How is life in lockdown affecting you?
Well, the lockdown makes life very inconvenient. I live alone, I'm not good with printing and the computer. My eyesight's not good and emails are very hard on the eyes, and with lockdown, people are dishing out emails like Smarties. I mean email is very helpful, but they're an interruption. They interrupt the work.
Tell us about your new book, James & Nora: A Portrait of a Marriage. It was published in 1981 in the US, and this is the first time it's come out in the UK and Ireland.
Yes. I've always had a fondness for Nora Barnacle, because she was from Galway and I'm from Co Clare. [James] Joyce was really at home in the city of Dublin, and when Nora Barnacle came into his life, she brought the world of Ireland, the country. So it came from that and also from reading Richard Ellmann's biography of Joyce, which is wonderful.
And I also often pondered how a man like Joyce, so sexually imaginative and possibly every other way, how he remained married to Nora Barnacle when so many other writers had mistresses. Joyce had two attempts at having mistresses but balked at it.
And you decided later to develop the marriage story into James Joyce, your 1999 biography?
I didn't decide. A publisher had an idea of doing brief lives – Mao Zedong, Virginia Woolf – and they asked me to do Joyce. And I was delighted to do it, little knowing that it was going to be a hard task. I was in New York because I was teaching there, and Philip Roth took me out to dinner and came up to my hotel room, and the entire floor and table of the hotel room was full of Joyce books and Joyce notes and Joyce everything. And Philip gave me a friendly dig of the elbow and he said, "The made-up stuff is easier!"
But the work you put in shows because both books really inhabit the spirit of Joyce, and although they're quite short books, they feel rich.
I think one of the things about writing that I hold sacred is to get the interior. The exterior, it's okay, but it's not what moves or bestirs me. And what I wanted with Joyce was to somehow reach, the way we reach in a dream, something of ourselves that was unreachable by ordinary daylight or by ordinary language. So I had to immerse myself in Joyce.
And how do you explain James and Nora's relationship? She was referred to as a "peasant woman" and only read 27 pages of Ulysses (including, as you tell us, the title page!).
She was obviously a woman of enormous depth or Joyce wouldn't have stayed with her. There was huge physical passion between them, and she said she was always trying to wrest from him the word "love". And he just would not say it. He couldn't say it, maybe because he revered it too greatly. But he did say "No one stands so near to my soul as you". So what was between them was something unbreakable.
What's the key Joyce book for you? TS Eliot said Ulysses was "the book to which we are all indebted and from which none of us can escape".
Yes, Eliot said he wished he had never read it, because it exposed the futility of all styles. I think that was Eliot being combative – he didn't show the enthusiasm for reading something so great and so new and so different. Now, Eliot also broke the mould – of poetry – but The Waste Land is [only] 400 lines long.
But it’s kind of narrow to just pick out one book or one story, because each thing of Joyce’s affected me deeply as I came to it. I hold the stories to my heart, and there are parts of Portrait of the Artist that are just so great. But I know that Ulysses is a gigantic work and it is, as Eliot did say, 18 novels in one, because the styles are so different, the feelings, the import, the impact. And Anna Livia [from Finnegans Wake] too.
What about Joyce's relationship with Ireland? In the books you say it's hard to believe he's not buried here. Do you support the efforts to bring back his remains?
Of course! And Beckett tried, after Joyce died, he tried to rally people to do it. But he was defeated by the stupidity, by the religious mania of the Dublin Corporation, and also undertakers wouldn't touch the coffin. Also Nora was opposed.
I think Joyce loved Dublin. And he attested to that by making Dublin the focus of his great book. And when he was in Rome, working in a bank and hating it and hating Romans and everything, he wrote Dubliners, and he said it was his first gesture in writing to convey the generosity of the people in Dublin.
So I think it would be fitting that he would be buried somewhere in Dublin. There’s a lovely little graveyard I’ve often noticed just before you get to the top of Merrion Street. It’s a little closed grave, locked, and it’s overgrown now, it might be a Huguenot grave, but if I was given permission, and the key to the gate, and asked where I could put Joyce’s remains, I’d put them right there, in the heart of Dublin.
Like Joyce, you've experienced your own exclusion from Irish literary society right at the start of your career.
I was very excluded from literary society. When The Country Girls appeared [in 1960], there was this disproportionate brouhaha about it, which gave me the jitters. I did ask myself, "What's so bad about it? What have I done?" I thought it was a kind of love song to Ireland. I still think that. So I felt excluded and I felt hurt.
But you must be aware of the status and influence you have now; you won the David Cohen Prize last year, Girl has just won the Kerry Group Novel of the Year award. . .
Yes, but – this is the truth, it's not out of modesty – I don't dwell on it. To me, what I have to write when I put the phone down, what I have to write tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, is what's engaging me. I'd like to get lots of prizes, don't think I don't want them, but that's not what my inner anxiety and existence is about. It's about these words, how to get them out.
I’ll be 90 this year, I’d like to write one more book, but I ask myself, have I the energy? Because it’s so easy to get it wrong. It has to be supple and adroit, and sometimes it might take a week just to get a little paragraph on its toes.
So you don't dwell on prizes, but what about your legacy? Do you have any thoughts about how people will read you in the future?
I daren't have those thoughts! It would be crippling. Also I've no idea. I mean, people die, books get a little bit of notoriety then they disappear, and then some reappear. There's no telling. And oneself isn't the best judge. I think to write to the very utmost of one's being, that's what counts.
There's been a huge amount of unhappiness here over the New Yorker profile on you last year. Did you read it?
I read some of it. It was terrible. I nearly had a heart attack, I couldn't believe it. I swore I wouldn't talk about it ever because it just adds fuel to the fire. But there was nothing in it that was verifiable. I gave that man on-tape answers to questions he asked me. None of the answers I gave on tape appeared in what I read. I don't know why, because there was no quarrel. It came as a thunderbolt.
I'm pleased that you want to give us another book. Your friend Philip Roth decided to stop.
Well, I want to, but I'm not certain that I can. Energy is everything, you know. And I haven't been too well, to put it mildly, as Mr Beckett was always saying: "to put it mildly". But I don't think any writer should ever say, "I'll stop", or willingly give it up.
That’s quite different to poor old Scott Fitzgerald who couldn’t do it. He said it himself, he sold himself to Hollywood. He brought someone into his sitting room in Hollywood, and his books were on the table, and he said, “I had a beautiful talent once. And it was a great feeling while it was there.”
James & Nora: A Portrait of a Marriage by Edna O’Brien is published in paperback by W&N, £6.99. James Joyce is also published in paperback by W&N, £9.99. A reading by O’Brien to coincide with publication of the former is available on the RTÉ Radio 1 Player.