Bernie McGill: On how Rathlin Island inspired her new novel, the aunt who had 'the cure' for sprains and why turning 50 means taking stock of life
Ahead of the publication of her latest novel, author Bernie McGill tells Una Brankin how her parents fostered her love of books and why she is fascinated by the paranormal
Bernie McGill is cringing. It is not the reaction you'd expect from an acclaimed author to the narration of a passage from her keenly anticipated new novel, but the Portstewart writer is her own worst critic and does not enjoy hearing her words read aloud, even by her eldest daughter.
Mary, a 20-year-old French student, gave the impromptu reading in the living room when a box of copies of her mother's new novel, The Watch House, arrived at the family home last week.
"It was excruciating," Bernie groans. "She just opened up a copy and started reading from it. I wasn't thrilled about it - I didn't think it sounded amazing."
Pre-launch nerves aside (the book's out on August 10), Bernie is feeling the pressure to produce a worthy follow-up to her widely praised debut, The Butterfly Cabinet.
Even Downton creator Julian Fellowes, having read the haunting tale, was compelled to comment on the writer's ability to "enter the brain and heart of her characters".
The Watch House is a suspenseful love story, set on Rathlin Island in the late 1880s, when Marconi's engineers were setting up an experimental wireless link between the island and Ballycastle.
The title refers to the ships' look-out on the north-eastern side of the island, which, goes the blurb: "is alive with gossip about the strangers who have arrived from the mainland, armed with mysterious equipment which can reportedly steal a person's words and transmit them through the air".
Focusing on Nuala, the fey and beautiful young wife of the island's (older) tailor, and the alluring young Italian engineer, Gabriel, The Watch House took seven years to complete.
"I found both novels really tough - I thought the Watch House would be easier than The Butterfly Cabinet, but it was just as hard," Bernie admits.
"A novel is such a long haul. It takes me so long; there's a lot of rewriting and it's hard to keep going. You're talking 80,000 words - it's hard to keep all that in your head. With all the characters, it's like conducting an orchestra, and I did feel pressure and, also, I didn't want to release it until I was happy with it.
"It's a frustrating process. It's just not an option to produce something quickly. I'm a perfectionist, yes - the book's not perfect, but it's the best I could write at the time."
She is speaking - in a quiet, girlish lilt - from her writing room, which has a view of "the far end" of Portstewart strand. As well as her upcoming book launch, she and her husband, Kevin McClelland, an architect, are preparing for the departure of their eldest for a year abroad - an experience Bernie (50) had herself, in Italy, during her own degree course at Queen's University.
Their younger daughter, Rosie (17), is still at school and interested in doing a degree in engineering. Bernie met Kevin at Queen's, where she studied English literature and Italian. Unlike the tailor in her novel, Kevin did not face competition from any gorgeous Italian charmers during Bernie's year out.
"I knew Kevin for three years before we started going out and that was after Italy," she recalls. "He's not much of a reader, but he's an artist, so he's sympathetic and he's proud of me. He even bought me a writing desk when I started out, to encourage me.
"The girls were good readers when they were younger. Not so much now, but they're proud of me, too."
The Watch House is dedicated to Bernie's mother, Sarah, a former home-help who died in 2014 at the age of 89. Bernie and her nine siblings took turns to look after Sarah at home after she had a stroke, an act of love Bernie sees as "a privilege".
She drew upon the experience for her poignant short story, The Cure For Too Much Caring, which was published in the award-winning anthology, The Glass Shore.
"Mum and I were very close; we just seemed to know what the other was thinking, even though we didn't talk every day. It was just an understanding," she reflects.
"She loved the newspapers and a bit of craic. She read The Butterfly Cabinet and Sleepwalkers (short story collection) - she was very proud. She didn't get to read The Watch House but we brought her to Rathlin on a day trip before she died and she loved it. Her loss is less raw now."
Although Sarah left school at 14, she was an avid reader, as was Bernie's late father, John, who worked as a bricklayer.
The couple and their 10 children, of whom Bernie is the youngest, lived in a modest house in a small housing estate in Lavey, Co Derry, where Bernie shared a bedroom with her two sisters and one of her younger brothers.
"Mum and Dad were of that farming generation who left school when they became usable," Bernie explains. "We didn't live in the lap of luxury, but we were fine.
"Dad was a great reader and he and my uncle Sandy were great story-tellers. Dad used the library and he'd read westerns. I could see him disappearing from the room - not easy in a house of 10 kids.
"It was a form of escape for him; it took him away to another world. The power that books held fascinated me, but I never said I wanted to be a writer - that was alien to me. There was very little local fiction or writers, so it didn't feel it was in my grasp at all."
It was only when Bernie left Queen's with a master's degree in Irish writing that she started to "tinker a little" in fiction, scribbling in cafes and libraries while her daughters were at nursery. She went on to write for theatre, before having The Butterfly Cabinet published by Headline in 2010.
Hailed as "assured and very readable" by the Irish Independent, and "thoroughly absorbing" by the Daily Mail, the story is narrated in the vernacular of her parents' generation, as is The Watch House.
The islanders drink "tay" and "footer" about, some are "crabbid" , and a notorious penny-pincher is known to be "as tight as a duck's arse".
The Irish and Ulster-Scots influence lends a colourful richness to the language, and Bernie's cast of superstitious characters - including the apparently psychic Nuala - are great users of vivid similes.
She credits folklorist Michael J Murphy and his book, Rathlin: Island of Blood and Enchantment (1987), as particularly helpful to her research into the islanders' paranormal beliefs. During his visits to Rathlin in his younger days, Murphy recorded the islanders talking about fairies and ghosts in the most prosaic, matter-of-fact way.
"They had a complete belief in these strange figures and how they influenced events in their lives," Bernie says. "Michael Murphy has these completely unromantic and unsentimental accounts of little people and shape-shifters that could turn into sheep, for example.
"There was nothing touristy about it. It was their way of explaining events and that fed into the idea that Nuala could hear voices. Her character came to me with that ability intact - I don't know why."
"She has some strange way of hearing voices from people who have passed on. It's not something she broadcasts because she doesn't want to be judged as different in any way."
The author admits to being fascinated but terrified by the idea of the paranormal. She also gives Nuala the power of a 'cure', drawing on her own aunt's mysterious remedy for sprains, and another common one, locally, for shingles.
"Just because you can't see something doesn't mean to say it's not there," she asserts. "Maybe we just can't explain these things yet. Maybe we will, in years to come. I'm open to the idea.
"Some perfectly sane and sensible people have told me about their experiences and I know they weren't making it up or imagining it. They were very real experiences.
"Nuala's ability to hear the voices of those that have passed on is inexplicable, as was the idea you could talk to someone at the other side of the world. That's a mystery to Nuala and the islanders - I don't understand it either, but I'm quite happy to live awed."
The antagonistic voice of Nuala's spinster sister-in-law, Ginny, persisted in the writer's head from the outset of The Watch House. She describes her characters' voices as coming from the ether - with little tinges and trickles of back-story from the radio.
"I love the radio - definitely more than TV - especially podcasts and Desert Island Discs," she says. "Little short bursts of other people's lives. Talk shows on radio are more intimate and confessional.
"TV is much more intrusive but, saying that, the Handmaiden's Tale (on Channel 4) is amazing - extraordinary. I was really affected by the novel but even more so by the drama. It has taken me aback."
The Watch House and The Cure For Too Much Caring include rape scenes, as does The Handmaiden's Tale.
The passages are vividly depicted via Bernie's eye for fine detail - 'freckled fingers on her leg', in the short story; and 'the roughness of pitted skin' which 'gouges' Nuala's cheek, in The Watch House.
"I didn't want to write that; I didn't want to dwell on it," she says of Nuala's rape. "I got it over as quick as I could, but I did want to do justice to the trauma she endures.
"I didn't know that was going to happen. There was an antagonism between the two characters from the start and it got stronger. I just wrote it from my imagination and from what I've heard on the radio, as well.
"I haven't suffered what Nuala suffers but I know what loss feels like and how you recover from it.
"Fiction is an amplification of that and emotions from my own life - I try to project that on to the character."
Now that she has 'a room of one's own', Virginia Woolf's famous prerequisite for writing fiction, the inspiration is flowing for Bernie McGill.
She is working on more short stories and has an idea for another novel milling around in her head - "if it's still there in another couple of months, I may have a look".
Meanwhile, turning 50 this year has led her to re-evaluate and assess her life, despite the fact she's "pretending it didn't happen". Although her writing has been well received, it hasn't made her wealthy, she says, adding that she still works as a creative writing facilitator with the Irish Writers Centre.
"Fifty is a milestone. It makes you consider your choices in the future. As you know, writing is not a lucrative business, so I try to juggle the paid mentoring work around it and I've had a lot of help from the Arts Council, and I'm very grateful for that and for Kevin's support."
All she needs now is for Julian Fellowes to make a drama of one of her novels.
"That would be amazing. I think Julian's too busy at the moment but if there's anyone out there interested, I be delighted to hear from them," she laughs.