Eimear McBride is the author of A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing (2013) and The Lesser Bohemians (2016), novels that unfold in staccato phrases to expose the psyches’ of her protagonists. In her new novel, Strange Hotel – out with Faber & Faber – a woman spends empty time in a series of anonymous hotel rooms, reflecting on the fragility of her sense of self.
Granta’s Sinéad O’Callaghan spoke to the author about the dislocation of anonymity and the possibility of making something out of nothing.
Strange Hotel seems like a departure from your previous two books, and deals with a much older protagonist. Did this change your writing process in any way?
Not the process, no. It very much influenced my use of language, however. My first two novels feature young protagonists who are at the mercy of their impulses, and of experience more generally, but this time around, I was writing a woman old enough to be able to assert control over how she reacts to the outside world. In fact, her aim is to keep the world, and memory itself, at a distance, which is the reason behind the far more formal – perhaps even overly formal – register of Strange Hotel.
Have your own experiences of moving from place to place influenced the novel?
Certainly, my experience of touring over the last few years played a big part in locating the novel’s action – or inaction – purely inside hotel rooms, while paying scant regard for the cities beyond those rooms. I’ve seen the inside of so many hotel rooms and felt surrounded by that bizarre impersonality often enough to want to investigate further where it seeps across the boundaries and into the mind. I also wondered whether it was possible to make something out of nothing, which is how all that dead hotel time feels to me.
Mouthpieces – a trio of radio plays produced with RTÉ in 2019 – dealt with different fragments of the female experience. Have your plays had any influence on this book?
Mouthpieces didn’t influence Strange Hotel but they do share a common birthplace, which was the creative fellowship I held at the Beckett Research Centre in the year that I wrote both works. While Mouthpieces was always going to wear its influence on its sleeve, Strange Hotel, during the period of its writing, felt like a blessed relief from him. With a year’s distance however, I can now see that Beckett’s influence is glaringly obvious, and so he is the thread running between them.
Placelessness plays a huge role in this story, even though the book itself contains the names of a multitude of places – from Portarlington to Paris. What led you to choose these particular places?
It was a way for me to privately memorialise all the hotel rooms I’ve ever stayed in – although no longer that privately now, obviously. It also seemed a suitably random collection of cities for the reader not to be able to draw any detailed conclusions about the protagonist’s reasons for being there. Reflecting her internal sense of dislocation by stripping the places she inhabits of their usual meanings and associations was part of the logic behind that too. The cities where the action takes place each have the atmosphere of where she’s at in that particular moment.
In Strange Hotel, I gave myself wholly to this woman. I opened every sense to be with her on her journey and understand her, yet she remained just beyond my reach. How do you decide how much information you wish to arm your reader with, and how much you would rather leave to the ether?
I suppose, after The Lesser Bohemians, which was so specific to a time and place and in which one character gives a very detailed biography, I felt like going in the opposite direction. How much could I withhold? How little information could I share while still keeping alive the possibility of a connection between the reader and the character? I’m also quite repelled by the voyeuristic addiction to expressions of heightened emotion which have become so prevalent over the last few years. The race for quick-fix catharsis makes people incredibly manipulatable and it debases the often difficult experience of true emotion, in all its unpleasant, unfashionable complexity. I wanted to step away from that and think about someone who was the opposite of all the shouty, hysterical illogic. A person thinking deeply about what she feels or trying not to think about how she feels. Most definitely not a person longing to make sure everyone possible knows how she feels.
Memory and loss are themes that occur in all of your novels. I wonder if you could talk a bit about the repression of memory in Strange Hotel?
Again, this ties in with the age of the protagonist. In the first two books the girls/young women are open and invite the world in – for better and worse. Middle-aged people tend to be a bit more discerning, have their eyes open about the areas where risk lies for them and have experienced enough pain to not willingly lay themselves bare to more. There is a lot in her past that has caused her pain and having come through the furnace, she is reluctant to revisit those sites. But memory can’t be entirely vanquished by an act of will and so she’s developed various strategies to distract herself.
There is a constant echo in the way this book is structured, yet the book feels both timeless and placeless. What process led you to this?
Well, despite the lists of places visited, and the protagonist’s occasional reflections on the nature of the places she’s arrived in – some of which she has a historical connection to and some not – it’s not a travelogue or snapshot of the where and when. It’s about the journey she takes within herself, prompted by the intrinsically anonymous nature of hotel rooms. Spending time in a place in which you have no personal stake breeds a peculiar kind of contemplativeness and makes it harder to evade any sense of existential isolation you may be prone to experiencing. It could be the 70s, the 90s, or just last week. What she is going through is more universal than the examination of a zeitgeist would have allowed me to explore.
There is a dark and acerbic humour to all of your work, especially in Strange Hotel. How do you approach humour in your writing, especially when a lot of it deals with dark subject matters?
I don’t think about it particularly. I suppose I’m just naturally attuned to the humour in almost every situation, no matter how bleak – or perhaps because of that bleakness. Also, I am pretty infuriated by the way both fiction and comedy tend to divide women up into ‘thin – sexy – serious’ and ‘fat – funny – ridiculous’. So I was very conscious of wanting to write a woman who shifts between all of those registers – the way women generally do in real life. A woman capable of serious thought and deep feeling, who can also behave in ways that she herself finds mortifying and undignified. I don’t think there’s any contradiction in understanding the pain from which she is running, and laughing when she cringes at herself – hopefully, in recognition. And, you know, she’s clever and perceptive so she possesses a sense of humour about her own neurotic tendencies too.
Your writing is shaped by your particular style, but also feels as if it’s part of the legacy of writers like Joyce and Beckett. Strange Hotel seems especially influenced by the latter. To what extent are you engaging with that legacy, and to what extent are you trying to break free of it?
I don’t think much about that legacy. In fact, I get frustrated with the insistence that literary legacy only passes down along national or language lines. The 20th century European legacy was far more on my mind during the writing, particularly Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. Von Aschenbach’s rootlessness and paralysis in the face of his own ruined mortality has always exerted a powerful sway over my imagination and this seemed the moment to give that influence an opportunity to play itself out. Work in translation has always been central to my reading and having the influence of Dostoyevsky’s The Devils on The Lesser Bohemians, and Mann on Strange Hotel, completely ignored in favour of the old Irish reliables gets quite irritating.
None of your work shies away from female sexuality, a topic that has seen a resurgence of late, in Irish literature especially. Strange Hotel deals with the reclamation of the female body after a traumatic incident. Was this influenced by the political climate of the Repeal the Eighth movement, and then what followed in Northern Ireland?
No, that’s not how I work and the trauma from which the protagonist is shying away from isn’t sexual, unusually for me! Of course, I am keenly aware of the changes that have been taking place in Ireland and I delighted in the success of the Repeal movement. But as a novelist I can’t engage in that way. Taking overt political positions in fiction would impose certain strictures on my characters and they have to be allowed to take shape in their own way.
Strange Hotel by Eimear McBride is published by Faber & Faber.
Portrait © Sophie Bassouls.