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.
The daffodils have come and gone another year and still work continues on the current novel manuscript. I recently read an interview by Vincent Scarpa with US writer Laura van den Berg entitled A Novel Wants Your Life in Tin House magazine. She’s a very wise woman and says many wise things about how writing a novel differs from writing short stories. She talks, in the interview, about the sense of an ending that is present when writing short stories, and how you have to let that go when you’re writing a novel because that feeling is ‘illusory, a mirage in the desert’. She says: ‘If you’re working on a novel, whatever you do, don’t say, “I am almost finished with my novel.” ’ That's good advice. It's come a little too late for me – over a year too late, actually (see blog post dated 20th February 2014 and ironically entitled ‘Nearly There’) but it's still good advice.
On a personal level, this is one of the best interviews I’ve read on the writing process. It feels like Laura van den Berg has peeked inside my head. ‘The hard part,’ she says, ‘was mainly psychological: how to keep the faith, how to not let doubt erode the project, how to ask the right questions, how to see with greater depth and clarity.’ She talks about how, with short stories, it’s sometimes possible to fit the writing in and around other things you’re doing. (In her case, this could mean writing a scene ‘while holed up in the bathroom of a raging party’; in mine it’s more likely to be in between loading a dark wash and a light.) The novel, on the other hand, ‘wants your life’. I think that’s very true. The novel is jealous of time spent doing other things. It expects a much greater act of concentration, of stamina, of willpower than does the short story. It doesn’t want to be sidelined, ever, and since it’s impossible not to sideline it when you have other work to do, and a family and caring responsibilities, in other words, that thing called a life, then you can find yourself, as she puts it, ‘repainting a house that needed to be set on fire and bulldozed.’ One of the hardest things for me is that ‘constant state of suspension’ that she describes. To be engaged in the sustained act of ‘not finishing’ something is exhausting. (The phrase 'tantric writing' springs suddenly to mind...) While I was writing The Butterfly Cabinet, I’d sneak off every now and then like a truant schoolgirl and write a short story. It was my respite from the onslaught of ‘not finishing’ the novel. At the end of it, I had a finished novel and the makings of a short story collection, Sleepwalkers. I thought that this time around, I'd be a model student, concentrate wholly on the novel and that way, I’d finish it much sooner, but that hasn’t really worked out. It feels to me that that interplay between the two forms that van den Berg describes is a very healthy one. ‘The story-novel rhythm is a good one for me,’ she says. For me too, Laura, me too. Again, the advice is a little late but never mind. As they say in these parts, I’ll know for again. Every day I inch a little closer to an ending, but I won’t be saying again that I’m almost finished. I won’t be saying anything until I am finished and by then I’ll be so incoherent with relief and fatigue (and quite possibly, gin) that I’m unlikely to be saying much of anything at all.
In the meantime, here are some of the things I’ll be doing over the next few weeks (while I’m not finishing the novel) and that may be of interest to fellow writing combatants.
On Thursday 23rd April 2015 I’ll be facilitating an Introduction to writing short stories workshop at Larne Library from 6pm - 8pm, in association with the John Hewitt Society and Libraries NI. It’s suitable for writers of all ages and levels of experience. This is a FREE workshop but places are limited. To secure a place, please email Hilary@johnhewittsociety.org. And for the poets among you, Elaine Gaston will facilitate a FREE Introduction to writing poetry workshop at Ballymena Library on Saturday 18th April 2015 from 11am – 1pm. Again, email Hilary to secure a place. You'll find details of both workshops here. Elaine will also be reading in Randall’s Bar, Cushendun on Saturday 2nd May 2015 at 4pm, part of the Cushendun Big Arts Weekend. Look out for Randall’s goat at the harbour – the highlight of many a visit to Cushendun.
The Larne workshop comes just ahead of the John Hewitt Spring School in Carnlough which this year is on Saturday 25th April 2015 and features talks and readings by Martina Devlin, Ciaran Carson, Stephen Sexton, Peter Osborne, Nisha Tandon and Vincent Creelan. There’s a FREE return coach from Belfast City Centre to Carnlough for Day Ticket Holders (£25 for entry to all events including lunch and refreshments and if you’re lucky, some of the famous Londonderry Arms wheaten bread). Full details of contributors and how to book here.
On Saturday 9th May 2015 I’ll be taking a One Day Writing Workshop at Roe Valley Arts and Cultural Centre, Limavady that uses John Steinbeck’s own writing and his links with the Limavady area as inspiration for new creative work. Open to beginners as well as to more experienced writers, the workshop runs from 10am-4pm with a short break for lunch. Cost £15. (Lunch not included.) To book Tel. 028 7776 0650 or email email@example.com. (Maximum 12 places.)
On Wednesday 13th May 2015 Ballycastle Writers hosts the first Writers’ Exchange, of the new Causeway Coast and Glens Council area and Flowerfield Writers’ Group will be there to join them. The event is at 7.30pm in Sheskburn House, Ballycastle. Admission is FREE. Participants are invited to read from their own work (short stories, poems, memoir, extracts from novels in progress). For more information contact the Arts Officer on 028 207 62225.
On Thursday 14th May 2015 I’ll be at the Linen Hall Library, Belfast along with writers Jan Carson and Kelly Creighton at an event hosted by the National Collection of Northern Ireland Publications (NIPR), part of the Writers on Writers Festival. ‘Success Stories: How to get your short stories published’ runs from 3pm-5.30pm. Kelly will be there in her role as editor of The Incubator, to talk about what journal editors are looking for. I will be giving advice about putting a collection together, and Jan will be talking about submitting work. This is a FREE event but advance booking is recommended. To book click on the Add to Basket button on the Success Stories link above or contact the Linen Hall on (0)28 9032 1707; email firstname.lastname@example.org. The Writers on Writers Festival runs from 13th – 16th May and features Glenn Patterson along with previous winners of the Michael McLaverty Short Story Award, Bernard MacLaverty & David Park in conversation, a writing workshop by Jo Egan, Anne Devlin talking about Elizabeth Bowen and Sophia Hillen sharing her writing experiences.
That’s it for now. More anon. Happy writing, reading, listening, editing, drafting, redrafting, sleeping, drafting some more…
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.
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.