With her piercing, hard, knowing stories and haughty, frozen beauty, it’s difficult to imagine Edna O’Brien being a warm and soft woman. Although I’m scheduled to ring her at 8am, her telephone is engaged. After five minutes of persisting, I finally get through and am greeted by an unimpressed O’Brien who growls at me for calling late. “I thought you were going to be punctual,” she says tartly.
Like a scolded schoolgirl, I attempt to point out her phone was engaged. But she’s not interested, saying we’ve wasted enough time already so let’s not muck about. I launch straight into my first question, and she is startled, not quite ready. At 82, she is icicle sharp, but during our conversation she thaws.
Born in 1930 in Ireland’s Tuamgraney, County Clare, O’Brien rejected the repression of her home country with her spirited and sensational 1960 literary debut written in three weeks, The Country Girls, which crystallised on the page the emotions and desires of young women. The story of two convent boarding school friends, Caithleen and Baba, it was banned because of its frank portrayal of sexuality, and critical praise from reviewers was marred by an explosive local outrage.
With the support of O’Brien’s mother, her local priest in Ireland burnt copies of The Country Girls in their village. The local postmistress told O’Brien’s father a fitting punishment for his daughter would be for her to be kicked naked through the town, followed by stoning. And to think this was only around 50 years ago. “In England, everything was starting to get swinging. But in Ireland it didn’t happen until much later,” says O’Brien.
In her beautifully written new memoir, Country Girl, O’Brien speaks of her parents and the Irish in general having a deep mistrust for the written word. She remembers her mother saying “paper never refused ink”. It’s as if there was a fear of the power of writing to reveal and document things people might not want to acknowledge or discuss. “It was a sort of self-preservation,” says O’Brien. “My mother herself was a remarkable writer but she feared literature and thought the written word was a dangerous disclosure. It probably is,” she says with a laugh. Although Country Girl is packed with astonishing detail, particularly of her early years, O’Brien insists she did not keep a journal or a diary.
“No, it was all from memory. I have called it the divine detail. Detail is what makes prose. I didn’t keep a diary. Only the very young or the mad keep diaries,” she says. O’Brien’s novels, short stories and plays all have a precise psychological insight and cool emotional awareness, but they’re tempered by a highly resonant yearning and anxiety. Paving the way for contemporary writers such as Anne Enright, O’Brien fearlessly examined women’s emotional and sexual relationships, the sometimes chilly and difficult dynamics between men and women and the endless struggle women have with following their desires while finding their place in society.
For O’Brien, writing comes out of affliction, tough times and when the heart is cut open. But despite her family and community disapproving of her work, it never occurred to her she was writing bravely. “In retrospect, I hope it was brave. But I wouldn’t have thought of it at the time. Without being too candid, writing is unconscious, where people are for one reason or another disturbed or in a different part of their minds and souls and bodies. The imagination is much more heightened and alert. Fear or anxiety or pain stimulates the imagination,” she says. “To some, that might sound masochistic. Well, too bad.”
As a young girl, O’Brien recognised the power of books, and on discovering and devouring the work of James Joyce and Anton Chekhov, she wondered why she could only find an outlet for her own emotions through literature. Stories articulated the things she was feeling internally. “They rendered an intensity and a truth. You get right to the heart of the matter. Whether it’s love, hate or murder. But of course, literature is capable of being more perfect. Life is not,” she says. “The human condition is about how people are with each other, how they face up to their fears. I’m not insulting your job, but in journalism everything is immediate. But literature is for all time.”
Although some of her work is faintly autobiographical, O’Brien says she was initially reluctant to write a memoir. Eventually encouraged to write Country Girl, she read books by Bob Dylan and Vladimir Nabokov to get a feel for memoir writing. Musing evocatively and colourfully about her formative years growing up in tight-lipped Ireland in the country homestead Drewsboro, O’Brien notes that “unhappy houses are a very good incubation for stories” and demonstrates how even at an early age she was astutely aware of her environment and how she related to it, while also noticing how people related or did not relate to each other. O’Brien fled Ireland for a more liberal London, but now that her homeland is more open she is able to visit. “I was aware of that whole ethos of repression when I was growing up in the 40s. Now you have television, YouTube and Twitter or whatever.”
Considering O’Brien bristles about being trivialised by women – “women interviewers ask me about my hair but when a man interviews me he asks me about what I write” – it’s interesting that in all her glossy glamour she has appeared on the front covers of many of her novels. “That wasn’t my choice. Not those awful Penguin covers, all naked, lurid and slightly orange tinted. You know those Everyman covers? They’re perfect. Just the title and the author. No titillation, no falsified idea. The world is amoral. Even the world of books is obsessed with trying to capture people’s attention,” she says, laughing.
O’Brien was known for her smouldering, inscrutable image, and quickly fell in with the celebrity set. She rattles off a dizzying galaxy of famous stars who were constantly dropping by her house for tea and parties. Richard Burton, Paul McCartney, Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon, Marianne Faithfull, Judy Garland, Roger Vadim and Jane Fonda – they all make appearances, and O’Brien’s intimate moments with Marlon Brando and Robert Mitchum evoke a heady, gauzy “morning after” haze. “It was very easy to meet people then. My Saturday night parties were a bit of a ritual. Everybody was carefree and bohemian. They were all people who were moving towards something but they did not know what. It wasn’t like how it is now where they’re all controlled by PR people and hangers-on,” she says. “It was warmer, friendlier. Those chapters are a part of the chapters of my life. Of my inner life and my life as a writer.”
In a simultaneously terrifying and hilarious scene in Country Girl, O’Brien recalls befriending anti-psychiatrist RD Laing. With his philosophy that it’s families not societies that screw people up, it’s easy to see why she was attracted to him. She describes the traumatic comedown after she took LSD with him. When Laing leaves, there is a knock at the door and it’s Sean Connery dropping by for a visit. Later, O’Brien realises Laing couldn’t help her “because he was too mad himself”. When she trained as a pharmacist, it may have been less to appease her parents and more because she imagined it would let her get close to writers. She says she is glad she undertook the training – that science is more useful to a writer than learning how to write.
“To train in literature? What does that mean? Writing is secretive. You can’t teach it.” She did indeed meet an older writer, Ernest Gébler, at the chemist where she worked. He whisked her away and they married and had two children. O’Brien remembers his bitter jealousy at the success of The Country Girls. He said, “You can write and I will never forgive you.” Gébler claimed her only talent resided in her knickers and painted her as a nymphomaniac and careerist social climber with a ravenousness for literary circles. During the custody battle for their children, he threatened to run away with them to New Zealand, where his sister lived.
“I knew you were interviewing me, so I asked Ian McKellen about New Zealand. He says it’s a beautiful country. I imagine it to be a lush green, not a lugubrious green,” she says. Stating that writers are always anxious, always on the run – from the telephone, from people, from responsibilities and from the distractions of the world – O’Brien says for her writing is about total concentration. “All these emails that come through as if you’re just sitting there idle, waiting. They’re a distraction. I try to write when I get up in the morning. I’ve had one or two lapses ever when I was not writing, which I regret.
“I’m sort of a housewife as well. I go to the shops and I cook. But I have to write. It’s my livelihood. I just want to be able to do it. “I’m 82 years of age and I’m still writing while other people my age are reading in their rocking chairs.”
COUNTRY GIRL: A MEMOIR, by Edna O’Brien (Faber and Faber, $36.99).