Bernie McGill was born in Lavey in County Derry in Northern Ireland. She studied English and Italian at Queen’s University, Belfast and graduated with a Masters degree in Irish Writing. She has written for the theatre (The Weather Watchers, The Haunting of Helena Blunden), the novel, The Butterfly Cabinet and a short story collection, Sleepwalkers. Her short fiction has been nominated for numerous awards and in 2008 she won the Zoetrope:All-Story Short Fiction Award in the US. She is a recipient of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland's inaugural ACES (Artists' Career Enhancement Scheme) Award in association with the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen's University, Belfast. She lives in Portstewart in Northern Ireland with her family and works as a Creative Writing facilitator.
These are the sturdy daffodil bulbs that have sprouted, unaided by us, in the wasteland that is the cleared garden of our new house. I’ve been keeping an eye on them, using them as a measuring gauge. I have a week left before I need to deliver a draft of the Rathlin book to my agent. I think a flowering before then would be a good sign.
The book still needs a shed load of work but it’s getting closer and closer to what I want it to be. Because I’ve been working on it like billy-o over the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about my writing methods and all the problems that I create for myself. About a year ago, I started using Scrivener, a software package that allows you to import your sources (images, page references, weblinks etc.) into one virtual space and to navigate easily within a large body of writing, something that suits my working method very well. I’ll be working on a passage that’s currently placed about two-thirds of the way through the book and realize that if this is what’s happening now (and it looks like it is), then I’m going to have to rewrite that section on the third page and if I do that, I’ll have to move (or delete) the scene that follows directly after it and actually, now I think about it, maybe I should move that section that’s currently on page 84 so it comes much later in the book… You get the picture. I have never been able to write a story chronologically. I have always written in fragments, in scenes, laid them down on the page more or less in the order in which they’ve been written, on the understanding that I’ll be able to move them around at a later date. In many ways, it seems counterintuitive to me to use words to tell a story. (Bear with me.) By its very nature, reading is an orderly process, letters follow one after another on the page or the screen, black type on white background, top left-hand corner to bottom right (at least they do if you’re reading in the western world). But that’s in no way representative of what the writing’s trying to do – to evoke a life in all its messy, multi-textural, multi-dimensional, multi-sensory, technicolour glory. There are days when the challenge of achieving that with marks on a page seems like asking for the impossible.
One of my favourite quotes on writing is from E.L. Doctorow: ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ Except for me, it might be a little more like stumbling about in circles by torchlight. The pace is much slower and much less assured and could in no way be described as linear. I often begin by writing about a place so when I start, I don’t even know whose eyes it is that are viewing the scene. I don’t know who it is who’s just spoken in that last passage, I don’t know what’s happened to them or what’s about to happen. It’s a very free way to write - I like to surprise myself. I like to do what I never like to do in real life – I like to get a little lost. As a writing method, it would work really well if it didn’t matter that no-one ever read what I wrote but me. The thing is, I do want other people to read what I write and when it comes to the stage of making it readable, it gives me a massive headache to put the whole thing together in a great big eighty-thousand-piece jigsaw.
It's not that I haven’t looked at other methods of working. Over the years we’ve investigated quite a few in the writing groups I work with. Author David Mitchell suggests drawing a kind of herringbone: ‘The spine represents the whole novel, bones coming off the spine represent chapters, and sub-bones represent scenes with sub-sub-bones spiking into foliage of dialogue, lines and ideas which will feature in those scenes. A godawful mess, to be sure, but it makes sense to me.’ I’ve also read about the snowflake method although I have to confess, I’m none the wiser. I recently heard Barbara Taylor Bradford interviewed on the radio, saying that you should approach novel-writing the way an architect approaches building design – with a ‘sketch’ of what you intend to do. I have a friend whose writing method relies heavily on post-its and laminated A4 and A5 sheets. But here’s the thing I’ve discovered about myself – I don’t like being told what to do, even when it’s me that’s doing the telling. Writing (or drawing) a plan for a book feels a little to me like stitching yourself into your own straitjacket. I can’t do it. It seems perverse to try. Instead, I engage in something I’ve described retrospectively as ‘the patchwork quilt method’. I create each ‘patch’ (or scene, or fragment – whatever it is I see in the torchlight) as colourfully and as fully-textured and as completely as I can and while I’m doing that, I begin to think about pattern and how the pieces might all fit together. If I place the blue velvet beside the red plaid and the yellow corduroy below the border between the two will the blue seem paler beside the red, will the red make the yellow pop out? And when I reach the stage of devising the pattern I do it old-school style: I take a big pair of scissors to the printed manuscript, arm myself with a pen and a roll of tape and experiment with colour and texture and position. At the end of it, there will still be gaps, there will be scraps on the cutting-room floor, more patches will be required, but finally, finally, the stitching can begin.
I’m not too far off that stage now. Wish me luck - I’m going to need it. If the fates are in my favour, there’ll be a finished book before the daffodils are gone and before the wild Rathlin fuchsia is in full bloom.
A very Happy New Year to you one and all. I’ve been a lax blogger, I know, but to make up for it, here’s a (slightly coggly) gingerbread house. I can take no credit for its making – it’s entirely the work of my daughters. My one contribution was to attempt a halved chocolate button sombrero for the snowman, a move that resulted in the pinched, somewhat demonic look he’s sporting. I quite like it. He reminds me of Licht in John Banville’s Ghosts: ‘His eyes are brown and his brow is broad, with two smooth dents at the temples, as if whoever moulded him had given his big head a last, loving squeeze there between finger and thumb.’ The literary allusion cut no ice with the daughters, though, I was banned from all further tampering. Domestic goddess I am not (but then look at the trouble that can get you in…)
The truth is, it’s been a very busy few months. We moved out of temporary rented accommodation into our newly built house so for the past number of weeks, we’ve mostly had our heads in boxes saying, ‘I wonder where that would be…?’ At this stage, we’ve found all of the most urgent things but I must admit, after sixteen months without one, I’m very much looking forward to the first unspooling of tissue from a toilet roll holder that is fixed to the wall. That’s the true sign of a family who have no intention of going anywhere. It is, as Epicurus says, in the very small pleasures that we count our happiness.
There has also been some writing. There was a memorable November retreat to a house on a hill overlooking Cushendun Bay with good friends working on writing projects. We did our best to be tranquil and focussed and for the most part we succeeded, but it would be remiss of me not to mention the after-dark rescue of a car from a ditch on a narrow road above the bay, or the threat of night-time terrors and somnambulists, or the stories by the range (lit specially for us) in Johnny Joe’s in Cushendall, or the delights of the caves, or the encounter with a goat, tethered to a post by the hotel in a high-visibility jacket. We each of us came away with our heads a little busier, and with more words to show for it.
I’m not much of a one for resolutions (although I’m thinking of adopting Woody Guthrie’s ‘Rulins’ recently shared by a Facebook friend.) What I can say with a degree of certainty, is that 2014 will be the year that I finish the second novel. It’s been a difficult one to write (when is it not difficult to write?) but the thing has a shape now, I can see what it might be. Its completion has been made more imminent by some welcome late 2013 news – a letter from the Society of Authors to say I’ve been awarded a research grant. The Authors’ Foundation at the Society awards grants for work-in-progress to writers under commission from a British publisher (or to writers who have had one book published by a British publisher and whose next book is likely to be published in Britain). What this means for me, is that I can take some time out to travel to the Bodleian Library and to the Museum of the History of Science, both in Oxford, to research the Rathlin story. I don’t want to say too much about the book, I’m a little bit superstitious in that way, but I’m excited at the prospect of finishing it. That will be a very big pleasure and in the meantime, a wall-mounted toilet roll holder will do just fine, thank you. Bring on 2014. I'm ready for it.
Praise for The Butterfly Cabinet
Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey, writing in The Guardian: 'McGill has the ability to enter into the brain and heart of her characters and so to make us sympathise with people who commit acts we abhor.'
Eugene McCabe, author of Death and Nightingales: 'Bernie McGill's rare, hypnotic gift for writing fills every page of The Butterfly Cabinet. [It] contains no end of apparently throwaway sentences you want to remember'
Rachel Hore, author of A Place of Secrets and The Glass Painter's Daughter: 'A haunting, often lyrical tale of quiet, mesmerising power about the dangerous borders of maternal love'
USA Today: 'This is a fantastic novel. It drenches us in gothic sensibilities as it haunts us with uncomfortable reminders of recent sensational events.'
Marie Claire: ‘An utterly compelling tale of hidden secrets and culture clashes played out against the backdrop of a large country house in Northern Ireland... it's a haunted tale, eerie with recrimination, illicit passion and frustrated motherhood. Pitch-perfect in tone, McGill captures, in counterpoint, the voices of two women as they declaim a melancholy murder ballad.’
Financial Times: 'Bernie McGill's assured debut is an intense exploration of maternal love and guilt. What also distinguishes it is its delicate portrait of a society that, within one lifetime, would face unimaginable change.'
Kirkus Reviews: ‘An emotionally bracing, refreshingly intelligent and ultimately heartbreaking story.’
Daily Mail: ‘Beautifully done and thoroughly absorbing.’
Publishers Weekly: ‘An exquisite series of painful revelations… McGill easily recreates the lives of the Castle's owners and servants and the intricate connections between them. As both Harriet and Maddie's stories emerge, the tale becomes a powder keg of domestic suspense that threatens to explode as long-kept secrets surrounding Charlotte's death are teased out.’
The Guardian: 'Defining moments of Irish history form the backdrop to each woman's narrative...The decades of complicity that follow Charlotte’s death unfold with forceful drama...'
Minneapolis Star Tribune: 'McGill employs an ingenious counterpoint technique to give her convincing fictional version of the tragedy. The interplay of the voices of two exceptionally different personalities is perhaps the book's major achievement.'
Woman & Home: ‘An absorbing story of marriage, motherhood and murder.’
New Zealand Herald: 'McGill's real triumph with this novel is how successfully she manipulates the way we feel aout her two main characters... the prose is elegant and assured.'
Good Housekeeping: ‘A dramatic and haunting novel... this is an enthralling and beautifully written debut.’
Huffington Post: 'Where McGill succeeds so well is in her language, beautiful and languorous and wild.'
Sydney Morning Herald: 'McGill's complex portrait of an unmotherly mother is as skilful and unusual as Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin.'
Verbal: ‘A gripping novel... Disturbing and thought-provoking... an examination of how to deal with the past in the midst of hope for the future... a truly absorbing and cleverly written tale that will send a shiver down your spine.’
Irish World: ‘The Butterfly Cabinet deserves to be celebrated for its ability to alter the reader’s perspective of the world... its characters leap from the page with profound and contemporary truth... Bernie McGill has achieved an incredible feat.’
Ulster Tatler: ‘The Butterfly Cabinet is an exceptionally accomplished novel... [McGill’s] prose is lyrical and beautifully composed, her characters are crafted and honed with an inherent talent and skill... writing of this calibre does not come along often.’
Sunday Tribune: ‘This is a truly convincing retelling of a true story, richly realised on every level from a writer to watch out for.’
Listen to the author read an extract
or read the first chapter.
Watch the book trailer (US)
Watch the UK version.
You had a story for me... I wasn't ready to hear it before but I'll hear it now.
When Maddie McGlade, a former nanny, receives a letter from Anna, the last of her charges and now a married woman, she realises that the time has come to unburden herself of a secret that has gnawed at her for over seventy years. It is the story of the last day in the life of Charlotte Ormond, the four-year-old only daughter of the big house where Maddie was employed as a young girl. The Butterfly Cabinet also reveals the private thoughts of Charlotte's mother, Harriet. A proud, uncompromising woman, Harriet's great passion is collecting butterflies and pinning them into her cabinet; motherhood comes no more easily to her than does her role as mistress of a far-flung Irish estate. When her daughter dies, her community is quick to condemn her. At last Maddie, and Harriet’s prison diaries that Maddie has kept hidden under lock and key in the cabinet she has inherited, will reveal a more complex truth.