Bernie McGill was born in Lavey in County Derry in Northern Ireland. She studied English and Italian at Queen’s University, Belfast and graduated with a Masters degree in Irish Writing. She has written for the theatre (The Weather Watchers, The Haunting of Helena Blunden), the novel, The Butterfly Cabinet and a short story collection, Sleepwalkers. Her short fiction has been nominated for numerous awards and in 2008 she won the Zoetrope:All-Story Short Fiction Award in the US. She is a recipient of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland's inaugural ACES (Artists' Career Enhancement Scheme) Award in association with the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen's University, Belfast. She lives in Portstewart in Northern Ireland with her family and works as a Creative Writing facilitator.
I’ve been gone from here for a while. It seems sort of appropriate to return on the shortest day, at the natural turn of the year. We’ve had a tough few weeks. My mother passed away on the 15th of October past. She dreaded the long dark nights. It was always a relief to be able to say on the 21st that the light was on its way back. In tribute to her, I’d like to repost this story from Sleepwalkers which was written for her and for my first daughter. She and I sat in her kitchen the day it was first broadcast on the radio, listening together. The story had been pre-recorded in Belfast. I was more nervous about that reading than I’ve ever been about a reading before or since. She was a very private person. I wasn’t sure how she would react to the telling. In the event, it was fine. It was more than fine. I think she was really very proud to have it told.
Here’s to the return of the light. Wishing us all brighter days ahead.
This is how you lay, little one, the whole night long in my mother’s house, with me on my back and you on my chest and your left cheek on mine. I remember I lifted you and laid you in your travel cot, but you were not for travelling. Once the cold of the sheet touched your face, you twisted, opened your eyes, screwed up your fists and cried: cries fit to waken my mother and her mother, and her mother’s mother before. I lifted you once, twice, three, four times, lifted you until you taught me what I would not learn: that the only place you wanted to be was next to me, heartbeat to heartbeat, cheek to cheek.
In the morning, my mother looked into my bleary eyes, into eight months of lifting and laying and lifting again. She put her little finger into your small mouth and felt an eruption, the shock of a chip of ivory that had broken the surface: your first tooth. It made sense of everything. She told me once that after the birth of her ninth child, her doctor had told her to stop birthing children, for the sake of her health. But she didn’t stop. She bore another boy, and then me. ‘Where would you have been if I’d stopped?’ she said to me, and she took your hand, ‘And where would this one be?’ I don’t know the answer to that. Later, she told me she was annoyed that she had found the tooth, upset at having the glory moment when it was me that had lost sleep over it. Would I not have wished to have found it myself, she said? But who better to have found it, her last baby’s first baby’s first tooth? Who better but your mother’s mother; your own mother, once removed, and not removed at all. We make ourselves over and over again. Your teeth are my teeth, and my bones are hers and her skin is her mother’s, and her mother’s blood is the blood of hers. Who better to have found your tooth? ‘No,’ I said, ‘I’m not annoyed. You know the rule – the tooth-finder is the cobbler. Now you’ll have to buy the first shoes.’
Seven years on and the tooth is jutting straight out of your mouth, dangerously loose, hanging on. It’s been like that for weeks. It seems reluctant to go. You won’t let me near it, and I’m afraid to touch it. What if it doesn’t come free at the first pull? What if something stronger is holding it there? I’m tempted to take you down to see your grandmother – down to the place of the getting of it – and ask her to put her finger once more into your mouth, take a hold again, give the tooth one good tug. I’ve a good mind to ask her to finish what she started.
I had the scary dream again last night – the one where the public reading goes badly wrong. It’s a version of the dream I used to have years ago when I worked as administrator for Big Telly Theatre Company. A night or two before the show was due to go up, I would dream that some injury had befallen a cast member and I would have to go on in their stead. The worst was the one in which something calamitous had happened to the entire cast and I was told I would have to perform The Colleen Bawn single-handedly. I left shortly afterwards.
Last night’s dream was particularly vicious. It was a late night reading in an unspecified (but intimate) venue somewhere in Belfast. There were several readers scattered on the sofas around the room. I was waiting to be called. The night wore on. Eventually, at around a quarter to one in the morning, my turn came. Most people had gone home. I’d forgotten my glasses. The book from which I was reading had inexplicably transmuted into a sort of slippery spring-loaded cabbage. I prised open the leaves to find my place and peered, in the dim light, to try and make out what I’d written but each time I looked up to deliver a line, the cabbage snapped shut and sprung out of my hands and I had to scrabble about on the floor to find it. The remaining few punters wandered off. The staff came in to say they were shutting up. There was that dispiriting moment when the cosy, atmospheric space you're in is suddenly flood lit by fluorescent lighting and you can see all the stains on the carpet. I left. It was raining. I’d missed the last train. I had no way of getting home.
There are a couple of possible explanations for why the dream has returned now. There are some readings coming up in September (details below) – I may already be getting the jitters about those. Or it may be because I’ve asked a few writing friends to give me some feedback on the current work-in-progress and, before I even hand it over, I’ve been spending a lot of time making up excuses for why it’s not better than it is. Either way, I don’t suppose the dream is going anywhere. The fear of humiliation and rejection, whether that be in a room full of friends or in front of a sofa of strangers, seems to be part of the writer’s lot. Parting with your writing is all part of the process of owning it. (Nice oxymoron for you there – you’re welcome.)
On Thursday 11th September, I’ll be reading from Sleepwalkers at Omagh Library at 8pm and on Saturday 13th September I’ll be facilitating a writing workshop at Strule Arts Centre, Omagh at 3.30pm. Both events are part of the Benedict Kiely Literary Festival that includes readings by Bernard MacLaverty, Pat McCabe, Claire Keegan, Mary Costello and Billy Ramsell and discussion with Eamonn Hughes, Sinéad Gleeson, David Hayden and Declan Meade (of The Stinging Fly) as well as poetry and film screenings. For more information and to book, contact Strule Arts Centre on 028 8224 7831 or Email: email@example.com. The full programme is available to view on the Benedict Kiely Festival website.
On Friday 19th September, I’ll be reading along with writers Lucy Caldwell and Paul McVeigh at a Word Factory event at the Cork International Short Story Festival (scroll down – Cork Central Library, Grand Parade, 4pm!) The Festival runs throughout the week and includes readings, seminars and workshops by a host of international writers as well as the presentation of the Seán Ó Faoláin Prize and the Frank O’Connor Award (the latter to Colin Barrett for his excellent collection Young Skins) and the launch of the Davy Byrnes Short Story Award Anthology. If you’re a short story aficionado, it’s the place to be. Full programme available here.
And finally, on Thursday 25th September, I’ll be at Aspects Festival in Bangor reading at Bangor Museum at 1pm. The full programme is downloadable here and includes readings and events featuring local writers Tara West, Tony Macauley, Pauline Burgess, Sheena Wilkinson, Alf McCreary, Rebecca Reid, Jan Carson, Damian Smyth, Nathaniel McAuley, Michael Smiley and David Park, as well as journalists Martin Bell, Fergal Keane and Paolo Hewitt, columnist Virginia Ironside, war veteran Simon Weston, and as if that wasn't enough, cooking from (my favourite radio chef) Paula McIntyre. No harm to the rest of you but that last event sounds like the highlight for me. I’m thinking of going along with a mystery ingredient challenge – ways to cook a spring-loaded cabbage (and exorcise your writing demons in the process).
Praise for The Butterfly Cabinet
Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey, writing in The Guardian: 'McGill has the ability to enter into the brain and heart of her characters and so to make us sympathise with people who commit acts we abhor.'
Eugene McCabe, author of Death and Nightingales: 'Bernie McGill's rare, hypnotic gift for writing fills every page of The Butterfly Cabinet. [It] contains no end of apparently throwaway sentences you want to remember'
Rachel Hore, author of A Place of Secrets and The Glass Painter's Daughter: 'A haunting, often lyrical tale of quiet, mesmerising power about the dangerous borders of maternal love'
USA Today: 'This is a fantastic novel. It drenches us in gothic sensibilities as it haunts us with uncomfortable reminders of recent sensational events.'
Marie Claire: ‘An utterly compelling tale of hidden secrets and culture clashes played out against the backdrop of a large country house in Northern Ireland... it's a haunted tale, eerie with recrimination, illicit passion and frustrated motherhood. Pitch-perfect in tone, McGill captures, in counterpoint, the voices of two women as they declaim a melancholy murder ballad.’
Financial Times: 'Bernie McGill's assured debut is an intense exploration of maternal love and guilt. What also distinguishes it is its delicate portrait of a society that, within one lifetime, would face unimaginable change.'
Kirkus Reviews: ‘An emotionally bracing, refreshingly intelligent and ultimately heartbreaking story.’
Daily Mail: ‘Beautifully done and thoroughly absorbing.’
Publishers Weekly: ‘An exquisite series of painful revelations… McGill easily recreates the lives of the Castle's owners and servants and the intricate connections between them. As both Harriet and Maddie's stories emerge, the tale becomes a powder keg of domestic suspense that threatens to explode as long-kept secrets surrounding Charlotte's death are teased out.’
The Guardian: 'Defining moments of Irish history form the backdrop to each woman's narrative...The decades of complicity that follow Charlotte’s death unfold with forceful drama...'
Minneapolis Star Tribune: 'McGill employs an ingenious counterpoint technique to give her convincing fictional version of the tragedy. The interplay of the voices of two exceptionally different personalities is perhaps the book's major achievement.'
Woman & Home: ‘An absorbing story of marriage, motherhood and murder.’
New Zealand Herald: 'McGill's real triumph with this novel is how successfully she manipulates the way we feel aout her two main characters... the prose is elegant and assured.'
Good Housekeeping: ‘A dramatic and haunting novel... this is an enthralling and beautifully written debut.’
Huffington Post: 'Where McGill succeeds so well is in her language, beautiful and languorous and wild.'
Sydney Morning Herald: 'McGill's complex portrait of an unmotherly mother is as skilful and unusual as Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin.'
Verbal: ‘A gripping novel... Disturbing and thought-provoking... an examination of how to deal with the past in the midst of hope for the future... a truly absorbing and cleverly written tale that will send a shiver down your spine.’
Irish World: ‘The Butterfly Cabinet deserves to be celebrated for its ability to alter the reader’s perspective of the world... its characters leap from the page with profound and contemporary truth... Bernie McGill has achieved an incredible feat.’
Ulster Tatler: ‘The Butterfly Cabinet is an exceptionally accomplished novel... [McGill’s] prose is lyrical and beautifully composed, her characters are crafted and honed with an inherent talent and skill... writing of this calibre does not come along often.’
Sunday Tribune: ‘This is a truly convincing retelling of a true story, richly realised on every level from a writer to watch out for.’
Listen to the author read an extract
or read the first chapter.
Watch the book trailer (US)
Watch the UK version.
You had a story for me... I wasn't ready to hear it before but I'll hear it now.
When Maddie McGlade, a former nanny, receives a letter from Anna, the last of her charges and now a married woman, she realises that the time has come to unburden herself of a secret that has gnawed at her for over seventy years. It is the story of the last day in the life of Charlotte Ormond, the four-year-old only daughter of the big house where Maddie was employed as a young girl. The Butterfly Cabinet also reveals the private thoughts of Charlotte's mother, Harriet. A proud, uncompromising woman, Harriet's great passion is collecting butterflies and pinning them into her cabinet; motherhood comes no more easily to her than does her role as mistress of a far-flung Irish estate. When her daughter dies, her community is quick to condemn her. At last Maddie, and Harriet’s prison diaries that Maddie has kept hidden under lock and key in the cabinet she has inherited, will reveal a more complex truth.