The author's novels about female sexuality made her both a superstar and a hate figure. Edna O'Brien tells Christina Lamb about her harrowing visit to Nigeria, aged 88.
Long before #MeToo, almost 60 years in fact, there was a young, tousle-haired Irishwoman writing about female desire and male bigotry, having her books banned and burnt, and being denounced as "the scourge of Ireland". These days, word has it that the ultimate rebel woman is something of a grande dame — and the lady who opens the door of a white stucco house in Knightsbridge, with coiffed hair and a black ruched silk blouse over a long apricot-sprigged black skirt, certainly looks more the latter.
Yet within minutes of shepherding me into her small kitchen, putting on the kettle for tea, telling me she drinks only the bush kind, and passing me a lemon drizzle cake in cellophane to slice — then making sure I get the soft bit, not the crust — I realise I could listen to Edna O'Brien all day.
First there's the voice, a husky drawl, shot through with Irish brogue, beguiling you to tell her things, and occasionally dropping to a whisper as she draws you into some confidence.
Then the names she drops, but not in an annoying way — Virginia Woolf, Roald Dahl and Henry Moore — before I've even asked a question, so you know this is not going to be an ordinary conversation.
"Virginia", about whom she wrote a play, comes up because my pen doesn't work. O'Brien quickly offers me one of the purple rollerballs she writes with (she has a team of four women to type up the manuscripts). Purple ink being a habit she got from Woolf.
"I liked her very much, poor Virginia," she says. "Ah, she suffered from the nerves as well…
"Funny not to have a pen," she muses. "Did it make you nervous when you noticed?"
Not really, as I had a tape recorder, but I tell her a story about my first big interview as a fledgling journalist, with Pakistan's military dictator General Zia — I was so excited I failed to press the record button. The interview turned out to be his last as he was killed in a plane crash shortly after.
She looks at me in horror. "I hope I don't die next week!"
I reassure her most of my interviewees don't die.
Indeed, at 88, O'Brien recently returned from northern Nigeria, where she travelled with thousands of dollars stuffed in her bra and knickers, researching her latest novel, Girl, based on the Chibok schoolgirls, who were abducted from their dormitory five years ago by Boko Haram. It was, she confesses, "exhausting and heartbreaking" and the hardest book she has done, leaving her wondering if she will ever write another.
Mortality is clearly on her mind. Ireland's best-known woman writer, the embodiment of female defiance since her first book in 1960, still has the wild-eyed beauty that captivated a parade of Hollywood stars. But she walks tentatively with a cane up the stairs to the comfortable crimson-walled sitting room, where she perches on the sofa.
"Once you start having operations they age you," she says. "Not the mind, thank God. But the body is a bit slower."
Which is how we get onto Dahl, "a very exacting man", and how he invited his surgeon and anaesthetist to supper with O'Brien before he had a back operation, so they could check them out.
Her house, rumoured to be rented for her by a secret admirer, though she says she has to write to pay the rent, is haemorrhaging books from every wall. She quotes from them frequently, occasionally taking one down, finding them like old friends despite them being in no discernible order.
Out the back is the kind of overgrown secret garden I dreamt of as a child, while the front windows are a forest of white orchids. "Barbara Broccoli sends them every Christmas," she says, referring to the American film producer best known for her work on the James Bond series.
Of course. Once described by Vanity Fair as "the playgirl of the western world", O'Brien spent the 1960s and 70s partying with the likes of Marlon Brando, Michael Caine, Princess Margaret and Ingmar Bergman, while Paul McCartney popped by to sing bedtime songs to her two sons.
She holidayed in Italy with Gore Vidal and in New York befriended Jackie Onassis, who told her she was "one of the three people on the planet whom she loved most".
The parties might have ended, and in some ways she cuts a lonely figure, though she tells me she had Gloria Steinem over the other night for champagne.
When the jarring ring of the doorbell cuts through our conversation, it is the arrival of an exquisite bouquet of velvety red roses. Not, it turns out, from a paramour, but from an old school friend who sends one every year in honour of the Catholic saint Thérèse of Lisieux. "We were full of holiness and believed in the Little Flower," O'Brien laughs.
She is a convent girl whose first novel, The Country Girls, which she wrote in just three weeks in between school runs, was not only denounced from the pulpit but burnt by priests in Ireland.
The coming-of-age story of two village girls, Cait and Baba, in 1950s Ireland, who are expelled from convent school and journey to Dublin in search of nice clothes, young men and adventure, was based on her own life. Reading it now seems tame, but the idea that women have desires and might act on them was then heresy in Catholic Ireland, where priests were gods and women were meant to stay in the home.
It made her a literary sensation in London and New York, but was ruled "indecent and obscene" and banned in Ireland. The book horrified her mother, and O'Brien was besieged with hate mail saying things like "drown in your own filth". Years later, when she attended a gala oyster dinner in Galway, she was made to sit on a table on her own.
Nor was that the end of her notoriety. Her next six novels were also banned in Ireland. One of them, August Is a Wicked Month, about a married woman heading off to the French Riviera in search of sex, was considered so scandalous that it was banned in a number of countries and used by her ex-husband in the custody battle for their sons to try and show she was an unsuitable mother (she won).
So what made her want to write about the Chibok girls for her 19th novel? The subject is something close to my heart, having been to Nigeria to report on it extensively. But, for O'Brien, it was about a place she had never been to.
The trigger, she says, was a tiny news story she spotted in a magazine in a doctor's waiting room. "It was just three or four lines and said a girl called Amina had been found by vigilantes in the Sambisa forest with a baby and also her husband, who was a fighter who had left with her.
"I always need one thing to hurtle me into the doing of a book," she explains, choosing the words with the dancing-eyed mischief of someone who delights in them.
"It was geographical in the case of my first book, because I'd left Ireland not realising how deeply and hurtfully — and also linguistically — Ireland had affected me. It was the same language here in England, but in relative exile my sensibilities quickened in that I saw everything and felt everything more than normal, and the book just poured out of me."
"Unhappy houses are a very good incubation for stories," she often says. O'Brien was born on a farm in the west of Ireland in 1930, the youngest of four. Her family had been well-off, but by the time she was born only "the relics of riches remained". Printed words were distrusted and the only books in the house were prayer books and a stained Mrs Beeton cookbook. Her father would disappear for days in drunken rages, and the young Edna would go out into the fields and create her own world of stories.
Pushed into chemistry as a "proper career", she went to work in a pharmacy in Dublin. There, she met Ernest Gébler, a previously married writer twice her age, with an exotic Czech-Irish background, "granite-like features" and a house full of books. She moved in within months, her family coming in hot pursuit like something out of a soap opera. She was soon pregnant, then married and they moved to London.
They ended up in a mock-Tudor house in the outer suburbs of Morden, the last stop south on the Northern Line, not the Soho and Piccadilly Circus of her dreams, and a place she dismisses as "where you have to get a bus to get a bus".
All this intrigues me, as Morden was where I too grew up and I was also pushed into chemistry by family and teachers who didn't see writing as a way to make a living.
However, it was there in London that she went to a lecture on Hemingway, and "saw in a marvellous instance how [he] separated the oats from the chaff".
She started work as a reader of manuscripts at the Hutchinson publishing house, and on the basis of her reports was commissioned to write a novel for £50.
When she showed her husband her own manuscript of The Country Girls, he was bitter. "You can write and I will never forgive you," he told her.
For a while, she kept signing over the royalty cheques, but Gébler's gloom became so all-encompassing that one day she walked out on him and their two sons without a penny. She walked all the way to Putney and slept on the sofa of a Canadian woman she hardly knew. She borrowed money to buy a cottage — an early guest was the actor Robert Mitchum, who came home with her after a party.
After a court battle she got her two sons back and proceeded to churn out articles, plays and books in between partying.
Her new book is not the first to have been inspired by something in the news. Her last novel, The Little Red Chairs, published in 2015, is the chilling story of a Serbian war criminal with a long white beard and a topknot who fetches up in an Irish village and sets himself up as a healer, bewitching everyone and seducing lonely Fidelma.
"I had followed the Balkan War on TV — Radovan Karadzic, Milosevic and Mladic and all their machinations — and then I was in Germany and taken up to my hotel room by a porter and he turned on the TV automatically, as they used to, and first there was a pornographic programme so I changed it, and there was Radovan Karadzic looking like a monk, being taken off a bus on his way to the Black Sea on holiday.
"I remembered the commander I'd seen striding to battle like Lochinvar and I thought, my God, the transition from killer to healer, that's quite a number. So I decided, not knowing anything, having never been to Bosnia, I must write that book."
The resulting novel was widely acclaimed, but years of being what she calls "savaged" by the critics means that, even after so many books, O'Brien is surprisingly paranoid. "When you finish a book, far from it being a happy and reposeful situation, it's one of total anxiety," she says. "First of all, you're very tired. Second, you're anxious — what will the world make of it? And third, you're empty."
It was in that state that she went for a doctor's appointment and saw the report on the escape of the Chibok girl after two years in Boko Haram captivity.
"The thought of the girl in this forest, her mind lost, nothing to eat, the child crying, the fear and forgetfulness bordering on craziness … and I thought, just as I had in Germany, I want to write that story," she says. "It was the forest. If she'd been found at a city bus stop it wouldn't have given me the impetus."
O'Brien had been to Africa only once — to Johannesburg, where she developed her taste for rooibos tea. "I had to search around, look at maps, and I'm not a good reader of maps. I didn't know anyone there."
She read some books about Boko Haram, but "couldn't get the inner voice and the inner terror. I had to go there and experience things you don't always get in books, only in Dostoevsky and a few people."
Northern Nigeria is hardly the easiest of places to navigate, let alone for a woman in her late eighties who "suffers from the nerves". Boko Haram is the most savage terrorist group on earth, razing villages, killing people, looting cattle and abducting not just the Chibok girls but thousands of girls over the past decade to be "bush wives".
O'Brien made two trips, the first for three weeks, the second for months, as organising meetings took so long. "I am not a natural-born researcher," she says. "I am very slow and don't have a tape recorder, so I'd spend a week with a young boy who would sing hymns to me and tell me through an interpreter about his mother, who wasn't even a Boko Haram girl.
"I also met a lot of people who wanted money," she says, explaining about her stash of cash. When I ask how much she took, she holds up three sets of five fingers, adding "thousand".
She stayed first with the Irish ambassador in Abuja, where, in the office of a former education minister, she met girls who had been abducted by Boko Haram but had managed to escape. "All those girls were so spotlessly clean, which is not easy in downtown Abuja. I brought biscuits and cakes — they'd open them at once."
Her voice drops so I have to lean in. "The girls had babies attached to them in white shawls and the attachment between mother and child was so heartbreaking. Most of the children were as still as a piece of paper."
She also travelled north to various towns, put up in a compound of Irish roadbuilders and then by a series of nuns. "I, who fled from nuns, couldn't believe I was staying in convents," she laughs. "But the nuns were amazing. And my mother would be pleased my soul was cleansed."
She went to camps full of people who had been rescued from Boko Haram, where the stories were so harrowing that she wished, she says, that there was some way they could have been told without the victims having to endure their retelling.
"Sometimes they cried, sometimes they asked could they come home with me. The saddest thing of all was a girl who went to great lengths to explain that her family loved her but couldn't let her stay with them [because they feared she had been sullied or indoctrinated]. That was a very big opening in the narrative."
The resulting novel starts with the line "I was a girl once but not anymore … " and does not shy away from the rape and brutality of Boko Haram captivity.
The book, however, dwells more on the aftermath, the escape through the harshest of landscapes and how the girls ended up becoming victims a second time over when their families and communities reject them and their babies.
It's a shattering read, but why did she want to turn a true story into fiction? "Reportage can't always give the full narrative," she replies. "I admire it greatly, and the people who go there to the trenches and put themselves on the line. I could have written a piece, but it wouldn't have got into what TS Eliot called the dark embryo, that connection to the unconscious." (Eliot wrote the introduction in the first book she ever bought, Introducing James Joyce, a faded yellow hardback on her shelves.)
"In the end, what I want from a book, as a reader and a writer, is feeling," she says. "And a lot of contemporary fiction is scarce on feeling, in my humble opinion. They give you facts, their own importance and they give you their own opinions. I don't want their opinions — opinions are two a penny."
I wondered if there was one particular girl she based it on. "I combined all the stories to give voice to one visionary," she replies. "None of those girls spoke like that as they were shy and ashamed, but you can't write a book saying, 'I felt unhappy, I bled a lot … ' What I wanted to do was get one girl who is the consummation of many other girls, if they could pool their stories together and have it told by a sphinx."
It was, she says, the hardest book she has ever done. "Oh God, it was hell to do," she says. "I cried a lot."
Girl is a slim volume, but took her more than three years. "I take a long time," she says. "I rewrite, rewrite … one particular scene I just couldn't get right — it was what I call 'bad Stephen King'."
The first chapter alone, just seven pages, describing the girl's first morning in Boko Haram captivity, took months. "I saw pictures of the compound, I saw old bicycles and cement bags strewn around, and heard about the burning of the girls' clothes. But to imagine it and then reimagine it and get it down so it becomes not my story but someone else's story, that's not such an easy ride."
Indeed, were it not for one of her assistants, Sally, who in the end "pressed the thing that said send and sent it", O'Brien says she could still be writing it.
The book, she says, took over her life. "Social life was excised because, among other things, I got sick and also couldn't hurtle myself from the life of it to people talking relatively happy about Brexit or whatever — or relatively unhappy.
"Apart from being hard to write, I read certain books again and again — the Psalms, Joseph Conrad, Kafka, JM Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians, The Tartar Steppe and what has become my favourite book of Marquez, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, because of the drama in it — a novel must have drama in it. A story has to propel both writer and reader along. There has to be movement, even though, in this case, each movement is leading deeper into the sixth, seventh, eighth circles of hell … "
What with Bosnia, she has spent the past 10 years looking at evil. "Why do I write these dreadful things?" she asks. "Why do we read, why do we write? We read to know each other better, to know worlds we don't know of. We need to be bestirred from our own corner into more dangerous corners."
She quotes Romain Rolland, the French essayist, who said art is a great consolation to the individual but useless against history.
"He's right, but that's not a brief to get rid of art," she says. "People are always saying Hitler listened to Wagner and so on, but without books and without literature we'd be far worse off. People don't fully realise, they think it's elitist, but a paperback book is the cheapest thing you can buy, a paperback is cheaper than a wooden spoon."
I'm not sure where she buys her wooden spoons — I guess Harrods is her local shop — but I ask about her own current reading.
"I love reading. I love Sylvia Plath, Chekhov's short stories — which are rather long — and Russian poets Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva — sorry to say she hanged herself.
"I've had trouble with my eyes since having shingles five years ago, so after an hour I get a burning pain that limits my reading," she adds. "But when I read something pure, like a good poem or even a paragraph, it's like your favourite drink, whether it's a champagne cocktail or gin and tonic. Or a drink I used to love, crème de menthe frappe, you don't hear of now. It was full of ice, like that drink Rambo drank — green chartreuse people go blind from."
For a moment I am confused, then I realise I she means Rimbaud and absinthe.
When she is not reading, surprisingly she likes watching football. "I don't have a team I support," she says, "but I love a great game, foreign games, and Messi — not Ronaldo, he's very vain."
She's also addicted to Chernobyl, the HBO series about the 1986 nuclear disaster. "I knew after 10 minutes this was going to be the best thing I'd see in a decade," she says. "It's unbelievable. On one hand the horror, the unfortunates dying burnt, then the others building the house of lies. That's no different to what's happening now…"
She is referring to Brexit — were it not for her leg, she says, she would have gone on the march to demand a People's Vote.
"I marched against the war in Iraq with Ian McKellen and Frances de la Tour and some other actors," she says. "My first march was against Aldermaston," she adds, referring to the 1960s "ban the bomb" protests. "I was arrested with Vanessa Redgrave and Clive Goodwin, but we were released after a few hours so it's not much of a story."
Although she has made her home in London — apart from one ill-fated attempt at living back in Ireland — her home country has made sweeping changes in recent years, electing its first gay taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, and last year voting to overturn the ban on abortion. This was the subject of her 1997 novel Down by the River, inspired by the notorious "X case" of a 14-year-old who became pregnant as a result of rape but was prevented from travelling to England for an abortion.
It's not just Ireland where she was ahead of her time. As for #MeToo, "it's about time", she says. "It's indisputable — you know it and I know it: women have been relegated. I know as a writer I have had treatment that wouldn't be doled out to a man."
Yet she is disturbed by two aspects. "No doubt the movement was essential, and for the most part truthful, but when you have someone saying she was groped in 1974 or 1968, I think this is carrying it too far."
She sighs. "There's no #MeToo in Nigeria, where what happens to women is barbarous, it isn't even denied. So everything is relative — I am not saying #MeToo has not done a good thing and brought to attention the rot in organisations, big shots in movies, big shots in other companies … But there's also a world beyond, which we need to look at."
She points out that women have been among her harshest critics. "I've been savaged by women as much as men," she says. "Virginia Woolf once wrote, 'Do not forget it, women are jealous of women,' so I had what you call the double dose."
She even managed to unite both priests and feminists. "Feminists disagree with me because I write about heroines who fall in love and have feelings and are unlucky in love," she says. "Well, good luck, let's fall in love and let's have feelings and let's sometimes be lucky in love."
However, the criticism clearly got to her. For a while in the 1980s she stopped writing. Once, she even planned to commit suicide in Singapore.
"My agent says no writer had been as personally attacked down the years," she says. "It's changed a bit now, thank God. I've gone up a ladder or two."
Recent years have seen a new appreciation of her writing. Last year, she was awarded the prestigious PEN/Nabokov prize and made a dame, the ultimate Establishment accolade, for which she says she was "surprised and grateful". She's even a grandmother.
Will she write another book? "I have to keep writing to pay my rent," she replies. "I'm extravagant, I don't buy a lot of extravagant things, but I'm not tight with money, I'm of the other."
She echoes the words of Ogden Nash: "She would have lived her life in nonchalance and insouciance, but for earning her living, which is rather a nouciance."
"Will I write again?" she asks. "I ask myself that and at the moment I cannot answer. Even if the books get shorter, the time gets longer, maybe the fear gets greater and maybe the well gets drier — but the longing remains."
In the crimson room, the shadows are lengthening and it seems an appropriate place to end the interview. I take my purple pen and leave her alone with the words that are her most faithful companions, and memories enough to fill another few dozen volumes.
One story won't be told, however, though I cannot leave before asking. She never married again after leaving Gébler, but she has at times referred to the mysterious politician who broke her heart. She has never revealed his identity and is not about to now.
"I would rather not tell," she says. "People have families and children, and it's the love, whatever it was, that counts. I've been unlucky in love, but you can't be lucky in everything."
Upstairs are baskets of notebooks crammed with notes from Nigeria. Thousands of miles away, more than 100 Chibok girls remain in captivity, if they are still alive, with no idea that their ordeal has been seared into the page by a fierce old Irish lady who cries at their fate. Hopefully, Girl will remind a world that has forgotten.
Written by: Christina Lamb
© The Times of London