Edna O'Brien, once Ireland's most scandalous woman, arrives in the lobby of the Merrion Hotel and praises a scent that she traces to an arrangement of flowers on a table.
“It’s eucalyptus,” she says with delight. “Wouldn’t it be nice to sit outside?” she says, and we go out to a little courtyard where she carefully positions cushions on the wet chairs and worries that the sound of builders might disrupt my Dictaphone recording.
She’s funny, which she knows flies in the face of her public persona. “I think I’m very funny,” she says and laughs.
And she’s warm and thoughtful. She greets many of the hotel employees by name. “How are you, love?” she says to one of them.
This morning a Latvian maid told her about life under Soviet occupation. She thought, Now that is a story – someone could write a book about that.
O’Brien speaks in perfectly formed paragraphs. She’s sporadically distracted by environmental details – “What bird is that? It’s very screechy” – but she always resumes the previous, neatly balanced sentence exactly where she left it.
Her primary distraction is feeding me from a small tray of cakes. She regularly interrupts herself to say, “Please have some, Patrick,” or, “Please help yourself, Patrick,” or, “Have another little cake. They’re good for you. You’re tall.”
The Little Red Chairs, O'Brien's powerful new novel, is a story plucked straight from the international headlines but relocated to small-town Ireland.
The idea came to her as she was sitting in a garden being filmed for a documentary, Edna O'Brien: Life Stories.
Its director, Charlie McCarthy, said "that Tolstoy had said there are only two fundamental stories in the world, a man on a journey, which would be Hamlet, or a stranger comes to town, which would be Christy Mahon", she says, referring to the character in JM Synge's play The Playboy of the Western World.
“And at that moment I thought, I will bring a war criminal as a healer to a small Irish village where he is revered and where everybody, in different ways, is smitten with him.”
So she wrote a moving, viscerally shocking novel about an Irish woman unknowingly falling in love with a Serbian war criminal (loosely based on Radovan Karadzic).
“How would that be?” O’Brien wondered. “Would she ever find out – or, if she did find out, would it change her love? But of course that isn’t what happens at all. He is discovered; she finds out to her detriment – to her ruin, in fact.”
Was it important for her to begin this story in Ireland? “Very.”
She quotes Flannery O’Connor: ‘If you’re going to write, you’d better come from somewhere’. . . There are those begrudgers who say, ‘You don’t know Ireland. You don’t live there,’ but of course I know it.
“ I know what a river is like. I know what a bog is like. I know what hills or roads are like. I don’t write about the city as much because I don’t know it as well.”
As an anxious child from a troubled, down-on-its-luck family, she would go out into the fields of Drewsborough, Co Clare, and compose little stories.
“I didn’t write then. I just spoke . . . I was daft enough, or unrealistic enough, to believe that somehow everything would be heard.”
To this day, she says, she writes out loud. “I speak the words . . . Everything is very important – the landscape, the story, the character – but the rhythm and musicality and the spell of language, that’s what it is. Otherwise you’d put it on a postcard.”
She describes Drewsborough as “a very remarkable place . . . Nature was there at its most fecund.”
She recalls bringing the milk to the creamery by donkey and cart, the “cross dogs” and the “remoteness and wildness”.
“Not to make heavy weather of it, but I was always a lonely person . . . I had that sense of being cut off from the dance of life.”
She had no access to great literature, although she notes that even in prayer books language was richer then.
“This yearning for Christ, Christ the bridegroom, it was very, very erotic . . . Language has deteriorated, and the relish in the language has greatly and madly deteriorated.”
Later, working in a chemist’s shop in Cabra, in a Dublin where “you always felt watched”, she wrote “outlandish, foolish, nature pieces” that “didn’t even have the structure or fullness of a short story. Something told me, ‘Keep it to yourself . . . You’ll get criticised. Just keep reading. Keep learning.’ ”
Did she plan to have a literary career? “I did it unthinkingly.” She laughs. “In so far as we had gone to England and I was married [to the writer Ernest Gébler].”
There she wrote The Country Girls, the novel that turned her into a significant literary figure abroad and, because of its frank attitude to female sexuality, a notorious banned writer at home.
“It’s not concocted”
“It’s not concocted. It came from almost osmotic experience. I was able to summon up these gates and bits of road and hens scraping around on a concrete flag . . . It was all there and still all there in me . . . My memory, thank God, is very abundant. It makes life in some ways difficult.”
What did she learn about fame? “I felt no fame. I was married. I had young children [Sasha and Carlo]. All I could hear out of Ireland from my mother and anonymous letters was bile and odium and outrage.”
Disapproving correspondence was sent over and back between government ministers and senior clergymen.
The book was burned and denounced from pulpits. O’Brien was accused of “corrupting the minds of young women”.
She wondered how she could ever write another book.
So how did she? “Just now my nephew said, ‘Oh, you’re very tough.’ I said, ‘Would you please retract that word.’ And he said, ‘I meant you’re very strong.’ And I must be. I must be strong enough, otherwise I wouldn’t have written the second book.”
She thinks of something funny. "I must tell you," she says. "When [The Lonely Girl] came out a woman in Scariff, who was sort of my friend . . ." She pauses to correct herself "Well, she still spoke to me. She said, 'You know what they're saying, Edna? That the first book was a prayer book by comparison.' "
She laughs. Much of the opprobrium was to do with her gender. “A woman did not have the franchise” to write what she did, she says.
“I admire the writing of John McGahern very much . . . He did have some persecution, but his ceased. He became,” she says, laughing, “likeable or loveable. My persecution continued for every book.”
She thinks the response to her work “showed up the country more than it showed up me. It showed up a society whose psyches were in great need of improvement.”
Could she have been the writer she became had she lived in Ireland? “No. I wouldn’t have been as free. I wouldn’t have been as private. To write you have to go in there, into the trenches, and you have to stay in there. That requires a hermetic life. There’s no two ways around it.”
Her scandalous reputation was underscored by a difficult divorce from Gébler and life as a literary celebrity befriended by Jackie Onassis, Paul McCartney and Sean Connery.
“My so-called giddy and adulterous and adventurous days are very much exaggerated. I remember talking to an English writer . . . and he said, ‘I read about you at parties all the time,’ and I said, ‘I might be at a party four times a year. There are 361 other days and nights.’ ”
O’Brien in fact warns young writers against becoming immersed in the artistic world. After some experience of it “I don’t think that highly of it,” she says.
“Artistic circles have parasites and imposters as well as creators . . . Too much talk goes on. Don’t talk about doing it,” she adds, “do it”.
But didn't she enjoy it for a while – mingling with the likes of Robert Mitchum (with whom she had a brief romance) and Richard Burton? O'Brien laughs. "That's the chapter" – in her memoir Country Girl – "that everyone mentions. What about the chapter with the foxes? That's a much better chapter."
In that extract she talks about being unable to sleep or write while foxes colonised her garden.
“That’s about the delirium of writing . . . I would look out the window in my nightgown, through the curtains, and there was a melee of foxes.”
O’Brien also doesn’t think she could have written so much had she been married. “Feminists will get the cudgels out, but [I would] feel obliged as a wife to do what I should do as a wife and also internally rebel against it.
“There’s a dichotomy there, and therefore an anxiety. I’ve always said it was easier to be a mother than to be a wife in terms of writing . . . I’m not able to say, ‘I’ll write for two hours,’ then come and cook the dinner and say, ‘What did you do today, darling?’” She laughs. “The inner pressure would be untenable.”
Writing requires isolation, she says. There’s a “whole mosaic of memory that separation brings. You don’t observe a place or a person in that ongoing obsessive detail when you’re in it. It’s when you’re parted from it either voluntarily or involuntarily that it comes to you . . . With a more urgent acuteness. You feel it more. [It’s] painful and rich, as well. It has its glories because everything is alive and waiting to be converted into language.”
The other benefit, she says, was that “nobody was watching me . . . When you write, for better or for worse, there’s one rule: you can’t think of anything or anyone else . . . If you sit down and think, What’s my mother going to think? What’s my son going to think? What’s my husband going to think? You’re finished before you begin.”
O'Brien rejects the notion that her exile in any way resembles that of the immigrant women who feature in the second section of Little Red Chairs.
“Mine was gentility compared to it . . . I wasn’t working in three jobs, cleaning at night, then running like a ghost in the morning to get a tube to the next job.”
She met dozens of these women thanks to Zrinka Bralo, who lived through the siege of Sarajevo and now works with migrants in London.
She also visited the war-crimes tribunal in The Hague, facilitated by her friend Ed Vulliamy, the journalist.
These women “left war-torn countries and they’ve come to a land where they’re not even second-class citizens: they’re down in the pit, waiting,” she says.
“Can they stay? Will they be sent back? What can they live on? . . In our life now, in every newspaper, on the web, on the television, we are constantly and searingly reminded of what is happening all over the world.
“We are cushioned in that, thank God, we are living in a peaceful place . . . We’re not refugees, we’re not migrants, we’re not destitute and we have some sense – not total, because there’s no such thing, but some sense – of feeling safe.”
Tinkering with a draft
Now nearly 85, O’Brien is still writing, socially engaged and living in London. She says that she’s not wealthy.
“I still live by my pen,” she says. She says that she finds email requests distracting, because she worries that if she doesn’t respond people will think that she’s selfish or has got above herself.
In her hotel room she has been tinkering with a draft of a play, and she hopes to do one more book, “though I dread it”.
Fear drives her, she says. “If you look at an animal and it’s frightened, it’s more aware of everything.”
But she also says that her work “comes from an accidental trait in me that thought that words were sacred, that words were close to God”.
She thinks she might finally be appreciated in Ireland, that there is a younger audience that understands her better than previous generations did.
A few nights earlier, at a public interview, she received a standing ovation. “Of course, the minute you have a standing ovation you always want it the next time,” she says.
The Irish psyche has changed, according to O’Brien. “There is less fear. The judgmental umbrella is still there, but it’s not as powerful, and it’s not infiltrating every single aspect of life.”
I tell her before leaving that, rereading The Country Girls, I was very moved thinking about what a prison this country was for so many.
“And the fact that you eventually got out,” I say.
She looks at me and laughs. “Ah, I only got half out.”
The Little Red Chairs is published by Faber & Faber