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Sat April 27, 2013
Author Interviews

'Country Girl' Edna O'Brien On A Lifetime Of Lit, Loneliness And Love

Originally published on Sat April 27, 2013 3:57 pm

When Edna O'Brien wrote The Country Girls in 1960, the book was acclaimed by critics, banned by the Irish Censorship Board and burned in churches for suggesting that the two small-town girls at the center of the book had romantic lives. Oh, why be obscure? Sex lives.

Over the half century that's followed, O'Brien — who started out as a pharmacy shop girl in Dublin — has become one of the most celebrated writers in the English language, writing best-sellers and winning the Frank O'Connor Short Story Award, the Irish PEN Lifetime Achievement Award and honorary membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She has added two volumes to The Country Girls and written A Pagan Place, Time and Tide, A Scandalous Woman and Other Stories, the play Virginia and many other works.

Now she's written a much-anticipated account of her life, Country Girl: A Memoir. She joins NPR's Scott Simon to talk about her recollections of famous names, fabulous parties at which she says she was often lonely, and a life of letters.


Interview Highlights

On a childhood spent writing in the fields of Ireland's County Clare

"[I wrote] fanciful little things ... foolish things. And I did write a little novel when I was about 8. It had all the elements of Gothic Victorian fiction. Not that I had any knowledge of Gothic Victorian fiction, because there were no books in our village ... and there was no library. There were prayer books, and there were cookery books. Even at that young age, I knew that there was a great suspicion on my mother's part about writing. My mother, who was a very gifted woman, hated and mistrusted the written word. It was as if she felt it was redolent of sin. So I hid the little book in a trunk. That was my first fling into fiction."

On words as generators of magic

"It might seem very old-fashioned, but I think the family nexus plays a strong part in it. ... How do we know words? How do we accumulate words? Are they there in us before we know them? There was that search in me for the words — for words, as if these words that I would, with difficulty, find, were the generators of some kind of magic. Or transformation from the dull world, as I might call it, to the ascendant world. But I also have to say, the dull world — mother, father, brother, sisters, workmen, donkeys — that was the material. So I was very lucky to grow up in a small village, a small hamlet, in which one was able to observe, secretly, everything going on around one. Even just the way people sat at Mass ... the different way [women] prayed, the things they said or refused to say or kept from saying to each other. So the place was full of stories. They were small stories, but they were stories."

On two types of relationships with men

"Men are either lovers or brothers for me. The brothers are the ones I actually prefer, I like more, and I can talk to. The lovers are ... the ones I'm more afraid of, but fall in love with. The case of [actor] Robert Mitchum, it was a brief encounter, in the best sense of the word — not like the film Brief Encounter. I met him at a very grand party of a film producer, and Robert Mitchum, as such, swept me off my feet. But he was far too proud and actually mesmeric a man to throw himself at anyone.

"[We] did have one, as I said in the book, one night at my house, and it had all the elements of a ballad. And from that you can read anything you wish, as can any reader."

On becoming the subject of an improvised Paul McCartney song

"He sang to [my children] Carlo and Sasha, who had gone to sleep. ... I was at a party of Kenneth and Kathleen Tynan and I had to leave because the baby sitter was leaving at 9 o'clock. And Paul McCartney was coming in and he said, 'You can't go. I haven't talked to you.' I said, 'I have to go, I have to go. I have to get the baby sitter, et cetera.' And anyhow, the baby sitter — Beth was her name — saw him and almost swooned. And then he said, 'Where are the [children]?' And they were in bed. And there was an old, not to say secondhand — fifth-hand — guitar there. So he picked up the guitar, and Paul McCartney made up this little song about me."

On attending parties with the likes of Sean Connery, Roger Vadim, Jane Fonda and Judy Garland, and feeling lonely

"I think by nature I am lonely, in that I wouldn't be a writer if I were not lonely. I think most writers [are], if you read their letters and sometimes read some of their lives. I'm not recommending it, but I know one has to be — to remain writing, not just to start as a writer, to remain faithful to it — one has to live so much of one's life alone. And reflective. Certain people, I think, are kind of born lonely. I can tell lonely people when I see them, and I'm very often drawn to them, because I feel that they might have some secret to tell me."

On taking LSD prescribed by the psychiatrist R.D. Laing

"That was what you'd call a trip. I had a very drastic and, for a time, irretrievable trip. I was glad I went to him, but I didn't really realize that the LSD would have such a drastic, frightening and lengthy effect upon me. Because it did. It opened me — I think my writing got deeper and in some instances, I think more scarifying, after it. But the trip seemed to me to be forever. It was probably about 12 hours in itself, but the aftermath was for many months, and even years, after that."

On bringing people alive in Country Girl

"The person who comes most alive is my mother. She had the deepest effect on me. She, to a great extent, formed me to be what I am. She instilled into me certainly a conscience and a discipline ... that was in contrast to my inner wild self that didn't want these restrictions, if you know what I mean. And by her not wanting me to be a writer, it played some part in my determination to be a writer."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Edna O' Brien wrote "The Country Girls" in 1960. She was a former pharmacist shop girl from Dublin who wrote a book that would be acclaimed by critics, banned by the Irish censorship board, and burned in churches for suggesting that the two small-town girls at the center of the book, had romantic lives. Oh, why be obscure - sex lives. Over the half a century that's followed, Edna O' Brien has become one of the most celebrated writers in the English language, writing best-sellers, winning the Frank O' Connor Short Story Award, the Irish Pen Lifetime Achievement Award, and honorary membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters, adding two volumes to "The Country Girls," and also writing "A Pagan Place," "Time and Tide," "A Scandalous Woman and Other Stories," the play "Virginia," and many more works. Now, she's written a memoir that includes her recollections of famous names in pursuit, fabulous parties at which she was often lonely, and a life in letters: "Country Girl: A Memoir." Edna O' Brien joins us from London. Thanks so much for being with us.

EDNA O'BRIEN: Thank you.

SIMON: You have this wonderful image where you recollected that as a child you would run out into the fields of County Clare to write.

O'BRIEN: Yeah, well, to scribble mainly. Yeah, but to write. Yeah, to write little fanciful things about talk of hamlet, to write about clouds and, you know, rain and foolish things. And I did write a little novel when I was about eight. It had all the elements of Gothic Victorian fiction - not that I had any knowledge of Gothic Victorian fiction, because there were no books in our village and there was no library. There were prayer books and there were cookery books. Even at that young age, I knew that there was a great suspicion on my mother's part about writing. My mother, who was a very gifted woman, hated and mistrusted the written word. It was as if she felt it was redolent of sin. So, I hid the little book in a trunk. That was my first fling into fiction.

SIMON: What do you think made you a writer? And I'm struck by what you said years later to Walter Mosley when he was one of your students.

O'BRIEN: Yes, Walter. What makes one a writer? It might seem very old-fashioned, but I think the family nexus plays a strong part in it. As I have said in "Country Girl," I think I've said how do we know words? How do we accumulate words? Are they there in us before we know them?

So, there was that search in me for the words - for words, as if these words that I would, with difficulty, find were the generators of some kind of magic or transformation from the dull world, as I might call it, to the ascendant world. But I also have to say, the dull world - mother, father, brother, sisters, workmen - that that was the material.

So, I was very lucky to grow up in a small village, a small hamlet, in which one was able to observe, secretly, everything going on around one. Even just the way people sat at Mass, the way women, the different way they prayed. So, the place was full of stories. They were small stories, but they were stories.

SIMON: I have to certainly get to this part of the book. Let me just phrase it this way: In your account, an awful lot of famous men have more or less thrown themselves at your feet.

O'BRIEN: Oh, I hope not. No, no, they didn't. I'm sure if they threw themselves at me...

SIMON: Richard Burton, Robert Mitchum.

O'BRIEN: As I've said in the story, men are either lovers or brothers for me. The brothers are the ones I actually prefer, I like more, and I can talk to. The lovers are ones I'm more afraid of, but fall in love with. In the case of Robert Mitchum, it was a brief encounter, in the best sense of the word. And I met him at a very grand party of a film producer, and Robert Mitchum, as such, swept me off my feet. But he was far too proud and actually mesmeric a man to throw himself at anyone. And I did have one night in my house, and it had all the elements of a ballad. And from that you can read anything you wish, as can any reader.

SIMON: I'm struck by the fact you describe these fabulous parties but you say you were often lonely in the middle of them.

O'BRIEN: Well, I think...

SIMON: Sean Connery, Roger Vadim, Jane Fonda, Judy Garland - all these people...

O'BRIEN: All these people. Mind you Judy Garland left instantly. Maybe she was lonely too. I think by nature I am lonely in that I wouldn't be a writer if I were not lonely. I think most writers, if you read their letters and sometimes read some of their lives - I'm not recommending it, but I know one has to be - to remain writing, not just to start as a writer, but to remain faithful to it - one has to live so much of one's life alone. And reflective. Certain people, I think, are kind of born lonely. I can tell lonely people when I see them, and I'm very often drawn to them because I feel that they might have some secret to tell me.

SIMON: You volunteer in here that you were - at least for a while - a patient of the famous psychiatrist R.D. Lang.

O'BRIEN: Yes, indeed.

SIMON: Took LSD under his direction.

O'BRIEN: Yes. I was what you'd call a trip. I had a very drastic and, for a time, irretrievable trip. I was glad I went to him, but I didn't really realize that the LSD would have such a drastic, frightening and lengthy effect upon me. Because it did. I think my writing got deeper and in some instances, I think more scarifying, after it. But the trip was, seemed to me, to be forever. It was probably about 12 hours in itself, but the aftermath was for many months, and even years, after that.

SIMON: Of all the famous names that are in this book, who do you make come alive in your memoir of your life and times and career, which is, as you write, as a writer, obviously, a lot of time spent in solitary.

O'BRIEN: The person who comes most alive in my memoir is my mother. She had the deepest effect on me. She, to a great extent, formed me to be what I am. She instilled into me certainly a conscience and a discipline of always being on time. That was in contrast to my inner wild self that didn't want these restrictions, if you know what I mean. And by her not wanting me to be a writer, it played some part in my determination to be a writer.

SIMON: Edna O'Brien. Her long-awaited memoir, "Country Girl," is out. Thank you so much for being with us.

O'BRIEN: Thank you, and we'll meet again, as the song says. Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.