Bernie McGill talks about her widely-praised debut novel, The Butterfly Cabinet, and answers some revealing 'quick questions' about herself
You've written plays as well as short stories and novels. How has your experience with playwriting (and with watching your plays unfold in front of you) affected your fiction writing?
Writing for the theatre, in my experience at least, is a much more collaborative process than writing fiction. During the making of a theatre piece, there are a number of voices in the room, there's more input from other creative people, all of whom have an investment in the final made thing. When it comes to writing fiction it makes you very aware that the choices you make are your own. I always read my fiction aloud, I need to hear what's being said to gauge its authenticity. I think theatre writing makes you a more spare fiction writer; it makes you aware of how much you can show and how little you need to tell. It makes you realize how redundant most adjectives are and how important nouns and verbs are, the real nuts and bolts of writing. And I think it helps you to focus on what happens. You need to treat your potential reader with the same respect you'd grant an audience member, ask yourself, "Would an audience sit through this?" If the answer's no, then you know what to do. Get the scissors out and start cutting.
You write on your website about gleaning the editorial services of a fussy Annaghmakerrig table lamp at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, a writer's and artist's retreat. Do you find yourself at the mercy of any other unorthodox editors during the writing process?
There are a number of techniques that we use in the writing groups I work with to "test" your writing, questions such as "Does this passage move the story forward?"; "Where does this incident take us?"; "Is this piece of writing absolutely essential?" I am guilty of being seduced by the poetry of language, I become attached to a piece of writing because it sounds good, but you do have to remind yourself that you're telling a story, that you need to keep the reader with you at all times. My UK editor did a fantastic job on the first draft of The Butterfly Cabinet, and many of her edits could be paraphrased thus: "Beautiful piece of writing, what's the point of it?" I use the second part of that phrase now when I'm writing to help me focus.
Per your website, the original title of The Butterfly Cabinet was The Lepidopterist. Why did you change the title? Were your earlier drafts more focused on Harriet - the lepidopterist - and less on the symbolism of the butterfly cabinet?
The Lepidopterist was always a working title; before that the book was called The Sea Diaries. I always thought it was a little inaccessible as a title; in general I try and avoid Latinate phrases and go for the more direct Anglo-Saxon choice. But it got me through the first draft. Harriet was always the main protagonist of the book, Maddie was invented to act as a foil to her, but she ended up having an important role to play, not just in the telling of the story, but in the story itself. The story is fairly evenly divided up between the two narratives. I think it was my agent who suggested The Butterfly Cabinet as a title, either her or my editor, and I liked it, so we went with it. It changed the book a little - the cabinet became more prominent, and I had to come up with an explanation of how it had ended up in Maddie's possession, but it's fun trying to work those things out.
On your website, you talk about the process by which you decided to relocate your fictional story away from the castle where the real-life inspiration occurred. What parts of the historical record - the newspaper articles about Harriet, the prison details, or the maid work, for example - did you adopt more directly?
It's very hard to say what percentage of the book is fictional and what percentage is more closely tied to fact. In broad terms, the events surrounding the child's death follow the testimonies as related by witnesses at the trial. According to the newspaper reports, the child was put in the wardrobe room by the governess because she had soiled herself. The mother was out of the house at the time, and when she returned she went in to the child, tied her by the hands to a ring on the wall, went out, locked the door, put the key in her pocket, and left her alone for about three hours. When she returned, the child was dead. These events were related by the mother at the inquest that was held in the house the following day. Harriet's backstory is a complete invention, as is her obsession with butterflies, and Maddie is an entirely fictional character, although in some ways, she is a kind of collage, inspired by the servants who gave evidence at the trial. The prison details and the maidservants' work came from reading social histories of the period. I wanted to make those two worlds as authentic as I possibly could. I also visited the National Archive in Dublin to read the original prison records for Grangegorman. It was really strange to see the mother's name there, written by someone who had actually known her, would have dealt with her on a daily basis. That was far more chilling than reading about her in the newspapers. It made it very real to me.
How did you land upon the idea of two narrators (plus a few brief letters from Anna) for your story? Did you ever consider adding more voices?
It was very important to me that we heard Harriet's story. As I said above, she made a statement at the inquest, hours after the child's death, which was recorded and reread on several occasions, and printed in the newspapers. It was a fairly bald, emotionless statement of fact and it makes for very uncomfortable reading. She comes across as a fairly cold individual. But I think that was what intrigued me most. As far as I understand it, the law at the time was such that neither the defendant, nor members of the defendant's immediate family, were permitted to give evidence during a trial, so these printed words by the mother are the only words of hers that we have. I wanted to know what she would have said, had she been given the chance. There were questions I wanted to ask her, and this was the only means I had of having her speak. There was no question in my mind that Harriet should be allowed to talk for herself.
As for Maddie, I was looking around for someone who could offer another version of events, and for a while I became interested in the idea that that other character might be a reporter working on the case. I eventually rejected this idea, though, because I wanted that other person to have an insight into the workings of the household, both before and after the child's death. For a while, I entertained the notion that the other narrator might be Julia, Harriet's sister, but I became more and more drawn to a servant's voice. I wanted someone who would contrast with Harriet in terms of their social standing, their upbringing and education, and who had that duality that servants often had: someone who was an integral member of the household but who could be a witness to events, almost unseen. Other voices do come into the story - Edward's, the children's, the other servants' - but all filtered through Harriet and Maddie. I'm always interested in how people's versions of events will differ from one another, how we all put our own spin on things. That relationship between truth and interpretation is very engaging, I think.
Which character would you most want to be friends with? Why?
I think Peig sounds like a good soul, and Maddie as a young woman would have been fun to know, and you could have had a good old flirt with Alphie. I think Harriet's the kind of woman you would avoid at the school gates but gossip about endlessly with your friends. "Did you hear what she said to Mrs So and So...?" - that kind of thing. She'd be very unapproachable, immaculately turned-out, her domestic life would run like clockwork. You'd never have a good word to say about her but your ears would prick up every time her name was mentioned, which would be often. She'd be much maligned and much spoken about.
How did you originally stumble across the historical research that gave way to Harriet's character? Did you know immediately that you'd found a book idea, or did the idea resurface later in your mind?
I came across the story in a local parish magazine, just a short article about the big house up the road and the mother who'd been imprisoned for the killing of her young daughter. It lodged in my brain. I pass the entrance to the house regularly, and every time I did it sent a shiver up my spine. My own children were fairly young at the time, around five and seven. I couldn't stop thinking about what had happened there, so short a distance from my own home, albeit more than a hundred years before. Around that time, I'd been awarded a grant from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland to write a collection of short stories. I decided to start with this one. My idea was to write about ten stories, roughly ten years apart in time, leading up to the present day, but I couldn't get away from this one story. Everything I wrote led back to it again. I was working with a mentor, a writer named Damian Gorman, and he suggested that there might be scope for a novel. It was a frightening idea, but after a bit of persuasion, I decided to give it a go. The research was quite time-consuming, but I kept coming across aspects of the story that held me - at the time of her imprisonment, the mother was pregnant with her ninth child. The child who died was the only daughter in the family. I'm the youngest of a family of ten children, seven boys and three girls. I'm sure it had some bearing on my interest.
Did the butterfly theme come from historical research or from your own construction of Harriet?
The butterfly theme was an invention of my own. I had read that the mother was a keen and skilled horse rider, a huntswoman, and a renowned horse breaker. This passion of hers seemed to fit very neatly into the image of her as a strict disciplinarian, but I was looking for something a little more poetic. I had been reading about the Victorians, about the legacy of Darwin, the rise in interest in the study of the animal world, the apparent lack of squeamishness around collecting, preserving, studying insects and much larger animals. That image of the collectors' cabinet is, I think, quintessentially of that era. I began to wonder if Harriet was a collector and if so, what that meant. Was she someone who could only appreciate the beauty of the thing when it was still? I thought that if that were true, that that was both chilling and sad, and that seemed to fit with who I thought she was.
You write on your website, of Harriet, "I wasn't trying to justify what she'd done, I didn't particularly want to identify with her, but I did feel compelled to try and understand the motivations of that fictional character she had become." By now, at the end of the writing process, do you feel you understand her motivations? Are there parts of her as a character that you still don't understand?
There are, absolutely, parts of Harriet that I don't understand, that I'm wary of understanding. I did want to get inside her head, but I didn't particularly want to dwell there. It was, as I've said before, a dark place to be. I'm glad I don't have to be there anymore. There are things I admire about her as an individual. When she made the statement at the inquest about locking the door and putting the key in her pocket, she essentially damned herself from her own mouth. She was saying, "I, and I alone, am to blame." She wasn't allowing room for speculation, which is, of course, what caused me to speculate when I was writing the book.
You write in your website bio, "I love the contract that's made between writers and readers/audiences: when people sit down, individually or together, and conspire to believe in what is openly, transparently, not true." What messages or emotions do you hope to convey to your readers in this particular shared conspiracy of belief?
I always look for emotional truth in fiction, for characters that you can believe in, who do things that you may or may not agree with, but which you can understand. I think that's the real joy of fiction and the theatre, and if those made-up people doing made-up things can cause you to look at the world a little differently, be a little more tolerant, a little less judgmental, then I think the art form is doing its job. Sometimes we need a medium like that, or a mirror, or a filter, we need to look at make-believe in order to get a clearer perspective on our own world. I love George Eliot's definition, in The Mill on the Floss, of metaphor: "we can so seldom declare what a thing is, except by saying it is something else." We seem to need to pretend, sometimes, that a thing is something else in order to appreciate what it is. You should always come away from a story or a book or from the theatre a little changed, I think, in your outlook, a little cheered, or a little more enlightened, or a little better informed, or a little more sympathetic, otherwise what's the point?
Do you have any ideas for, or beginnings of, a second novel right now? If not, what do you plan to work on next?
I'm tentatively working on a second novel set on Rathlin, a small inhabited island off the north coast of Ireland. It was the site, in 1898, of some of the first wireless experiments conducted by Marconi's engineers. Even nowadays, the island is occasionally cut off in bad weather. I love the idea that this relatively remote and isolated place, which didn't have electricity until the early 1990s, was the site of such experimental technology at the end of the nineteenth century that people were able to send and receive messages between there and the mainland without the aid of cables or wires. It must have seemed like magic was at work. I'm fascinated by that idea that your words can travel beyond you, specifically in the context of a community that knew all too well what it was to be isolated from the rest of the world.
Before your writing career took off, you worked as a theater manager and events coordinator. Would you consider going back to the theater, or are you firmly and happily entrenched in the writer's path now?
At the moment, I seem to be a fiction writer, but I'd love to write again for the theater. It is a magical place, even, maybe especially, when you know what it looks like from behind the scenes. When I was a student I worked as an usherette in the Queen's Film Theater in Belfast. We used to view the same film six, seven times or more, and even though the film never changed, even though what was showing on the screen was essentially fixed, the experience was never the same twice because the audience took on a different personality for every screening. Imagine how much more exciting it is to experience a theatre piece, often in a different performance space, always in front of a new audience, and where the actors respond directly to the exigencies of that space and those people every time. It is wholly live, it is never, ever the same twice, nor could it possibly be, and that's what's most exciting about it. There are some stories that work better in the theatre, that need to be seen and not told, and when I next find one, that's where I'll take it.
How would you describe your life in only 8 words?
family, writing, teaching, reading, researching, eating, cooking, laundry
What is your motto or maxim?
Currently, I'm fond of 'Abandon your story'. It's about allowing yourself to stop writing and allowing other people to start reading your work, which is, after all, the point of the exercise.
How would you describe perfect happiness?
Installed in a little villa in Tuscany or Umbria with a self-cleaning pool, my own tomatoes growing in the garden, a hammock strung between the pines, a never-emptying bottle of prosecco in the fridge, shelves groaning with books, a free trattoria within staggering distance, and family and good friends to share it.
What's your greatest fear?
That harm should come to any of the people I love.
If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would you choose to be?
Right now, here is good, doing this. But for a few years down the line, see my idea of perfect happiness.
With whom in history do you most identify?
I'm very fond of the boy who said the Emperor wasn't wearing any clothes. I know that, strictly speaking, he's a fictional character, but there have been such people in history too. It's just that their names don't usually get remembered.
Which living person do you most admire?
I'm a big fan of Mary McAleese, the Irish President.
What are your most overused words or phrases?
'Fair play to you, Dolly!' Also: 'What's for you won't go by you.'
What do you regret most?
Nothing, it's all taking you somewhere.
If you could acquire any talent, what would it be?
To play the guitar.
What is your greatest achievement?
Whats your greatest flaw?
I have too much anxiety about the bad things that could happen.
Whats your best quality?
I'm a very good listener.
If you could be any person or thing, who or what would it be?
A time-traveling companion to Jane Austen, while she was writing, knowing what I know.
What trait is most noticeable about you?
I have big ears.
Who is your favorite fictional hero?
Very difficult. It's a tie, I'd say, between Celie Johnson from The Color Purple and Elinor Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility.
Who is your favorite fictional villain?
If you could meet any historical character, who would it be and what would you say to him or her?
I'd be interested to meet Emily Davison, the English campaigner for suffragism who threw herself under the King's horse at Ascot in 1913, in protest that women did not have the vote. I'd want to ask her if she'd thought about it fully before she did it, if she was committed to dying for the cause. I'd want to know if she thought it was worth it. I'd like to know what she makes of us all today.
What is your biggest pet peeve?
Politicians delivering bad news who think if they put 'going forward' in the sentence, that everyone listening will be fooled into thinking that the news is good.
What is your favorite occupation, when youre not writing?
Walking or reading, but not at the same time. I saw a woman on the beach once doing both. I think that's taking multi-tasking far too far.
What's your fantasy profession?
Singer/songwriter/guitar player. (Not one of these. All three of these.)
What 3 personal qualities are most important to you?
Sincerity, humor, intelligence.
If you could eat only one thing for the rest of your days, what would it be?
What are your 5 favorite songs?
Only five? Seriously? Well, for now, because of their associations as well as their stories: Van Morrison's 'In the Garden'; Elbow's 'Starlings'; 'The Waterboys' 'The Whole of the Moon'; Snow Patrol and Martha Wainwright's 'Set the Fire to the Third Bar'; Damien Rice's 'The Blower's Daughter'
Who are your favorite authors?
Margaret Atwood, Pat Barker, A.S. Byatt, Peter Carey, Anne Enright, Claire Keegan, Flannery O'Connor, Andrea Levy, Cormac McCarthy, Anne Michaels, Toni Morrison, Alice Munro, Maggie O'Farrell, Annie Proulx, Alice Sebold, Lionel Shriver, Zadie Smith, Alice Walker, John Banville, Sebastian Barry, Patrick McCabe, Eoin McNamee, Joseph O'Connor, Flann O'Brien.
What are your 5 favorite books of all time?
Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood. I'd spent years at University reading books that were supposed to be good for me. I didn't know that there were books like this - beautifully written books that you would want to read, that told a cracking good story.
Possession by A S Byatt. My friend and I (both English graduates) spent hours talking about how much we adored this book when what we were actually saying was, we really wanted to be Maud Bailey.
Beloved by Toni Morrison. A stunning book, a ghost story told matter-of-fact and an eye-opener as well as an ear-opener when I was in my twenties.
The Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe. Dark, very dark, and quite, quite brilliant.
At Swim, Two Birds by Flann O'Brien. Very funny, quite anarchic and (first published in 1939), way ahead of its time.
Is there a book you love to reread?
I always think that when I have more time I'll go back and read my favorite books, but I'm too greedy for new books to do that now.
Do you have one sentence of advice for new writers?
Read as much and as widely as you can, books by writers from different cultures and backgrounds to your own as well as those that are more familiar, and write, write, write.
What comment do you hear most often from your readers?
Quite a few people have said to me that they read The Butterfly Cabinet in one sitting. I'm delighted they found it compelling, but I have mixed feelings about that. It took me five years to write!
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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