Incendiary, glamorous, charming—the storied Edna O'Brien on the extraordinary life that fuels her fiction.
Edna O'Brien made a dramatic entrance onto the literary stage more than 50 years ago, though initially not for the reasons she'd intended. Her Country Girls trilogy of novels were deemed so scandalous for their sexual content that they were banned and occasionally burned in her native Ireland. Twenty-two books later, after dazzling readers and reviewers around the world for decades, O'Brien, now 82, finally turns her attention to her own life in the forthcoming Country Girl (Little, Brown), as dramatic as any novel.
O'Brien grew up in a village in County Clare, where the landscape was dotted with elderberry trees and primroses; the family's rambling old house was going to seed, hastened along by her father's alcoholism and financial troubles. Her mother was a religious woman whose distrust of "the written word" meant there were few books available to read, though that didn't stop young Edna from beginning to scribble stories by age 8. After attending convent boarding school, she moved to Dublin, where she worked behind a pharmacy counter and discovered James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Leo Tolstoy. She was brainy, talented and beautiful, and she socialized with poets, playwrights, and artists. She got pregnant, married, and had two sons, then moved to London and eventually divorced. Her circle widened to include a rogues' gallery of brilliant admirers—Samuel Beckett, Robert Mitchum, Richard Burton, Marlon Brando and Paul McCartney. (Did she or didn't she? You'll have to read the book to find out.) Through it all, she wrote.
O'Brien always swore she wouldn't publish a memoir, but a few years ago she changed her mind. O books editor Leigh Haber chatted with her on the eve of Country Girl's American release.
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.