Edna O’Brien: ‘I have a ferocity in me, but I’m also fearful’

Edna O'Brien. Photograph: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Getty
FEARFUL OF WHAT? ‘MANY THINGS – PEOPLE, LIFE, SWIMMING, BICYCLES, SHOUTING, ANIMALS...’ BUT FOR HER NEW BOOK, GIRL, THE RENOWNED NOVELIST EMBARKED ON EXHAUSTING, SOMETIMES FEARSOME JOURNEYS TO NIGERIA, HER UNDERWEAR STUFFED WITH DOLLARS, IN ORDER TO PORTRAY THE ORDEAL OF YOUNG WOMEN ABDUCTED AND SUBJECTED TO THE SADISTIC SAVAGERY OF BOKO HARAM

The plush streets around Edna O’Brien’s London home suggest that life has been kind. Designer stores such as Chanel and Stella McCartney line the monied, old Knightsbridge streetscape. A host of white orchids in the first floor window mark her white stucco house.

Among the many critical and personal savagings, O’Brien has been accused of adopting a “stage Irish persona”, of being “egocentric” in her writing and of affecting a “grande dame” hauteur in recent years (charges, incidentally, rarely levelled at male writers of her standing).

So one approaches with caution. She answers the door with a warm welcome and an apology for taking a while to negotiate the stairs. She is 88, pencil-thin, ethereal, still crowned by the creatively ruffled, rich-red hair, still exuding that mesmeric quality even in her tiny kitchen. As one interviewer described it, “she speaks in coherent paragraphs with the rich, sonorous husk of a continuity announcer on a high-end public-service radio station”. One with uncannily strong Co Clare notes in her phrasing, the kind who remembers whole conversations, and who infuses painful memories with an amused ruefulness, much as she has done in many of her books.

I remember everything. Everything everyone said about me, everything everyone did, I remember truth from lies. I’m very fierce in a way but also I think, kind as well

Later, when asked to reflect on decades past, she demurs: “Ah I don’t do that. That would be too melancholy. Why? Lots of reasons. I’m very aware of everything. My memory is flawless. I remember everything. Everything everyone said about me, everything everyone did, I remember truth from lies. I’m very fierce in a way but also I think, kind as well. Not vicious. I don’t spread stories – but I remember everything.” She remembers previous interviews, the publications, even the interviewer’s name.

Today that old fierceness is undiminished. It is in her comments about what she calls the “vendetta” against the Abbey directors while her play was running – “those men are not foreigners, they are not bastards, they are not bastards”; the modern writers who fail to “bestir” her (nearly all of them, in fact, apart from a few named dead ones in South America) and the older ones from another epoch who did – “they’re deeper, they touch, touch, touch”; the “lunatics” who support Donald Trump; the Brexit “insanity that has turned England into a civil war”; the feminists who accused her of writing “just about victims. I don’t just write about victims. I write about victims who pull through, which a lot of women do. Resilience. It’s resilience”.

But there is also a palpable vulnerability now.

She is clearly frail and uses a cane, which makes life somewhat perilous in an old house that was never designed for infirmity. There are steps from the door up to the small kitchen, where there is endless tea and lemon drizzle cake for the builders and stray journalists like this one. Then many more tricky steps up the long, narrow old staircase to her book-lined, claret sittingroom, bearing her beloved bush tea and some genuine, bright-eyed curiosity (not that common in interviewees) about her latest visitor.

A real-flame gas fire burns in the period grate “but it’s not exactly roasting”, she says, pulling her long cardigan around her. The weather has turned autumnal but the boiler isn’t working. Life is “costly”, she says, and she still needs to write to pay the rent. “I pay huge rent here,” she adds (pre-empting a question about a long-standing rumour that the rent is paid by an old admirer). “I’m not rich at all. I don’t own a house or a car – well, I don’t drive anyway. I’ve managed and I’m not good with money, that’s the truth. I don’t think Irish people are...” A helper who has been with her since she took the house, more than 30 years ago, now only comes on Thursdays.

Male writers are more likely to support male writers and women are impressed and idolatrous, definitely. It’s still the case. I don’t give a damn

This is said not with regret but in the tones of a boldish and slightly rueful girl who has come to terms with some poor decisions.

But there is no evidence of expensive stuff in this house. The treasure is on the shelves: Snowdon photographs of her sons Carlo and Sasha, thousands of books – Joyce, TS Eliot, Kafka, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Patrick Kavanagh – “those people who talk to me in what used to be called the dark night of the soul”.

There is (another) lovely rumour that her London-based son, Sasha, arrives every evening to have a glass of champagne with her. This, sadly, is a lie. “If he comes, he gets one,” she says with a laugh. “He has a great heart but no... He spends a lot of time on the road but he does call in and we always have a drink – it’s usually white wine but it can be a glass of champagne”. There are “all these myths”, she says. This is true, some probably with a germ of truth. “But they’re really rather stupid. Funnily enough, the truth is more interesting. Sasha can come and say to me, I saw in a shop window where they have champagne for £15 and I say but it’ll be no good, it’ll be like prosecco, it’ll be a disaster... I don’t mean it has to be vintage – but not £12 or £15, not any more.”

Edna O'Brien: the writer with her children, Carlo and Sasha Gebler, in 1959. Photograph: Edna O'Brien/Little, Brown
Edna O'Brien: the writer with her children, Carlo and Sasha Gebler, in 1959. Photograph: Edna O'Brien/Little, Brown

But she is close to her two boys, Carlo (who lives in Enniskillen) and Sasha. “I certainly paid them enough attention to deserve it,” she says with an affectionate snort. “I brought them up more or less alone and I loved them utterly... I used to read Chekhov and Isaac Bashevis Singer to them when they were three and four – they loved it – I brought them to parties, everywhere...”

“I’d love to have had a daughter as well,” she adds, a tad wistfully. Ah but the daughter would have been bold, I joke. “No, I would have liked a daughter. I don’t think she would have been bold,” she says gravely. “It’s that you get a little bit older and I think a daughter kind of understands that better. Boys are lovely but it would be easier to say to a daughter – ‘can you rustle up a dinner’? They might rustle up a dinner but ‘twould take half a day.”

She found this latest book “very hard”. Its very gestation is a rebuke to stereotypical notions of old age. She was 84 when she picked up the idea, as you do, from a short news item in a doctor’s waiting room. A Chibok schoolgirl had been found near the Sambisa forest in northern Nigeria, after two years a captive at the merciless hands of Boko Haram, “her mind gone, not knowing who she was and a baby clung to her, and no food for baby or her...”.

The creation of Girl entailed exhausting, sometimes fearsome journeys to the entirely unfamiliar territory of northern Nigeria, her underwear stuffed with dollars, doing interviews in fields and camps 

O’Brien felt she had to write about it. “The country was strange to me, the landscape was strange... It wasn’t about vanity or – ‘oh look I can write about another country’ – because I’m not like that. I’m fearful. I’m a very fearful person. I have a ferocity in me, but I’m also fearful.”

Fearful of what? “Well, many things – people, life, swimming, bicycles, shouting, animals...” she says with a wry smile.

Yet the creation of Girl entailed exhausting, sometimes fearsome journeys for weeks then months to the entirely unfamiliar territory of northern Nigeria, her underwear stuffed with dollars, doing interviews in fields and camps, in compounds and remote convents and among nomadic tribes, doling out cash to desperate people who seemed to have a story (but sometimes took the money anyway). The book’s four pages of acknowledgments attest to the throngs of aid workers, diplomats, religious, trauma experts and ordinary Nigerians who helped assemble the fragments that ultimately formed her first-person narrative of a brutalised Nigerian schoolgirl, a child almost crazed and broken by repeated rape, trauma and loss.

Girl is a composite of thousands abducted and subjected to the sadistic savagery of Boko Haram (meaning “Western education is forbidden”), leading writer and reader into ever deepening circles of barbarism. “I don’t know how they lived through it. And to think you and I are sitting here having a lemon drizzle cake, and in that same forest, there’s encampments of girls at this very moment going through the same thing and very little is done about it... It’s still a news story that doesn’t make news.” Girl is a crushing read, if not entirely hopeless. Such research and writing at any age seem extraordinary.

Edna O'Brien: the novelist in 1966. Photograph: Evening Standard/Getty
Edna O'Brien: the novelist in 1966. Photograph: Evening Standard/Getty

Before Nigeria, there were flashing lights about her own health but then again, as she says, “the years were mounting up”. “I don’t like being old, that’s for sure. It’s a great inconvenience to put it mildly. It’s a burden which I didn’t understand. No one does.” But a year after her return, she was diagnosed with cancer. “I am ill now, I am getting treatments. The trouble with cancer treatments as anyone will tell you, is the exhaustion, so you don’t know whether you are ill from it or ill from the treatments. Sometimes my skin goes very purple as if I have been bruised all over...

“It’s the same kind as Steve Jobs had and he refused treatments and he died... The thing with treatments is they arrest illness, I don’t think they cure it in certain kinds of cancer.”

They are frequent and severe, requiring two overnight stays in hospital most weeks.

None of this is said with self-pity. She thinks she has got “a bit thinner”, but thinks this is not a bad thing and makes a funny play of rolling up a delicate lacy sleeve to show stick-thin arms. “I think always people look better if they lose a bit of weight. I have thin everything now – legs, arms.”

It helps that her hair retains the healthy volume and colour of a fox’s pelt, as it was once described. She parts it to prove it’s not a wig. There was a(nother) rumour that she travelled long distances for a particular make-up artist? Not true, she says, but she will expect professional make-up when she is being photographed for a cover, which seems fair. “The thing I am a bit fussy about is my hair. I like to have my hair done because I can’t do it myself.”

I do work like a horse. And sure, I like to look okay if I can. If we look in a shop window at what we like, it’s a nice linen tablecloth as opposed to a bit of plastic

You appear to have lived a ... “a charmed life ?”, she answers. “Oh I worked like a horse. I do work like a horse. And sure, I like to look okay if I can. If we look in a shop window at what we like, it’s a nice linen tablecloth as opposed to a bit of plastic. We like it if it’s a nice linen cloth, don’t we?”

She feels “lucky in many ways to have been given this drive”, she says. “But also I would say my life has been shorn.” Shorn of what? “Well I haven’t had much ease. I know people who go out to lunch and things, go shopping,” she says with comical emphasis. “Sure, I bought this [rather stylish, swingy, long] skirt in America once. I just have a very resident sense of duty. I don’t want to be a passenger on Earth...”

But she always felt “different”, always felt an “outsider”. she says. “I’m more intense than is sensible in this world. And it is different being Irish [rather than] English. I am still very Irish”.

The suggestion of suffering in solitude jars heavily with the old starry stories of Marlon Brando, Robert Mitchum, Paul McCartney, Princess Margaret and Jackie Onassis cutting a swathe through her livingroom in the late 1960s and 1970s when she was dubbed “the playgirl of the western world” by Vanity Fair. But she tends to dismiss all that partying lore as much exaggerated. “Two or three parties are turned into... well, I knew marvellous people but also one changes with time. I knew very, very glamorous people, by chance – one person brought another person who brought another person. I love meeting people who use their minds, who use their brain, who cultivate it, who learn ...”

It’s possible that the glamorous partying may well have been short-lived and/or exaggerated. She was virtually a lone parent of two little boys and the breadwinner in the household, fighting for time to write. Ernest Gebler, her “very, very good-looking husband”, twice her age, “had a darkness in him that was quite frightening”. He also sometimes stayed in bed until 4pm. And there was always the sense that women writers and their themes were lesser – a point made perfectly clear to her by her own husband.

Even still, she says, women writers are not called on in the way that men are. “A male artist in the room – for men and women – is cultural Viagra,” she once said.

“They don’t worship women writers as much,” she says. “I’ve noticed if you’re at a party with five or six male writers and you’re a woman there and you happen to be a writer, it’s the male writers who usually gather the... rosebuds. A woman is more overlooked. Male writers are more likely to support male writers and women are impressed and idolatrous, definitely. It’s still the case. I don’t give a damn...” Really? “Well, yes I do, but what it is, is I’d rather be responsible for writing a good sentence than the fact that I was at a party and someone was all over me. What counts is what comes out... But I think it’s changing a bit.”

Ireland has changed a bit too. “They’re much nicer to me now,” she says, talking fondly about the full houses for her play and the Mansion House appearances – “with little sparkly fairy lights” – that accompanied the Unesco One City One Book award. “I always felt I had a good few friends in Ireland even if they were strangers. Time changes everything,” she says, wrapping up a box of delicious bush tea as a parting gift.

She will be buried in Ireland, she says lightly, in her mother’s family grave on the Shannon, “a lovely grave on Lough Derg... It’s a very wild grave”.

There is some loose talk of a Pulitzer prize. Would she like that? She sits up very straight and smiles: “I’d like any prize. I deserve prizes.” Then ruins it by adding in a low voice, “That’s not too boastful, is it?”
Girl, by Edna O’Brien, will be published by Faber on September 5th