The Butterfly Cabinet was one of my books for Reading Ireland Month and I am delighted to have Bernie on the blog today answering questions about this beautiful book and her writing in general.
The Butterfly Cabinet is based on a true story set in Portstewart, Northern Ireland and it tells the story of the death of 4 year old Charlotte in 1892 from the point of view of the child’s wealthy, aristocratic mother Harriet, who has been jailed for the child’s death and from the point of view of Maddie, a housemaid working for Harriet, who carries her own guilt about what happened that fateful day.
Harriet Ormonde is a cold, cruel mother. As a punishment for wetting herself, she locks her daughter in a wardrobe with her hands tied. Several hours later, Charlotte is dead. The story moves forward in time as Harriet’s grand-daughter Annie is visiting Maddie, one of the servants in a nursing home. Maddie is near death and decides it is time for the family to know the truth. She gives Annie a prison diary belonging to Harriet and tells her the secrets that she has been carrying all these years. Secrets that change the family beyond what anyone thought it was.
The Butterfly Cabinet is a beautiful novel charting the lives of women in Northern Ireland against a backdrop of history and changing socio-economic times. It is also a fascinating exploration of the nature of motherhood, the yearning for personal freedom and the decisions that can have consequences for any number of lives.
Life is fluid. We are the ghosts of all the people we might become, peering forward to catch a glimpse of what could be, our future selves staring back at us, at who we might have been, never were.
The Butterfly Cabinet is a hauntingly beautiful book and I am delighted to welcome Bernie to 746 Books!
The Butterfly Cabinet is based on a true story. How did you discover the story of the Montagu family and what was it that drew you to it?
I came across the story in a local parish magazine and was immediately intrigued by it. Cromore House, where the young Montagu child died, is only a mile or so from where I was living at the time. I didn’t know anything about the family or the circumstances of the child’s death, so I started to do some newspaper research with a view to writing a short story. The details of the mother, Annie Montagu’s, arrest and trial were very well documented in the Coleraine Chronicle of 1892. The more I read about those events, the more drawn in I became. Not much was written about Annie Montagu herself. She came across as an enigmatic figure, rather cold, somewhat severe, so of course I wanted to explore her story through fiction.
The book spans over 70 years and a lot of Northern Irish history. Do you approach the process of writing differently when historical research is involved?
For both of the novels I’ve written, I’ve done a lot of research. It’s partly to do with equipping myself to write with confidence, I think, but for me it’s an opening into the fiction as well. I tend to make reams of handwritten notes, in the margins and on the reverse of copies of primary sources. There’s something about defacing the printed page that I find very satisfactory. It must be the hidden vandal in me. To anyone trying to decipher it, it would probably look like a tangled mess. To me, it looks and feels like potential beginnings.
Short stories require a degree of research but with mine the settings are all contemporary or near-contemporary and, crucially, they’re short. If you’re half way through writing a two thousand word story and you think it’s not working, it doesn’t feel like such a dreadful waste of time to leave it and start over with something else. But because I write slowly, and rewrite a lot, to give up on an historical novel when you’ve done so much reading around the period and the events, feels like a massive potential failure. It’s a big investment of time. I’m quite fearful about doing it, but then I do it anyway.
The key themes of the book appear to be motherhood and freedom and how these two concepts are inextricably linked. Did the themes arise from the story, or did you particularly want to explore the changing nature of motherhood over time?
The themes arose from the story but I wouldn’t have been interested in writing that story if I hadn’t been interested in those themes. I found out that at the time of the child’s death at Cromore House, her mother Annie Montagu had given birth to eight children and was pregnant with her ninth. The child who died was the only girl in the family. I’m the youngest of ten children myself. I didn’t really think about that at the time, but looking back on it, that must have had a part to play in my interest. I have a certain degree of empathy for Annie Montagu. Although she was financially well-off and in a privileged position in society, I wonder if she felt that her choices were restricted? The limited amount of information I had about her seemed to point to a woman who was unconventional among her peers: she was a renowned horsewoman; she ‘broke’ her own horses; she bartered over prices in the market place; she rode to the hunt while pregnant. There was a sense of unfiltered disapproval regarding her activities which, if it had been expressed, would have amounted to this: she didn’t behave as a woman ought to; she strayed into the realms of the men.
What part does Ireland play in your writing? Do you consider yourself an ‘Irish’ writer or part of an Irish tradition?
I do consider myself an Irish writer by identity, but I’m not sure that I see myself as part of any writing tradition. It wasn’t something I thought about when I started writing. I studied English and Italian at Queen’s and afterwards completed my Masters in Irish Writing. By the time I’d graduated, I’d read a lot of work by dead white men. Afterwards, I discovered writers like Margaret Atwood, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Flannery O’Connor and I was blown away by their work, by my personal response to what they were writing, so I stayed away from Irish writing for a while because I didn’t feel that emotional connection. I’ve come back, of course. I read lots of contemporary Irish writing now. I name the women writers below but among my favourite male writers are Donal Ryan, Niall Williams, Colum McCann, Sebastian Barry and Eoin McNamee.
You write short stories and novels. Is there a form that you prefer, or do stories fit more with one genre than the other?
I think there are some stories that demand the scope of a novel. When I began to write about Annie Montagu, I thought that would be a short story, but it soon became clear that the short form wouldn’t contain her story. I do prefer to write short stories for the simple fact of finishing something sooner: the length is so much more manageable. But there is a sense of achievement with finishing the marathon run of the novel too. I wish there was a stronger market for the short story. There’s always talk of how healthy the form is, how we’re on the cusp of a revival, but ask any publisher what they want from a writer and not one of them will answer: ‘A short story collection.’ They’re a hard sell.
Your short stories have been included in the recent anthologies The Long Gaze Back and The Glass Shore. Do you feel that those collections are helping to shine a spotlight on women writers from Ireland? Who are your favourite women writers from Ireland?
I think they absolutely shine a light on women writers from Ireland, past and present. Those are wonderful collections, but I have to confess to a bias towards The Glass Shore which contains stories by women writers from the North of Ireland. Of those stories I loved Margaret Barrington’s ‘Village Without Men’ and Caroline Blackwood’s ‘Taft’s Wife’. Despite having been written some time ago, they both had a very contemporary feel to me. Of the women who are writing today, I love the work of Claire Keegan and Lisa McInerney, also Anne Enright, Christine Dwyer Hickey, Sara Baume. And I’m reading Jan Carson’s Children’s Children at the moment and loving the stories. They’re little jewels, every one.
You are working on a new book. Is there anything you can tell us about it?
Yes, it’s called The Watch House and I’m on the final proof read. It will be published by Tinder Press in August 2017. It’s set on Rathlin Island in 1898 at the time of the Marconi experiments. It centres around a fictional island woman called Nuala Byrne who becomes an assistant wireless operator. I love Rathlin. I went there first on a Writers’ Weekend organised by Ballycastle Writers years ago and I’ve always wanted to write something about the place. I wanted to write a story about the impact the visit of Marconi’s engineers might have made on the islanders at the time. My interest was in exploring the phenomenon that radio was in the late nineteenth century: the extraordinary idea that your words could travel beyond you, specifically in the context of a community that knew all too well what it was to be cut off from the rest of the world. The story’s about the power of words as well as the dangers of suspicion. That’s all I can tell you for now.
My thanks to Bernie for taking the time to share her thoughts with me. If you’d like to find out more about her work (and I urge you to!) check out her website or follow her on Twitter @berniemcgill
Bernie’s first collection of short stories, was published in May 2013 by Whittrick Press and shortlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize 2014. The title story was first prizewinner in the Zoetrope: All-Story Short Fiction Contest (US) and the collection includes ‘Home’, a supplementary prizewinner in the 2010 Bridport Short Story Prize and ‘No Angel’, Second Prizewinner in the Seán Ó Faoláin and the Michael McLaverty Short Story Prizes. Her work has been anthologised in The Long Gaze Back and in the forthcoming The Glass Shore. She is the recipient of a number of Arts Council Awards including an ACES Award in association with the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen’s University, Belfast and an award from the Society of Authors.
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