS and the New Statesman.
Eimear has lived in London and Cork, and now resides in Norwich with her husband, theatre director, William Galinsky and their daughter, Éadaoin.
Extract from Eimear McBride in conversation with Shevaun Wilder
Shevaun: I'd love to hear how and where the seeds were sown for you becoming such an innovative writer.
Eimear: Well, both of my parents were avid readers and were very encouraging of us as children that we read. My father taught me to read when I was three.
Shevaun: Did your schooling play any part in advancing your interest in reading?
Eimear: Well, my main national school was the Marist Nuns in Tubbercurry. I was very lucky because there were two nuns there who were incredibly interesting women. They were both women with tremendous imagination and an appreciation of the importance of the imagination and of the imaginative world for children, and they were very encouraging of me.
Shevaun: How did they spot your creativity?
Eimear: Well, I was a real attention-seeker, a show-off. I talked constantly and, I suppose, I was very obsessed with imaginative play and creating huge worlds which everyone had to have a part in.
Shevaun: So you were the writer and the director?
Eimear: Of course! Of course! A novelist is born! (Laughs.) So, as far back as then, the making of stories, the creating of characters, the moving them around was hugely, hugely, important to me and I always played the male lead role, for some reason.
Shevaun: Did you ever go to drama classes?
Eimear: Yes, after my father died, my mother started sending me to drama classes every second Saturday in the Yeats’ Building in Sligo. They still have that enormous bronze head of Yeats with those big, empty, eye sockets. Some of the great personal memories of my childhood are poking Yeats in the eye! (Laughs.)
Shevaun: Was there a great emphasis on doing Yeats’ poetry?
Eimear: Yes, at school the first poem I ever learned was ‘A Stolen Child’. I still love that poem. Really, it's a very important poem to me. And, of course, we did all the Feis’s, Feis Ceoil, Feis Shligigh and The Yeats’ Cup. My first stage experience was The Tops of the Town competition at the Hawk's Well Theatre in Sligo.
Shevaun: Ah! So that’s why Eily says 'It’s not the Hawk’s Well' when she’s at the Olivier in The Lesser Bohemians.
Eimear: I couldn't resist! Because you don't know much about that character's background. You know that she's from rural Ireland, that she's probably from the West because of how she speaks, but, I never really say more than that so the Hawk's Well is a hint.
Shevaun: Thinking of your own journey from Ireland, it seems very precocious to leave home at seventeen to study acting in London.
Eimear: I know! Of course, I didn't think so at the time, to me it seemed completely natural – this was the inevitable progression that my life would take. And, now, I look back and I do feel a little shocked at myself.
Shevaun: What was it like arriving in London having, mostly, grown up in a small village where everyone knew everyone else?
Eimear: Until I came to London there was a still a part of me that really did believe that my mother had eyes in the back of her head. (Laughs.) She could see me no matter what I did. But then going to London was kind of out of range for the first time. (Laughs.) And, I loved the privacy of London. I've always loved that, that feeling of arriving and just being whatever you are, or whatever you want to be, and there's no one there to recall you to yourself.
Shevaun: And how was it being, practically, the only Irish person at Drama Centre?
Eimear: I loved it, I felt quite exotic. But, also, what was really important for me was that it was the first time I ever met people from other countries. It's hard now to remember what Ireland was like in the 80s and early 90s, how everyone was white and Irish and, mostly, Catholic, and that's who you met all day, every day, and there was no need to think about anyone else's life or culture or experience or anything. And, suddenly, I arrived at Drama Centre and there were English students and Swiss students and Canadians and Australians and Danish people and Austrians, and it was really exotic! It seemed amazingly exotic! I remember just listing all the different nationalities in my year and how exciting it was to meet people who came from other countries, who spoke different languages as a first language.
Shevaun: Throughout The Lesser Bohemians there’s an amazing sense of Eily becoming very much part of North London, was it like that for you?
Eimear: Well, I think the descriptions of London are really the closest to my own experience of anything in the book. I feel that's quite autobiographical and I consciously did that. I decided early on that I would make the London of the novel the London of my memory and not make it a sort of technical recreation of London. So, I don't know if all those shops and banks and markets and restaurants actually were there in 1994 and 1995. It might have been later but, in my memory, that's where they were at that time and so that's where they are in the book – it's the fate of memory.
Shevaun: It all feels very vivid.
Eimear: Well, I think at that time in your life, when you're in your late teens, you're so open and you're so impressionable, and things affect you so deeply, in a way that they never do again for the rest of your life... environment changes you in a way that you aren't changed later on in life. You know, now, when I go to New York – I love to go to New York – I don't feel that New York gets on the inside of me, it's a place I can enjoy but it doesn't become part of me in the way that London did at that time in my life.
Shevaun: Did you title it The Lesser Bohemians because the protagonists are actors?
Eimear: Partly! I think it was also because it was set, so specifically, in '94 and '95 in Camden Town, when it was the heart of the whole Cool Britannia thing and there were lots of rockstars running round and there was a very public, successful, wealthy, bohemian lifestyle that was going on there that was covered in the press. But, underneath that, there was a life of people who work in the arts, who don't become movie stars, who do it because they love it, who live in bedsits and take leads at the Royal Court. It was really about that and about drama students, because there was a real sincerity to that, a real desire to try and do something meaningful with our lives. And I wanted to sing a hymn to that too. And so, then, lesser bohemians rather than greater bohemians. (Laughs.)
Shevaun: The novel also reflects some turbulent times for the Irish in Britain. How have you seen that change over time?
Eimear: Well, it’s very different now because in the England I came to in the 90s, there was still a lot of racism towards Irish people. There were still bombings going on in those days, on and off, and ceasefires and such like. So, it was different – it was a much more aggressive atmosphere towards Irish people then. I once had someone cut 'Terrorist, terrorist' in the wall outside my house. There are a number of incidents in The Lesser Bohemians that are based on experiences I had as an Irish person being on the receiving end of racism towards Ireland and the Irish at that time. But that's very much a thing of the past – it’s a completely different landscape to be Irish in Britain now.
Shevaun: And Irish in the arts?
Eimear: And Irish in the arts! Well, Irish in literature, that can never be any harm, can it? (Laughs.) It's a good place to be Irish!
Shevaun: Now you're settled in Norwich, how do you find bringing up your daughter there?
Eimear: Well, it's a struggle, isn't it, when you live abroad? It’s strange to me, sometimes, to talk to my daughter on the phone and hear her English accent. But, I hope to raise her with a very strong awareness of her background. My husband is Jewish and I'm Irish which means that she has two cultures that are not part of the main culture informing who she is. There's a challenge for both of us to try and make sure that she feels comfortable with both of those aspects of her past, while living in a culture that is more focused on a different type of Englishness, I suppose.
- A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (Galley Beggar Press, 2013; Faber & Faber, 2014)
- The Lesser Bohemians (Faber & Faber, 2016)
- 'Through the Wall' a short story in The Long Gaze Back, An Anthology of Irish Women Writers (Editor, Sinéad Gleeson, New Island Books, 2015)
- ‘Ivy Day in the Committee Room’ a short story in Dubliners 100 (Editor, Thomas Morris, Tramp Press, 2014)
- For A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (2013/14): The Inaugural Goldsmiths Prize, Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction, Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award and the Desmond Elliott Prize
- For The Lesser Bohemians (2016/17): Goldsmiths Prize Shortlist and Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist