The international publishing community was stunned earlier this month when 38-year-old Irish novelist Eimear McBride won the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction for A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing. McBride beat out a bevy of some of the world's best known female novelists—Donna Tartt, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Jhumpa Lahiri—to take the Baileys, formerly known as the Orange Prize. The underdog win also proved a boon for an unlikely player, Minneapolis-based Coffee House Press, which is publishing the U.S. edition of A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing in September. To discuss the aligning of these literary stars, PW talked to Coffee House Managing Director Caroline Casey.
PW: Not only is A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing McBride's debut, it's also a book which was a long time in-the-making. It took her nine years to find a publisher and the press that finally took it on was a tiny British start-up. Can you tell us the story?
CC: You know how people in publishing say that indie bookstores are where discovery happens? It happens there for authors, too. Eimear's book found a publisher at her local bookshop in Norwich, U.K., The Book Hive. Her husband had shared it with Henry Layte, the owner, who approached the team at the newly-constituted Galley Beggar Press. The rest is a publishing Cinderella story.
PW: How and when did CHP discover and acquire A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing?
CC: Coffee House came across A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing via the magic of Twitter. Elizabeth McCracken, who is one of that medium's funniest and most good-spirited contributors, had tweeted about the book lacking a U.S. publisher. Chris Fischbach, our publisher, responded to her...because you listen to Elizabeth. He and I both read it and knew we had to sign it immediately. The catch was that Chris was on vacation in northern Minnesota and out of cell-phone range, so the contract was negotiated during daily furtive trips to town to steal Wi-Fi in the grocery store parking lot.
PW: Now that the attention of the literary world is on A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, what is CHP going to do differently in terms of releasing and promoting it?
CC: We knew that it would take us screwing this up for it not to be an event in the U.S. We hired Michelle Blankenship, an independent publicist who worked on Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones—and who knows media storms—to support our efforts. We're a nonprofit, and our resources are much more limited than those at a bigger house, so we went to our board, which organized a special fund drive to increase our marketing budget by nearly 50%. We're also working as closely as possible with everyone invested in Eimear—our distributor; her publishers in the U.K., Canada, and Australia; her agent—to make sure that we collaborate to the benefit of everyone, most importantly, her and her book.
PW: Why do you think A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing wound up winning the Baileys over other, more highly-publicized novels by better-known authors, like Donna Tartt?
CC: What's remarkable about A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing is the intimacy of it. It's rare that a reading experience feels so much like a lived experience; the credit for that goes to Eimear's prose. She talks about writing "at the moment just before language becomes formatted thought," and about using language and grammar to express the messiness of life, not tidy it up. The novel embeds you in the narrator's mind and body, to the point of pain, but that is the genius of this book; it feels radically new, and ambitious, and completely earnest. There are so many good books out there, but I've never read anything like this one before. You can't help but be changed by it—how many books can you say that about?