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"I think if I was a man I would not have had as hard a time"

Edna O'Brien has courted controversy and adoration in equal measure since her novel The Country Girls was banned in 1960. Now aged 85 she has produced what some call her masterpiece, but is the recognition of her talent too little, too late?

By Emily Hourican

What must it be like to be Edna O'Brien, whose life has been as full of drama and excitement and difficulty as a novel; one far less restrained than those she writes herself? The combination of her beauty and talent, the fierce determination with which she has always served that talent, and a redoubtable refusal to keep the peace at any cost have seen her embroiled in so many extraordinary scenes throughout her 85 years.

There was the horrendous marriage to Ernest Gebler, her time as poster child of the Swinging Sixties, entertaining Princess Margaret, Marlon Brando (who pushed her on a swing), Paul McCartney (who walked her home from a party and sang to her two sons), Robert Mitchum (with whom she had a one-night stand), Jackie Kennedy (who called Edna "one of the three people on the planet whom she loved most") and many more adventures.

And through it all, a work rate that produced nearly 40 books - including novels, plays, poetry, biography and short story collections.

"I'm always working and if I'm not working, I'm very anxious about it. I feel, 'have I lost it? Will it come back?' That's the truth," she tells me.

She turns 85 next month, and is still radiantly beautiful. It's not the kind of beauty that needs to be looked at twice; it is obvious, splendid, from her shiny coppery hair to her pale, translucent skin. Most of all it's the eyes, though; a clear, unclouded green, bright and inquisitive, without the film that age usually brings.

As we sit in the garden of a Dublin hotel, every once in a while a staff member passes by and Edna waves at them, kindly, regally.

"Hello, how are you?" she calls to a waitress, blowing a kiss. "They're all lovely here. Oh, I could live here. Writer in residence. I could read the odd poem, to rather restless people of an evening."

It's very Edna - that beguiling mix of vulnerability, conviction and self-deprecation; a little bit 'old woman of the roads', a little bit royalty-in-exile - and very charming.

"I wanted to write something as a witness," she says of her latest book, her 18th novel, The Little Red Chairs.

"I am merely a witness, the way you are, the way we all are, to some of the more urgent and pressing and fearful things that are happening in the world. The only way I could do it was to make it a personal story between a man and a woman, and from that there spirals out the other issues and concerns in the world."

The idea for the story came to her in this very garden, around five years ago, when director Charlie McCarthy reminded her of a Tolstoy quote: "All great literature is one of two stories; A Man Goes on a Journey or A Stranger Comes to Town."

"Probably 'twas already waiting in me, or I wouldn't, couldn't have grasped at it," she says.

And so she has written the story of a stranger coming to a small, fictional Co. Sligo town called Cloonoila. There is a touch of Synge's Playboy to his arrival, a touch of fairy tale and a touch of recognition - he's based on Bosnian Serb Radovan Karadzic, accused of the worst genocide of the Yugoslav war, taking on the persona of an alternative medicine practitioner while on the run.

Soon Cloonoila is in a tizzy about this mysterious, charismatic man, and none more so than Fidelma, the town beauty, who longs for a child. She gets pregnant by the stranger, in what seems a miracle, until the day he gets dragged off a bus bound for a poetry reading at the foot of Ben Bulben and is revealed as a war criminal, the Beast of Bosnia, responsible for the murder, torture and displacement of countless thousands.

Like jackals following the scent of carrion, some of his former comrades arrive, too late to find the healer, but in time to most brutally assault Fidelma in a scene that, Edna says, took her six months to write.

The book may deal with 'big' themes - of war, displacement, trauma - but her style is smooth and skimming, moving the story forward at a confident speed, dipping every now and again deep below the surface in one swift, elegant movement. It is a book both shocking and moving, I say to her.

"I'm very glad and delighted," she responds. "A shocking book without being moving, or a book that was just moving, wouldn't be enough. There's plenty of moving books out at the moment. They're very boring, because they're very identical and a little bit self-absorbed."

For those who have accused Edna of, among many other things, being too interior and personal a writer, this is a book to magnificently answer the charges. It is deeply political, although without losing sight of the intimate, and hailed by Philip Roth, a long-time fan, as "her masterpiece".

Do you read the reviews, I ask?

"I do and I don't," is the answer. "Someone mentions it to one, and then I think, I say: 'Look, is it bearable? Am I gonna get crucified?' I don't wanna get crucified. I've been crucified, often."

Indeed she has. Ever since her first novel, The Country Girls, she has been denounced, sneered at and reviled as literary femme fatale rather than a writer of talent. The first books, the trilogy that made up The Country Girls, were banned for being too racy, too sexual, but the criticism didn't stop there. Later, she got into trouble for her portrait of an IRA man in House of Splendid Isolation, then for fictionalising the X Case in Down by the River, and the tragic murders of Imelda Riney and her four-year-old son Liam in In The Forest. For some, Edna could do nothing right.

But there have always been champions and recently a discreet shift has occurred, perhaps beginning with the Lifetime Achievement Award conferred on her in 2009 at the Irish Book Awards, culminating in being made a Saoi of Aosdana in September.

So, is the recognition now enough? Or too little too late? "I'm getting less slaughtered, which is a help," she says with spirit.

"It is late. I'll be 85. It's been slow coming. I think if I was a man, honestly, I wouldn't have had as hard a time. If I had been a man, nobody would have said then that I shouldn't have written In The Forest. Why shouldn't I? I have drawn attention to subjects that aren't always palatable in this country. Why shouldn't I write about the X Case? Why shouldn't I write about the IRA? Why shouldn't I write about a triple murder in a forest? Many people personally gave me a real dressing-down. No mention of the effort it took from me to do these things. I had to go mad to go into the forest - it isn't a picnic."

Despite the provocation, Edna has never engaged with her critics.

"Do you know what? It would waste my time," she says.

Born and brought up in Tuamgraney, Co. Clare, within sight of the much grander house where her father's family had lived before his gambling and drinking reduced their circumstances dramatically, it was, by her account, an unhappy childhood, largely because of her father's unpredictable violence.

From Clare, Edna moved to Dublin, where she worked in a chemist shop and met Ernest Gebler; older, divorced, already an established writer. They married, moved to London, and had two sons, Carlo and Sasha, before Edna left, later saying the marriage had become "undeviatingly punishing and grim, I had reached a situation where I would either go mad or get out".

That Ernest was bitter and deeply jealous of his wife's success is undoubted - the recent publication of The Projectionist, by Carlo Gebler (pictured below), an account of his father's life taken mainly from his diaries and the notes he made for his own, unwritten autobiography, shows a man eaten up with a violent misogyny.

Of August is a Wicked Month, Edna's fifth novel, Ernest wrote: "There seems to be nothing left in her slobbering mind to write about. Rather than give up she is ready to debase and befoul herself in public ..."

No wonder, she once said, "the vote means nothing to women, we should be armed".

Ernest launched vicious allegations about her capabilities as a mother and corrupting influence on her children. Her sons clearly do not agree.

Carlo, the eldest who now lives in Fermanagh and is also a prolific writer, including more than two decades as writer-in-residence at the Maze Prison and latterly Maghaberry, talks about how "brilliant" a mother she was.

"We were gloriously indulged," he once told me, recalling her beautiful voice and how she used to read to him and Sasha most nights.

Edna herself doesn't talk much about it - partly, I presume, she wants to forget, but also, it seems not to be in her nature to answer fire with fire. What she will say though, is telling: "You have to give your all to the writing. It's very hard to be married ..."

Then she qualifies this, saying: "Three women I know, married to very well-known writers, have said the identical phrase to me: 'I am married to one of the greatest writers in the world'. Well, fine. But if I had a husband, I don't think he'd be saying 'I'm married to one of the greatest writers in the world'."

She laughs a little.

"Male writers are lucky. They cause less irritation and for the most part they induce less jealousy, for some reason. Women, when reviewing, are more partial to male writers. Women writers don't have quite the same cachet. But I think it's changing. With this book, all the very good reviews I've had have been from women. And before, some of the most terrible reviews have been from women."

For Edna O'Brien, the writer's life is a hard one, full of loneliness, fear, compulsion and sacrifice. So has it been worth it?

"Oh, yes. It's my inner life. I'd be in a lunatic asylum if I wasn't able to write.

The Little Red Chairs, published by Faber & Faber, is out now, priced £14.99

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