Edna O’Brien on the “eminently masochistic exercise” of making art

“It’s quite sick in the sense of normal human enjoyment of life.”

Welcome to the latest issue of Subtle Maneuvers. Previously: Sarah Kempa on making artwork with a day job (during a pandemic).

Edna O’Brien (b. 1930)

Tomorrow is O’Brien’s 90th birthday. In honor of this milestone, I spent some time looking through old interviews to see what I could find out about the Irish novelist’s writing process. There was plenty to be found. Instantly acclaimed for her first novel, 1960’s The Country Girls—which, like her next three books, was banned in her native Ireland—O’Brien subsequently achieved a level of celebrity that far exceeded the literary world. In the 1970s, she was known for dinner parties whose guests included Princess Margaret, Marlon Brando, and Sean Connery, hosted in her six-bedroom house on London’s Carlyle Square (which O’Brien purchased with her fee for the screenplay to a movie starring Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Caine. Those were the days.)

All of which is to say: O’Brien has been interviewed a lot over the years, and like any famous writer, she was frequently asked about her writing habits. My favorite reply of hers comes from a 1972 interview with The Irish Times:

I would like to tell all the people who tell me I am a sexy woman that I work hard; I would like to take an advertisement out saying “I have a dull life.” With the odd peak, the odd altitude, thank God. I work in the daytime before the . . . junk . . . of the day piles up on me. But every day there is cleaning and cooking which I love (I am very domesticated, I make my own bread) and at least three things to cope with, like you [the interviewer] and tonight this publisher, and then there are dentists and doctors and homeopaths and . . . I sometimes say I have the life of a movie actress without any of the assets.

O’Brien has always written at home; her fiction seemed to thrive in a domestic setting. The Country Girls was famously produced in three weeks, on weekdays while her two children were at school. “After I brought them to school,” O’Brien recalled in her 2012 memoir, “I would race home in order to write, sitting at the wide windowsill in their bedroom, which was quite deep, and I wrote in jotters I had brought from Ireland which we called ‘Aisling,’ meaning dream or vision.” In a 2010 interview, she said, “Each day for five or six hours I just wrote this book. And it would be honorable for me to say it was written almost for me by a spirit. I was the messenger.”

Later books did not come as easily. In a 1984 conversation with Philip Roth, O’Brien reflected on the difficulties of their shared profession:

You, like me, are trying to make something out of nothing and the anxiety is extreme. Flaubert’s description of his room echoing with curses and cries of distress could be any writer’s room. Yet I doubt that we would welcome an alternative life, there is something stoical about soldiering on all alone.

In a Paris Review interview published the same year, O’Brien described writing as “an interestingly perverse occupation. It is quite sick in the sense of normal human enjoyment of life, because the writer is always removed, the way an actor never is.” She went on to call it “an eminently masochistic exercise.” Asked if all artists are masochists, O’Brien replied:

To some extent. I was reading van Gogh’s letters. My God! I’m surprised he cut off only one ear, that he wasn’t altogether shredded in pieces! But a woman writer has a double dose of masochism: the masochism of the woman and that of the artist. No way to dodge it or escape from it. Men are better at escaping their psyches and their consciences. But there is a certain dogged strength in realizing that you can make those delirious journeys and come through.

That last sentence seems as good a place as any to end this second-to-last newsletter of a deliriously trying year. Next Monday: one final advice column for 2020, and then I’m taking the following two weeks off. Wishing you all dogged strength for 2021!


On second thought, maybe this is a more fitting sentiment for the close of the year: Last week, on what would have been the late American poet James Tate’s 77th birthday, an English professor named Andrew Epstein tweeted a photo of Tate’s poem “The Immortals,” for which I am grateful. Here it is reproduced as a postcard:

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