No 593 The Butterfly Cabinet by Bernie McGill

 

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.

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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!

 

Bernie McGill author pic

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.

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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.

Read on: Book

Number Read: 154

Number Remaining: 592

A 3rd Birthday and a Giveaway!

Today is my Blogversary!

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Yep, it’s been three long years since I counted up all those books, almost had a heart attack and planned to cut down the TBR.

So, it’s another year done and how far on am I? I’m so close to the 500s I can taste it! Hopefully by the end of the year I’ll have reached that milestone. 146 books in 3 years isn’t great, but it’s better than the pre-blog days and if I keep up the momentum, 746 books will be done and dusted by 2028. Go me!

Despite having made it through another year without buying myself a book, I have acquired books through other means. My use of Net Galley has risen and I did receive quite a few books from publishers this year. I have tried to stick to my (very loose) rules and only read new books by Irish writers, but this little habit has definitely slowed my progress in my challenge. I may have read 71 books this year, according to Good Reads, but I only reduced the 746 by 47.

Reading aside, I’ve had another great year on the blog. According to my friends at WordPress, I’ve had over 23,000 views and 11,500 visitors. I was also delighted this year to pass my 1,000 follower mark, so thanks to you all for continuing to read.

Highlights this year have been the second annual Reading Ireland Month back in March which generated over 100 posts.

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Plans are already afoot for 2017, which I will again be co-hosting with my pal Niall of Raging Fluff fame, so if you have any books by Irish authors lurking in your TBR why not save them until March and join in the craic. This year I’ll be focusing entirely on Irish women writers, but there will be lots of other fun posts and giveaways.

20 Books of Summer also went down a treat this year, with over 120 fantastic bloggers participating and as a bonus, I actually managed to read all 20 of my books! This feature will certainly be back in 2017 as it gives my reading a real kick up the butt mid-year!

Once again I was delighted to make the finals of the Irish Blog Awards for the best Books and Literature blog – getting that far never ceases to amaze me! Plus I clearly take every opportunity throughout the year to show off about it….

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On a personal level, 2016 has been both a difficult and an amazing year. Since this time last year I had the real pleasure of interviewing Nuala O’Connor and Dame Fiona Kidman for the Belfast Book Festival and of course, I started a new and wonderful job at the Seamus Heaney HomePlace in Bellaghy. Leaving the job I had done for 17 years was frightening and daunting, but I have to say that I have never been happier. I adore my new job, surrounded by books, poetry and writers all day; it feels like it was made for me!

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The intensity of my new position and some health issues this year meant that I haven’t blogged as much as usual. I am trying to rectify that and make some time for this lovely little corner of the blogosphere I call home and I just hope I can continue with the same enthusiasm next year.

I’ve never really been one for a year round up, but this year I am picking my five best reads of 2016. Of course, these haven’t been published in 2016 but you all know what I mean!

  1. The Republic of Love – Carol Shields

For sheer enjoyment, Carol Shields wonderful, heartwarming, sprawling tale of love in all its forms tops my list of the year. I didn’t read another book that made me as happy as this one.

  1. Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Woolf

I didn’t get to join in with Heaven Ali’s Woolfalong as much as I would have liked, but I am so delighted that it nudged me to read this luminous, wonderful book, that was everything I hoped and more

  1. Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha – Roddy Doyle

Roddy Doyle makes it into my Books of the Year list for the second time. Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha was nothing like I imagined. It was simply magnificent.

  1. The Rose Garden – Maeve Brennan

Maeve Brennan was my author of the year, with both this collection of spiky short stories and her wonderful novella The Visitor. She’s undergoing a bit of resurgence here in Ireland and next year I plan to read her biography by Angela Bourke and her collected works from the New Yorker, which have just been published by Stinging Fly

  1. Behind the Scenes at the Museum – Kate Atkinson

Can Kate Atkinson do no wrong? Ruby Lennox stayed with me long after I closed this book which is wonderfully plotted and beautifully uplifting.

I’m looking forward to a positive 2017. With Reading Ireland Month and 20 Books of Summer planned, I also hope to start a feature called ‘The Books that Built the Blogger’ where my favourite bloggers chat about the books that made them into the readers and bloggers they are today.

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Each month I plan to chat about a book which has formed and influenced my reading life as well. If you’d be interested in taking part, drop me an email, I’d love to hear from you.

Finally, as it’s a birthday and a birthday needs presents, I’m hosting a little giveaway today. Up for grabs is a paperback copy of Mike McCormack’s critically acclaimed one sentence novel ‘Solar Bones’

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Winner of the Goldsmiths Prize and Novel of the Year at the Irish Book Awards this year, Solar Bones has been called ‘an extraordinary hymn to small town Ireland’ by The Guardian. To win a copy, just comment below. I’ll draw a winner on Monday 12 December and will post world-wide.

Good luck and thanks, as always, for reading

x

Reading Ireland Month – Sin uile folks!*

*That’s all Folks!

So there we have it. Another Reading Ireland Month/ Begorrathon is over and what a great month it was!

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With over 130 blog posts, an array of writers, poets, musicians and movies were explored. I read and reviewed 20 books by Irish authors, reduced the 746 by 10 and discovered many, many more writers I would love to read!

You can still check out, or add to, the link up here which has gathered together all your fantastic posts.

As usual, I ran out of time and didn’t get to read everything I had planned. I also ran out of time to post about Lisa McInerney’s fabulous The Glorious Heresies and the wonderful Irish documentary The Queen of Ireland.

 

But you know, my kids had to eat and I had to sleep so I squeezed in what I could! Next year could someone make March just a few days longer?!

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Congratulations to the winners of my giveaways:

Annabel at Annabel’s House of Books won the signed copy of Gull by Glenn Patterson

Fiction Fan won a copy of The Long Gaze Back and The Visitor by Maeve Brennan

Madame Bibilophile won a copy of Fallen by Lia Mills

There will be one final giveaway of a subscription to Irish literary journal The Stinging Fly which will be open to everyone who contributed a Reading Ireland Month post and I will make the draw next week once all posts have been added.

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Highlights of the month for me were the response to my post about the criminally under read Maeve Brennan, seeing your choices for the month and getting into a Twitter chat with Lia Mills about my slowly decreasing TBR!

The main highlight though was all the fantastic enthusiasm and support I received from the blogosphere. Thanks to everyone who took part, from the blog posts to the retweets, you have all been supportive and joined in the fun.

Thanks to Niall at The Fluff is Raging for co-hosting this year’s celebration with me. Remember The Begorrathon Facebook page celebrates Irish literature and culture all year round, so do give us a follow.

For now though, it’s back to normality here at 746books. I’ll keep working away at that TBR and I am looking forward to planning my books for the 20 Books of Summer Challenge.

As usual in the week after Reading Ireland Month, I question whether or not I will do it again, but I’m sure Reading Ireland Month will return in some shape or form. I’ve even been debating whether or not there would be any interest out there for a Ulysses Readalong?

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Look at that monster!

 

Am I mad? Most likely….

It’s Reading Ireland Month!

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March is here, so that means Reading Ireland Month is here!

Join myself and Niall at The Fluff is Raging as we celebrate all that is good about Irish books and culture.

It won’t be any fun without you, so grab our pin and add the link to your blog posts at the linky below. If you need any inspiration, you can check out my list of 100 Irish novels, or watch our Begorrathon trailer and see if anything sparks your interest.

Remember everyone who posts during Reading Ireland Month will be entered into a draw to win a year’s subscription to Ireland’s leading literary magazine, The Stinging Fly.

Join in the conversation on Facebook or on Twitter with our hashtags #readireland16 and #begorrathon16

Don’t forget to check in throughout the month as there will be great interview and giveaways happening every week.

Links Final

When adding the link, please do add the subject matter of your post beside your name, so everyone knows who or what you’ve been writing about!

Let the craic begin!

The Bloggers We Read

I was recently interviewed by the lovely Bree at The Things We Read for her new feature – The Bloggers We Read – where she asks questions to get to know the person behind some of her favourite blogs! Here are my answers, please do check out Bree’s blog, which covers books and so much more.

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Introducing….Cathy @ 746 Books

Today I welcome Cathy to the interview hotseat. She is relatively new to the blogging community having only been blogging a year but you would never know it based on her fan base and popularity already. I “met” Cathy during March Madness last year when we both topped our reading goals. She writes in-depth reviews on the books she is reading from her bookshelves. Stop by her blog to check out her book quest.

Why did you start blogging?
I had started a blog a few times before but never found the impetus to keep going. The blogs were vaguely about books, but didn’t feel focused enough to be effective. In an attempt to curb some spending I thought I would try not to buy anymore books until I’d read what I had, then I thought I would count what I had and when it came to 746, I realised I needed more drastic action and 746 Books was born! I hoped that the blog would keep me focused on my goal of reading more without buying more and I’m happy to say that it has!

Do people in your personal life know about your blog or is it your private spot?
A bit of both really. I have kept my blog quite quiet, although my family and a few friends know about it. I don’t think I’m confident enough yet with my writing to come out of my blogging closet and reveal that I don’t look a thing like Lauren Bacall! I have been posting more personal things lately though and I may well continue to do so this year, but I like having a separate FB page and Twitter profile so then I can concentrate solely on books! (Bree: I’m the same way. I like the separate life, like a secret identity. lol)

Definitely NOT Lauren Bacall!

Definitely NOT Lauren Bacall!

Do you have other blogs? If so, what are they?
746 Books keeps me busy enough as it is, so I just have the one. I do own a book that I inherited from my grandmother called ‘301 Things A Bright Girl Can Do’ and I would love to create a blog where I talk about doing each one of those things! Maybe if I get through the 746 quicker than anticipated I’ll start on that project! (Bree: Oh yes, please do. That idea sounds intriguing.)

What are some blogs (bookish or not) people should check out that you enjoy?
One of my favourite blogs is the fantastic Flavorwire which covers all things cultural. I’m also a regular reader of Go Fug Yourself and Tom and Lorenzo although these three sites are now so popular the term ‘blog’ doesn’t quite suffice. Other favourites include The Fluff is Raging, my co-host for Read Ireland Month and No More Workhorse, which focuses on arts and culture news from Dublin.

What do you do for a living? Anything book related that the rest of us can be jealous about?
My job is not directly book related but I run an Arts Centre in Northern Ireland where I organise a programme of theatre, music, visual arts and yes, the odd literary reading! I am very lucky in that I love my job and get to be surrounded by all things cultural all day!

Anything you would like to share about yourself, family, etc?
I have four year old twins called Harrison and Stella and we have a slightly unconventional set up as my husband stays at home to look after the kids. You would be surprised at how often, even nowadays, that this raises eyebrows, but we always knew we wanted one parent to be at home for them and this works for us. My husband is such a fantastic Dad, I am very blessed. (Bree: Yay for stay-at-home dads! There aren’t enough of them.)

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What are your childhood reading memories?
My main memory is that there was a lot of it! I was an only child until I was 13 so I spent a lot of time reading. My father was a great reader and I owe my love of books to him. He had a built in wardrobe in his study that he had converted into a little mini library with bookshelves on three sides and as a child I would bring cushions, my favourite toys and my own book and go in, close the door, turn on the light and sit and read. It was my favourite spot in the whole house and I still remember the smell and feel of that little space.(Bree: sounds amazing)

What do you think of forcing students to read certain books especially the classics? Yes or No? Harmful or helpful to their reading life?
I don’t think forcing anyone to read anything is helpful, although I do think the classics should be taught. Classics are classics for a reason and can be misunderstood. Students wouldn’t just learn about modern art, or only recent advances in science, so I think literature should be viewed the same way.

What suggestions or advice do you have for new book bloggers?
I’m not sure I should be giving advice as I have only been blogging for a year but the one thing I would advise is to connect with other bloggers. Read blogs, comment on them and engage with other people. It is the most rewarding part of blogging and the surest way to grow your own audience.

What is your guilty secret pleasure?
Books wise, I don’t have any. I’ll read anything and everything. In fact, I rarely feel guilty, or keep a secret about anything I like, but I do blush a bit when I say I was a MASSIVE fan of the TV show Rock of Love with Brett Michaels. Trashy does not even begin to cover what this show was ☺ (Bree: everyone has something. lol)


Favorites Section:

Author: One? You want me to pick one?? Joyce Carol Oates. Or maybe Don DeLillo.
All time best book: One? You want me to pick one?? For purely sentimental reasons I choose Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Ask me again tomorrow and I will have changed my mind! (Bree: too funny!)
Blogging event/challenge: I’m gearing up to host Read Ireland Month in March this year, but my favourite challenge from last year was Cedar Station’s March Madness which made me read more that I thought was possible in one month! (me too! 🙂 )
Food: Medium rare steak, which is unusual given I was a vegetarian for 25 years.
Drink: Milk. When I was pregnant with the twins I had such a craving that I drank 4 litres a day.
Tea or Coffee Drinker: Coffee. Strong, black, no sugar. At regular intervals.
Dream vacation spot: The south coast of Crete. It is my favourite place in the world. Failing that? It’s hard to beat Donegal.
TV show: For drama? The Sopranos. For comedy? Party Down
Brad Pitt or Channing Tatum: Neither I’m afraid. I’m not a fan of a pretty boy (and I’m old enough to remember Pitt when he was just a pretty boy) (Bree: me too). I do have a soft spot for John Cusack though….
Summer or Winter: Winter, without a doubt. I am a pale Irish girl. Tights are my friend.

Photograph: Karen Robinson

Many thanks to Bree for asking me to participate in her great new feature! Please do check out her blog.