Photo: Marko Metzinger/Studio D
Leigh Haber: The cover of your book is a photo of you provocatively smoking a cigarette. Is it intended to raise eyebrows?
Edna O'Brien: I didn't want a moping woman by a window on a chaise lounge. I wanted something with a bit of fire, and some guts. It gives the right image of somebody who is not going to burst into tears in the next two minutes.
LH: By most definitions, your childhood was tough. Your father was a hard drinker who at least once shot a loaded revolver at your mother when she refused him drinking money. The "lulls"—when he stayed in a nearby monastery to dry out—were your happiest times. And yet you make it all sound almost picturesque.
EO: "Picturesque" would suggest daintiness. I'd say rich—in narrative, in ghosts, in overheard and ancestral stories. I hate memoirs that pour on the pain. I wanted to tell the truth but not make it into a sob story.
LH: When you were young, your family employed a caretaker named Carnero, with whom you spent a lot of time as a girl. Was he your first love?
EO: Carnero was so droll and funny and fat and kind. He was for life—he wasn't a punisher. But in my romantic life I tended to be drawn to the opposite of Carnero—to the Heathcliffs and Mr. Rochesters. There are two kinds of men: the brothers with whom I would like to sit and talk, and the unattainables I want to be loved by, or swept off my feet by—I didn't make the most sensible choices in my life.
LH: What makes the Irish notoriously great storytellers?
EO: It's madness, to tell you the truth. Madness, when it's semi-sane, generates a certain vividness.
LH: What finally convinced you to write a memoir?
EO: I have sometimes been irked at how other people perceive me, or write about me...as if I were a seductress, a Mata Hari. If I were Mata Hari, I wouldn't have written 24 books. I was complaining about this to my agent, who said, "Well, why don't you write about your life?" I found myself in a great flush of excitement at that suggestion.
LH: Do you have a favorite chapter of the book?
EO: The last chapter, because it's about being lonely, which I am—I daresay any good writer is—and because it's difficult to end a memoir with the predictable, so-called catharsis: making up with the father you hated, or being reunited with someone you've lost, and now everything is hunky-dory. There's no such thing. Life isconstant flux.
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