Eimear McBride on getting her critically-acclaimed novel A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing published after five years of rejection
I wrote it very quickly. I did three drafts in six months, which was all the time I could afford to take away from temping.
Is it true that your house was burgled and all your long-hand notes for the novel stolen? How did you overcome this set-back?
Yes, that’s true. I overcame it by starting again at the beginning. Happily, what I had thought was an utterly catastrophic event turned out to be the best thing that could have happened because I approached the novel with a fresh pair of eyes, which was exactly what it needed.
Did you try to get an agent, or did you target publishers directly, or both?
I started out approaching both and was taken on by an agent after about a year. Unfortunately, he had no more luck with publishers than I had.
The responses you received from publishers seem to have been universally positive, except that they weren’t prepared to take a risk on something they saw as challenging from a marketing perspective. Did you always believe Girl would get published in the end?
No, it’s not true to say the rejections were universally positive. There were some that just didn’t like the novel, which was obviously disappointing but not unexpected. I suppose I’ve referred to them less often publicly because those kind of rejections are the norm and the rejections based on marketing concerns rankled so much more and displayed a degree of cynicism that I found very surprising and very disillusioning.
I didn’t always believe Girl would be published in the end, quite the opposite in fact. After about five years of rejection I put the manuscript in the drawer and decided to get on with the next one.
I’ve read that you received a standard rejection letter from one publisher with the words “I suppose this is some kind of masterpiece” written across it – is that true, and how did it make you feel?
Yes, I did get that letter. At the time I was pretty upset that it clearly wasn’t enough to reject the book, the person in question had to have a good sneer as well. But arrogance and ignorance are comfortable bedfellows and they’ll always be the kind of person who wrote that kind of letter while I’m now really enjoying having the last laugh.
Can you recount how your publishing deal with Galley Beggar Press came about? I believe they bought it for £600, having bargained you down from £1,000? How did Faber & Faber get involved?
Really it was just luck. My husband and I had moved to Norwich for his work. One day he was in The Book Hive – a beautiful independent bookshop in the centre of the city – and got talking to the proprietor, Henry Layte. When he told him about what had been happening with my book Henry asked to read it. It turned out that he, and some friends, were in the process of setting up Galley Beggar at the time and so that’s how it happened.
And yes, they offered me £1000 then bargained me down – I wasn’t in much of a position to argue really. Faber came on board about nine months later. The book was doing so well that it was making life rather hard for Galley Beggar to cope with financially – being a tiny press with no cash reserves – so they decided to sell a share to Faber which meant they got some money and Girl was then distributed much more widely.
How did it feel when you realised your book was finally going to get published? Can you remember how you celebrated?
I don’t think I really believed it would happen until we opened the first box that came back from the printers and saw the books in the flesh. Just as that happened one of Henry’s friends walked into the shop and bought the first copy, then gave me the receipt, which I still have. I don’t remember how I celebrated but I imagine there was some drinking involved – which may explain why.
Has the book deal, and subsequent earnings, changed your lifestyle? For example, has it enabled you to write full-time?
Well, my life is much, much busier than it used to be and, happily, I am able to write full-time, for now. But the basic, getting up and staring at a screen, filled with despair and self-doubt, for hours on end hasn’t changed one bit.
What is your writing routine? Do you aim for, say, 1,000 words a day?
On a first draft I aim for 1000 words a day. Subsequent drafts are usually more about refining the language so the routine becomes time-based then. Since I had my daughter though, every moment possible has to be taken advantage of, which becomes a kind of routine in itself.
What has been the highlight of your writing career so far?
That’s hard to say because, after so many years of everything going wrong, when the book finally did come out, almost everything went right. I’ve been lucky enough to win prizes and get to travel the world with my work but I think one of the greatest pleasures has been spending time with so many writers whose work I admire and have admired since I was very young.
What advice would you give to emerging writers trying to get published?
Don’t be shy, show the book to anyone you can get to read it because you never know when the right connection will be made. You only need one publisher to love your work so give the opportunity to be that one to as many as possible!
Eimear McBride’s debut novel A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing won the 2013 Goldsmith’s Prize and the 2014 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.