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.
When we were small and the likes of Giant Haystacks and Big Daddy were to be found on our TV screen, bouncing off the ropes of a wrestling ring and slamming heads off the canvas, there was a question that could be heard repeated over and over in our house and that question was: ‘Do you submit?’ This was generally delivered by the brother who at the time had your head in an arm lock or who was sitting on your back. And maybe because you couldn’t hear so well (what with your ears being squished flat against your head, or because your nose was down the back of the sofa and your concentration was elsewhere) or maybe because we were big into wrestling and not so big into diction, to my ears the question usually sounded more like ‘D’yousummit?’ to which the answer, if you genuinely couldn’t take any more pain was ‘Isummit’ or if you were thran (definition and pronunciation here, for non-Ulster-Scots-influenced speakers) and thought you still had a chance of throwing your opponent off, then the accepted reply was, ‘Idon'summit’. I was fairly thran, I still am, but being the youngest, and not that big into pain, I submitted quite a bit.
In these days of writing deadlines the question of submission has a whole new meaning, but it strikes me that there’s a reason why that particular word is used. When you release your writing into the world, you submit it to the opinion of someone who didn’t write it, whether that be to a friend or to a relative, to your writing group members, to an editor, to an agent, to a competition judge, or even, to the trial of all trials, online book reviewers. And the question on your mind is: ‘Will the writing stand up to it? Is it strong enough to withstand the pressure of someone else’s scrutiny?’ I’m close to submitting another draft of the current book to my agent. I think this may be the tenth draft I’ve written (I haven’t submitted all ten – I’m not completely mad) and I’m stalling, because if this one doesn’t make the cut, then I have to make that decision again – to get back up and rework or to throw in the towel? Submission in the new sense can mean summission in the old. There’s such a thing as a book that can beat you.
I did play truant in between some of those drafts and wrote a short story that is included in a new anthology of Irish women writers, The Long Gaze Back. It is published by New Island Books and edited by Sinéad Gleeson and is officially launched on Wednesday 23rd September 2015 in the Liquor Rooms, Wellington Quay, Dublin. The anthology consists of thirty short stories by Irish women writers, living and dead, including Elizabeth Bowen, Maeve Brennan, Maria Edgeworth, Mary Lavin, Kate O’Brien, Charlotte Riddell and Somerville & Ross. A number of these writers were on my study list at University so it’s a real honour and a privilege to have a story of mine included alongside theirs and alongside the many brilliant contemporary women writers that are included. Reviews to date include Alison Walsh in The Sunday Independent, Martina Evans in The Irish Times, Ruth Gilligan in The Irish Independent and book blogs By the Book Reviews and We Love This Book. I’ll be reading from the anthologised story alongside fellow anthologees (a word I may have made up), Lucy Caldwell, Anne Devlin and Roisín O’Donnell at the Linen Hall Library on Thursday 22nd October 2015 at 6.30pm as part of the Ulster Bank Belfast International Arts Festival. The reading will be followed by a discussion on the short story. You can find full details of all Festival events, and download the programme here.
It is my very great pleasure to help to launch a new collection, The Faerie Thorn and Other Stories, published by Blackstaff Press and written by Jane Talbot on Friday 25th September 2015 at 6pm at the North Down Museum, Bangor, part of the Aspects Festival of Irish Literature. This is a beautifully-written collection that contains fresh and clever re-workings of sometimes-familiar stories that are grounded in the County Antrim places from which they sprouted: the Bush river, Gortanuey Bridge, Breen Wood, Murlough Bay. Jane Talbot’s joy in the written and the spoken word is evident in every line. These are never condescending, never didactic, never simple moral tales but complex, surprising, beguiling stories for grown women and men, the pleasure of which carries far off the page and will stay with you long after you’ve read them. Highly recommended reading.
Further down the line, I’ll be leading a one-day participative writing workshop at Roe Valley Arts & Cultural Centre, Limavady on Saturday 31st October 2015 from 10am to 4pm on the theme of ‘Between the Lights’. Full details and booking information here.
Back to the manuscript and the question of submission now. More news anon.
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…
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.