Eimear McBride: ‘Women grapple with shame because we’re held to a higher standard’

The novelist on her first book of nonfiction – about women and disgust – and the complexities of prize culture

Eimear McBride, 44, is the bestselling author of three novels: A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, which won the Women’s prize for fiction and the Goldsmith’s prize, The Lesser Bohemians and Strange Hotel. Her first work of nonfiction, Something Out of Place: Women and Disgust, is the result of an invitation by the Wellcome Collection to explore its museum and library, housed on Euston Road in London. She lives in east London with her family.

How did your new book come about?
Wellcome was a place where I was a temp, back in the old days before I was a full-time writer. I worked in the library: I was the stack monkey. So when I was asked about doing this, I was very open to the idea; I’ve always been fond of Wellcome. I didn’t go to university, so I’d never had the experience of spending a lot of time just reading.

The essay is ostensibly about disgust, but it’s also about shame, isn’t it?
That’s a huge part of it, yes. As an Irish Catholic, I belong to a long tradition of shame. But I think all women grapple with both things – disgust and shame – all the time, because I think we’re held to a higher standard. We feel that we have this internal flaw, and we constantly apologise for it, or try to compensate for it. It’s infuriating and exhausting. The problem is that it’s internalised. The way it works is that you do it to yourself. It’s so destructive.

How much of it has to do with our bodies?
A lot. Our bodies are changing all the time – not just throughout our lifetimes, but over the course of a month – and this is problematic in a society that wants people to conform to certain roles. We’re reared to ignore these changes. It’s a badge of honour not to let on that you feel rubbish; that it’s your period, or you’re having a hard time getting over having given birth. There is a pressure on women always to be all right.

You write about the current ubiquity of porn, and its effect on our culture. Do you feel like things are going backwards for women?
I remember the 80s, when it was all power suits. People objected to the fact that women were expected to be like men, but there was also a push forwards. In the 90s, the ladette thing started well, but it turned bad. They all got shamed, too. There was a long period when women were expected to be post-feminist, to accept certain things as a bit of fun: the time of Sex and the City, that pressure for a very sexualised liberation that didn’t feel like a liberation at all. When my first novel came out seven years ago, people would ask if I was a feminist. They were surprised when I said: of course. #MeToo has shifted that. Everyone’s a feminist now.

Is this a good thing? Or is feminism already just as commodified as everything else?
It’s certainly performative. Social media creates an environment for the performance of everything. But it’s hard to see how the outspokenness filters into the world. #MeToo has empowered us to complain when we’re being harassed or abused. But what consequences will we ultimately face for doing so?

What about the role of men – especially younger men – in this?
It’s possible to be a misogynist while also looking like the good guy, and it’s disturbing that this isn’t challenged by institutions; that they’ll give up on women without any pushback. It scares me because I don’t know what to do about it, which is the most frightening thing of all.

McBride receiving the Women’s prize for fiction for A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing in 2014.
McBride receiving the Women’s prize for fiction for A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing in 2014. Photograph: Neil Hall/Reuters

What do you want Something Out of Place to do for its readers?
When my editor asked me this question, I said: I remember Susan Faludi’s Backlash [a feminist classic of 1991, which railed against negative stereotypes of career women]. It changed how I read the things that are going on around me. It’s a case of: here’s a thing that I see, and maybe you see it now, too.

How, if at all, does this book fit with your novels?
This is an anomaly for me. One of my problems is language. I find it a blunt tool in comparison to the richness of human experience. It’s very hard to translate experience into words. With fiction, you can at least break all the rules to get closer. But with an essay, you can’t. It was hard, writing grammatical sentences and then trying to get some life into them, too.

Your second novel, The Lesser Bohemians, which was about sex and the body, seemed to induce a certain disgust in some male critics when it was published, didn’t it?
Yes, there was this palpable excitement and horror that felt very childish. I did feel they were trying to shame me, and at first I was embarrassed. But then I thought: no, I believe in this. I don’t think they liked a woman taking 20 pages to write as a male character talking about his very destructive sex life, one that causes him so much pain. It doesn’t go along with the popular idea of the hyper-sexualised male.

How do you feel about the narrative that has been built around the fact that you had been working on the experimental A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing for seven years before it was published, and even then, only by a small press?
I occasionally have moments when I think: none of this might have happened. I might still have three novels sitting in a drawer. So yes, I feel uneasy about the inspirational element of the story. I stuck with writing because I didn’t know if I could do anything else, or anything better. Luckily it went well. But it might not have done. I’m a huge beneficiary of prize culture. Winning the Women’s prize changed everything for me. But how, really, can you choose the best book? You can’t. I see lots of writers I admire who can’t get any traction at all.

What are you reading at the moment?
I’m reading A Guide for the Perplexed, a collection of interviews with [the German film director] Werner Herzog. I love his curiosity. You see the world through his eyes, and you see it differently as a result. He’s so unromantic and unpretentious. He doesn’t care about the razzamatazz. He just gets on with making his things.

  • Something Out of Place: Women and Disgust by Eimear McBride is published by Profile Books on 12 August (£9.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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