This week Eimear MCBride – an author in my home city of Norwich – won the Women’s Prize for Fiction with her novel A Girl is A Half-Formed Thing. I haven’t read Emear’s book, but I understand it centres on the relationship between a girl and her brother – who has a brain tumour – and is written using a stream-of-consciousness narration.
It’s always great to hear of success, especially to someone local, but Eimear’s particular case gives me hope for more reason than one. Because Eimear wrote her novel years ago – 9 years ago – and ever since then it has been rejected over and over again, ending up in the back of a drawer. Then a chance conversation between her husband and the manager of a local independent bookshop set off the train of events that led to Galley Beggar, a Norwich publisher, accepting the book. The rest, as they say, is history.
So what’s the link between Eimear and me, apart from both of us living in the same city? Well, none; except that I recently remembered a novel I finished more than 15 years ago that has since then, languished in 3 different attics. It’s called A Nightingale In Winter, and is set during the First World War. The reason I remembered it was because of the current centenary of the start of WW1. “I wonder if I could do anything with that old novel?” I thought, and duly dusted it off and sent it to 3 friends to read. I read it thoroughly myself too, and what a very strange experience it was! I could barely remember writing any of the actual words, although I can very clearly remember the writing process itself. I did a great deal of research for it, immersing myself in books and visiting the Imperial War Museum in London to study very moving original letters and diaries of both nurses and soldiers. At the time I had a full-time job as a guidance worker in a further education college, and it was a fairly demanding role. But each evening I would return home to have something to eat, followed by a brief catnap. Then I’d make a strong mug of coffee and pour myself a large glass of wine. The combination of caffeine and wine usually fired me up sufficiently to write for a good two hours a night. And so; very gradually, the novel was completed. But I had no idea whether it was any good or not, since it was a very different type of story to those I’d previously written.
Here’s where I made my mistake, or not; depending which way you look at it, because maybe the time is right now and back then it just wasn’t. I sent Nightingale to a publisher who’d previously published some of my stories, but didn’t bear in mind that they published romances of the traditional kind; whereas Nightingale isn’t like that. There’s love in it, certainly, but also obsession and madness and the war. It’s strong stuff: certainly too strong for the publisher I sent it to. Their rejection letter fuelled my uncertainty about the story, and, since I had an idea for a new book, I put Nightingale away.
But now it has been rediscovered, and, since the feedback I’ve received from my 3 readers has been encouraging, it almost feels as if I’ve been gifted a novel! Whoopee! I do need to do a little work to it, and as soon as I’ve finished working on Taming Tom Jones, the novel I’m currently writing, I’ll get to work on it.
So congratulations, Eimear, and thank you for the encouragement of your story, even though you don’t me!