edna obrien
Photo: Graham Harrison/Alamy
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.

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