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.

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The Long Gaze Back – A Giveaway!

To celebrate Irish women writers, I am delighted to host a very exciting giveaway on the blog this week.

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I will be giving away a hardback copy of The Long Gaze Back, an anthology of short stories by Irish female writers, edited by Sinéad Gleeson along with a copy of Maeve Brennan’s novella The Visitor, from which The Long Gaze Back takes its name.

The Long Gaze Back was published last year to showcase the many women writers in Ireland whose work has been overlooked in the past. The Oxford Book of Irish Short Stories was published in 1989 and included only 7 women writers out of 39 stories. Worse still, the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing published in 1984 contained no women writers at all.

In 2001, Evelyn Conlon and Hans Christian Oeser edited a collection which aimed to redress the balance. Cutting the Night in Two featured short stories from 34 Irish female writers which made it clear that these writers had always been out there, they just weren’t being heard.

The Long Gaze Back follows on from this, featuring as it does 34 writers and spanning 218 years. The collection includes stories from Maria Edgeworth, Charlotte Riddell and Norah Hoult and includes 22 living writers, all of whom have included stories never before published.

The Long Gaze Back is a substantial harvest, a seriously comprehensive and celebratory volume.                                                                     The Irish Times

Sinéad Gleeson has described the anthology as a triptych, featuring deceased classic writers; well established writers from the last decade like Anne Enright and the new voices currently emerging from Ireland – Belinda McKeon, Mary Costello and Lisa McInerney. The themes covered in the anthology show the breadth and depth of issues facing women today and throughout history – emigration, pregnancy, loss, capitalism, motherhood, ghosts, art and much more.

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The Long Gaze Back was the winner of the TheJournal.ie Best Irish-Published Book of the Year at the Irish Book Awards 2015

There’s nothing girly about these stories; there are no clichés, no Mr. Rights, no wedding bells, no evenings with Chardonnay. Instead, this collection represents the richness of women’s lives, past and present. The joy, the compassion, the anger, the sadness. It’s all there.                                                                                    Sunday Independent

Maeve Brenan’s novella The Visitor was written in the mid-1940s but was only discovered in a university archive and republished in 2006.

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It tells the haunting story of Anastasia King, who, at the age of 22, following the deaths of her parents, returns to her grandmother’s house in Ireland where she lived as a child.  However, instead of solace, she finds coldness and intransigence from her grandmother and comes to realise that refuge may not lie in the past after all.

The Visitor is the work of a sure hand…and Brennan’s prose is terse and exquisitely precise throughout…Only in the work of Emily Dickinson can the same ferocious vision – of love, pain, transgression and death – and economy of expression be found.                                 The Guardian

 

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Maeve Brennan

 

If you would like to win these two fantastic books, simply comment below telling me either your favourite Irish woman writer or just your favourite woman writer and you will be entered into the draw which will take place on Friday.

Good luck!

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Irish writers make the Baileys Longlist!

 

The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2016 long list was announced this morning and no better day for it that International Women’s Day!

A massive congratulations to Lisa McInerney and Anne Enright who were included for The Glorious Heresies and The Green Road respectively.

 

I’m currently slap bang in the middle of The Glorious Heresies and will be reviewing it later in the month during my New Voices Week. I had the pleasure of meeting Lisa during the summer at an event promoting The Long Gaze Back anthology where she read her fantastic short story, Berghain from that collection.

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Lisa McInerney

If you would like to read a snippet from The Glorious Heresies, you can do so here

Good luck to Lisa and Anne for the next round!

Have any of your read The Green Road or The Glorious Heresies? Were any of your favourites included in the long list? I did have my fingers crossed for Tender by Belinda McKeon which was my favourite book of last year.

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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Irish Book Awards 2015 – Shortlist Announced!

 

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The Shortlist for the Irish Book Awards was announced today and there are some great books and authors to check out. The Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards brings together the entire literary community – readers, authors, booksellers, publishers and librarians – to recognise and celebrate the very best of Irish literary talent across thirteen categories, including Novel of the Year, Popular Fiction, Non-fiction, Crime, Children’s, Sports, Short Stories and Cookery.

The Best Novel category is a particularly strong one and includes two of my favourite reads of the year – Miss Emily by Nuala O’Connor and Tender by Belinda McKeon. I am secretly hoping that Nuala wins as I’m hosting a Q&A and reading of Miss Emily in the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast in December and it would be great to chat about a potential win! I have The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien from Net Galley and it is another book I am very much looking forward to. Regular readers to the blo will know m felings for Paul Murray, so all in all, this is an incredibly strong collection of novels.

Eason Book Club Novel of the Year
• Tender by Belinda McKeon (Pan Macmillan / Picador)
• Miss Emily by Nuala O’ Connor (Sandstone Press Ltd)
• The Green Road by Anne Enright (Jonathan Cape)
• The Mark and the Void by Paul Murray (Hamish Hamilton)
• Beatlebone by Kevin Barry (Canongate Books)
• The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’ Brien (Faber & Faber)

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I’m also delighted to see The Long Gaze Back included in the Best Irish Published Book of the Year. This anthology of short stories by Irish female writers goes someway to balancing out the gender bias of many anthologies and collections of Irish writing. I am half way through The Long Gaze Back at the moment and it is a great read.

TheJournal.ie Best Irish Published Book of the Year
• Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way by Carsten Krieger (The O’Brien Press)
• The Long Gaze Back: An Anthology of Irish Writers edited by Sinéad Gleeson (New Island Books)
• Windharp edited by Niall Mc Monagle (Penguin Ireland)
• 1916: Portraits and Lives by Lawrence William White and James Quinn (Royal Irish Academy)
• Handbook of the Irish Revival: An Anthology of Cultural and Political Writings 1891 –1922 by Declan Kiberd and P.J.Mathews (Abbey Theatre Press)
• Eileen Gray: Her Work and Her World by Jennifer Goff (Irish Academic Press)

 

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Another fantastic inclusion in the shortlist is Martina Devlin, whose About Sisterland has been shortlisted in the Popular Fiction Book of the Year category. I interviewed Martina on the blog last month and would love to see her win!

Irish Independent Popular Fiction Book of the Year
• About Sisterland by Martina Devlin (Ward River Press)
• The Dress by Kate Kerrigan (Head of Zeus)
• Seedless in Seattle by Ross O’Carroll-Kelly (Penguin Ireland)
• The Marble Collector by Cecelia Ahern (HarperCollins)
• The Way We Were by Sinead Moriarty (Penguin Ireland)
• Another Heartbeat in the House by Kate Beaufoy (Transworld Ireland)

 

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There are some very exciting new voices shortlisted for the Newcomer of the Year award, including Sara Baume for Spill Simmer Falter Wither and Lisa McInerney for The Glorious Heresies, both of which I was bought as a wedding anniversary present (along with The Long Gaze Back and Miss Emily!).

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I hope to read them both over the next few months and review them during Reading Ireland Month 2016 (next March – get that date in your diaries!)

Sunday Independent Newcomer of the Year
• Eggshells by Caitriona Lally (Liberties Press)
• Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume (Tramp Press)
• The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney (John Murray)
• Hopscotch: A Memoir by Hilary Fannin (Doubleday Ireland)
• Dinosaurs On Other Planets by Danielle Mc Laughlin (Stinging Fly Press)
• Weightless by Sarah Bannan (Bloomsbury Circus)

 

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The short story section is also strong and includes What Time Is It, Where You Are Now? from Colum McCann’s stunning Thirteen Ways of Looking. It wouldn’t be my favourite story from that collection, but it is incredibly clever and well written.

Writing.ie Short Story of the Year
• A Slanting of the Sun by Donal Ryan (A Slanting of the Sun) (Doubleday)
• BOY, 19 by John Boyne (Beneath the Earth, (Doubleday)
• The Journey to Galway by Colm Toibin (Faber/The Irish Times)
• December Swimmers by Paul Lenehan (The Moth)
• monologue for cabman by Kevin Barry (The Stinging Fly Press)
• What Time Is It Now, Where Are You? By Colum McCann (Thirteen Ways of Looking, Bloomsbury)

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What’s most fantastic about the Irish Book Awards is that the voting is now open to the public until 19 November 2015. You can vote in as many categories as you like on the website here and the winners will be announced at a ceremony in Dublin on 25 November. You can get more information and the full list of shortlisted books on the Irish Book Awards website.

 
Have you read any of the shortlisted books? Who would you cast your vote for?