Edna O'Brien, Enfant Terrible

The doyenne of Irish literature goes Out To Lunch with William Crawley

‘Welcome to my front room!’ bellows William Crawley, who is now so comfortable in his role as questioner at the Out To Lunch interview series at Queen’s University that, much to Edna O’Brien’s chagrin, he has no idea what his opening question will be.

The doyenne of Irish literature admits to having been nervous during the three-course lunch beforehand – sat opposite her son, the author Carlo Gebler – but, like Crawley, instantly settles into proceedings when the cutlery has been cleared, as if sat by the fire surrounded by friends.

Crawley refers to the gallery of portraits adorning the walls in the Great Hall, and with Seamus Heaney, Baroness May Blood, Mary McAleese and an assortment of former Pro- and Vice-Chancellors staring down from their canvases, suggests that we are in grand company. ‘Brian Boru might be lurking out there, somewhere,’ quips O’Brien mischievously.

O’Brien was born in County Clare in 1930, in an environment which she has described as ‘enclosed’. Her first book, The Country Girls, about the liberation of two young women from their rural constraints, was written in London and published in 1960. It was banned in Ireland on publication – and caused particular outrage in O'Brien's native county, where her parish priest burned copies in protest and a local lady suggested to her father that O'Brien should be 'kicked naked threw the streets. And I wondered why naked? Why not dressed?'

O’Brien is remarkably poetic in her response to Crawley’s interest in this subject: ‘It started with a nun from my convent saying, "We hear you have written a novel. We give credence an open mind." Well, I didn’t like the sound of that… and then there was the banning. In Dublin, they were wizards about banning [books]. They were inverse magicians. They were nameless – I can’t say they were blameless – but no one knew who they were... I didn't mind.’

The Country Girls even caused offence within O'Brien's family, at the time. 'My mother did something that I don't think she would do now. I mention it not to accuse the dead, but to give some sense of what the culture and society was in County Clare, and in Ireland and possibly here [in Northern Ireland] in 1960. She had taken a pen and had inked out every offending word in the book. I found the book after my mother died; I was so angry... And what I think now is how frightened she must have been by that work, which is really [about] two girls bursting for life.'

O'Brien comes back to The Country Girls throughout the course of the interview. She criticises the hypocrasy behind it's banning, and is thankful that the society has changed for the better since. The experience of being branded an enfant terrible, a destructive force, inevitably influenced her as a writer. She recalls a word of advice that her good friend in literature, Philip Roth, proffered many years into her career. 'Kid, who do we write for?' he asked. 'Nobody. Ourselves.'

In turn, O'Brien talks about the act of writing and how she approaches a new work today. She still writes longhand, and agonises over the order of the words - as any writer does. But time, she is adamant, does not a better (or calmer) writer make. 'At the moment I’m writing a book of short stories, Saints and Sinners, and I’m supposed to be writing a memoir. It's causing me unspeakable anxiety and fear and hesitation, all the usual things… It inhabits and engrosses every waking moment of my life.'

Crawley takes the opportunity to plug his Radio Ulster programme The Book Club, which will feature Saints and Sinners some time next year. Today's audience will be tuned in, no doubt, clutching their copies to their chests and listening with intent. To them O'Brien is royalty, the picture of elegance. And when she finishes, she does so with a wave of her hand and a thankful nod to the faithful. Grand company, indeed.

Listen to the full Out To Lunch recording in the podcast above.