Headshot of Bernie McGill

Bernie was born in Lavey in County Derry in Northern Ireland. She studied English and Italian at Queen’s University, Belfast and graduated with a Masters degree in Irish Writing. Her novel The Watch House was nominated in 2019 for the Ireland/European Union Prize for Literature and The Butterfly Cabinet was named in 2012 by Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes as his novel of the year. This Train is For, was published by No Alibis Press in June 2022 and is Bernie’s second collection to be shortlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize. Her first collection Sleepwalkers was shortlisted in 2014.

What do you love about the short story?

As a reader, I love the intensity of it. At its best, the short story feels like a distillation, a concentration of an entire world. We enter at the crux of a character’s life, in a significant moment that changes what comes after, puts a different perspective on what went before. In a relatively few number of words it can convey the potency of fraught relationships, transport us to the rich and layered texture of a place, to an atmosphere that feels recognisable. Some people say it’s unforgiving as a form but I think it can be generous, incredibly elastic, accommodating of all sorts of different styles and genres, from humour to romance to mystery to historical or dystopian fiction and beyond. There’s huge potential for experimentation and for playfulness in the short form. Every short story carries what’s been called ‘the sense of an ending’ and partly for that reason, I think we’re prepared to indulge what may feel a little alien at times, even uncomfortable. We know we’re not in it for the long haul. I love that it makes demands of the reader, makes us work harder to expand the world of which we’re seeing just a snapshot. And as a writer, I love it that they’re short, that you can concentrate hard, line by line, on what it is you want the story to express.

Is there a particular story in your collection you are proud of and why?

If I had to choose one, it would be ‘In the Interests of Wonder’. It’s the last story in the collection and the last one I wrote for it. I was trying something that was new for me with the narrative voice in that story. All the other stories are written in a fairly close first or third person narrative voice from the point of view of a character. The voice in the final story is outside of the action, is floating somewhere above or to the side, is closer to that of an external narrator, though much of the time that narrator fades into the background. I liked the idea that the owner of the voice was privy to much of what was going on in the village, and to the schoolteacher’s inner thoughts, but not, necessarily, to everything. They struck me as a sort of gossipy know-all, a wannabe omniscient who never quite made the grade. I had a bit of fun with that, with trying to work out the personality of the voice, what their investment was in the story, what were the limitations of their knowledge, experience.

Do you have any writing habits and how do they help?

I find that I write best away from home. I’m too comfortable there and there are too many distractions, including our dog who knows the sniffing difference between writing slippers and walking boots and gives me sad, guilt-inducing looks when I turn to go up the stairs to work. I work well in a library when I can get to one, and sometimes in a café, though I have some anxiety in busy places about how much sitting time a single flat white can buy. I like background noise that’s nothing to do with me. I find it companionable to sit among strangers, easy to fade out the white noise of conversation. It helps me to concentrate on the screen. And in that environment, I find that a laptop is more acceptable. People are understandably wary of anyone within hearing distance who is bent over a notebook and pen with intent.

Were there any surprising or unexpected moments that arose while you wrote your collection?

The most significant events of that period were the Covid lockdowns and restrictions. Like lots of my writing friends, I found it very hard to write during that period, hard, even at first, to find the concentration to read. It felt like something of a facile exercise when there was so much anxiety and loss in the world. I’m self-employed. Until 2020, much of my income came from being in a room with other people, helping to develop their writing, either in creative or academic settings, and in Lockdown most of those income sources disappeared, practically overnight. I was fortunate at that time to be awarded funding from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. The proposal was to write 70,000 words over a period of about six months. I found it really tough to do without access to a library space or the support of a writing community, but then I heard that crime writer Kerry Buchanan was running online writing sessions for Northern Irish writers and I signed up. That was enormously helpful. I was surprised at how well it worked: the appointment to show up and write in a virtual space, to sit in silence, to hold ourselves accountable. I met the funding deadline. Not all of what I wrote was cohesive but ‘In the Interests of Wonder’ came out of that draft, along with a story titled ‘Waiting for Joseph’ that has since been broadcast on BBC Radio 4.

Are there any characters in your collection you would like to spend time with and why?

I think it would have to be the magician from ‘In the Interests of Wonder’. He’s such an anomaly in the small north Antrim village in which he appears. His presence prompts many questions: about his origins and his past; about his vanished assistant; about his involvement in a villager’s death, about what the future would have been like for the schoolteacher if she had gone with him. He’s an unreliable source of information, full of contradictions and exaggerated claims. He uses swagger and hyperbole to obfuscate meaning, to cover his tracks, but I can’t help but feel that he has some integrity. It’s the mystery of him that has appeal. Life would never be dull in his company.

What writers or stories have influenced you and why?

There are so many. I read a lot of Irish writers. I’m a huge fan of Kevin Barry’s work, Claire Keegan’s, Donal Ryan’s. I think I’ve read everything they’ve written. For two years I led a Reading Round project for the Royal Literary Fund in which I read aloud a short story and a poem to a library group every week. I made an effort to bring stories to the group from further afield. Among my favourites were works by Carys Davies, Alice Walker, Raymond Carver, Shirley Jackson, George Saunders, Colum McCann, Kurt Vonnegut, and Jhumpa Lahiri. There’s a story by Alice Munro that I keep returning to from her Dear Life collection. It’s titled ‘Corrie’. It’s the story of an extra-marital affair and a blackmail in a small Canadian town in the 1950s. It’s written in such a cool, detached tone, to begin with from the fairly distant point of view of a married architect who begins an affair with Corrie, the wealthy daughter of a client. About half way through, the point of view switches to Corrie herself. The transition appears seamless. Munro’s touch is so light, so deft. I don’t want to give any spoilers but let’s just say it takes a while before the reader realises that they have been hoodwinked and the means is to do with the free indirect style in which the story is told. It’s a deceptively quiet, understated, but ultimately heart-breaking read. I love a story with a slow dawning, one that takes time to reveal itself, that rewards a second, a third reading. Munro’s work would, I think, reward a lifetime of re-readings.