‘I didn’t know what I was doing,’ says Eimear McBride on starting the novel that would become The Lesser Bohemians. Once writing was underway, however, she realised it was about a relationship between a woman in her late teens and a man in his thirties and that there would be constant change in the status of their relationship.
The book started with London, the London McBride had known in the nineties. The protagonist came through that. She’s a very different girl to the one in A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, she has the ‘capacity for making connection to the world’ says McBride.
She wanted to write about being Irish at that time, before the Good Friday Agreement ended The Troubles. It was ‘much more different to be Irish’ she says. There was a terrorist stigma. She also wanted to write about the other type of Irish immigrant to the one that’s often portrayed in literature – the one who went somewhere that they really like! McBride says that’s not part of the Irish immigrant story. She says her protagonist sees London as ‘Babylon’. She goes from ‘black and white to living in glorious technicolour’.
McBride says she’s interested in what is said and unsaid, what is hidden and what is revealed. An actor and a drama student seemed to be the perfect vehicle for this. For Steven, the actor, it’s his rakishness versus his underlying life. McBride says she builds her characters using methods she learned in drama school. She refers to it as ‘method writing’.
When she was writing A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, ‘character is what I was primarily interested in’ and ‘looking at the totality of the moment’. She says she thought about what they were thinking, she thought about their physicality. The moment’s stretched out in what she refers to as ‘straight’ writing, but this is unnatural. She was aiming to do in writing what an actor does with their body when they’re inhabiting a character.
The play that was created from A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing McBride describes as ‘quite an odd experience’. She was concerned as to how the play would tackle the material as the novel allowed her to connect the reader directly to the character, to what was going on internally. There’s no external description of her in the book. She was never an object. The book was a shared experience between the writer and the character. However, she says, Aoife Duffin, the actress who performed the play did so with little ego and understood the character so well.
Discussion returns to The Lesser Bohemians and how McBride moved to writing about sex and male sexuality. She said she approached with caution and that ‘it is a lie’ that women can’t write men. She says the way she wrote about sex was the way she wrote about everything else. She imagines her characters as people, pre-gender. She writes from a human perspective, not a gendered one. She also listened to a lot of male singer-songwriters as she felt they revealed their vulnerabilities. ‘Novelists are a bit more bombastic.’
The novel’s about two key things: the first is people finding ways they can live with their own vulnerability/the memory of their vulnerability. The second is how people choose to interpret the past. What happens to an event when people recall being told about it and then retell it themselves? The past can be an enemy and a friend. Your past is open to everyone; you don’t get final say on your past. She asks, how much can you ever know even about your own story?
The interviewer asks her how she feels about her work being compared to Joyce and Woolf. ‘I love it; it’s brilliant’, McBride jokes, following her comment up with, ‘It’s an odd thing’. She says that A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing was ‘borne out of failure for so long’ that comparisons to Joyce were a way for people to talk about the book, even though McBride says that she and him are doing different things. ‘I’m asking the reader to be humane’, while Joyce asks the reader to be clever. What’s she’s doing is ninety degrees from Finnegan’s Wake. ‘What is specific about human life?’ she asks.