Interview: Edna O’Brien Essay, Research Paper
Deep down in the woods Observer: What is In the Forest about? Edna O’Brien: Ostensibly it’s about a triple murder in a forest, but I believe that the novelist is the psychic and moral historian of his or her society. So it’s about that part of Ireland I happen to know very well. It’s about that part of Ireland, and the darkness that still prevails. Obs: Was there a specific moment of inspiration, like a news story? O’Brien: News stories are anathema to fiction. I was researching a previous book and I was brought to the forest, to the spot where this murder happened, where the body of a woman and child were found in a shallow grave. I am not like WB Yeats, totally given over to the occult, neither do I dismiss it. I felt, without any shadow of doubt, a trigger which said, ‘You must tell this story.’ Obs: So it was a news story? O’Brien: The actual event was, but it was not then that I decided to write it. That was much later. Obs: It’s a contemporary story, but your picture of Ireland is quite old-fashioned. O’Brien: Primitive might be the word. Countries are. You get change in a country, but that doesn’t eliminate what already exists. The picture I paint is one of fear. Obs: How familiar are you with contemporary Ireland? O’Brien: Very. This makes people annoyed. There is this notion that you have to live in a place, day in, day out. James Joyce was luckier than me, he had more relatives that he could badger. I go there a lot. Like any practising writer I’m very conscious of what’s going on around me. Ireland is what I always write about. Obs: When did you first know you wanted to be a writer? O’Brien: Always. The spell and magic and transfiguration that language brings has always obsessed me. I also love story. One of the quarrels I have with contemporary fiction is you don’t get a rich story. Obs: Your debut with The Country Girl s was sensational. Was that success a good thing or a bad thing? O’Brien: When The Country Girls was published I had only ructions. My family at home in Ireland was shocked. They thought it was a betrayal. They thought I had opened them up to shame. I didn’t feel any of the rewards. I can honestly say it in no way spoilt me. I know, without sounding too masochistic, that I must not only write but keep writing, keep on the point of the sword. Obs: What keeps you ‘on the point of the sword’? O’Brien: One has to be, first, disturbed. Second, the state of disturbance that drives one to prose or drama or poetry can get softened by too much celebration. Sometimes I may have railed against my fate, but I have been lucky enough not to have been stopped by either barrenness or by total success. So The Country Girls was just the start of a long journey. Obs: There was a time when your books suffered critical neglect. Was that difficult? O’Brien: Very difficult. I despise fashion. The only imperative is to do the next book and the next. Obs: Did you ever doubt yourself? O’Brien: No, I don’t. It’s funny, I’m quite insecure in many ways and extremely nervous on this Earth, but I do not doubt what I do. Obs: Who were the writers that you read as a young girl? Who were the ones who influenced you? O’Brien: There were none in County Clare. I had read some scripture which is very beautiful and heard the Gospels, and at school we had fairy tales and heroic tales, not a great deal, I might add. My first [Damascene experience] of literature was by chance one day reading a fragment of James Joyce. Obs: Ulysses? O’Brien: I wouldn’t have been up to Ulysses then. It was a little book for fourpence on the quays at Dublin, published by Faber. It was two short stories, a bit of Portrait, a bit of Ulysses and a bit of Finnegans Wake. It meant so much to me, it was a complete and ultimate education. Obs: How familiar were you, as a young girl, with the Irish language? O’Brien: Oh, I learned through Irish. All my life there’s a kind of dichotomy: Irish was in the school and English was at home. Obs: Would you say your work was rooted in the Irish language? O’Brien: My work is influenced by my religion, by my parents, particularly my mother. She influences me a great deal. But also the place. My books are a part of County Clare, the place is as strong in the books as the characters of the story. Obs: Do you think that somebody from Clare would recognise it as being Clare? O’Brien: Oh, they do. Obs: Do they say it’s a caricature? O’Brien: I think they think it’s too revealing. Obs: So you aren’t particular popular at home? O’Brien: There is more uproar over In the Forest than over The Country Girls. Obs: What do you say to people who say you have no right to write the story? O’Brien: Any writer has the right to write any story. You can tell the ’story’ in four lines. The tone and nature and intensity of the book is what matters. Obs: Have any of the people who were part of the original story been in touch with you? O’Brien: I’ve had some very barbaric letters, unsigned. Obs: ‘Looking up, she saw human faces between tombstones. Joking faces that were laughing and she knew that at that moment she too was turning mad.’ Do you mean to imply that Ireland is a place that makes you mad? O’Brien: Tragedy makes people mad, whether it’s Ireland or the West Bank. In the two years and three months of writing the book I went to the edge. I had to live with material as dark and as shuddering as this and I had nightmare upon nightmare. So it’s not just the Irish are mad, although they probably have quite a good monopoly on it. Obs: At the very end of the novel you have a line: Magic follows only the few. What did you mean by that? O’Brien: It’s a bit of a mystery to me, that little chapter. I think I meant the magic that story and imagination can, even briefly, create against a bulwark of nightmare, death and non-resurrection. Obs: So this book was very painful for you to write? O’Brien: It was hell. Obs: What next? O’Brien: Well, I have just done a free and I suppose extended version of Iphegenia. I learn more from the Greeks than from anyone. Well, you learn more from Shakespeare than anyone. Then after that total radicalisation of language from Joyce and the most powerful permeating and permanent stories from the Greeks. I mean, one doesn’t need any more. At least I don’t. Obs: If you had to choose between Aeschylus, Shakespeare and Joyce, who would you choose? O’Brien: This is a very hard question. Why not have a trinity? If God made a trinity, I’ll make a trinity.· Edna O’Brien woke up to find herself famous in 1960 with the publication of The Country Girls. Many novels, short stories and plays followed. She lives in London.