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Stripping Away The Scaffolding: An Interview With Eimear McBride
Hannah Clark , March 7th, 2020 10:47

The author of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing and The Lesser Bohemians talks to Hannah Clark about her new novel, Strange Hotel

Photo: Sophie Bassouls

Eimear McBride is an author synonymous with modern feminist literature. Her multi-award-winning debut novel A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing explored the trauma of a young woman living away from home, and this was followed by The Lesser Bohemians, which knitted together with Girl… in its jarring soundscape and the stylistic intensity of the protagonist’s voice. Now, in her third novel Strange Hotel, McBride explores the emotional isolation of grief, and the pitfalls and liberations to be found in middle-age.

Unlike the first two novels, Strange Hotel follows a more conventional narrative structure, but this in no way means it is a conventional book. As McBride herself says, “it is a game, the language stuff throughout, it is not po-faced” and indeed there is a true sense of playfulness about the novel.

The character – unnamed – may or may not have conversations which we are privy to, and she may or may not be telling us the complete truth about her life and her lovers. At times her unwillingness to fully connect with the memories she shares can create an effect for the reader similar to staring into a Magic Eye illusion. However, for all its maddening complexity, it is a deeply moving, deeply funny story, richly told by a master of the craft.

One of the things I loved about Strange Hotel was the notion of the liberation of grief: the trope of a grieving widow locking herself away from the world, in a mausoleum of memory, is completely turned on its head - particularly with regard to sex. Casual sex is not catastrophised at all in this novel, and it’s still fairly shocking for a middle-aged woman to be seen to be doing that. Did you intend for to have that rallying call for sexual liberation?

Well, I suppose, when I sit down to write, I don’t have a plan. I don’t think about the point that I want to make. But as I go along, I discover the things that I’m interested in or that I’m angry about. Certainly, as I was going through Strange Hotel, I was becoming more and more aware of how different it was to the other books. I was writing about a middle-aged woman – which makes sense because I am a middle-aged woman – and how angry and bored I am by the tropes about, you know, what it’s like to be a middle-aged woman and what our preoccupations are, the things we worry about and how we’re supposed to behave.

So, yes, I really wanted to take back the notion that a middle-aged woman going to a hotel room to have some anonymous sex with someone is an act of self-hatred and self-harm. Because I have written about sex before, but I just don’t think that those tropes are the only answers to the questions about why a certain type of woman behaves in a particular way, sexually.

Of course, that kind of casual sex, and a casual attitude towards it, is something that women are not supposed to have. Even nowadays, it’s seen as something very male, a male way of operating. That, really, underneath, women are just looking to be loved and to love. This notion of a woman who simply wants to go “That was nice, I don’t want a cuddle and I would really like him to leave now”, is not something that you see represented much, actually. I wanted to explore that.

Absolutely. The way you do that is beautifully crafted. Connected to that, the slow drip of insight into this character is similarly compelling. We never learn her name, though we do learn other key facts about her life. They provide a slender framework for the reader to anchor themselves to this character. Did you intend for her actions, these trope-smashing choices, to be supported by how you craft her so mysteriously?

Yes. Definitely. I wanted to strip away all the scaffolding that society bolts around women, and ever-increasingly the older they get. There’s this expectation of how they behave, how they should think or feel. Taking away all those markers of identity – you don’t know her social class, you don’t know whether she’s rich or poor. You don’t know what’s she’s doing in these hotels, why is she there? Taking away all of those things so that, really, you’re left, hopefully, with an experience of someone that is more intimate, that’s not reliant on the reader making judgement based on assumptions about what this type of person is like. Rather, you simply find out what she is like on the inside.

Of course, one of the few, key pieces of information the novel provides is that she’s Irish. As an Irish writer, you’re perhaps exhausted by this line of questioning, but perhaps, like your first two novels, the protagonist’s national identity provides something vital that we needed to know?

Yes. That’s interesting. I wasn’t going to put it in, actually. I avoided it for quite a long time, but, ultimately, this is a woman who bristles at the suggestion that she won’t need a coat when someone from a warmer country would consider it cold outside. So I thought, I’ll put it in there, and, also, I feel like the book itself is quite un-Irish in a lot of ways. I was quite interested in that: writing an Irish character that isn’t involved in the history of Ireland, doesn’t come out of any grand tradition of what Irish women are supposed to be like. I think people do get very tired of having to perform their nationality and so it's just there, almost, as a joke. It’s just a little extra bit of information.

That’s interesting, because, throughout the novel, we visit several cities. Some of them feel like they could be anywhere, whereas others, like Prague, are more clearly identified. How key is it – what we know and what we don't know, that places are not always entirely anonymous? How important are the choices of the cities themselves?

That’s interesting because most people ask about how anonymous the hotel rooms are and that she doesn’t talk about what the shopping is like in downtown Auckland, that she is not interested in having a cultural dialogue with the places that she’s in. But, for me, I chose them for the atmosphere they have, the atmosphere I associate with those cities.

With Prague, as you say, it’s actually quite important. She’s standing, looking down on the rain-drenched streets, completely silent like a gargoyle, or one of the great statues that are dotted all over Prague. So, Oslo I picked because of that odd light you get there – that feels very, very lonely, I think.

Even in, say, Avignon, that hotel could be anywhere. There’s nothing particularly French about it. I like the idea of opening the novel that way, of saying that, yes, the hotel room is here but all hotel rooms are essentially the same, you know?

It’s almost like you’re making a pact with the reader: this novel will enliven you, will offer insights into these places and into human behaviour, but it’s not going to be an easy read on those levels, necessarily. Of course, female writers do get tagged with the term ‘difficult’ books. Anna Burns is a good contemporary example of a writer lazily described in this way. It must become tiresome to hear that kind of response.

Well. It’s a book that you do have to pay attention to. Milkman, for example, which I just loved and thought was a fantastic novel, you have to read it properly. You have to read it like a grown-up with an active brain. You can’t just, you know, skim it and get the gist and you like it or you don’t like it; you have to engage with it, that’s for sure. And I do think that women asking for their work to be seriously engaged with is quite problematic for some critics and for some readers. That’s not what they expect and that’s not what they want.

The notion that you would take yourself and your work seriously enough that you would ask for attention to it is not something that women are supposed to do. So I think it’s very telling when readers or critics are very ‘I don’t know what’s going on! Why is this happening?’ Well, you know, if you sat down and read it closely, you will know what’s going on. And also, women are complex, and you don’t always get all of the answers really easily or straightforwardly. Maybe you have to think about that a bit. So, that’s definitely a part of why the book is the way it is.

But, of course, the people who have made that effort to connect with your work, who have stayed with you since you Girl, are so connected now, they see your work, your stories, your characters, as a continuing dialogue.

It is. And with The Lesser Bohemians, more so, the books are interested in similar themes, interested in language, interested in the internal life and how to best express it. I think this book is a departure if what you’re looking for is a big, emotional punch in the gut, you don’t get it with Strange Hotel. You’re not supposed to.

It’s not a book about the shock of understanding someone. It’s about the accretion and accumulation of an understanding, of her pain or her unwillingness to engage with memory. That, again, is about when you write a middle-aged character, everything is not necessarily a visceral experience. That character is more cautious about what they let themselves in for.

I do think that my books are very intertwined. And Strange Hotel could be the story of Eilis twenty years later. But there are reasons she’s not named. That’s not set in stone.