Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Interview: Bernie McGill

Bernie McGill has pursued a varied career in the arts, enjoying her positions as theatre manager and playwright equally. Her short stories have been shortlisted for numerous awards, and in 2008 her story 'Sleepwalkers' won the Zoetrope All-Story Short Fiction Contest. Her debut novel, The Butterfly Cabinet, is inspired by an extraordinary true story of the death of the daughter of an aristocratic Irish family in 1892, and of its powerful impact on the community of the time. The Butterfly Cabinet has been extremely well received and is due for release in Australia on April 27th from Headline Publishing.
Hi Bernie, thanks for taking the time to answer some questions on the Shearer's blog! Let's start with an easy one, what are you reading at the moment?
Edmund de Waal's The Hare With Amber Eyes. It was a Mothers' Day gift from my children. I don't usually read biography, I prefer fiction, but it's so beautifully written, it's carrying me along. I'm very taken with what he says about art objects, about the pulse they retain of their making, the trace of the hands still on them, the air that is displaced by their being in the world. I love and embrace that idea. I have a book of birds that belonged to my father that still has a coffee stain on the dust cover. I know that's not the same thing, he didn't make the book, but I'm very nostalgic about that - the things in your life that have been handled by loved ones, now gone.

The Butterfly Cabinet is your debut novel, how did you wind up writing it and getting published?

I wound up writing it because it wouldn't leave me alone! I came across the story in a parish magazine some years ago and couldn't get it out of my head. It was the story of a mother in a big Irish house close to where I now live who had been imprisoned for the killing of her child, an only daughter. The family had been very respected, well-connected, wealthy landowners and employers. It was a huge scandal at the time. I was intrigued by what had happened, who she had been, how she could have gotten to the point where she would tie her young child up in a room and leave her there for hours at a time. I started researching the story in local newspaper archives and the more I read, the more hooked I became. It took me five years to write it. When I had part of it written, and a good idea of how it was going to go, I sent the first three chapters and a synopsis out to a small number of agents. Some were interested, some not, but Clare Alexander of Aitken Alexander Associates in London rang me to say she'd like to read it when it was complete. That was the incentive I needed. I finished it, Clare loved it, she sent it to a handful of publishers. I flew to London to meet Clare and Mary-Anne Harrington, the editor at Headline Review came along to the meeting as well. We had a great chat and she bought the book. I did quite a bit of work on it with Mary-Anne's help in the months after that, and then it was published.

What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
The redrafting and rewriting of it. Many times I printed the whole manuscript off, laid it out on the kitchen table and on the floor and took to it with the scissors. I couldn't cope with editing it onscreen. I had to get physical with it. There's something very satisfying for me, about going back to the computer with a sheaf of typed pages that have been altered, cut up and scrawled over. It feels like a practical job of work. I also had to read it aloud, many, many times. I think that's the nearest you can get to someone else's experience of reading it. There's something about your voice aloud that is much more objective, critical than the inner voice. You can hear where the narrative flags, loses its way, gets repetitive. It's sore on the throat, though!

How is it different to write for the theatre and for a novel? Is there something about one that you prefer?
My experience of writing for theatre and writing fiction have been very different. Theatre tends to be much more collaborative - from an early stage you're in the room with a director, possibly a co-writer, sometimes a dramaturg, even a group of workshopping actors. Because of that, it's also much more exposing - more often than not, the writing is undergoing scrutiny at a point when it would be best kept private! On the upside, there's lots of input, and fun. It feels like a group effort. On the downside, it is a lot more stressful. The tour will have been booked months in advance, while the play was still being written. You pick up a venue brochure and there it is, the title, with times and dates, and you're thinking, I don't even know what it's going to be yet! That's a fairly scary thing to get into. Writing fiction is, for the most part, very solitary, and there are many reasons why that suits my personality better. I don't know whether it would have been on offer or not, but I was very clear when talking to Clare that I didn't want a two-book deal. I don't need that kind of pressure from fiction as well.

Similarly, when you write a short story how is the approach different to writing a novel?
It doesn't take as long, for one thing! You get the satisfaction of completing something sooner. The novel was a bit of a marathon, for me. There was a lot more stamina required.  What I've found with short stories is that the more time you can spend away from them, the better. You go back after a few weeks or months, and you can immediately see what you couldn't see while you were working on it - all the things that don't gel. Readers have a different relationship with short stories than they do with novels, I think. Short stories are about a specific moment in time, something that changes the course of a day, or a life and everything that goes into them, has to lead to that. They need to deliver much more quickly. A novel reader will have a little more patience, they've entered the contract for more than one sitting, they can feel the thickness of the pages ahead of them (unless, of course, they're reading an ebook). Novel readers want to be engaged in the same way as short story readers but they know they're in it for the long haul, they're prepared to savour the experience for that little bit longer.

What lay behind the idea to write The Butterfly Cabinet with a dual narrative?

I tried to write Harriet's story in the third person, but that wasn't intimate enough for me so I switched to first. That gave me other problems of course. How was I to tell the whole story of what happened when Harriet didn't know the whole story? I looked around for another narrator, and for a while I played with the idea of a female journalist covering the trial, but her involvement would have begun when the case became public. I wanted someone who was privy to the everyday workings of the household, someone who wouldn't necessarily have been sympathetic to Harriet, who had their own agenda. There were a number of accounts in the newspapers of current and ex-servants who gave evidence at the trial. Maddie grew out of a conglomerate of these.

How does it feel as a first time novelist to receive some of the high praise that The Butterfly Cabinet has attracted?
Absolutely fantastic! I'm delighted with how well it's been received. When you write a book, you want it to be read, and everything that helps to get it into the hands of readers is very very welcome.

What's next for you?
Along with five other writers in Northern Ireland (three fiction writers, three poets) I have recently received a Career Enhancement Award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. All six of us are working in collaboration with the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen's University, Belfast, concentrating on individual projects while affiliated with the Centre. I am working on a second novel, set on Rathlin Island off the north coast of Ireland, at the time of the Marconi radio experiments there in 1898. I'll be spending some time on the island over the next number of months, which is no chore for me. It's one of the most beautiful, still, places I've ever visited. I'm also working on a number of short stories. There are always one or two of those on the back burner. They're my guilty pleasure - a treat for when the novel gets too tough!

Thanks for taking the time to talk to us and congratulations on The Butterfly Cabinet.


  1. I've read this book - and it's wonderful! Bernie is too modest to say it but she's also a fantastic mentor to lots of other aspiring writers. She totally deserves all the praise heaped on her as a writer!

  2. It is a wonderful book, Bernie is such a talented writer.

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