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.
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."
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