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

November in Review

Yet again I am playing catch up with myself! It’s the same old story – reading? Good. Reviewing? Bad. I feel like one of my old school teachers, ‘Cathy could do so much better if she would just apply herself more…’

In my defence, November has been a rather rubbish month. The obvious political situation was a downer to say the least and I have been incredibly busy in work again. I’ve also been ill and am writing this from my sick bed under the influence of strong painkillers, so if I veer off topic, or my writing appears more confused than ever, then that’s my excuse.

Despite being busy in work, I did have a really lovely month. I had the pleasure of meeting Alan Hollinghurst, who came to talk about life in Oxford studying under Seamus Heaney and I also met one of my all-time favourite poets, Bernard O’Donoghue. I don’t think poor Bernard knew what to do with me as I made him pose for photographs, sign all my copies of his collections and listen to me be a real fan-girl, but I don’t care! If you’ve never read any of O’ Donoghue’s poetry, please do. The Definition of Love is one of the most beautiful poems I know.

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With the wonderful Bernard O’Donoghue


I also had the pleasure of hosting a panel event for The Glass Shore, a new book of short stories by Northern Ireland Women Writers, edited by the indomitable and inspiring Sinéad Gleeson. Spanning the last hundred years and featuring a range of writers including Lucy Caldwell, Rosa Mulholland, Polly Devlin and Bernie McGill, this is a wonderful and necessary collection and I hope to review it on 746 Books next week.

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With The Glass Shore contibuters Bernie McGill & Rosemary Jenkinson and editor Sinead Gleeson.

In terms of getting the 746 into the 500’s before the end of the year, I think I’m still on track. I’ve read three more books since my last round up. Please do forgive these VERY mini-reviews, my critical faculties are not firing on all cylinders at the moment and I have a feeling I would end up making even less sense than usual if I tried to review them properly!

No 604: Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan

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In 2009 Susannah Cahalan was a thriving 24 year old, with a new boyfriend and her dream job as a journalist for the New York Post, yet the unthinkable and unimaginable happened when she, for all intents and purposes, lost her mind. After a period of mood swings, hallucinations and extreme paranoia; all of which was put down to too much alcohol consumption by one doctor, Cahalan suffered violent seizures and psychosis, which caused her to be hospitalised for a month before being diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease where her body was essentially attacking her brain.

Cahalan remembers nothing of this month in hospital and using her journalistic skills, she pieces together what happened from medical records and interviews with her immediate family. This a clear-eyed and sobering memoir, however Cahalan has that reporter’s objectivity which means that the personal side of the story is harder to access. The book is both an investigation into a patient’s illness and a personal account of being that patient, but ultimately the personal side of the story is less effective. Despite this, Cahalan is unflinching in exploring what happened to her and the strain it put on her loved ones and what comes from the book most clearly is her sense of good luck – luck in having a supportive family, luck in having parents who could afford her necessary treatment and luck in finding the right doctors at the right time. As she herself notes, others have not been so lucky.

Read On: Book

Number Read: 143

Number Remaining: 603

No 603: Under the Skin by Michel Faber

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Michel Faber is another author I have had the pleasure to meet in the course of my new job. Despite having three of his books in the 746, I had never got round to reading his work, but decided to rectify this.

I have seen the weirdly wonderful movie adaptation of Under The Skin, and would advise that if you have neither read the book nor seen the movie, then read the book first. Knowing the premise of Under The Skin before you read it definitely takes away from this oddly intriguing and otherworldly book. It is hard to review Under the Skin without giving key things away.

The book follows Isserley, a strange otherworldly woman who drives around northern Scotland picking up hitchhikers. As each new passenger enters her car, we learn a little more about this odd creature and her search for the perfect specimen of man – bulky, filled out, with as few family ties as possible. Faber drip feeds the reader information on Isserley’s plans for these men, to the point that when we realise what is happening, our concern is less for them and more for Isserley and her own victimisation. Written in beautifully restrained prose, Faber has created a chilling, metaphysical tale that takes its time bringing the reader where he wants you to go.

Read on: iBook

Number Read: 144

Number Remaining: 602

No 602: A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

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One of my aims this year was to take part in Heaven Ai’s Woolfalong – a wonderful celebration of the work of Virginia Woolf. Unfortunately I haven’t managed to take part as much as I would like, but thanks to Ali, I finally got round to reading Mrs Dalloway, which I adored and now A Room of One’s Own.

Poetry depends on intellectual freedom. And women have always been poor, not for 200 years merely, but from the beginning of time

Virginia Woolf’s classic study of what a woman needs to write on the same basis as a man, still holds a great influence today. It was interesting to read this whilst also reading The Glass Shore, and hearing how contemporary women writers still feel they need to create their own space, whether in a house, on pages or in the virtual world, to be granted the same consideration as their male counterparts.

Based on two lectures given in 1928, A Room of One’s Own is both a beautiful and invigorating read, which mixes solid down-to-earth advise to female writers (health, money and space matter) alongside a soaring polemic for the female writer to ‘be truthful…and the result is bound to be amazingly interesting.’ Her exploration of what would have happened to a female Shakespeare is at once entertaining and sobering and her call to celebrate the androgynous mind seems as pertinent today as it did almost 100 years ago.

This slim book is a marvel and I just wish I had read it years ago. My thanks go to Ali for giving me the necessary push to pick it up. It may be the first time I’ve read it, but it won’t be the last.

Read on: Book

Number read: 145

Number Remaining: 601

So, there we have it. Two more books and I will be in the 500’s! Given that it’ taken me three years, I really shouldn’t feel so pleased with myself, but it’s time to celebrate the small victories!

Up soon on the blog, will be my third birthday annual round up of my reading year.

How has everyone else’s reading been this year, have you reached your goals? I look forward to seeing everyone’s ‘best of’ lists.

Putting Women Writers from the North of Ireland in the spotlight!

Yesterday it was announced that New Island Books will publish a new collection of short stories by women writers from the North of Ireland in Autumn 2016.

Sinead Gleeson

Sinead Gleeson

The book, called The Glass Shore: Short Stories by Women Writers from the North of Ireland will be edited by journalist and broadcaster Sinéad Gleeson and it is hoped it will emulate the success of her previous anthology The Long Gaze Back which has been a hugely successful celebration of the short stories of Irish women writers. The Long Gaze Back won the Best Irish Published Book of the Year 2015 at the Irish Book Awards and has met with critical and popular acclaim bringing women writers to the fore.

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The Glass Shore aims to do the same for women writers from Northern Ireland. Spanning three generations of writers, the anthology will feature both emerging and established writers along with deceased and often forgotten voices.

The anthology will feature writers such as Jan Carson, Lucy Caldwell, Evelyn Conlon (whose own anthology of women’s writing Cutting the Night In Two is well worth checking out), Danielle McLaughlin, Bernie McGill, Anne Devlin, Helen Waddell, Martina Devlin and Rosemary Jenkinson to name but a few.

I am particularly pleased to see the inclusion of Ethna Carbery in the collection as she was born not far from my house and was one of my father’s favourite writers. Her poem ‘Thinkin’ Long’ graced the noticeboad by his desk all his life and now graces mine.

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Sinéad Gleeson is a broadcaster and critic who presents The Book Show on RTE Radio 1 and writes about arts and culture for various publications including The Irish Times and The Pool.

During Reading Ireland Month, I will be interviewing Sinéad about The Long Gaze Back and Irish Women Writers and will also be giving away a copy of the book.

This week on the blog will be all about the short story and I will also be reviewing Danielle McLaughlin’s short story collection Dinosaurs on Other Planets on Tuesday to celebrate Women Aloud NI.

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If you’d like to check out some short stories by women writers from Northern Ireland, the following are available online:

Jan Carson – We’ve Got Each Other and That’s A Lot

Danielle McLaughlin – In The Act of Falling

Bernie McGill – No Angel

Ethna Carberry – The Pursuit of Diarmuid & Grainne

The Glass Shore, edited by Sinéad Gleeson and published by New Island Books will be published in Autumn 2016.

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