It’s time to wrap up this oh so interesting year, and what better way than to reflect on a few of the better things that happened? In this episode we gather holiday recommendations from the Kill Your Darlings team, speak with Eimear McBride about The Lesser Bohemians and A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, and share some of Omar Sakr’s poetry with you all. Have a fantastic break and see you in 2017 for more interviews, readings, discussions and general enthusiasm from the Kill Your Darlings Podcast.
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Meaghan Dew (KYD): Alan, what would you recommend to people?
Alan Vaarwerk: I would recommend, this holidays I’m going to be catching up on pretty much everything that I’ve bought but not read over the year, but this year, but I would recommend The Dragon Behind the Glass by Emily Voigt, which is like, it is a book about, a non-fiction book about a rare tropical fish called the Asian aruana, it is about pet detectives and about explorers and it’s kind of a mix of reportage and adventure and history and memoir and it’s amazing, it’s really, it’s incredible, it’s really good.
KYD: Hello and welcome to the very last Kill Your Darlings podcast of 2016. It has been an interesting one, but they have been a few high points and we will be celebrating today as I hope you all are in the lead up to the holidays. We have an Eimear McBride-heavy episode today, and interspersed you will find recommendations from the KYD staff, guaranteed to make your holidays great. The first of those was from Alan, our online editor. You will also hear some poetry from Omar Sakr, whose readings at the National Young Writers Festival was certainly one of my favourite parts of the year. But first, here is Eimear McBride, discussing her novels A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing and The Lesser Bohemians.
The first thing that you are struck with reading your work is, it has quite a unique voice, which probably, I think, has been mentioned in every interview, so sorry about that. But how did you arrive at that voice, was it developed purely for A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing?
Eimear McBride: Well, A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing is the first thing that I ever finished, I have been writing ever since I was a child, and I was always very interested in language and what it could be made to do, but really it was reading Ulysses when I was 25, was kind of, you know – the blinkers came down and I realised that you could do whatever you wanted with language, as long as you had the sort of talent for it, you could do whatever you wanted with that form, and language was there to be played with, it was not there to be respected like a museum piece, I suppose. And so when I came to write Girl, I just sort of, you know, it just happened and I just let myself do whatever I wanted, and paid a bit of a price for that afterwards, but yeah, I mean, language is everything, I suppose.
KYD: You mentioned in terms of paying a bit of a price for it, there was some difficulty in getting the book published at first – was it the language that you felt, looking back, that caused it to be somewhat of a difficult proposition for mainstream publishing?
EM: Yes, I think, I don’t – obviously the content of A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing is pretty stiff, (LAUGHS) and takes a strong reader to get through it, but I think it was really the language that put publishers off, because… According to themselves, they just didn’t know how to place it in the market, they didn’t know what to do with it. And so yeah, I don’t think it was so much the content, I think the language was the thing that put them off.
KYD: Which is a bit of a shame to look back on, because reading it, the language is what gives it its richness I feel as a reader, and it would obviously be a lot poorer without that. When you faced rejection from some mainstream publishers, were you advised to make it more palatable in any way?
EM: I wasn’t really – I think they sort of realised that it was what it was. I had a publisher who, you know, said that they would be interested if I said it was a memoir, but that is a whole other set of problems, I think. But no, I don’t think anyone tried to ‘fix it’, as it were. They just knew that it was what it was, and it wasn’t for them.
KYD: Your second book, The Lesser Bohemians, I believe that was started before A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing was published, is that correct?
EM: A long, long time before, it took me nine years to write The Lesser Bohemians, I had put in about six years before A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing was published.
KYD: But the voice is still very recognisable and the language, the use of language is still quite similar. How did you develop the resilience, or the confidence in your own work to continue along, in some ways, a similar line, when your first book faced such, well, enthusiasm, but lack of…
EM: Initially, not so much. (LAUGHS). Well, you know, funnily enough, I think the language was probably the last thing that fell into place with The Lesser Bohemians. It took me, I would say, most of the six years was really about discovering what I was writing about, because it just took a long time to understand what the book was about and who the characters were. And the language just arrived at the end. But I always knew that the two were very closely connected, they almost seemed to me to be two sides of the same coin, and while, you know, A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing is a book that is very much about describing the moment of trauma, The Lesser Bohemians is about the life after, I suppose, about survival and survivors. And also, the heroine of The Lesser Bohemians is an 18-year-old girl, who comes from rural island and arrives in London, and although she is a very, very different character, she shares that background with the girl from A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing. And so it made sense to me that language for The Lesser Bohemians begins at the same point as A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, although it changes as it progresses.
KYD: It certainly does, but I find with both of those books I was never quite sure whether it was that I was getting used to the language and in fact found it just completely natural, or whether it was that it was shifting as the book goes on. But it certainly does with The Lesser Bohemians. So there are many, many bleak events, particularly in A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, but for me at least it was an exhilarating read, rather than one where the weight of the events drag you down as a reader. Was that something you felt you needed to balance in that book?
EM: I mean… It is very much a book about despair. And there is no way to tart that up, that is what it is, and you have to just kind of go through that experience when you read it, and I had to go through that experience when I wrote it. But I think the language is there to help the reader cope with that, and hopefully, you know, to feel it more deeply, to feel, to understand the story in a deeper way, that hopefully it is not just about misery and sadness, but also a way of understanding something about human experience, that’s certainly what I want for the reader. And also, you know, I think the way that the language is constructed, I knew that there had to be a kind of a strong rhythmic pulse going through the language that would help pull the reader through the more difficult aspects of the book. So, you know, they are in it and they are probably having a hard time, but they are not alone. (LAUGHS). I was trying to help them, too.
KYD: Did you find writing The Lesser Bohemians a lighter experience, being as it is, I would say, more about love than despair?
EM: Yeah. It is certainly, it’s a much… more hopeful book, a much more optimistic book than A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, but Girl took me six months to write, The Lesser Bohemians took me nine years to write. So it has certainly had its ups and downs in that process. But… I think I probably had more pleasure in the writing than I did with Girl.
KYD: You mentioned that there is some common ground and shared history between your characters in your two novels, and while A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing certainly follows a longer period of time, there is in both, quite a bit of focus on that period in life when the world starts to open up little bit, and for both of them that is, to a certain extent, when they move away from home. Do they both focus on that period because the second book was written before the first was published, or are you drawn to that period of change in people’s lives, and that period of the world expanding?
EM: Yeah, no, I think it was because I am interested in that, because I didn’t really think about A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing when I was writing The Lesser Bohemians, I sort of forgot about it, because it wasn’t published, and I needed to forget about it, you know, and once you start a new book you kind of fall in love and the other book is like, you know, an old boyfriend that you wish well for but you don’t really preoccupy yourself with anymore. So I didn’t really think about that. But that period in life is, I still find very, very interesting, and I think I felt with Girl, I hadn’t really plumbed the depths of it, or plumbed the depths that were there, because her set of circumstances made that experience quite narrow and quite particular. Whereas, you know, with The Lesser Bohemians, I was interested in the idea of what it’s like to come to the big city when you’re 18, and to start experiencing life as sort of a much freer, more open life – cultural life, intellectual life, artistic life – when you have come from a much more conservative society and background. And there is a lot of fun in that, a lot of pleasure in that. And I suppose I enjoy looking at that in a way that I wasn’t really possible to enjoy in A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing. So The Lesser Bohemians is much more about that experience, that is filled with life rather than filled with despair.
KYD: How was the experience of going through the publishing process with The Lesser Bohemians, with the success of Girl behind you?
EM: Well, obviously it was much simpler! (LAUGHS). It took much less time. I just said that I wanted to sell this book, and someone bought it, and that is basically what happened. Thank God! Because I really couldn’t have taken a whole other nine years of not being able to get published. But it is, it is different to get published by a big established press, to getting published by an indie pressed, the whole timescale thing is quite odd, because when I was published by Galley Beggar with Girl, they said, we want to publish your book, and six months later it was on the shelf, whereas with The Lesser Bohemians it was, I handed it in, and there was a sort of long editing process, there was more of a proofing process, and there was just waiting, just waiting for it to come out. So that’s been a new thing.
KYD: Probably the most dreaded question usually is, are you working on anything new at the moment? Or are you taking a bit of a break?
EM: No, I am – I swore to myself that I wasn’t, that I was going to take a break, but apparently it doesn’t really work that way. But yeah, I am a few thousand words into the new book, but I have known what that book was going to be for quite a long time. And I am kind of intrigued to see if it’s possible to get it out onto the page now as opposed to just having it swinging around in my brain.
KYD: Is it a tough one to work on while doing all of the publicity surrounding the publication of The Lesser Bohemians?
EM: Well, I think, you know, after Girl, I had a better idea of what would happen around publication, I mean, with Girl, I didn’t know what, 300 people might buy it over the course of the year, I had no idea there was going to be any kind of publicity or media business or anything like that. But this time around I sort of factored that into the process. But it is kind of useful because really, I’m not quite ready to be writing, but I am ready to be thinking, and so I can do that in between all the other business.
KYD: Do you have anything to recommend from the year as something that people can give to someone else, or could do over the holidays, or something, any of those things, literally.
Hop Dac: Anything I’d recommend, everyone else is already doing that would be listening to this thing, I presume – but something I’ve gotten into recently is the New York Times recipe app, so you can download this app, and New York Times recipes, they’re amazing, especially the clams and spaghetti recipe which I go to frequently. But the recipes there are amazing, and yeah, it’s really simple food but done really well, and I recommend it if you like cooking – if you don’t have time to read like I do, I have read nothing since my time with KYD except for KYD stories – what I would recommend you do, if you have the time over the summer, is to download this app and make a few things, because it’s totally worth it.
KYD: Sounds like a great plan, thank you very much!
HD: No problem!
KYD: That was Hop, who recommends cooking when you don’t have time for reading, and he followed Eimear McBride, author of The Lesser Bohemians, which she will be reading from in just a moment. You are listening to the Kill Your Darlings podcast.
EM: Up to the walkway under hulkish sky. Breeze licked and nerves cracking fissures inside as he points out Big Ben. Parliament there – look through the grating. At halfway he says Here’s London spread out for you. In the murk cold Thames still curling away. Lights just beginning across the city. All the stone world of it. Its stone face. Showing its towers and flanks and shapes, purplish in this light, and grey. And I stand, strick, by its great space, watching the boats til St Paul’s there, he says the Oxo Tower. Barbican. Pointing out places I cannot see, then can, because he stands behind Look along my arm. No there. No. There. Do you see? When I still don’t, he bends to see it how I see and I see all of it then. This is the most beautiful view I’ve ever seen, I say. Really? Better than Naples with those boats stretched out across the bay? Ah fuck. He remembers my lies. Sorry, those were all lies, I say I’ve never been there, or anywhere else. His elbow on the rail Well you’re a surprise, what did you make all that up for? I don’t know to be interesting I suppose. How very calculating, he laughs And I thought you believed in love? I do but love isn’t what that was. True, he says But what if I’d been a lonely soul looking for it? Are you? No, I’m not, and you’re not much of a liar – I guessed. This I concede, I’ve never been. Oh well, that means you’re probably quite good at the acting. I quick look up to see if he’s joking. He’s only watching though and in a moment says So, you just used me for your sexual gratification then? Well, I say It didn’t turn out to be that gratifying so perhaps I got what I deserved. Didn’t you get what you wanted? Didn’t you? I say. Sort of it started out well enough but. You were hurting me, I whisper. You were a virgin, he whispers back I’m not responsible for the laws of nature. I know that but I thought at least I wouldn’t have to see you again. Ah, well you shouldn’t have shagged an actor then – but by now he is laughing and I almost am, Over my chasing brain. So throw my breath to the Thames and the strange of the day as we strangers stand looking out on the city. Quiet then but for its sound – that noise it must make for its life to go round. Slow aftershave smell of some passing man. Loud of the train as it clanks behind. Me watching the river. Him watching me. What? I ask. You know well what, he says and stoops and kisses me.
That was Eimear McBride reading from her latest novel, The Lesser Bohemians, definitely one of my favourite books of the year. Up next, we will have Omar Sakr.
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KYD: That was Omar Sakr, poet, poetry editor for The Lifted Brow, and writer published in, among a number of other publications, Kill Your Darlings. His book comes out through Cordite early next year, so that’s one to look forward to. But before that we have to finish reflecting on the year that has been.
So Ash, do you have anything to recommend for us?
Ashleigh Hanson: Yeah, I do – this isn’t, like, a recent book, but it is always a good book for people who love books. It is called The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, and it is about librarians and books within books. I feel like you can’t go wrong if you have a book lover in your family, so that’s my number one pick.
Gerard Elson: It is the new book from a writer whom I really like called Olivia Laing, her previous book was called The Trip to Echo Springs, and it was sort of a series of canned biographies of alcoholic male writers, and she only focused specifically on male people in that book for a reason, a very tragic region, which became quite apparent as the book went on. What I like about her is how she very skilfully interweaves memoir with, sort of, cultural history, criticism, biography, all these different kinds of things. She is very good at bring different strands together, always through a particular thematic prism. So her new book is called The Lonely City, it has got a very poor subtitle, ‘Adventures in the art of being alone.’ And it makes it sound a bit self-helpy, but it’s really not – I think this book might be even better than her last one. In this one, though, she focuses a lot more on visual artists, people like Andy Warhol and Henry Darger, Edward Hopper, Greta Garbo is in there, also Valerie Solanas, who I love, who is the writer of the Scum Manifesto, who was a very fascinating individual – all of these people lived quite tragic lives. So this one, as you may have inferred from the title, the sort of prism through which she is looking at things is this idea of loneliness, and the different manifestations of loneliness. And as I say, I think it might even be better than The Trip To Echo Springs which is a book that I really, truly adored from a couple of years ago. And I just think she is a very, very interesting thinker, and, it sounds, as I say, there are some pretty depressing stuff in these lives, but the book never feels too heavy or, never feels like a trudge, like it might well have been in the hands of a less skilful writer. That’s my endorsement of this year, I think. For this festive season, The Lonely City by Olivia Laing.
KYD: Wonderful, sounds like the perfect time for it.
GE: Exactly, right? Christmas is the time.
Hannah Kent: The holidays for me, especially when you get those heatwaves and we always had so many of them growing up in Adelaide, so I always have a bit of a binge watch over the holidays. And this year I watched some really great shows, Stranger Things, I think, was really popular, everyone’s seen that, but this year I also saw The Returned, the French version of that, which was incredible. I was completely glued to the television screen, I watched it in a matter of days, I think it is wonderful, it is extraordinary writing…
Rebecca Starford: Since moving to Brisbane I’ve rediscovered the pleasures of running, of jogging, which is an activity I have a kind of haphazard, inconsistent relationship with, but I find, you know, that slow getting back into running is something that has enabled me to get back into the creative process as well. In terms of watching or kind of consuming cultural products – this is a really guilty pleasure, and I feel self-conscious even saying it, but I watched all of The Crown, really quite quickly. And although I don’t believe in the monarchy, I kind of appreciated the mythology of the series and the crafting of the drama, and the capacity for the script to build dramatic scenes around things as really mundane as whether she should change her name, or, you know, all of these various duties that Phillip needs to assume as her kind of inferior, her consort. And I think Claire Foy is fantastic as the Queen, and it kind of recasts her in a new and interesting light for being a person who has only known the Queen in her older age. An understanding those kind of essence of responsibility and duty.
KYD: There must be something you got excited about this year! I know it is on the spot.
Guy Shield: In terms of little things that I have worked on or consumed, yeah, everyone should buy a KYD print, it certainly keeps me in an industry, and it looks good on your wall – but that’s another shameless self-promotion. One of the TV shows I did get into this year, amidst Game of Thrones and Stranger Things, I quite enjoyed the Judd Apatow series Love and actually kind of enjoyed the Will Arnett series Flaked, about an Alcoholics Anonymous supervisor and I guess all of his antics in downtown Venice in LA, I kind of like the vibe of that, and some of the bits were a little bit heavy-handed in terms of obviousness, but overall I didn’t mind the tone of it. Yeah, that’s all that has really come off at my head right now.
KYD: That is all perfectly fine, people need something to do over the holidays, and those seems like good options.
GS: Yeah, try Flaked, try Love, try not watching TV! I’ve made a conscious effort not to do that this year, and I feel I’ve got less to talk about socially, but I feel a lot richer on the inside. So there you go.
KYD: Thank you for that. So your recommendation essentially is to not consume things?
GS: Yeah, a little bit. Consume just what’s around you on a natural level, like, take a break from forced consuming.
KYD: Thank you very much.
That was Ash Hanson, Gerard Elson, Hannah Kent, Rebecca Starford and Guy Shield, taking us to the end of the podcast. That’s all we have time for today and this year, so thanks to Eimear McBride, Omar Sakr, the KYD team and everyone who’s been on the podcast in 2016. Please have a safe and happy break – read a lot, see a lot, spend time with the people you love, and join us again next year for more interviews, readings, commentary and general enthusiasm from myself and the rest of the team at Kill Your Darlings.