Edna O'Brien: The mother of invention

Edna O'Brien's new novel explores the bonds of blood, landscape and memory. She tells Julie Wheelwright why writing is about beauty - and terror
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In Edna O'Brien's new novel, the elderly, work-worn Dilly is lying in a Dublin hospital bed, contemplating her mortality and waiting, endlessly it seems, for her daughter. Dilly falls into vaporous reveries about her fears of dying, about motherhood and her bitter marriage to a hard-drinking horse trainer. Her daughter Eleanora shares these memories, alternately baulking at and embracing their enveloping folds. "Between us, that blood feud, blood bond, blood memory," she writes in her journal about her mother's fate, "At the end of your tether: alone, alone as only the dying are."

There are few writers who could tackle the sticky raw territory of a dying parent and a daughter's guilty love with such a deep and unflinching gaze. When I meet O'Brien in the dusty, cushion-strewn study of her Knightsbridge house, she describes The Light of Evening (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £14.99) as an "umbilical" novel. In a corner sits the small wooden desk where O'Brien still writes her novels in long-hand, fitting each chapter with all its drafts into a separate box. The walls are lined with books, the classics that O'Brien often re-reads mixed with those written by friends.

"The novel," O'Brien admits, "is inspired by my mother and the very deep effect she had on me." Indeed, letters written by the fictional Dilly contain nuggets of Mrs O'Brien's missives to Edna. "My mother wasn't a writer but I wish she had been because I think she would have been very remarkable," says O'Brien. Elsewhere, she has credited her mother as a major influence on her writing.

Although Mrs O'Brien lives on in this novel, her time in America and her dying days are "an imagined past". She did leave Ireland during the 1920s to work as a housemaid to a wealthy Jewish family in Brooklyn but, says O'Brien, rarely spoke about her time there. "My mother was a very observant woman, and it would have been great if I'd asked her what it was like working as a maid in a house." There were few stories - "my mother was a very secretive woman" - but O'Brien did have photographs taken from that time - including a glamorous studio portrait of her with a "lovely pear-shaped face".

America is only a brief interlude, however. While Dilly's family are grieving over the shooting of her brother Michael, a Republican supporter, by a British soldier, she falls hopelessly in love with an Irish lumberjack. Through a series of misunderstandings, Dilly becomes convinced that her lover has been unfaithful and she returns home dutifully to marry a man wealthy enough to support her family. Dilly exhibits a steely stoicism through the drudgery and her regret. Later on, she and Eleanora comfort each other in their loneliness.

After Dilly's death, Eleanora learns that her mother had confided her most searing memories to a nun, the aptly named Sister Consolata: "The night my father held us hostage for several hours with a loaded revolver in that crazed and reeking room, that other time when he almost burned the house down, we flinging furniture and pictures and linen out into the garden." When I ask O'Brien whether autobiography overlaps with reality here, she is circumspect. "There's very little of my father; it's a story about a mother and daughter, their attachment and detachment. There is a hint about violence but whatever is in the book is what anyone can infer."

If O'Brien and her mother shared a deep emotional bond, when it came to writing and religion, they were poles apart. Mrs O'Brien's fear of literature as a route to mortal sin may have been a kind of anti-influence on her daughter, the spark that ignited her rebellion. "People have said that my mother's opposition, whether it was voiced or concealed, made me a writer," she explains softly. "She would have liked me to have been something else. The book is not about getting even with my mother. I admired her very much because she was stoical and she was an inveterate worker." In 1950, O'Brien seemed to be fulfilling her mother's dreams when she became a pharmacist and landed a job in Dublin. But then she discovered literature and met the Czech writer, Ernest Gébler.

Like Eleanora in The Light of Evening, O'Brien began an affair with Gébler, who was not only married but a Communist twice her age. When they eloped, her family followed and physically attacked her lover. O'Brien stood her ground and they married in 1951. Later they moved to London, where O'Brien had a tiny advance from a publisher and within three weeks had written The Country Girls. "It just poured out of me," she says now, lamenting that The Light of Evening took her four years to complete.

O'Brien's trilogy of novels about Kate and Baba, the Irish convent girls coming of age in the swinging Sixties, was a popular and critical success. Back home in Twamgraney, however, the local priest organised a public burning of any copies after The Country Girls was placed on the Irish censorship index. "The community were really very ashamed of it. There was a bit of a burning," O'Brien says now, laughing softly. "It wasn't a Bonfire of the Vanities, though." While she admits that the harangues upset her ("no one likes to be flayed when you're alive - or even when dead"), it didn't stop her writing.

Neither did Gébler's sour claims that he had written her novels, nor their divorce in 1964, nor the traumatic custody battle over their sons Carlo (who wrote Father and I: a Memoir in 2000) and Sacha that followed. Her mother never understood. "I would never with my mother have discussed any pain I might have felt about that because it was something she wouldn't wish to talk about. She would have liked me to have married someone she could have understood more."

A lesser woman might have crumpled under the pressure, but O'Brien says writing has remained as elemental for her as eating or breathing. "It doesn't come from a conscious part of the self," she says. "It comes from the mystery part of the self which I call the unconscious. It cannot be ordered or chastised."

Yet there is a fragility beneath the surface of O'Brien's careful appearance; her elegant make-up, diaphanous gown and stylish leather sandals. "There is always a native terror and anxiety in writing a book," she tells me. This seems an astonishing admission from a writer whose admirers have included Samuel Beckett, John Osborne, Philip Roth, Jackie Onassis and Joan Plowright, and who was once dubbed by The New York Times, "one of the greatest writers in the English-speaking world". So what, I ask, is there to fear after such a long and distinguished career? "Nothing that one writes yesterday is any stronghold or support to what one writes today," she says. "A good sentence, a good paragraph, a good drama is no guarantee that you're going to write another one."

O'Brien left Ireland to escape the sensation that someone would always be looking over her shoulder, and protected herself with "a moat of isolation" in order to write. But leaving Ireland meant severing the umbilical tie with her mother. In The Light of Evening, Dilly's presence is what remains; an actual mother and mother as presence. Dilly perhaps functions equally as Motherland, a place where O'Brien hasn't lived for half a century but which remains the wellspring of her writing.

In 2002, O'Brien again caused uproar back home when she wrote In the Forest, a fictionalised account of a young serial killer in Western Ireland. Brendan O'Donnell abducted and killed Imelda Riney and her three-year-old son before murdering a priest and dumping their bodies. It was the memorial to the victims that inspired her novel. O'Brien was accused in the Irish press of sensationalising the crimes, which in her novel are ineptly investigated. She fought back by pointing out that O'Donnell's was the longest civil trial in Irish history and deserved public introspection. "When you ask me if I got O'Donnell, I did according to the dictates of my imagination and I would hope with a degree of compassion."

To O'Brien, the murders were akin to a Greek tragedy, the notion that a few must be sacrificed for the others. It was a novel whose demands, of balancing compassion for the victims and for the killer, nearly killed her. But such pain comes with the territory of the role she has so often occupied, bearing witness to the world, "both its beauty and terrors."

Biography: Edna O'Brien

Edna O'Brien was born in Twamgraney, County Clare, in 1932. She practised as a pharmacist before marrying and then moving to London in 1951. Her first novel, The Country Girls, was published in 1960. A critical and popular success, it was banned in Ireland. Since then, O'Brien has written more than 25 novels, including The Lonely Girl, A Pagan Place, Johnny I Hardly Knew You and Down by the River. The Light of Evening is published this week by Weidenfeld. She has also written a biography of James Joyce, children's books, essays and short stories, often for the New Yorker. Among her screenplays and theatrical productions is a drama about the life of Virginia Woolf. Edna O'Brien, who lives in London, has won many awards in Ireland and abroad.