EDNA O’Brien has broken her silence on an interview with The New Yorker magazine, published at the end of last year and described by some literary experts as “a hatchet job”.
The profile of the Tuamgraney-born author generated considerable controversy and prompted a number of critics and academics here to reject the profile as unflattering, sexist and overly critical.
Last weekend, in an interview with RTÉ, Ms O’Brien said the article, by Ian Parker, had hurt and outraged her. The acclaimed writer joined broadcaster Brendan O’Connor to discuss an award for the latest novel Girl. “I was hurt and I was outraged,” she said of the piece. “I was hurt because it is not a truthful piece. If the tapes were taken of the three-and-a-half days I spent with that journalist. I don’t think the tapes and what I spoke into them would tally with what appeared in those 9,000 words. They would not. They would be a big contradiction. I am not that person.”
Ms O’Brien added that she couldn’t understand what had prompted the tone of the article: “It’s actually baffling, because there were no quarrels. I found it quite tiring, but I did not or will never understand the malign intent within it. I will say that and I will say nothing else about it, because it’s best forgotten.”
The multi-award winning author, who now lives in Chelsea in London, has most recently received the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year award for Girl. The 19th novel by the writer, whose debut The County Girls convulsed 1960s Ireland, deals with the kidnapping of Nigerian schoolgirls by the militant Islamist group Boko Haram. Ms O’Brien, who will turn 90 in December, travelled to Nigeria as part of the research for the novel. “It is an upsetting book,” Ms O’Brien told RTÉ, “but I wanted to, somehow, without ladling it on in any sentimental untruths, to touch on, or to dwell on, when I could and when it was appropriate for the story, the humanity within the barbarity, and that, to me, is very important.”
“The world is mis-run,” she added. “I’m not in politics, but I think any sensible person could say that, and I wanted to speak for those girls in particular. By giving the story [to] the voice of one girl – after much deliberation – I decided that. I wanted one girl to be, so to speak, the voice for many in that place, and in other places.”
Referring to her latest award, Ms O’Brien said, “The Kerry Group how have been for 25 years forking out money, they chose to give me the prize this year. That is very wonderful of them, to give for 25 years.”
The €15,000 prize, which was awarded as part of this year’s Listowel Writers’ Week, is the latest honour for Ms O’Brien. At the end of last year, she received the David Cohen Prize for Literature. In 2018, she was made an honorary Dame of the Order of the British Empire. She was named a Saoí by Aosdána in 2015 and awarded the PEN/Nabokov Award For Achievement in International Literature.
Girl was selected by authors Carol Drinkwater and Ian McGuire from a shortlist that consisted of The River Capture by Mary Costello; Leonard & Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession; Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry; and Shadowplay by Joseph O’Connor. Catherine Moylan, chairperson of Listowel Writers’ Week, said: “It is wonderful to be able to acknowledge and celebrate Irish literature during these times when a good novel can offer us escapism, comfort and hope.”