Thursday, June 6, 2024

Q&A with Regina McBride




Regina McBride is the author of the new novel Stranger from Across the Sea. Her other books include the novel The Nature of Water and Air. She teaches creative writing and fiction writing at Hunter College, and she lives in New York City.


Q: What inspired you to write Stranger from Across the Sea, and how did you create your characters Violet and Indira?


A: Charlotte Brontë said that she used to close her eyes and see mysterious scenes before her and those scenes would be the beginnings of stories.


Once she saw a large room, a kind of foyer area and an open door looking out over an evening landscape, a man’s coat hanging near the door, and she felt the sense of a female character and the sense of that character’s urgency connected to these images.


For me a novel starts just as vaguely, as slowly and uncertainly. There are certain images, certain details that compel me forward.


The house in Stranger from Across the Sea on Ireland’s north Atlantic coast, finally called Fitzroy House, was in every draft I wrote of this book. I imagined it constantly, saw images of it when I closed my eyes, a house barely inhabited any longer but still full of Anglo-Irish history.


Once elegant, it had become a little frightening in its old age, the trappings of its colonialist history making the furniture, the statues appear sentient and a little sinister.


People have said that there is a Gothic element to my novels, and I think this is true, although I don’t deliberately work for that and I don’t want my novels to be reduced to that label.


There are big mysterious houses in some of the stories that made the most powerful impressions on me as a young reader: Jane Eyre and The Turn of the Screw, to mention only two. Freud has said that a house represents the psyche, the unconscious.


Along with the house on the northern Irish coastline came the presence of a character, an unsettled feeling, a sense of blighted desire. I went through about five iterations before the novel settled into this particular story. As I kept writing things begin to crystallize.


Regarding character: The great Russian author Ivan Turgenev said that characters would come to him and appeal to him to please write about them. It’s almost funny the way he described it.


I do not have that experience exactly but I do have the sense of a character present within me, as I did with Violet. There is a part of Violet that is me. There are parallels between our natures and even our stories.


The apartment that she occupies in Manhattan is the same small rickety studio apartment that I inhabited the first eight years I lived in New York City. It was not something I really decided on, it just happened. That’s where I kept finding her.


The process of finding Indira was something quite different. She emerged as wholly herself. I did not have to make choices or decisions about her. She showed me who she was. It was like watching someone or listening to them. She was so distinct and so autonomous, her own separate being.

Q: How would you describe the relationship between Indira and Violet?


A: Indira seemed strange to Violet at first and aggravated her feelings of homesickness and grief and sadness over the death of her grandmother. She felt hurt and abandoned by her mother.


Indira had been grateful for Violet’s company and worked to engage her interest and Violet was grateful for the company also only because it distracted her from her pain. Still, she did not at first like Indira.


But one night while they are listening to nuns singing Vespers, something opens up in Violet and she lets herself need Indira. She begins after this to feel drawn to Indira’s exoticism and is drawn to Indira’s stories, enriched by them.


Indira, she discovers, is much more complicated than she thought at first. Violet finds herself changing and growing more complicated, too, not exactly who she was when she first met Indira.


Q: How did you research this novel?


A: All of my novels take place in Ireland so I have in a way been researching this novel for decades by reading about Irish history, about The Troubles, and about the IRA. And of course, most important of all, by reading Irish literature and poetry.


For about seven years when I was in my late 20s and early 30s I read and reread everything that Edna O’Brien had ever written.


I think I learned more from reading Edna O’Brien’s stories and novels than I learned anywhere else about what it meant to be a girl or woman in Ireland in the decades she wrote about. Her work is so rich in details of place and daily Irish life. And the conflicts of her characters are so primal and emotionally fraught.


I also did research by reading Oliver Sacks’ case studies describing experiences of blindness by people who were not born blind but lost their sight, and I found those incredibly helpful for understanding and imagining Indira’s blindness. I also read Oliver Sacks’ book about migraine and the many variations migraine can take.


Q: The writer Peter Quinn said of the book, “In richly nuanced prose, McBride weaves together the tragedy of history and the timeless yearnings of the human heart.” What do you think of that description?


A: I take this description as a great compliment. One cannot really write about Ireland in any truthful way without the awareness of the tragedies of its history.


Indira says at one point in the story that they are living in a war-torn place. Though Violet and Indira do not experience The Troubles directly, their lives are dictated by the conflict.


And “the timeless yearnings of the human heart”- I am moved that Peter Quinn includes these words. The yearnings of the human heart are why we write and why we read literature.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am working on a novel that takes place in Ukraine before the Russian Revolution. It is a novel about class, about art and about the Russian Theatre. Anton Chekhov, a young medical student, before he becomes the great fiction writer and playwright, plays an important role in this story.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb


  1. Good questions---and good responses! I've read Stranger from Across the Sea and enjoyed Deborah's take on it.

  2. ALICE SHERMAN SIMPSONJune 25, 2024 at 7:29 PM

    Wonderful to read this interview with the author as I am reading "Stranger From Across the Sea," which adds insights that I might not have realized or considered. Helpful in making me more aware of Regina McBride's process and development of this haunting story.