Edna O’Brien and Eimear McBride in conversation

Edna O’Brien and Eimear McBride in conversation

Event: Edna O’Brien and Eimear McBride in conversation

Venue: The Southbank Centre

Report by Sam Pryce

In his introduction to this London Literature Festival event, Senior Programmer for Literature Ted Hodgkinson remarked that these two Irish writers have a particular flair for capturing the passion of our desires and in understanding those desires and relationships ‘that lead us astray.’

Indeed, the risky pursuit of forbidden love is a theme that arises in both of their latest novels – the passionate affair between a young drama student and an older man in Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians; and, in Edna O’Brien’s The Little Red Chairs, a woman’s dangerous desire for a Balkan war criminal in disguise in rural Ireland. Over the course of an enlightening and enriching hour, O’Brien and McBride discussed in compelling detail what, how and why they write.

The Little Red Chairs has already been widely praised by readers and critics alike and hailed by Philip Roth as Edna O’Brien’s ‘masterpiece’. It is a hugely positive shift from the initial reception of her first novel The Country Girls which, on its publication in 1960, was banned in Ireland and publicly burned in her family’s local parish for its daring depiction of blooming female sexuality and religious repression. Although utterly distressing for her and her family at the time, O’Brien now reflects on that period with a wicked sense of humour. She recalls a woman who worked in the post office saying to her father, ‘Your daughter should’ve been kicked naked through the town for what she wrote.’ ‘Why naked?!’ exclaimed O’Brien. ‘They’re the dirty ones!’

Brutality and famine 

When asked about what drove her to writing The Little Red Chairs, she spoke with great seriousness about ‘the enormity of brutality and famine’ and how we should be more aware and engaged in discussion about these issues. In her previous books, she said how she had tried to contemplate these themes but could only do so in the realms of her own experience. In this, her 21st book, however, it appears that she has achieved her mission in attempting to broaden her focus to a more international level, by unravelling the mystery of the despotic war criminal – their remorselessness, their lack of a conscience and how we can become seduced by their lethal charisma. She was influenced by the story of Radovan Karadzic, the so-called ‘Butcher of Bosnia’, charged with the genocide of around 8,000 unarmed Bosnian Muslims during the siege of Sarajevo (1992-96). In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, O’Brien mentioned that both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth fall apart at the horror of their crimes; and, in the cases of Stalin and Hitler, both cracked at the last moment. However, when she was present at Karadzic’s trial, she observed that there was ‘not a chink of guilt or remorse; not a single thing that had changed in that man.’

Eimear McBride found snowballing success with the release of her multi-award-winning 2013 debut A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. Before its eventual publication, it was rejected by numerous publishers, all of whom too ‘afraid and cynical’ to take a chance on a novel that differed greatly from the reams of beach reads and disposable thrillers released every year. Saying that, it took her only six months to write. Her new novel though, The Lesser Bohemians, took her nine years. This, she said, was because ‘it took [her] a very long time to understand the people [she] was writing about.’

McBride is probably recognisable to most readers for her strikingly original writing style – fractured half-sentences that seem to match the broken patterns of the voice in our head. ‘When I was writing for the character in Girl, I thought of the self as being a prism made up of many disconnected parts that relate to each other – what they’re feeling, what they’re thinking, what they think about what they’re thinking, whether their leg is sore, whether they like the person they’re talking to… All these happen at once in our minds every day. So, it seemed logical to me that language breaks under the weight of all those things,’ she said.

Talk then turned to their writing process. ‘It’s uphill whether you’re just beginning or you’re 10 or 20 books in,’ said O’Brien. ‘Discipline has to be there all the time. Even when you’re not writing.’

Vulnerability

McBride agreed, saying, ‘It’s about discipline and getting to the point of writing before the world gets in… Keep the wall very thin between the conscious and the unconscious mind. Any kind of vulnerability is good to write from.’

An audience question then shifted their focus to the actual mechanics of writing. ‘Well,’ replied Edna. ‘I write by hand. I’m not good with machines and I don’t trust machines.’

Eimear stated the great difficulty of writing the first draft. ‘It’s hard to sit there,’ she said. ‘The first draft is dreadful but editing it, I quite enjoyed.’

‘Yes,’ replied Edna. ‘It makes you feel important!’

It was especially heart-warming to hear McBride talk about the profound influence that Edna O’Brien’s writing had upon her 14-year-old self, hiding under the covers reading her secret copy of The Country Girls. It was, she said, ‘her first adult experience of literature’ and that, after finishing it, she had felt ‘as though something huge had happened to [her]’. O’Brien then identified the similarity in her and McBride’s writing: ‘There is a hidden sensibility of undeniable tenderness – that is not sentimentality; but also, daring.’

And, in a moment of pure wisdom, Edna O’Brien advised aspiring writers to remember that ‘language is a miracle’.

Report by Sam Pryce

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