Edna O'Brien

The famous fiery red head novelist speaks of her memoir 'Country Girl' and the outcry caused by the epochal ‘The Country Girls’

The Black Box is a sea of pashminas and Bohemian beads for today’s ‘Out to Lunch’ treat. There maybe one or two earnest young men in decidedly non-hipster beards on the periphery, but the room is filled with expensive, silver-blonde haircuts and the clink of sauvignon blanc glasses. A soulful alt-country version of Oasis’ ‘Wonderwall’ is the peculiar accompaniment to Sean Kelly walking Dame Edna down the aisle to thunderous applause.

She is met by the Irish Times’ Roisin Ingle, today’s interlocutor, though she remains mostly silent for the next hour, grinning and shaking her head, in thrall to her interviewee. Ms. O’Brien can talk. The voice is low, rounded, and almost plummy, with only a hint of a waver about the edges to suggest her years. The famous fiery red hair too has barely faded. Her glamour, even under the room’s tatty glitterball, is transformative. She is pure class.

She’s here, largely, to talk about her memoir, ‘Country Girl’. Asked why she has written it she replies: ‘It’s easy to be misrepresented as a scarlet woman who dabbles. I haven’t been vulgar but I have been truthful.’ She is not, she insists, ‘the bargain basement Molly Bloom,’ that she has been called, getting a big laugh from the crowd.

It won’t be the last; her conversation is bejewelled with zingers. She eloped in her early twenties from a rural Ireland she would describe as ‘fervid’ and ‘enclosed’ to live in suburban London. She got a fifty pound advance to write her first novel, the epochal ‘The Country Girls’, part of which she blew on a sewing machine that she had no intention of using and no idea how to use, ‘so as to appear a dutiful wife. That’s how far back in the cave I was!’

The book caused an outcry back home; denounced from the pulpit and occasionally burned. The local post-mistress told her father that Edna should be kicked naked through the town. ‘The Country Girls’ was decried as ‘a smear on Irish womanhood.’

‘If a man had written the books I had written I don’t think he would have received the brutal critiques that I did.’ She says. A letter from a nun at the convent school she attended read: ‘We hear you have written a novel. We give credence and an open mind’. ‘This meant, of course,’ she says, drolly, ‘that they gave neither.’

She is so assured, so good at this; the stories, the anecdotage falls from her. She is emblematic of the Irish lyricism that she extols. I write notes furiously, tearing through the page in the darkness but I can’t keep up. Gems fall as thick and fast as clangers do from other public speakers. She is a good copy machine! Occasionally she over does it and the romanticism over takes us. As an aside, during one story, she says ‘…for those of us who are mortal.’ And it’s fair to say that description applies to most of us in the room. Reminiscing about using a bicycle she shivers theatrically.

‘Reality!’ she shudders.

We move on to her swinging sixties heyday, during which she ‘sewed her wild
oats’ and the name-dropping begins with wild abandon. That Marlon Brando, Paul McCartney, Lee Marvin and John Cassevetes all trooped through her kitchen on her regular Saturday night fixtures she puts down to the fact that she ‘was a good cook.’

‘I pay a lot of attention to my dreams,’ she says, before quoting Yeats, quoting a third century Chinese sage. There’s quite a lot of this sort of thing. In one of her dreams she threw boiling pans of water and goose fat over her celebrity house-guests. She saw this as a sign to quit being a swinging socialite and get back to writing.

Her advice to other writers? ‘Get rid of self-pity, egotism and third rate writing – the reader has to believe that it is their story.’

After a brief Q and A session she descends the stage, taking the standing ovation in her stride, and takes her place behind towers of hardbacks waiting to be signed, the red hair just visible. The string of pearls and a spangly black top, like a constellation of stars, as apt visualisation of the language we’ve heard as any, are secreted away behind the work. Which is as it should be.