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Irish literary giant coming to Babel

Like wine, 86-year-old Irish author Edna O'Brien seems to get better with age.

O'Brien's latest novel, "The Little Red Chairs," is "her masterpiece," according to Philip Roth, one of the most celebrated American authors and two years her junior, who also proclaimed her "the most gifted woman now writing in English."

O'Brien's career began with controversy. Her first novel -- part of a trilogy -- was "The Country Girls," an account of sexual awakening in Ireland, was banned in 1960. It was the first of several novels banned by the Irish Censorship Board.

It took decades, but eventually O'Brien was celebrated as one of her country's greatest authors in her native Ireland. In 2015, O'Brien was honored with Ireland's highest literary accolade, and Irish President Michael D. Higgins publicly apologized for the way she was treated early in her career.

O'Brien's works include novels, short stories, dramas and an autobiography. She makes her first appearance in Buffalo at 8 p.m. Friday in Kleinhans Music Hall. She'll be speaking as part of Just Buffalo Literary Center's Babel international author series. A question-and-answer session will follow.

Tickets are $35, $30 with a Buffalo & Erie County public library card, and $10 for students. VIP reception tickets are $100. For more information, visit

The News spoke with O'Brien from her home in London.

Q: Some have said "The Little Red Chairs," with its reflections on war and genocide, is your most overtly political book. Would you agree?

A: I believe the effects of war  -- I'm not in Syria, thankfully, and neither are you --   spiral out and affect everyone. I have written books that were more to do with personal emotions, but in this book I tried to bring the personal in the case of the heroine out into the world, and to bring the world back into her.

What I wanted to do, and I think it is perfectly obvious, is to take an innocent woman who does not have much knowledge of the world -- who is not stupid, but poetic -- and bring to that innocence an untold and unimaginable evil in the form of a man who is hiding a terrible secret, and has done such evil.

Q: What led you to create a character based on Bosnian Serb convicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic?

A: Many reasons. My outrage that these things have happened, do happen and alas will happen. I wanted to explore the psyche and the hidden deeds of a person like that. I was interested in not just showing an obvious killer or villain, but a man with a mask, a man of duality who is a mystery.

I ask myself, how do people -- how do President Putin or Assad -- slaughter thousands of people and sleep at night? What are they made of, and what is humanity if they are part of humanity? I wanted to write this not as a tirade or editorial, but as a human story, with all of the emotion humanity is capable of.

Q: Are the refugees' stories in the second part of the book fictionalized or based on real people?

A: I put together many stories from the things people told me, and partly from my imagination. It's not just one person, it could be 10 people who end up as just one character.

Q: Could you have imagined as a young woman being heralded as a brilliant writer in your native country, considering  the criticism you encountered early in your career?

A: The Irish have been hard on me, to tell you the truth. It was ridiculous, really. They didn't think a young woman should have such audacity, such gall to show up what they thought were their inadequacies, or that the Catholic church was not the great institution it was set up to be.

They seemed to say about me -- which I don't think they would say about a man -- that I as as woman don't really have the right or the license to write these kinds of books.

I have had some thawing of the disapproval. The president of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, made a rather wonderful speech in which he apologized on behalf of the country for how I had been badly treated.

Q: You once referenced fellow Irish writer Samuel Beckett in saying, "Words were my only love and not many."

A: Books entered my life as a girl. I loved great language, and I loved story. As a young person, I thought I would be  a writer, but didn't formulate it in that way. I thought no matter how lonely I would feel in life, words would carry me along.

I have been lucky to be able to go on writing books, and that each book is different from the previous book, and each is a stepping stone --the steps of a ladder -- to where I want to go. I was able to take those criticisms and, sure, I was hurt, but the deepest thing was to be faithful to what I do, which is to write.

Q: Women's History Month is being celebrated this month in the United States. How would you compare opportunities for women writers to when you were starting out?

A: There are a lot more women writers now, some worthy and some not so worthy.

In terms of overall perception, I think in high echelons women are still regarded as being a bit lower down the table. The male voice is perceived differently, and regarded higher both by men and sometimes also by women. But that is changing, and although it annoys me momentarily it is not something I would lose sleep over. If women want to write great books, then that is what they must do.

Q: You were a friend of Jackie Kennedy Onassis, and wrote her obituary for a British newspaper. Did you see the movie "Jackie?"

A: I saw a photograph of Natalie Portman, but I didn't see the film. Jackie was a very complex person. She was very intelligent, which she sometimes hid with an apparent lightness. The film wouldn't tell me something I don't possible already know, or guess.

There is one movie I want to see, and I'm afraid it's not "Jackie." It's called 'The Salesman.' That's the film I want to see. I want to see films that absolutely stir and excite me. Iranians, surprisingly, make marvelous films. How they do it under such censorship baffles me.

Q: You have spoken of a walk with Marlon Brando, who when he asked if you were a great writer you replied, "I don't know, but I intend to be." In your mind, did you get there?

A: I think for me to answer that would be tantamount to vanity. I think I am doing all I can in my latent powers to bring the words I write, and the story I tell, to as deep a place and pitch as  I can. Then, time and others can decide what I am.

I am lucky, in that age has, in fact, made me more determined, and more passionate and more assiduous about language, and about the books I write. I haven't given up.

Q: Many people in Buffalo are reading "The Little Red Chairs" in anticipation of your appearance. What book of yours might you suggest they consider reading next?  

A: I would like to say what Francois Truffaut once said to me. I asked him if 'Jules and Jim' was his greatest film. He said each film he did was a rehearsal for his next film. The question is, will that book be a singular and lasting experience for the reader? Will it be something the reader wants to read and remember, always? Will it become both part of the reader's conscious and unconscious?

A writer is like a composer. You write different books -- a certain kind in one age, and another kind at a different time -- but they all come from the same troubled psyche. They are all part of my family.




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