Unknowing Fictions: Eimear McBride & Lee Rourke in Conversation
Several weeks ago two of contemporary British fiction’s most promising writers, Eimear McBride and Lee Rourke, joined Granta editor Max Porter at Dulwich Books, in leafy West Dulwich. Amongst other things they talked about ‘difficult’ prose, the importance of not knowing, trauma, and the revolving door of Modernism’s Martello tower. The Literateur was there to lend an ear, and here’s the interview in full, questions and chair duties by Max Porter. All photography by Philip Maltman.
Max Porter: Thanks for having us Dulwich Books – the award winning Dulwich Books – it’s very nice to do these things in bookshops, it’s the nicest place to do them, and supporting an independent bookshop: buy books! And these two will sign them, and they will become immensely valuable.
I think there’s an enormous amount to talk about with both these authors if they were on their own, and a colossal amount to talk about in the way their fiction meets, and certain things they have in common. But for now, when I was thinking about what to talk about with these books, it was one hundred years since Ulysses, so my reading of both of your books became infused with this sense of Joyce inevitably being in the room with us tonight. So I wonder if you could both just briefly introduce these novels, and if you want, as a springboard for discussion, speculate on any things they might have in common?
Lee Rourke: Yeah, Joyce for me is a kind of blueprint for literature itself. A friend of mine once said that Finnegans Wake was a telescope into the Big Bang of literature, a kind of source code for everything. I’ve always been obsessed with something Joyce said, which was literature is rich trash, to be re-used at will, over and over again. That’s how I approach writing, not by yearning to be original, but [instead] I see that there’s a kind of layering of literature that you can excavate and explore, use and re-use and put together. I don’t believe in grand narratives, I believe in a fractured narrative. I’m not afraid of trying to put things back together and it not working, I like the idea of literature not working as much as it works. I guess Joyce’s analytical approach to literature in that sense, the way he pieced things together and made these portmanteau words [and] re-invented literature at a time when it was in a real crisis, brought this trauma into it. That, for me, I just can’t ignore, it ripples through everything that I do, in writing.
Eimear McBride: Well, you know, Joyce was a big influence for me but probably just in terms of the fact that I find his writing a lot more fun than other writing. I really just like the fact that he’s so irreverent, while there’s clearly this enormous throbbing brain at work. Ulysses is one of my favourite books but I still have no idea what’s going on throughout most of it, and I suppose really it was that lack of holiness around language that was the most interesting thing for me. The starting-off point for my book was a quote – every time I say this I always have to say that I can’t quite remember exactly, but – in a letter to his patron, he [Joyce] wrote, ‘one great part of every human existence cannot be rendered sensible by the use of wide-awake language, cut-and-dried grammar and go-ahead plot’. That was the beginning, for me, of deciding to write in the way that I chose to write A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing.
MP: And you said a thing somewhere about Ulysses opening the door to Modernism, and Finnegans Wake slamming it shut, and you going back to the opportunity that Ulysses presents to a writer?
EM: Yeah, I do feel that, but maybe I was a bit presumptuous in saying that the door was completely shut by Finneagans Wake, because I recently had to read a section of it for a recording and it was the most attention I’ve ever had to give to any reading, ever, and in doing it I did understand a great deal more about what’s going on in that book. But yes, I do feel that Finneagans Wake closed down a tradition, it was the end of Modernism, it finished it and said, ‘there is no more to be had here for anyone, this is it’. And I don’t agree. So in order to disagree in any useful way, I felt I had to step back and go back to Ulysses, where there is still compelling character and plot, the meat of literature, and try and find my own way forward with Modernism from that point.
[pullquote]Eimear McBride: The themes in my book […] were all the things I really didn’t want to write about. I didn’t set out thinking I wanted to write about sex and death and Ireland, and all of that.[/pullquote]
MP: I’m obsessed with this idea that it’s not necessarily your influences that weigh heavily on you as you go to write a book, but there’s this idea of permission-givers, and I think there’s a distinction between the two. Do you want to talk a little bit more about some of those for both of you? Which other ghosts are in the room with us?
LR: Oh, many. I’m not a hauntologist in that sense, but my fictions are conversations with the writers I love, and the theories I love. The Ballardian dystopia is a very easy structure to write around, and it’s the kind of structure that makes sense to me, but I’m also interested in navigation and blindness in writing, and the impossibility of writing, in which I’m influenced heavily by people like Maurice Blanchot. This kind of unknown stuff that Beckett tuned in to, this kind of gut feeling. I don’t plan my books, I don’t think about a plot, I don’t think about readers, I just go ahead with it and see how I can navigate through it, and I use certain theories to get to some sort of an end. Endings I’m not particularly interested in either. I like the beginnings of fictions, where they come from and why they are fictions.
MP: Mind you, it’s a hell of an ending. Stuff happens.
LR: Yeeaah, stuff has got to happen, I guess.
MP: But there is this sense when I read your work, particularly in The Canal but again in Vulgar Things that there’s almost a reluctance for stuff to happen, but life is life and shit happens so your characters get drawn into it against their will, when they’d really rather be sitting around thinking about nothing…
LR: They would, yeah. The people who populate my fictions don’t really think about much, but the things around them propel them into circumstances where they’re hit head on or they wallow in their stasis. A friend of mine recently said I’d make a great detective novelist, because a lot of my novels have this inquisitive kind of quest [structure]. Canal even has a kind of chase scene. So I’m aware of what to take from genres, but it’s unknowable. I don’t feel that I’ve mastered anything.
MP: No, no one ever does, right? Eimear, Lee saying that he doesn’t plan – is that how it happened [with A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing]?
EM: Yeah, it was, exactly like that. I sat down with this other idea in my head of this novel I was going to write, about a woman who walks down a road in London in one day, which obviously was plagiarised wildly, and happily for me didn’t come to anything. So I was there bashing away at this story, and I knew I was trying to make language work in a different way, so that was there at the beginning. I liked, actually, your description of permission-givers rather than influences, because I certainly felt when I was writing that there was no-one over my shoulder who I was trying to measure up to. I lifted what I thought was useful from people I admire, but then I left them outside to have a fag so I could get on with the book.
So I was trying to make language work around this idea, and it just wouldn’t at all, and then I just fell into the first words of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, and after two or three sentences I thought, ‘oh, okay, that’s the beginning of the novel’. And then at each point as I went along I had to then make a choice about what happens next. There are a couple of points in the book that when I look at it I can see the chisel marks, where I’ve gone, ‘oh, but that didn’t happen’, and then in the next line said, ‘oh, but it did‘. Because that’s the moment when I’d probably finished for the day, and I’d come back to it the next day and thought ‘that is going to happen’, and then had to write that. The whole book was built on trying to follow the logic of the story.
LR: It’s funny you should say chisel marks, it reminds me of the novel Remainder by Tom McCarthy. He appropriated this from Rambo 3, but in the novel he says, ‘when you’re confronted with the block, the statue is already in there: all you have to do is chisel away the surplus matter and it reveals itself’.
EM: I think he stole that from Michaelangelo.
LR: Well, I was watching Rambo 3….
MP: What you’re suggesting both of you is that you’re not – William Boyd said this to me ever so slightly chilling thing about fiction writing, where he has it mapped out in post-it notes on his wall, and he owns the characters, they behave as he wishes them to behave from the offset and nothing surprises him in the writing of the novel. Now I admire that, but it frightens me for the art form in some respects – so you [Rourke] let this guy go off to Canvey Island with a loose sense of what he was going to do there, and then presumably you didn’t know he was going to be haunted by the idea of this woman…?
LR: Not really, no. I knew there were certain things I wanted to write about. I’m very distrustful of writers who go, ‘yeah, I really kind of have this connection with my characters’, and they speak really well and they have a life of their own. I don’t understand that. For me they’re ciphers, just part of the machinations of fiction, and they do things because you’re writing a book not creating real life. So yeah – I knew Jon Michaels was going to go to Canvey, I knew that there was a dead uncle, estranged, and that there would be things left behind that he was going to find. And then when I involved myself in the writing of it things appear and I go in that direction. Sometimes it doesn’t work and I stop writing in that direction. And then it seems to piece itself together in a very strange way – not in a kind of special way or anything like that – but things just seem to fit together. And that’s when I feel that i’m doing the right thing. And it just seems to fit, or not fit, but I like it.
MP: So you’re saying that things might happen as you’re writing that disgust or surprise or upset you but you are responding to an organic direction – in your case [Mcbride] defined by style?
EM: Well the style was the only thing that came before the book started to write itself. Which is not really true, because I did do all that typing. But I don’t really understand what is interesting about knowing everything before. There seems to be no fun in that, and I do think there has to be a pleasure in the discovery of it. And all the themes in my book, conversely to you [Rourke], were all the things I really didn’t want to write about. I didn’t set out thinking I wanted to write about sex and death and Ireland, and all of that. Really, that was the last thing I wanted to do. It was quite interesting to find myself having to write about all these things [despite] wanting to get as far away from those Irish stories as possible. Anne Enright said that if the writer is not uncomfortable then they are not doing what they should be doing, and I think that’s very true.
MP: But also how counter-productive would it have been if you said, right, I’m going to take John McGahern’s preparing of the bodies scene in whatever that late, wonderful book is, and try to bring that scene somehow into the present in a new whatever it is – fourth-wave feminist post-Celtic Tiger crash, or whatever – you immediately undo what is making you write well in the first place.
EM: Yeah, and I think it’s very dangerous, once you do that then why are you doing it, because you have some moral position that you’re trying to push? And that is one of the great things I loved about Joyce is that he left the reader alone. He wasn’t at you all the time, saying, ‘look at this, oooh she did that’. He just went, ‘here’s life. Look at it. What do you think?’
LR: Literature should be a collision between who you are as a reader and what it is as a thing, and I think that’s what writers like Joyce did. Beckett said about Finnegans Wake, ‘it isn’t literature, it’s the thing itself.’ It should be disruptive. I’m not a humanist writer in that sense, I don’t really want to give pleasure to the reader. I want them to like my books, obviously, and buy them, and I want to forge some sort of life as a writer, but I want to disrupt reading pleasure and I don’t want the book to be this bourgeois thing that you pick up, read, recognise something and give yourself a nice pat on the back, put it down and move on to the next. Messing around with the symbolic order of things, rather than holding a mirror to liberal society and going, ‘hey, aren’t we all great?’ That’s what Joyce did, he hated liberal society, that’s why people like Woolf didn’t like him.
MP: That’s precisely why this is the most exciting fiction double bill ever, for a fiction nerd like me. Can we then talk about how you feel about your characters? Because I sense that you [Rourke] stand in probably quite an ambivalent relation to your character, and yours [Mcbride] has behaved in a way you didn’t expect her to, and I’m guessing that the more distance you have from the book the more sense you have of her as a three-dimensional character…?
EM: Absolutely, she’s off on her own now, after so many years of her just sitting in a drawer. When I got her out again I had forgotten so much about her, and so it was interesting to go back and see this and in the re-writing how much I wanted to leave be and how much everything I had learned about writing and everything I had learned about life in the intervening ten years, which was quite a lot, how much I wanted that to inform her and who she was. In the end I didn’t change that much because I felt that was cheating her out of herself.
MP: It’s a book that seems to me to stink of no cheating, it’s the least cheaty book I think I’ve read in years. But in terms of the more disturbing content in the book, and one of the weirder things about its reception, is that very few people want to go there – can you talk a little bit about the girl’s victimhood, and where that sits in relation to how you think about women and violence done to women and complicity in abuse are represented elsewhere in art and culture?
EM: I was really interested in talking about sexual abuse in a different way, trying to use a different vocabulary, and to not use or even think about the word ‘victim’. I wanted to look at her as a whole person, not just say, ‘this is a bad thing that has happened to her and will have these consequences’, but instead say ‘this is someone, and this thing happened to her, this is how it influenced and infiltrated the rest of her life’. I wanted to look at sexual abuse as not just a bad thing that happens and is then in that person’s past, that maybe makes them a bit squeamish – but instead, as something that comes to inform how they feel about themselves and, therefore, all the decisions that they make.
I was also very keen to look at that idea of complicity: how the girl feels complicit in something she cannot be complicit in, because she is a child. There is no possibility of complicity, but because she feels it, that informs how she responds to her sexual abuse over the years, how she constantly tries to take control of it, to make it her own. I don’t want to say in good ways or bad ways, just in her ways. I remember when writing the blurb for the book, the original editors said we should talk about how she has a negative experience of sexuality – but I didn’t want to. Can’t we just say ‘chaotic’? That’s what it is. After the initial abuse, a lot of the rest of the story is about her trying to take control of herself and not be a victim, to be someone who is making her sexuality as she goes along with the tools that are available to her. So I do get a bit annoyed when people call it a ‘sexual abuse story’, because it really isn’t that kind of story. It’s about this woman, to whom a terrible thing happens and who tries to make herself again.
[pullquote]Max Porter: One of the disgusting assumptions of our literary culture is that readers will somehow rebel against poetic, obtuse or difficult language in novels.[/pullquote]
MP: And she might not have made herself again. That’s the unique opportunity available to you because you weren’t using any of the language or tropes of abuse that appear in other books. It would be a much harder thing to do if you were, say, writing an essay in conventional prose, because you would therefore unavoidably be using borrowed language.
EM: Exactly, and that’s why it’s quite hard in these circumstances to talk about it without trotting out something that sounds like a moral judgement. At one point, she goes out and has sex with loads of guys – and it’s very hard to just say that. Especially about women’s sexuality, there are just so few words available to describe something that is not about emotional sex, about connecting with other people, through love. That’s what women are supposed to do – and she doesn’t.
MP: That seems to be the extraordinary achievement of the book. It would be a chronic disservice to call it a book about a young girl who does that, that and that. You just have to experience what she experiences.
Lee, would you talk about your protagonist now? As you say, you don’t want us to like him. We might warm to him in different ways, and we certainly enjoy our time with him, but there are unpalatable things happening in his mind.
LR: He’s a cipher, a mediation for that horrible construct you see in seaside towns, especially places like Southend where I live. I love it down there, but it still has this really seedy edge, the closer you get to the seafront, where all the arcades are. There’s a mechanism at work there that facilitates the male gaze: there’s the row of strip bars, there are the decaying pubs attracting punters with ‘exotic dancers’ on a Thursday evening at 9pm, advertised in fancy writing on their windows. It’s a normalisation of objectification, cut through with ugly capitalism. This is what he is caught in.
The book is written in the present tense, so I didn’t want him to reflect these things or morally judge them in that omniscient authorial way. I don’t believe the novelist has any kind of governance in that sense. I wanted him to be trapped, a kind of pinball thrust into a machine, a structure governed by the male gaze. Everything he sees and does is part of it. That’s why I introduced the Petrarchan element. Petrarch, who wrote the first sonnets, met this girl, Laura, on the bridge, had a very brief conversation with her: she went one way, he went the other, and he spent the rest of his life writing sonnets about her. It’s objectification: the woman on a pedestal, a thing to be worshipped from afar. This is what my protagonist is caught in. There’s nothing transcendental about it. Everything he does is reduced to base, ugly matter, and he’s wading through it. That’s why he can’t be a character seeking redemption in a ‘literary’ way; he just goes forwards and hits things.
MP: Is he pathetic?
LR: Yeah. Definitely. He’s traumatised by things he doesn’t understand, that have happened in his life and he hasn’t thought about until something hits him head on. His estranged uncle dies and this opens up the wound. This ties into Modernism, the thrust of which was trauma. If you read the poetry of Paul Celan, you can’t help but think of him traumatised by his mother being shot by the Nazis.
MP: American fiction has done this very well, and British fiction is seemingly catching up, as shown by your work and the work of your peers. It seems to me an analysis of a masculinity that is in perpetual crisis, but which, through distraction or erotic appeal or voyeurism, is able to bumble along – just like a pinball. And this reminds me, Eimear, of the girl. You [Rourke] take a weird androgynous or sexist or damaged young person and set them in this environment – sometimes with no topographical information whatsoever, sometimes with loads, in a hyperrealistic way – and just watch them get pinged around. Does that feel like an ongoing project for you?
LR: Definitely. I like topographic elements in my fictions. I’m not psychogeographic in any way, shape or form but I like the idea of a reimagining of the things around us, reflected by real names. I went to Canvey once and knew I wanted to set a novel there. When I started writing, I was just remembering things. I didn’t research it, or anything like that. I used a pirate map of Canvey written by the lead singer of Dr Feelgood, Lee Brilleaux. It was a reimagining itself, and I wanted to reimagine, in turn, through that. My fictions are a reimagining of reality in order to get closer to the real. It’s Ballardian, Joycean, not necessarily original but that’s how I confront the world around me. To navigate it, as a writer, I need place names, I need certain things. If you walk around Southend with my book, those things would be there, much like Dublin and Ulysses.
[pullquote]Lee Rourke: I’m not a humanist writer […] I don’t really want to give pleasure to the reader.[/pullquote]
MP: That’s why the door of Modernism doesn’t quite slam shut, because it’s a Martello tower and it’s very difficult to fit a door in a circular structure! I don’t want to ask ‘what next?’ in any kind of conventional way – but I’m desperate for more, from both of you! Lee, you’re saying you will always employ this level of topographical realism; do you think, Eimear, that you will always need to find a stylistic or formal template you’re happy with, and then ‘fill it with book’?
EM: No, actually. I’ve been working on the second one for a long time now, for about five years. When I started it, I just started from the beginning again; I didn’t pick up from where I left off, I just began. I don’t have things I’m particularly interested in including, I just wanted to see what happened. But I am interested in language and in what it can be made to do. People ask, is it the same style? Well, yeah, kind of. Yes and no.
MP: I’ve heard you asked before whether you write poetry and you have categorically said no.
EM: No, I don’t. Apart from teenage poetry, I’ve never been interested in that at all, to be honest.
MP: Whereas you do, Lee, right?
MP: There are ‘enabling devices’ writers use in order to better focus on their fiction. For example, writers teach because it allows them to work up ideas, or they review because it allows them to be a dick about someone else’s work. What does poetry do for you?
LR: Poetry is really important for my writing – that is, not being poetic. My fictions aren’t literary. I don’t try to be literary. I strip things back and try to be as unliterary as possible, because I think the real sin of literature is to write with your eye on the prize. For me, poetry doesn’t infuse my novels with anything poetic, but what it does do is teach me how to crystallise things – images, feelings – through the power of language. Eimear, you’ve hit language head on in that way, but I don’t think you set out to be poetic.
EM: No, not at all. But poetry is allowed to do all of this: it’s allowed to be obscure, it’s allowed to approach things obliquely, and it gets away with it. Nobody ever moans about it, so why can’t prose do that too?
MP: One of the disgusting assumptions of our literary culture is that readers will somehow rebel against poetic, obtuse or difficult language in novels. But you’ve both proved that wrong in spectacular style, as have many others. The appetite for fiction responding to the crisis of our time (or, indeed, the crisis of the time before us) is absolutely livid. Nobody has ever suggested you ‘normalise’ your fiction?
LR: I like to keep it as flat as possible. I don’t like anything flowery.
MP: What if an editor had said: this is really interesting, but nobody will like it? Because fiction with unlikeable characters ‘just doesn’t sell’. And you would have rebelled against that, because it’s part of your ongoing project to do something more interesting or relevant to our time?
LR: That’s the gamble isn’t it? Perhaps Jon Michaels really is so abhorrently flat and disgusting? Well he isn’t, there is a certain kind of charm about him. But the beauty of it was flattening out any sense of psychology or emotion, which might seep out onto the page. I didn’t want any of that. I think my editor really enjoyed going through the book, getting rid of anything too ‘literary’ – and I did too.
MP: Like getting rid of nine Baudrillard epithets?! One will do!
LR: Yeah! Editing is so important to a book. Editors by and large make books into better books.
MP: Shhh! Eimear, would you talk about your experience of being edited? When I first read your book, it came blank with a post-it note from someone I knew saying “Read this”. No blurb, no conceptualisation whatsoever, so I just started reading.
EM: Lucky you.
MP: Yeah, and it was a unique experience because of it. I did not know what I was reading. How nice not to be able to flip to the back of the book and see a photo of you and know where you were born. I know these are things we have to do to sell books, but it was an extraordinary experience having none of that there.
EM: To be honest, there wasn’t a lot of editing. There was certainly no line editing.
MP: Really? No full stops nudged into commas?
EM: No, my God! I stand by those full stops, every one of them. At some point someone did say to me, ‘Maybe a semicolon there?’ I said, ‘No! If I have one, that makes it significant.’ Editing was more of a general discussion about the book. They thought the opening chapter was kind of difficult to get into, and asked me to open it out a little bit – to make it easier for someone to accustom themselves to the style. And, at the end, they asked me to cut it off at a certain paragraph. To make it cheery, shall we say.
MP: And did you compromise on those things?
EM: No. Well, about the opening, I had a long argument, and they did win me round and I did open it out, a little bit – not that much, as you will hopefully see. As for the end, I said ‘No, no – it ends where it ends and that’s it. If they’ve gone with me this far, they will go on with me for the next page and a half.’
LR: But that’s one of the great things about the book. Endings are not a good thing for me; so, books just have to end. In some of the worst books you can sense the author wondering how to tie things together, but you don’t really need to.
MP: One should always go back to life itself. Nobody wants to spend all day looking at a corpse – just die! On that fantastically cheery note, I would implore you to read both these books, and reading them next to one another will be interesting in the light of this discussion. If you are remotely hungry for fiction that doesn’t leave you feeling content with an array of answers that you were perhaps familiar with before, then I wholeheartedly recommend these books. They are a challenge, and I reread them instantly to find out exactly what they had done. Frankly, and in very different ways, I still don’t really know what it is they have done to me.