My Life In Books: Eimear McBride

My Life In Books: Eimear McBride

Eimear McBride is an Irish novelist whose debut, A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing, won the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize in 2013 and the 2014 Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction. As she releases her new novel – Strange Hotel – she shares the writers who’ve inspired her, her childhood favourites and the biography to add to your must-read pile.

What are you reading right now?
I’m reading a collection of Simone de Beauvoir’s letters to Nelson Algren – Transatlantic Love Affair.  She was formidable and driven and, even amid this very all-consuming love affair, never lost sight of herself or the importance of her work. It’s a fascinating insight into the mind of one of the most influential intellectuals of the time. 

What book from childhood will always stay with you?
Irish Tales and Sagas by Ulick O’Connor left a big impression.The Chronicles of Narnia books too and the big one is probably Anne of Green Gables, because that’s where my romance with language began.

Any children's books you sometimes revisit? 
I can’t keep up with my own reading, so there’s no time for that. But with my daughter I’ve discovered gems I’d missed out on like Outside Over There by Where The Wild Things Are author Maurice Sendak, which is an eerie miracle of a book. My daughter’s too old for it now, but I’ve kept it on her shelf all the same.

What books made you want to write?
I always wanted to write so it’s hard to say. I do think reading a lot of Milan Kundera in my teens perhaps pushed me towards a more concentrated type of writing. I don’t think books make writers write – but they do make writers better.

When and where do you read?
Whenever – and wherever – I can. In bed. On the couch. On trains and planes. Not in cars though, that wouldn’t agree with me at all.

I don’t think books make writers write – but they do make writers better.

Where do you buy books?
I buy my books in bookshops mostly – what else did God create something so beautiful for? But I also shop around online for hard-to-find or out of print books.

Print or Kindle?
Print, always and forever. I like the sense of occasion that comes with opening a new book and then the physical journey through it which accompanies the intellectual one. And I like to look at it on the shelf years later and remember not only the book but where I was in my life when I read it. The downside of this is a house crammed with books. But then, is that really a downside?

Do you belong to a book club?
No, and from the reports I hear of reactions to my own books in them, they sound vicious!

How do you choose what to read?
Often, there are books I have to read for work reasons but I prefer to be led by whim and fancy. Nothing puts me off so much as feeling obliged to read something. When I like a particular writer, I also tend to read everything of theirs and then everyone they admired. That can take you on some very odd journeys to some very curious places.

Do you have a favourite author?
Hard to say, really. I think it’s been different at different times in my life. DH Lawrence, Edna O’Brien, Christa Wolf and Fyodor Dostoyevsky were big in my teens. George Eliot, Thomas Mann and James Joyce in my 20s. Angela Carter and EM Forster in my 30s. My 40s are still making up their mind. But even as I type this, I’m overwhelmed by thoughts of all the writers I’ve loved and omitted. So, I think my answer will be no.

What's been your favourite read of 2020 so far?
Hands down Anakana Schofield’s Bina. It’s an all-round jewel of a book which covers many interesting themes, but I particularly love how good she is on female friendship and what the loss of a female friend means in middle age. It’s not a subject that’s often tackled but is such an enormous part of most women’s lives that it’s a joy to see it handled so well here. On top of this, the writing is impeccable, hypnotic and often hilarious, which is no small feat.

What one novel will always stay with you?
I can’t pick. Different novels resurface at different times. One size does not fit all.

Favourite biography?
Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self by Claire Tomalin. How do you write the biography of the greatest recorder of his own time? A man who was wholly ordinary yet whose legacy is completely extraordinary? She captures him brilliantly. It’s a hugely impressive, humane, insightful book – and caters to my fondness for the Restoration period.

Favourite non-fiction?
I’m going to go with Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women. What an extraordinary woman she is and what an incredible piece of work. I slightly revolt at using clichés like this but, a book that alters how you perceive the world is a rare thing, it’s a game changer and this is one of the great books of our time.

Any guilty pleasures?
The biographies of old golden-era Hollywood movie stars. What lives…

I like the sense of occasion that comes with opening a new book.

What book would you give as a gift?
Well, that depends on the person I’m giving it to. Thrusting my own favourite book on someone just seems rude and I hate when people insist I ‘must’ read theirs.

What was the last book that made you cry?
Possibly Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You. It’s such a purely wonderful piece of writing.

Are there any books that have helped you through difficult times?
George Eliot generally. In a dark time, she was a little light.

Favourite literary character?
Stavrogin from Dostoyevsky’s The Devils. It must be over 20 years since I first read that book and I still find myself thinking about him.

What one book should everybody read in their lifetime?
‘Should’ has no place in the reading life. And what one book could possibly have something for everyone in it? That would, necessarily, be a terrible book. What everyone ‘should’ read is the warning to stay inside and wash their hands.

Do you have a favourite book of all time?
Ulysses. I don’t know if it’s the book I’ve enjoyed the most in my life, but simple enjoyment isn’t necessarily the best criteria for judging a book’s value or achievement. To change the prevailing culture, to change language, to shift the angle from which people view the world, these are what great writers can do and, in Ulysses Joyce does all of that. It may never have hit the bestseller lists but all of literature was changed by it. It’s my favourite because it changed my life in an utterly tangible, quantifiable way for better and for worse. Mostly better though, eventually.

Do you read poetry?
Not much. Growing up in Co Sligo, Yeats was embedded in me early on in life and I’ve always been very keen on the Russian silver-age poets, particularly Marina Tsvetayeva and Anna Akhmatova. The work of a new poet, Leeanne Quin, who is also influenced by them, came my way recently. Her book Some Lives is beautiful and certainly worth looking out for.

Has anything you've read consciously inspired your books?
Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice is all over Strange Hotel. I was a teenager when I first read it and that sense of internal exile of the self, mirrored by physical exile from everything you’ve ever cared about, has always stayed with me. It now seems a very useful tool for talking about the female experience, particularly in middle age which, perhaps, is why it has taken so long to surface as an influence. Death in Venice has a lot of plague in it though, so it may not be the best book to read right now. Strange Hotel, however, has no plague in it.

Have you got another book in the pipeline?
My God, I hope so.

Shop Eimear’s book picks below…

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