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 new novel The Tailor's House will be published by Tinder Press in 2017. 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.
This may be the most boring photograph you’ll see this year but bear with me, it's kind of exciting for me. It’s an image of the shelf in my writing room that holds the drafts of the current project. I can count ten – and this isn’t all of them. The good news is – there won’t be any more drafts taking up space. I haven’t burned the manuscript and I can’t say it’s finished – it’s never finished - I’ve learned my lesson about saying that it is. There’s editing to be done and all manner of decisions still to be made, about cover design, and about, rather importantly, the title, but I’m delighted to say that The Book (let’s just call it that for now) has been accepted for publication. Hooray!
The Book will be published in 2017 by Tinder Press, under the same editor – Mary-Anne Harrington – who edited The Butterfly Cabinet for Headline Review. Tinder Press was launched in 2013 as Headline’s literary imprint, ‘a place where classy, intelligent writing could thrive.’ Their launch title, Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave, was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award, and went on to be a Top Ten bestseller. Highlights since then include The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, an Oprah Book Club pick and international bestseller, and The Lemon Grove, an e-book phenomenon which established Helen Walsh as a major talent to watch. In 2015 they welcomed bestselling, critically acclaimed author Patrick Gale to the list with A Place Called Winter, and Sarah Winman’s hugely anticipated second novel, A Year of Marvellous Ways. ‘What these books have in common,’ say Tinder Press, ‘is a commitment to quality, and a passion for storytelling.’ I am more than a little bit delighted to have The Book placed there. Tinder Press will also republish The Butterfly Cabinet in Autumn 2016.
And here are some more reasons to be cheerful. On International Women’s Day, Tuesday 8th March, about 130 women writers from all across Northern Ireland will be coming together to take part in Women Aloud NI: a collective raising of women’s voices to celebrate the written and spoken word. There are events in every county throughout the day and into the evening: from flash fictioners in Fermanagh to balladeers in Belfast; from literati in Lisburn to dramatists in Dungannon; from prosers in Portstewart to orators in Omagh, there will be something to suit every taste. I will be at Waterstone’s in Coleraine where events kick off at 10am and continue through till 4pm in the day. I’ll be in conversation at lunchtime with the indefatigable Jane Talbot, author of The Faerie Thorn, co-ordinator and mastermind of the project, whose idea it was to do the whole thing in the first place. The day winds up at No Alibis on Botanic Avenue in Belfast in the evening where nearly 30 women writers will come together to close the day’s readings. There is a full listing of events as well as names and information on all the participating writers on the Women Aloud NI page. Come along to an event and raise your own voice, the noisier the better. And if you can't make it there in person, look out for us on Facebook or on Twitter using hashtags #WomenAloudNI #IWD2016 #ReadWomen and at our Twitter feed @WomenAloudNI. See you then.
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.
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.’
Watch the book trailer
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.