Edna O'Brien in Lake Park, County Wicklow, in 1952.

Edna O'Brien in Lake Park, County Wicklow, in 1952.

In 1960, Edna O’Brien published “The Country Girl,” her first novel. Considered scandalous at the time, the book was burned by priests throughout her native Ireland. Undeterred, she spent the next 50 years creating a body of work that stands among the best writing of the 20th century. Diane talks with Edna O’Brien about her often lonely life and the work that sustained her.


  • Edna O'Brien Author

Read An Excerpt

Excerpt from “Country Girl: A Memoir” by Edna O’Brien. Copyright 2013 by Edna O’Brien. Reprinted here by permission of Little, Brown and Company. All rights reserved.


  • 11:06:55

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. In 1960, an Irish government censor banned Edna O'Brien's first novel, "The Country Girls." It was deemed a smear on Irish womanhood. Decades later, U.S. Senator George Mitchell, who helped broker peace in Northern Ireland, praised her as a literary pioneer who quote "changed Irish womanhood for the better." In a new memoir, the prolific author talks about love, exile, and despite it all, why Ireland remains at the heart of her work.

  • 11:07:39

    MS. DIANE REHMHer new book is titled "Country Girl: A Memoir." Edna O'Brien joins me from the BBC in London. I invite you to be part of our conversation. Join us on 800-433-8850, send us an email to drshow@wamu.org, follow us Facebook, or send us a tweet. Edna O'Brien, so good to have you with me.

  • 11:08:12

    MS. EDNA O'BRIENOh, thank you. I'm happy. I wish I were there in the room, but here I am.

  • 11:08:17

    REHMI wish you were too, but it's so good to see you as I am able to do on Skype, even as you are in the BBC in London. Would you begin by reading for us from the first two paragraphs of your memoir?

  • 11:08:47

    O'BRIENSure. "The two dreams could not be more contrasting. In one I am walking up the avenue, toward Drewsboro, the house I was born in, and it is a veritable temple. The gold light on the windowpanes, rivering, the rooms flooded in a warm pink light for a feasting within, and along the paling wire, torches of flame, furling, unfurling. As I slide the hasp of the gate and walk toward the hall door, I see the line of men in livery, soldiers, the tips of their spears red-hot through and through, as if they have just been pulled out of fire. These are hard men that bar the way.

  • 11:09:44

    O'BRIENIn the second dream, I am in the house in the blue room where I was born. Doors and windows all locked, and even the space under the door, where motes of dust used to sidle, is sealed with some sort of wadding. The furniture is as it was -- a double wardrobe of walnut with matching dressing table and washstand. There is the slop bucket in green, with a plaited basket button. I am there, alone, incarcerated. All the others have died. I am there to answer for my crimes. It makes no difference that my interrogators are all dead."

  • 11:10:37

    REHMThose dreams are so extraordinarily vivid, which is why you had to write them down. How do you interpret them?

  • 11:10:53

    O'BRIENHow do I what?

  • 11:10:53

    REHMHow do you interpret those dreams?

  • 11:11:00

    O'BRIENI couldn't get the word. How do I...

  • 11:11:02

    REHMInterpret. How do you understand those...

  • 11:11:06

    O'BRIENOh, how do I -- how do I find everything, which I suppose is to interpret it. In a sense one has to -- well, I think you have to go into with every bone and breath of your body. People paint a memoir because the name suggested is remembering. Of course, remembering is vital to it, but it's something stronger than remembering, which his re-immersion. So for instance, when I was writing that -- writing the whole thing, but for what I just read to you, I am going up that avenue -- it was called an avenue. It was rather rutted, and with holes and run down.

  • 11:11:58

    O'BRIENNevertheless, it was called the avenue. I have to be the person in the time of my life who dreamt those two dreams. And therefore, when you ask me how I get it, it's by -- to tell you the truth, it's by the skin of my teeth I get it, or a hair's breath. Because any little alteration when I'm writing -- when I'm writing that or when I'm writing anything, a telephone, or a knock on the door, or anything else, breaks it. So if there was an ideal world for me as a writer, it would be to be put in a room for the three years it took, not to see anyone or speak or anyone, and somehow be fed by some wonderful, a little wine as well, miraculous way, because the process of memory is a very great and magic marvelous one, but it is also very easily lost or mislaid like a glove.

  • 11:13:08

    O'BRIENSo Drewsboro, that place, and my mother, father, and all the characters of my childhood (word?) are always one way or another within me, and in that I am very lucky that I was able -- or I hope I was able to relocate them, and to be there again.

  • 11:13:32

    REHMI was thinking specifically of those spears that are blood laden and whether in fact as your books were banned early on, you felt as though your very body had been pierced by those spears.

  • 11:13:59

    O'BRIENIt's a lovely question, but I think the fears of the spears and all else happened in my psyche long before the secondary thing of being banned or challenged or persecuted. I think it's a very primal fear, because they're red hot, which I suppose, now that you have brought it up, that the imagery suggests hell, and I was certainly brought up more extensively on hell than on heaven, which is a small drawback of Irish Catholicism or perhaps any Catholicism. So it wasn't the brouhaha about my first book that would have made me that.

  • 11:14:47

    O'BRIENI have in me, as I dare to suggest many writers have, a good (word?) of fears, all stimulated by experience and then experience of --what's the word -- experience filled then -- or fueled then, I should say, with fantasy. Because as children, we do take everything in, and there's no -- about it. We do enlarge on it for better or worse. So I would think that those spears have a great big Freudian past in them that we could explore if we had time, but I doubt we have.

  • 11:15:32

    REHMNow, I want to ask you specifically about your thoughts, your feelings today about Ireland as compared to your thoughts and feelings say 20, 30, 40 years ago about Ireland, which it would seem has been both a curse and an inspiration to you.

  • 11:16:06

    O'BRIENYes. Well, I'll answer the last bit first. It is an ongoing inspiration, and maybe a curse is too strong a word. Maybe it has been -- maybe it has made me fearful at times, and hesitant, which I suppose was why I left Ireland in the beginning. But to talk -- or to answer you, Diane, about the Ireland now and the Ireland of then, the change is huge. It's radical. It's a leap of (word?) , just as my own childhood from that time of my life to the time now that's sitting here talking to you has been actually slightly beyond comprehension, the changes have been enormous.

  • 11:16:57

    O'BRIENWe start with Ireland then. Ireland then was, as you've already implied, very religious, of course, and castigating and censoring. Not only to me, but to everybody. It was very, very enclosed. It was fervent as I've once said, and claustrophobic, and it did instill in one, many, many fears of all sorts of things. Of not doing wrong, of not reading, because there was no reading in our Parish. There was no library. A small incident that I might have told you in our many conversations together, was that a book of "Rebecca: had strayed its way into our small one-horse town, and it was loaned by the page.

  • 11:17:50

    O'BRIENUnfortunately, the pages were not consecutive, so you could get page 43, and then get page 200. So that was Ireland, you know, small country places, and there was a newspaper, a weekly newspaper, that I read avidly because there was in it, an anonymous correspondent who, looking back, wrote very flowery over ornate stuff about storms and wind and lighthouses and the Atlantic, and I was trying to learn to write long before I even knew what it would be to be a writer, and I would read this person and try and imitate him or her, whoever it was.

  • 11:18:32

    O'BRIENIreland was also cut off. It was part of -- it was on the limb of Europe, and even in the map it is the limb of Europe.

  • 11:18:43

    REHMWe will hear more about Ireland from Edna O'Brien. Her new memoir is titled "County Girl."

  • 11:20:05

    REHMAnd welcome back. Edna O'Brien is with me. She is the author of "The Country Girl's" trilogy. A recipient of numerous book awards, including the Irish PEN Lifetime Achievement Award. And now, she is with a memoir, it's titled, "Country Girl." If you'd like to join us, call us 800-433-8850. Send us your email to drshow@wamu.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. One of the strongest images throughout your memoir is your home Drewsboro.

  • 11:21:05

    REHMI wonder if you would read for us that single paragraph on page 12 that describes Drewsboro for our listeners.

  • 11:21:24

    O'BRIEN"The ruins of the big house held a fascination for me. Along with the weasels, there were the signs of its former life: torn tongues of dark green wallpaper embossed with acorns hung in the reception room, and in the kitchen there was a set of gongs with thick crusts of verdigris, the green and silver brilliancies of bygone days. On a high mound of rubble is an elderberry tree that birds must have seeded, and my mother and I would pick the berries to make wine, which had to be hidden from my father who might be tempted by it, and after a mere sip go on the batter.

  • 11:22:10

    O'BRIENIt was reserved for visitors, who, apart from thinkers and Mad Mabel, were few and far between. The rungs of a staircase dangled down into what had once been a ballroom, feeding the various fantasies that I contrived, of balls, carriages along the back avenue, and foot men rushing out with lit sods of turf to help the visitors down. There would be pipers in the forecourt and tables with jugs of mulled wine, and feasting as in the sagas of old.

  • 11:22:51

    O'BRIENMy great-grandmother I pictured in black taffeta with an ermine coatee and a corsage, maybe violets or some other woodland flower. My mother, hearing these ravings, would smile, but then frown, desperate as she was to keep everything together and possibly sensing that the prodigal blood of the O'Briens reigned uppermost in me, rather than the blood of her own people, the Clearys, who clung steadfastly to their little mountain holding."

  • 11:23:31

    REHMEdna O'Brien reading from her new memoir titled, "Country Girl." Tell me about your father. It seems to me that your mother had to be not only careful with those berries but careful about everything she did in regard to your father.

  • 11:24:04

    O'BRIENYes. I could tell -- I will tell you my -- but I think in the memoir my mother, to use a cliché, has a greater and kinder being. My father was a highly volatile man. He was tall, very tall, handsome and could be very frightening. He loved horses. Horses featured in my, you know, inner and indeed outer mythology with my father in the fields breaking them in. And he had no fear of them. It did, however, with me instilled fear because I suppose one of it is, maybe in those days parents were very much fearsome with their children, not just my father but in every house.

  • 11:25:01

    O'BRIENYou know, there was autocratic and strict. So that is one aspect of it. But it's also the fact that my father was one of those unfortunate drinkers who really couldn't drink or shouldn't drink. So, therefore, when he did go away to drink, it reminds very much of characters, for instance, in Eugene O'Neill's plays, in "The Iceman Cometh" a long day's journey. A man, Irish man, wild, given to song, not cut out for, if you like, normal farming life or anything else.

  • 11:25:36

    O'BRIENAnd they would, you know, go on what's called the batter or the binge. And then when he was on that, both my mother and I, my sisters had gone away to school. They were a bit older than me. So by the time I was very aware of it at the age of five or six. I would, with my mother, be dreading my father's coming home. We'd be dreading his not coming home, but even worse dreading his coming home and what he might do.

  • 11:26:07

    O'BRIENNow this is very hard. Of course, it was very hard for me. It would be for any child because where there is fear, it sort of comes in to your very being. It's not just your heart or soul, it's in your fingertips. But it's also hard in that I was never able to see my father with either the clarity or the gentleness or the humanity or whatever, you know the words are already there. I didn't have to say them. I was never able to do that.

  • 11:26:42

    O'BRIENAnd therefore in my memoir, I was never -- I couldn't give him as loving or as rounded a place in that book as I would wish to. The person that I loved, the man in our house that I loved and that really was a father, although he was only about five years older than I was our workman whom I called Carnero and whom there are many comic moments in the memoir as you probably know, including him, when my mother wasn't looking, buttering the bread on both sides and saying let's larrup it on.

  • 11:27:20

    O'BRIENAnd whenever she was slicing, she would boil a bit of ham or a chicken on Sunday, she had to boil it away from him because he'd be snatching slices of it off the plate. So he, in a sense -- and I'm not avoiding your question -- he in a sense, features in myself, in my heart as being the father I would have liked because he was very caring. He taught me how to ride a bicycle badly. So I have never succeeded riding a bicycle well.

  • 11:27:57

    O'BRIENAnd he claims he taught me at the time. And he even would claim some credit for my writing, which of course is daft because he himself could neither read nor write. But in the case of my father, I'd like to add this if we have the time before the music recurs.

  • 11:28:14


  • 11:28:16

    O'BRIENMy mother was very opposed to my writing and very cross about my writing and very ashamed of my writing.

  • 11:28:24


  • 11:28:26

    O'BRIENWell, she thought that all literature, maybe she's write about this, that literature was regiment of sin and that literature sent people down the long route. It was as if she had read Molly Bloom's "Soliloquy" in a previous life. So she would have loved, as I've said, "Elsewhere" actually but I can see it because I think it's hilarious. I can see it, my mother would have loved me to be an air hostess because I'd have a nice air hostess costume or whatever you call it, outfit.

  • 11:28:58

    O'BRIENAnd she didn't think it was sinning. I'm sure she was wrong, but never mind. Whereas my father was humorous about my books. And one day he was selling or buying cattle in the field at home in Drewsboro and another country man, which more country probably than my father, said, did your daughter write "August Is A Wicked Month"? My father said, so she did. That was another banned book of mine, by the way.

  • 11:29:26

    O'BRIENAnd the man says to my father, I bet you got a page out of that, reading a few. And my father said, no, I got two. So he did have -- he wasn't opposed to my writing and he had a great sense of humor. The reason my mother fear for me writing and choosing that path of vocation was she felt it would bring me into troubling places and she felt it was a threat to my, what we call or she did certainly, my immortal soul.

  • 11:30:00

    REHMI want...

  • 11:30:02

    O'BRIENI had to...

  • 11:30:03

    REHMI want to ask about your father as a threat when he did come home when he had had too much to drink. What did you and your mother do?

  • 11:30:23

    O'BRIENYes, he was violent. I don't -- I'm not too happy maligning the dead. Not all of us are happy maligning the living either. But when he came home and he would be drunk or staggering or both, he would be pounding on that bedroom door where I was hiding with my mother because he wanted a row, I suppose. And I pity him that we -- well, I suppose especially mother -- were not able -- we were like two children together, hiding from this raging man, instead of trying, I don't know, to calm him or reason with him.

  • 11:31:06

    O'BRIENBut as I say, my fear of him is probably even greater than, say, my sisters feared him, although they did as well. He had a particular, it's a word in Ireland that they call -- which they say he had a set on you, meaning it was more inquisitive of you, more angry. And I think that was the reason because - the reason for that was because I was very, very close and over-attached, if you like, to my mother and always wanting to mind her.

  • 11:31:43

    O'BRIENAnd I think probably that made him even more angrier. But he did give me -- I had two parents and they each gave me in their different ways a gift towards writing. What he gave me was narrative. He's always telling stories. He loved telling stories, including the same story often, again, to visitors. And what my mother gave me was a particularity. The letters my mother wrote to me when I left home and her, brilliant letters.

  • 11:32:21

    O'BRIENThey're not literary in the normal sense, they're like stream of consciousness, going up a mountain to pick blackberries, the stains of the blackberries getting in her frock because she hadn't brought cans enough to hold the blackberries, so she made of her skirt a holder or a lap.

  • 11:32:40

    REHMShe was, in effect, painting pictures for you.

  • 11:32:44

    O'BRIENShe's very...

  • 11:32:46

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm." You were disappointed when your mother died and that house in Drewsboro went to your brother.

  • 11:33:12

    O'BRIENYes, I was. I was disappointed and I'd love to tell you why. For years and years and years, I had helped my mother, you know, with money and so on. I did it because I loved her, because she didn't have much money. But she was always saying, even though she disapproved in my writing, she forgave me. You know, we're all complicated and unambiguous. And she always said, you will have Drewsboro, because you have made it somehow, meaning she -- I'd given it life and prestige, if you like, in my fiction.

  • 11:33:56

    O'BRIENAnd she was also in her letters to me, she wrote to me daily, telling me how deeply ungrateful her son was and how unkind and not generally, et cetera, et cetera. And then just before she died, I visited her. We didn't think she was dying. And she wasn't dying. She was just in the hospital for shingles. She asked me to bring her to a solicitor to change her will, because she had -- she said, obliged by both her son and her husband to sign everything, the land and the house, over to John, her son, my brother.

  • 11:34:39

    O'BRIENSo she asked me to bring her out in a car downhill to the local solicitor to change the will. And I said, no, we're not doing anything as urgent and rushed as that. You're not dying. So I was cross with her for originally having exceeded to their wishes rather than her own. But the fact that she wanted to change it in what turned out to be her last week on earth, I couldn't be cross with her then, because she wanted to change it.

  • 11:35:12

    O'BRIENAnd there it is now moldering away and I can still write about it. And maybe it's just as well I don't live in it, because you can write about the place you're not it.

  • 11:35:25

    REHMAnd it struck me as so ironic that your brother never lived in that house.

  • 11:35:38

    O'BRIENYeah. Shall I tell you why I think the reason?

  • 11:35:40


  • 11:35:41

    O'BRIENI think he was afraid of my mother's ghost. I believe that, you know, we're full of the past in our ancestors and maybe superstitions. But I would think that played a strong part in it, because he knew she had changed her mind.

  • 11:36:04


  • 11:36:05

    O'BRIENBecause she had told the nurse in the hospital, she had told more than one nurse of her new vigorous intent, which was to go home and change her will. Wills bring out a lot of family feuds, Diane, as you well know. So one of those nurses knew my brother because she had met him at dress-down dinner dances at Christmas for nurses and doctors. He was a doctor. She told my brother, whose practice was about 40 or 50 miles away.

  • 11:36:38

    O'BRIENAnd he came pell mell and was indeed furious with my mother for even the thought of changing her will, the thought of this treachery as he called it. And they had a very row in the hospital. My mother was dressed actually to go home that day. And the man who was coming to collect her was late. He hadn't showed up. And the row was so grave and so serious that after he left, she had a heart attack.

  • 11:37:18

    REHMTerrible, terrible ending. Edna O'Brien, her new memoir is titled, "Country Girl." When we come back, you calls, your email. Stay with us.

  • 11:40:05

    REHMAnd we're back. Edna O'Brien is with me. She has a new memoir. It's titled "Country Girl." She is of course the author of the Country's Girl's Trilogy, the recipient of numerous book awards including the Irish Pen Lifetime Achievement Award. I do want to take a few callers, Edna. We'll open the lines now. First to Houston, Texas, George has a question for you. Good morning, George.

  • 11:40:49

    GEORGEGood morning, Diane.

  • 11:40:51

    REHMGo right ahead.

  • 11:40:52

    GEORGEMy question to you, Edna, is that you said something about -- I'm just fascinated about the idea of reading books -- a book I placed out of sequence with front pages. You know, you might have page 200 or page 10. How did you manage to do that and make sense out of the book?

  • 11:41:13

    REHMThat's a very good question, Edna.

  • 11:41:18

    O'BRIENWell, the true answer is, I didn't. That's why I brought it up. It wasn't a way of reading a book. I brought it up because I thought -- I think it's funny and it gives a very exact picture of what it was to have a hunger for literature, to read a book from start to finish. And in those early days I wasn't lucky enough to have that. But then my hunger, in fact, increased my interest and wetted it so that by the time I came to read a book from start to finish, it was even a greater excitement. It was a greater education, a greater luxury.

  • 11:42:03

    O'BRIENThe book that set me starting on really serious writing was a book I bought for four pence on the Keys in Dublin, secondhand, and it was a book called "Introducing James Joyce by T. S. Elliott." And that was my first education. And from there -- from it I learned -- I opened it at random "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" by James Joyce. And even though in pecunious, I managed to buy that book. And it was the first book I read that I knew was about great writing and would become my bible.

  • 11:42:47

    REHMEdna, tell us about your education at the Convent of Mercy in Lockgray (sp?) where indeed you fell in love with a nun.

  • 11:43:05

    O'BRIENWell, you've brought up the love. The love and the education, they're both to be answered. The education was somewhat haphazard. We learned many subjects, including for instance science through Irish. So I know principle of Archimedes in Irish and I'll take the liberty of saying a couple of lines of it to you, so you will realize what a hodgepodge education I've had.

  • 11:43:29

    O'BRIEN(speaks foreign language). Now that translates into Archimedes' principle. So at your leisure you can get the English version.

  • 11:43:44

    REHMAll right.

  • 11:43:45

    O'BRIENWas also very strong on -- naturally on religion. And the sense of religion, the presence of chastity, purity, all that was in the convent or it was in the convent on the benches one sat on in the hall one walked through. So that we studied hard. But I cannot really say I got an education in, like, the classics or something to carry me forth into life.

  • 11:44:18

    O'BRIENWhat I did get an education in is two things, which was rigor, which I recommend to anyone, especially anyone who's hoping to write. And a total dedication to whatever it is one has to do. Now that is a very helpful thing. So I wasn't brought up in a luxurious sort of literal culture (word?) , but I was brought up in what I've just described and somewhat strict and formidable.

  • 11:44:52

    O'BRIENAs regards, the love affair with the nun, which I once wrote a story about Sister Imelda (sp?) but she also features -- as a critic has pointed out, she features in this book specially giving me a quarter pound box of chocolates at the Christmas Holidays. And many girls, nuns and girls, are very -- you know, you have to fall in love with someone. And nuns and girls were liable to fall in love with each other. They didn't touch each other. I don't know what their fantasies would be.

  • 11:45:27

    O'BRIENBut I knew that I waited behind doors when I had the chance to see this nun come down steps in her black veil and her white gimp, and to be able, if possible, to carry her books. There were many other girls behind doors or so called poised to carry her books. So it had all the ingredients of love as we know it later on in life, love between men and women, love between women and women. It's had that excitement, that thrill, that suspense and the fear, of course, that she would snub me or that she would in class punish me or that I wouldn't see her.

  • 11:46:07

    O'BRIENSo my convent life was intense. The actual -- I got very thin in the convent because the food was pretty awful. It was bread covered with lard. It was after the war and food was still very scarce. But I didn't get to the -- to get to read a great number of English books or something that I could say to you, yes that's where I started truly to learn. It isn't. I think we have to educate ourselves, to tell you the truth, certainly if we're going to be writers. Maybe there are other disciplines where you can get a great education, but the one I had was the one I had.

  • 11:46:55

    REHMI want to ask you about your first marriage because it seems as though you went from one house of control to another.

  • 11:47:12

    O'BRIENI sure did. I want to say, it wasn't only my first marriage. It was my only marriage. And maybe thereby hangs a tale. I met this gentleman, Ernest Gabler who was, as I say, handsome and cosmopolitan and cultured and looked like the German actor, Conrad Veidt and was totally engaging. I knew him only for about three or four weeks. And in the words of the Victorian novelist Elinor Glyn, I had not crossed the bedroom door. This is very essential to mention.

  • 11:47:54

    O'BRIENHowever, the fact that he had been previously married and also the rumor that he was a communist, whatever -- I wasn't fully sure -- well, I don't think he was but I wasn't even fully sure what it meant -- my mother was alerted. I was in Dublin. I had met him in Dublin. My mother was alerted by an anonymous letter, that good vicious way of informing people about things, that I was going out with this man, listing all his failings. And worst than his failings. I mean, his sins I supposed.

  • 11:48:29

    O'BRIENAnd therefore my mother and father were coming to recall me from Dublin from the chemist shop where I worked every day, seven days a week. I was an apprentice. That means you work for nothing. So they were coming to get me and I was appraised of this because I hear the chemist, my boss and his wife talk about it. And, in fact, they were trying to get someone to replace me because this crisis had occurred.

  • 11:48:59

    O'BRIENAnd I ran from that shop in my chemist white coat. I ran through a garden out into a back alley, down streets and other streets and other streets to catch an evening bus to County Wicklow, which is the place where Earnest Gabler, the man I was sort of half in love with -- I didn't know him well enough to be fully in love. But to cut it short -- not short but to summarize, I ran from them to him. So, as you said, from one house of control to another.

  • 11:49:37


  • 11:49:37

    O'BRIENAnd it's not unusual but I -- of course if I'd had more time, if I knew him better would I have gone with him? I don't know. I can't answer that.

  • 11:49:47

    REHMHe actually became jealous of your ability to write.

  • 11:49:56

    O'BRIENYes, very jealous and disbelieving. Because I was full of little bits -- you know, quoting a line of Shakespeare, baronesses' burning hair, quoting Yates -- I meant that was Yates not Shakespeare -- quoting Shakespeare as well. And I was, if you like, drunk on the prospect of literature and all the things I would read along with those things I had read.

  • 11:50:26

    O'BRIENSo he thought, as did many people who knew me at that time, that I wasn't serious about writing. I was, as, you know, the nickname they gave me -- which as you saw in my memoir, I smarted somewhat at, they called me the literary Bessie Bunter, not very flattering. Bessie Bunter was rather large. I was a little large, but not that large. Anyhow, that's gone well -- that's over.

  • 11:50:55

    O'BRIENI think for my husband the great shock was that it is as if I had deceived him. The great shock was that I could actually do it. And in truth, Diane, it came as a bit of a shock to myself that I could do it. I used to be asked by a publisher, whom I met and who was very fond of me and very kind to me. He asked me to read authors -- to read manuscripts and send in a report. So I would get two or three manuscripts a week for which I got a guinea for each book. And I wrote -- my reports were rather -- I think they were longer than is normal and they were sometimes just critical. But they were very intense.

  • 11:51:46

    O'BRIENAnd as a result of this publisher, Ian Humbleton (sp?) thought I could write a novel. And from Knopf in America and Hutchinson in England, which was his company, I received the noble sum of 50 pounds. That would be about $80, which I being prodigal spent immediately on little gifts for my children and a gift for my husband, and of all things, a sewing machine. I've never sewed and I don't intend to. I thought the sewing machine would sort of appease my husband because I knew he was a little suspicious of the fact that I was going to write.

  • 11:52:27

    O'BRIENSo when I did write "The Country Girls," as I have said in the memoir, it wrote itself for me. It came to me, all the imagery, all the stories, all the troubles and all the joys of Drewsboro and a County Clair and the environs. Everything about that came pouring in when I sat at a desk, my children's -- the windowsill actually. It wasn't a desk. It was the wide windowsill in the children's room in London. And after I would bring them to school each morning I would rush home and write and write and write. And it wrote itself.

  • 11:53:04

    O'BRIENWhen I got up from that table at 2:00 or 3:00 or whatever time it was to go and recollect them, I was crying. I cried a lot doing it, but I wasn't aware that I was crying. I wasn't aware that I was anything except my hand with the pen and the note -- the jotter was getting filled with the words. And I knew they were okay. I knew they had energy. I knew they had a truth.

  • 11:53:32

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." You fled to London. You fled from Dublin and yet you never stopped missing Dublin. Would you read for us from page 87, the opening two paragraphs of Big Time?

  • 11:54:03

    O'BRIENBig Time. "After stumbling along country roads and fields at night, the beam from the flashlight fitful and the battery forever in danger of conking out, I found Dublin enthralling. The street lighting was marvelous as the illuminations said to have been lit to the sky with laudamus, adoramus, glorificamus, during the Eucharistic congress of 1932.

  • 11:54:31

    O'BRIENLight flooded the pavement and glinted off the steel of the defunct tramlines and sent a gold threaded haze up into a line of young trees where birds roosted. It was a Saturday night in the late 1940s and my first walk into the city with my sister Eileen, Ana the girl we shared digs with and Mave, a friend of hers, arms linked in pairs. We passed a fairly shabby looking hotel where they said hurlers and their followers drank after a match.

  • 11:55:09

    O'BRIENAnd then a select grocers with cooked hams in the windows, so tempting, the bread crumb crusting of mustard and brown sugar studded with cloves. I was ravenous for food, for life, for the stories that I would write. Except that everything was effervescent and inchoate in my over-excitable brain."

  • 11:55:38

    REHMAnd Edna O'Brien, what has it been like for you to return to Ireland and be celebrated?

  • 11:55:52

    O'BRIENTo return to Ireland nowadays or to return then?

  • 11:55:56


  • 11:55:58

    O'BRIENWell, to return to Ireland, in parenthesis I'll say I have a very nice time when I return to Ireland now. When I returned -- you mean after I had written the book in London when I went back to Ireland.

  • 11:56:10

    REHMYes, yes.

  • 11:56:12

    O'BRIENWell, it wasn't exactly -- I didn't go with a -- in a calm state of mind because the ructions over "The Country Girls" and the trilogy and other books -- we'll keep with "The Country Girls" and the trilogy. The ructions were considerable. It was not only in my parish so that my parents and everyone were aware of it, and my mother alerted me to it. But it was also public in that I was banned and spoken against from the alter steps.

  • 11:56:52

    O'BRIENAnd that made me, as you can imagine, a little uneasy. I also got a lot of anonymous letters and all critical. My mother told me a neighbor said I should have been kicked naked through the town. I questioned why naked. And then, as I have in the book, and as you probably recall, a priest who -- the only priest it would seem who was on my side, he with the people in Limerick, the nearest city, had a public meeting in which he would defend me. And then I would answer questions.

  • 11:57:31

    REHMI am so glad you have written this memoir, Edna O'Brien. It's titled "Country Girl." I am so happy to have had the chance to talk with you. Thank you.

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