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 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).
A little while ago, I was asked by writer friend Lesley Richardson to take part in a blog hop. ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘so long as it’s not happening any time soon.’ (‘That was my reaction too,’ said Lesley, ‘you can do it any time you like.’) So here we are, five short months later, finally getting around to it. The idea is to answer four questions on your writing process, and then nominate up to three other writers to do the same, so here goes.
What are you working on?
A book - a novel to be precise. Don’t ask me for the title – I have a list the length of my arm, each of them suggesting a slightly different sort of book and the chances are that none of them will stick. I don’t know what it’s called because I don’t know what it is yet. As for what it’s about – it’s set on Rathlin Island, County Antrim, around the time of the wireless telegraphy experiments there in 1898. At least part of it is set then, and part of it is set in the present day, although that’s giving me lots of problems so that could all change. (You’re sorry you asked now, aren’t you?) I don’t really like talking (or writing) about it. It feels like a private thing while it’s happening. I would like to create the impression that it appears on the shelf fully-formed, jacketed and lovely, every word where it should be. I don’t really want you to know what an ugly malformed thing it is right now. I have to have faith that it will all work out in the end but dwelling on it in its present form with all its workings on show like a disengorged clock is not helping me.
How does your work differ from others of its genre?
I’m really beginning to regret that I agreed to do this now. What genre do I write in? Literary or historical fiction seems to be the agreed category, although, interestingly, none of my short stories have an historical setting, unless you consider the nineteen eighties to be historical, which I suppose you could argue they are. Where were we? Ah, yes, ‘others of its genre’. Well, I suppose the most obvious thing is that my characters tend to be from Northern Ireland since that’s where I spend most of my time, the royalties not having yet stretched to the purchase of the little flat in Florence. There are lots of writers I admire and whose writing skill I would like to emulate – some female, some male, some Irish, some not. Some of them write short stories, some write literary or historical fiction, some don’t do any of that. I don’t know how my writing differs from theirs except to say that most of them manage to produce more of it than I do.
Why do you write what you do?
I don’t think I have any choice. It’s certainly not a conscious thing. I don’t wake up in the morning and think: ‘Today I shall write like Alice Munro.’ If only it did work like that, if only you could take on another writer’s skin. (I’m always amazed when writers in workshops say they’re afraid to read too much in case they get influenced by other writers. As Patsy Horton of Blackstaff Press said at the recent LitNetNI Literature Development Day – ‘If you’re not reading, what are you doing?’) You can develop and improve your writing through reading and workshopping but I don’t think you can ever shoehorn it into a place where it won’t fit. You just have to try and do what you do better than you did it the last time you tried and the more of it you do, the stronger your voice becomes.
How does your writing process work?
Mostly, it doesn’t. It’s a very flawed and frustrating process but since it’s the only one I have I’m going to have to try and use it to finish this book at least. It involves writing lots of scraps of things in Scrivener and then moving them all around until they make a kind of sense. Then I print it all off in neat, double-spaced, typed drafts that are subsequently read and written over, through and under in biro with comments such as ‘check this’; ‘delete’; ‘rewrite’; ‘develop?’ and ‘What do you mean by this, you idiot?’, all of which are then incorporated into a new typed draft so that the process can begin again. There’s something slightly subversive about it. I like to deface the page. I find Scrivener really helpful but as for the rest of it, I wouldn’t recommend it. When this book’s finished, I’m going to shop around and find myself a new process, one that gets a book written in fewer than five years. (The picture at the top of this blog is of Altachuile Bay on Rathlin. It’s my chosen background when I’m writing in Scrivener. It gets me down the page.)
That’s it. And now for my nominated blog hop writer. Debbie (DJ) McCune is the author of the Young Adult trilogy Death & Co, published internationally by Hot Key Books. Death & Co. and The Mortal Knife are the first books in the series; the third book will be published in January 2015. Debbie was born in Belfast and grew up in Carrickfergus, a seaside town just north of the city. As a child she liked making up stories and even wrote some down, including a thriller about a stolen wallaby. She read Theology at Trinity College, Cambridge but mostly just read lots of books. She lives in Northern Ireland with her husband, daughter - and two cats with seven legs between them. Debbie’s on Twitter and her Author Facebook Page is here.
I’m delighted to say that Sleepwalkers has been shortlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize along with collections by Jaki McCarrick, David Rose, Rachel Trezise and John Burnside. The winning collection will be announced on Thursday 3rd July at the Free Word Centre in London where I will be quaffing something fizzy, regardless of the result.
I have returned, belatedly, to say that Sleepwalkers didn't win the shiny prize. It was won by John Burnside for his collection Something Like Happy; the Readers' Prize went to Rachel Trezise for her collection Cosmic Latte. Congratulations to both of them. We had a lovely evening, the Whittricks and I. There were chocolate-coated strawberries and the smallest Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte I have ever seen, so no complaints here.
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.