Irish writer Edna O'Brien comes to town


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As a child, Edna O'Brien wrote "jottings" about the people and pastoral landscape of Western Ireland, a place where three dogs, horses and cattle dotted the lawn in front of her family's County Clare home.

As a young woman during the late 1940s, she was living in Dublin, bicycling to work in a chemist's shop and learning to be a pharmacist.

"The idea of a young woman writing was not in the cards," Ms. O'Brien recalled in a telephone interview from her London home.

Still, she dreamed of being published in The Bell, a highly influential monthly magazine of Irish literary and social comment that lasted from 1940-54.

Having her work appear in its pages was a start.

"I submitted stories that, of course, were rejected. Peadar O'Donnell, the editor, asked me to come into the office. It was to give me advice -- to read more and to take my time. ... It was a little bit of encouragement," she said.

The author of 21 works of fiction, five plays, short story collections and three nonfiction books, Ms. O'Brien is the reigning doyenne of Irish letters. In 2011, she was honored when her short story collection "Saints and Sinners" garnered the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, the richest prize for that genre.

At 83, she is working on a new novel and still writes in longhand. She speaks at 7:30 p.m. Saturday in the auditorium at Carlow University's Antonian Hall. Her appearance here celebrates the 10th anniversary of Carlow's writing program, which includes an 11-day residency at Trinity College in Dublin.

Her most recent work, the 2012 memoir "Country Girl," recounts her strict, Roman Catholic upbringing, her complicated relationship with a controlling mother and an ill-fated marriage at age 23. The experiences of leaving Ireland for London, divorcing her husband and fighting for custody of her sons made her stronger.

When the author's book "The Country Girls" was published in 1960, the coming-of-age novel about two young women scandalized Irish readers. Priests denounced the book from the pulpit, and it was burned in Tuamgraney, her native village. The postmistress of Tuamgraney told Ms. O'Brien's father that she should be kicked naked through the town.

But literary success during the 1970s brought the author a home in London's Carlyle Square plus encounters with playwright Harold Pinter, British Prime Minister Harold Wilson, author Lawrence Durrell, actor Patrick Magee, choreographer Jerome Robbins, actor Laurence Olivier and his wife Joan Plowright, who starred in her play, "A Pagan Place."

During those heady days, Paul McCartney once walked her home and sang her two young sons a lullaby. In 1970, when Ms. O'Brien took LSD, Irish writer Samuel Beckett kept her company.

The author of a play about Virginia Woolf as well as scholarly books about James Joyce and the Romantic English poet Lord Byron, Ms. O'Brien believes her lack of a formal university education may have been an advantage.

"If you want to be a surgeon or an engineer, then let's go to the university. For the writer, the need, the hunger, the ambition and, above all, the dedication is best served by you, yourself. Academics are not always the greatest friends of the written word. They are the dissectors of it. They examine it and they often reduce the exhilaration."

Ms. O'Brien said Woolf may have envied her own colleagues at universities but, "she knew that her private dedication to literature was best served by keeping it to herself and pursuing it herself."

Recently, Ms. O'Brien has been stirred by the work of Roberto Bolano, the late Chilean novelist whose novel "2666" was praised as one of the 10 best books of 2008 by The New York Times.

"He seems to have, if you like, an idleness to his prose, and yet it's totally gripping. I love powerful writers, whatever form their power takes," Ms. O'Brien said.

She offered suggestions for writers that have served her well.

"Honor the thing you want to say and the way you say it. Writing must be music. It can't be stuff flung down on a page. A lot of writing is flung down on the page, not always by young writers either."

Writers must be fearless.

"It's also very important to not think of who's going to read this, who's going to like this, who's going to criticize this. You write alone and in that alone state the work is done."

One project leads to another.

"Each book is a stepping stone to the next book. So there's no letup. Those are strict rules, strict suggestions. They are the ones I believe in," Ms. O'Brien said.

Kenneth Tynan asked her to write a sketch for the show "Oh, Calcutta," but it was cut. She never saw the production, which originated off-Broadway in 1969 before being staged in London and on Broadway.

"I was a little bit disappointed. There would have been royalties," Ms. O'Brien said, recalling that she was told, "Oh, you're in good company, we also cut out Samuel Beckett."

While she communicates by email, the author still writes in longhand in copy books.

"One third of my daily life is looking for bits I have lost or put somewhere. It has its advantages and it has its bother. I couldn't imagine actually writing with a typewriter."

Tickets to the lecture are $15 and available at the door at Antonian Hall on Carlow's Oakland campus, 3333 Fifth Ave., 15213; or call 412-578-6120.


Marylynne Pitz: mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648.

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