Faber Social is the unerringly cool arm of London’s Faber & Faber publishing house. Over the coming months we will be featuring exclusive essays, extracts and articles from some of their finest authors.
Eimear McBride’s idiosyncratic style, first heard in her Bailey’s prize-winning debut, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, is lyrical, experimental and wise; both startling and accessible. Here she explains the importance of music, specifically Tindersticks, a band that epitomise late-night melancholia, in enabling her to put words on paper and, after nine long years, to finish her second novel, The Lesser Bohemians.
In 2007 I started writing a novel which, on its publication in 2016, was called The Lesser Bohemians. It’s the story of a relationship between an eighteen-year old girl on the cusp of becoming a woman and a thirty-eight-year old man on the cusp of rediscovering how to be human again. It’s set in North London in the 90s. Camden Town in 1994 to be precise. When I started the novel, that was only thirteen years previous. By the time I’d finished, it was twenty-two years in the past and I was wondering to myself if I’d written a historical novel by default. The Lesser Bohemians was nine long years in the making but the thread which tied me to it, and made its heart beat, from the first stumbling sentences to the very last correction, was music; not only because of what intricate pasts music has the power to evoke but also because letting it inside you, during the construction, can make stories and language change.
At the outset, I had a strong inkling of the former, the latter I discovered along the way. The first year of writing I spent agonising out a first draft and, therefore, lavished little attention on the abysses of lateral thought which later pushed the book’s linguistic narrative into all the places the story needed it to go. I was too busy digging out my old cassettes which, after numerous house moves in the intervening decade, had found their way into boxes no longer likely to find themselves unpacked. First out of the traps was A Different Class with all its accompanying remembrances of lying speed-sodden on dawn-wet grass, tired from talking shite into the godforsaken hours and longing for a cup of tea. After that, taped from a tape, Songs for Swinging Celibates by Toasted Heretic, was the little piece of Ireland I’d had to bring along to decorate my newfound London with. Then the weird dark glitter of Dog Man Star. Nick Cave and early Radiohead, PJ Harvey. There were others, stacks and stacks, but the important one was really unearthing my already much-played Tindersticks[II]. It not only rolled me over in time, that deep, dark voice and the unsettling music going all around it, finally began to pull strings of words from my brain and get them out onto the page. And I could not stop listening. I really could not stop listening. Hours. Days. Weeks. Years. I cannot begin to contemplate how many times I have listened to that record. I could never refuse the itch to go back again. It felt like I was waiting for something inside me to break down before I could be free. That alone would be the sign I had understood whatever it was the insatiable book needed from those sounds. I never got there either. It’s still alive in me somewhere. And although The Lesser Bohemians has now hit the shelf, I still think about the novella-length story secreted within it that I built with the bricks I learned how to shift from listening ad nauseam to Tindersticks[II].
It could work that way because I don’t think of language and music as being particularly discrete. They can easily co-habit when you loosen the grip of law. I find language most effective when picked apart and used instead like a rapid series of sounds. These make and re-make themselves in response to each other, and everything else, going on inside the universe of that imagined time and place. Reshaping each word’s tone allows it out of its box, makes it’s capable of wringing a deeper, broader understanding of what it is I’m getting at, and far better than its clay-footed, grammatically correct counterpart ever could.
Inside me, sounds interweave to form a kind of net, creating a linguistic, or musical, soundscape that I attempt to pass on to the reader. It is those sounds I can’t escape. Both of my published novels, to date, build themselves on the exploration of this technique and, although I cannot know, I strongly suspect that wherever the words take me next, the sounds will be coming too.
Author photograph: JMA Photography