Writers & Company

Edna O'Brien on fear, dreams and LSD

Eleanor Wachtel speaks to the author of The Country Girls Trilogy and The Little Red Chairs about the power of dreams, her homeland... and hallucinogens.

Eleanor Wachtel talks to the iconic Irish author of The Country Girls trilogy.

(Eleanor Wachtel/CBC)

Even though Edna O'Brien left Ireland well over half a century ago, the texture and atmosphere of the country continue to permeate her work, in haunting and unsettling stories about blood ties and connections to the land. As one critic said, "Where James Joyce was the first Irish Catholic to make his experience and surroundings recognizable, the world of Nora Barnacle — Joyce's wife — had to wait for the fiction of Edna O'Brien." Starting with The Country Girls in 1960, her writing opened up a new chapter in modern Irish literature.

Edna O'Brien has come out with a bold new novel, The Little Red Chairs. This time the title refers to the 20th anniversary of the start of the Siege of Sarajevo. In 2012, 11,541 red chairs were laid out in rows, one empty chair for every Sarajevan killed by Bosnian Serb forces during the almost four-year siege. Out of those, 643 small chairs represented the children who died.

Eleanor Wachtel spoke to Edna O'Brien at her home in London, England. This interview originally aired on May 15, 2016.

On Ireland as a literary setting

Ireland matters to me very much, as a locale and as a setting and as a landscape, partly because it's connected with my emotional self as well as my logical and seeing self. I know it backwards, inside out. It's very important to me, as a writer, to actually set a book — to ground it — where you're at home with everything. You're not groping. Then you can branch out. You can fly. You can do anything.

Why she writes about dreams

I have a theory that people's dreams are more interesting than their everyday conversation. They are very important, of course, because dreams come from the unconscious and writing comes from the unconscious. I try to remember them, but sometimes they elude me because of that. They are better if they remember themselves to me rather than the other way around. They are part of my work, but my book isn't a dream book. That said, I find it natural in a work of fiction to have an element of dream, because characters — whether fictional or real — dream at night.

The upside of fear

There are a lot of bad things about fear, but the good thing about fear, for a writer, is everything lodges in the memory. You don't forget anything. It's all alive and you steal it, and that's a good thing. But it's not exactly a desirable thing.

On that time she took LSD

It was very traumatic. I couldn't come back, I just couldn't come back. It changed me. It deepened my work, definitely. It deepened my obsession with language and the potential power and music and marvelousness of language. It was very frightening. I wouldn't take it again. I have enough troubles. It took me about a year to come back. It had some benefits, and some considerable terrors.

Edna O'Brien's comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close the show: "She's with the Angels Now," composed by Oliver Schroer, from the album Hymns and Hers.

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