In the latest instalment of our Editor to Author interview series, Edna O’Brien has a frank and illuminating conversation about writing her latest novel The Little Red Chairs with her Faber editor Lee Brackstone.
Lee Brackstone: The book is called The Little Red Chairs. Perhaps we should start by talking about the origin and the significance of the title.
Edna O’Brien: I’m very drawn to titles that have an existing echo in the world, one being Little Red Riding Hood, another being Mao’s The Little Red Book and so on.
I would love to say to you that I started out with that title, but I didn’t. It was called The Redeemer, but I became aware that many other books had the same title and moreover, the character is not a redeemer – he is a killer.
My friend from Bosnia, Zrinka Bralo, was in the siege, and she showed me a photograph of the installation in the square in Sarajevo that marked twenty-five years after the siege came to an end. She told me that visitors and dignitaries from all over the world came, but tears were mostly shed at the sight of the little chairs, the emblematic coffins, so to speak, of infants and children who had lost their lives.
Titles are very important to the writer, they are talismanic.
It has been ten years since your previous novel.
With regard to the ten years, I was changing internally. I wanted to break away from anything I had done before, although I’m not disowning it. The gestation of a novel is very slow, which is not always the case with poetry. Seamus Heaney told me that he once wrote a particular poem in an hour, as mind and body were ready for it. A novel takes years and the principal anxiety, apart from getting the words right, is to maintain the momentum and the vigour.
What is the theme of The Little Red Chairs?
The theme of my book is twofold. It is fundamentally, in a certain oblique way, addressing the question of evil, but it is also about the mystique of the tyrant. Why are they so magnetic? How come they acquire so many adoring followers?
I picked Radovan Karadžić as a model for my story because of his thwarted brilliance in transforming himself from killer to healer. It seems he had taken an eight-week course in alternative medicine to arrive at that metamorphosis.
Tell us a little about your writing process.
It’s hard to write a book, it’s excruciating, yet it must in some way be exciting for the author. Unless one is excited, the search becomes drearier and the hope of realisation less intriguing.
In modelling the character of Dr Vlad on Radovan Karadžić I had, understandably, to do a lot of research: his upbringing, character, ambition etcetera and read his somewhat opaque poetry.
I also read several books on the Balkan war, but I did not travel to Serbia, Bosnia or Croatia, as my focus was on how war and massacre not only kills, but spirals out to maim and destroy those who have been left behind, having to live with such terrible memories.
Let’s turn to your research for the novel. You didn’t go to Sarajevo, but I know you went on some trips that were extremely important, including to The Hague.
Yes, I went often and what most incensed me was the absolute righteousness of the man. I attended the hearings of both Karadžić and Mladić and both men were vituperative in their denial of what they had done. Karadžić was swaggering and assured, whereas Mladić was surly, but in both cases they protested innocence and denial, insisting the wrong had been done to them and their people. I was told that in the evenings they sang songs of the homeland, played table tennis, ate well and preferred red wine.
Where else did you go?
My son, Sasha, commented that there were a lot of women in my book. Due to Zrinka’s good offices, I was allowed to visit her centre under the Westway, where a group met each week and terrible stories of terrible deeds unfolded. They were from all over, both men and women, but the women were more open in describing their ordeals.
In fact there was a young man there, who, with his brother, had been in a concentration camp under the aegis of Karadžić and he told us that he could not remember anything because he did not want to. He had dissociated himself from it. His brother asked him how he came through, apparently unscathed, since he witnessed such barbarous horrors and his answer was that he told himself to think of the blue of rivers and waterfalls in his native land.
But the women told you very different stories?
They were embryo poets and also unflinching in their desperation. They got straight to the nub of the matter. Here they were, transplanted from their own countries and their own hearths, doing menial jobs and yet the essence of home and what home meant had never left them.
How did your visit to the kennels come about? I know it influenced the latter parts of the novel.
My son took me. I’ll never forget the arrival. I could smell pee and shit as I went down the three steps, where there was a little attempt at a garden, a few blooms, birds – eight or nine like an augury on a telegraph wire. The hounds were baying inside. Sasha introduced me to staff and explained that Fidelma, a character in my novel, might work in a kennel, her isolation mirroring the plight of the rejected animals.
On the way back, we stopped at a pub in Brentwood and bought a little cardboard funnel of cockles and periwinkles and I thought, I will have Fidelma do the very same thing, in a small room above the bar.
Do you gather a lot of these details as part of your research?
It all has to soak in so that it’s eventually part of a continuous story. The research for me is concerned with the minutiae. I asked the owner of that pub to let me see a bedroom upstairs and when I was coming back down, I touched some white flowers in a little vase on the landing. I expected them to be artificial and when I realised they were real, I started to cry with emotion.
Some critics have mentioned that moment in the book because of the shock and incongruity of tenderness at an unexpected moment and the yearning for touch.
Who did you meet at The Hague?
Many people on the staff helped me and I was given a good seat in the front row. Next to me was a group of women, sad, grey, defeated, yet indomitable. They had come to stare through the perspex, to curse Karadžić, their tormentor, with all their being. Naturally, they were not allowed to heckle or shout.
On the fifth day I was introduced to them in the lobby and I asked the translator to ask what might constitute a moment of redemption in this awful saga. The answer was as profound as anything I have read in any literature. A bone, or even a fragment of a bone. That would unite them to the sons and fathers buried in mass graves and never to be found.
‘I could never have written The Little Red Chairs if I had not read and reread Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Pushkin, Chekhov and Gogol.’
When it comes to this sort of writing, who are you influenced by?
This kind of temperament I inherited from my own wild race and Russian literature. I could never have written The Little Red Chairs if I had not read and reread Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Pushkin, Chekhov and Gogol.
Towards the end, there is a chapter in which the community learns the truth, and this revelation has consequences.
The chapter is called ‘Capture’. Infatuation goes out the window and Vlad’s heinous misdeeds become very public.
He is arrested while travelling with a group of admirers on a bus to Drumcliff, where Yeats is buried. Dr Vlad, being poet as well as healer, is to read his own poetry to his female acolytes. But on that journey and to everyone’s surprise he is arrested and taken off in handcuffs. Within two hours, his whole history is unveiled on television. People are stunned, disbelieving and yet having to stomach the fact of unspeakable crime.
To them it is horror, but to Fidelma it is a personal horror story as she is carrying his child. She cannot tell her husband and yet she must, when the answer comes in the most brutal and unexpected way.
The three men, thugs, who had been Vlad’s bodyguard lost out when the spoils of war were doled out after the so-called peace, so they had come to Ireland to collect the reward for capturing him. There was, I think, one million pounds on Karadžić’s head, although no one knows who got it.
How did this scene develop?
Slowly. It took about three months to write, during which I read several novels with dark and disturbing themes. I read J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and a short story of Hemingway’s, ‘The Killers’.
What mattered was to maintain tension in the narrative, while also depicting the car ride, the different sights that they pass, the three thugs – smelling of sex, vodka and kebabs – taunting her, the quaking Nigerian driver and she herself wondering what violation is to be visited upon her and where, wondering will she ever again see the husband she has betrayed.
Are there any other experiences that shaped or informed the writing of this book?
Yes, the people I met en route; a barman in Connemara, a forester, a chef from Czechoslovakia working in a hotel kitchen and a cleaner who loved Baudelaire. One character absolutely stunned me.
I need Fidelma to work as a night cleaner in a bank, to become a ghost with all the other ghosts who came out at night and to be relatively invisible. Banks do not welcome reporters, so I had to search for a way to get to meet someone who worked there and chance brought me a fascinating character.
He was from Mozambique, full of chat with mystical impulses, stories passed down from ancestors, his mother for instance believing that at the end of the world all people will meet in the same arena and that all people are born with foreknowledge of their actual deaths. He also described his experiences as a cage fighter, his work on ships – his experience of the human race so variable that he readily, joyfully, converted to a character on the page.
Contrast matters greatly in a book and while depicting death, I had also to depict life.
And how do you reconcile that sense of mystery with the novel as an act of realism or naturalism?
What seems natural both is and is not. Naturalism is fine, but depth, as Joyce said, is the measure from how deep a place a work of art springs. Art reflects life and enlarges it. Art is myth-making. Art is enchantment. Art is cruelty. If we are to think of Picasso’s Guernica, we know that it is not a realistic rendering, it is Picasso’s obsession with violence and his way of depicting it and through his art, conquering it.
Vlad is terrifying. What is it that Fidelma, the other major character, finds attractive about him?
Conflict. Somewhere she must sense danger, but puts it in the back of her mind. We are drawn to the cliff face, either to jump or escape jumping. Her romance with Vlad will be unlike anything she has ever made before and he is not just the benign healer with the ponytail and a crystal.
Do you think it’s easier for a writer to write about evil, misfortune and deprivation? Is it the duty of the great novelist to go to those places?
I never dreamed when I was in my twenties writing The Country Girls that I’d be writing this kind of book or talking to you in this way. Life teaches us. We cannot ignore or avoid what is happening in the world, it is presented on our screens every single moment. It must by necessity come into the work, because we are all witnesses to what is happening. To write about it is not to ease one’s conscience or exalt one’s status. It is simply to be one of the witnesses along the way.
It’s been fifty-five years since The Country Girls. Are the motivations that you just mentioned the same as those you felt when writing it, or have they been learned and accrued?
I think they’ve always been there in me, but not at the forefront. I want to write the thing that I almost cannot write. When I reread Kafka I am filled with a desire to write parables as he did, that both straddle the private angst and the public calamities.
You’ve been rather lazily referred to as a feminist writer.
I’ve fallen in and out of favour with feminists, because I do not write to formula or hold to a rigid political correctness. I couldn’t. But let me say this, I know that women have been treated appallingly down the ages. I grew up in a patriarchal society and my first books, for all their comedy, are partly protest. I do not apologise to anyone for giving my women broken hearts, because it happens and it happens for men also. If you write about feelings, then you have a vast and moving canvas to explore.
What are your thoughts when you look back at your career and your earlier work?
Pride at having stayed the course and survived some pretty awful battering from both male and female critics.
It’s curious that you decided to set at least the opening third of The Little Red Chairs in contemporary rural Ireland. The people upon whom Vlad is modelled ended up in Belgrade, so why did you choose Ireland?
I wanted to start with the landscape I know, with the idiom I know, that imagery, be it gate hasp or blue-black lake – a friendly, habitable place for a stranger, in the manner of Gilgamesh who washes the dirt of history from himself and enters that unsuspecting milieu.
You’re now at the beginning of another journey and starting to think about writing something else.
I’m a bundle of anxiety, grasping at themes. I’m like a grasshopper. I will have to go somewhere very lonely and very secluded to find the story inside myself that has a corresponding story in the mayhem of the world.
What do you make of contemporary writing?
In an article for the Guardian, I wrote about how in some contemporary writing there’s an absolute mastery of language but at the expense of true feeling, and that the secret transaction between unknown reader and unknown writer is sabotaged. Your involvement with what you read when you are young is with you forever and it still happens in your adult life that somehow the book was more than life. I want immersion from a novel that I read and I don’t always get it.
A book is a prayer. I think literature is the greatest gift to mankind.