Eimear McBride: ‘I despise wafty, goalless female protagonists’

The novelist on growing out of DH Lawrence, the joy of James Joyce and the sound of WB Yeats

My earliest reading memory
Being taught by my father. I was three and it was a Ladybird book. I remember climbing over the back of the sofa shouting that as I could already talk, what was the point of learning to read? And he sat there, very patiently explaining that while talking has its uses, reading is thinking. Forty-two years later, he still hasn’t been proved wrong.

My favourite book growing up
LM Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. I read it when I was eight, the summer my father was dying, and the girl who disappears into imagined worlds chimed with me. I also strongly identified with the way she’d smash a slate over a boy’s head in temper and enjoy reciting Tennyson while gazing into the middle distance.

The book that changed me as a teenager
Lady Chatterley’s Lover had a big impact on me at 16. I loved DH Lawrence’s use of language, and I got a huge kick out of how transgressive it felt to read something so unapologetically erotic. Sex in library books?

The writer who changed my mind
Nadezhda Mandelstam’s memoir Hope Against Hope. I was in my early 20s and I’d managed to retain, despite all evidence to the contrary, a weird teenage sentimentality about communism and the Soviet Union. She laid bare the brutality and horror of what had been inflicted on the Russian people. But more, she left me in no doubt that ideology in any form, and no matter how decent it seems in intent, is always the road to hell – it must never be pandered to.

The book that made me want to be a writer
There is no one writer, and not even one moment when I decided to become one. It was always there and everything I read just added to the impulse. I do remember that reading Cynan Jones’s The Edge of the Shoal made me want to write my novel Strange Hotel, but it’s the only time something like that has ever happened to me.

The book or author I came back to
I first picked up James Joyce’s Ulysses when I was about 18 and put it down again quite soon after that – it was a bit more than I was after at that point. I was 25 before I thought: “Now’s the time” and Ulysses is the only second-chance book I’ve ever been amazed by. Why? Ah, come on, you know why.

The book I reread
See above. Ulysses is also the only book that I reread in adulthood, and why not? Every time you jump into it you end up climbing out in a different place. I mean, money-wise alone, you do get a lot of bang for your buck.

The book I could never read again
That will also be Lady Chatterley’s Lover. I find Lawrence pretty unreadable now. The prose is incredibly overblown, and, for all his fine talk, he was a nasty little misogynist with the distinct reek of fascism about him. But hey, everyone’s been a teenager, right?

The book I discovered later in life
The Lover by Marguerite Duras. Lots to like about this complicated woman, in life and in art, but there’s something about the last line of the novel that makes me want to die, in a good way.

The book I am currently reading
Send Nudes by Saba Sams. There’s something pretty interesting going on with this woman too. I despise wafty, goalless female protagonists and she doesn’t waste my time serving them up.

My comfort read
Probably the poems of WB Yeats. Those sounds and images go right back to my earliest, most unformed encounters with language and every return is like an imagined homecoming.

Eimear McBride is in conversation about Joyce’s Ulysses at Queen’s Park book festival, London, on 18 September. Something Out of Place: Women and Disgust is published by Profile (£9.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.


Eimear McBride

The GuardianTramp

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