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Concentration and Isolation: Edna O’Brien on the Writing Life

“Violence is her theme,” Colum McCann said of Edna O’Brien during a recent William N. Skirball Writers Center Stage event, which featured both authors in conversation. “Beauty, too.”

McCann and O’Brien shared the stage at the Maltz Performing Arts Center in Cleveland on March 21 to discuss the writing life, the power of literature, and more. McCann, who called this evening in conversation with O’Brien a highlight of his literary career, guided the event by asking O’Brien about her life’s work as a writer. For her part, O’Brien answered with honesty, wit, and energy.

A few of Edna O’Brien’s choice quotes pulled from her long-ranging conversation with McCann follow. (For more from McCann, meanwhile, read his interview for The Atlantic’s “By Heart” interview series, as well as “Don’t Be a Dick,” an excerpt from his newest book, Letters to a Young Writer.)

After listening to McCann describe her life’s work and accomplishments: “I feel in many ways grateful but also feel, ‘Did I do that?’ As though I had two lives.”

On the desire to write: “I wanted to write even before I knew what it meant to be a writer. It wasn’t about fame or ambition or the secondary things. It was about some contract or some oath that kept me, in a way, happy.”

On her mother: “My mother herself was a born writer who hated the written word. My mother wanted me to be anything in the world other than a writer. She wanted me to be an air hostess.”

On how good writing affects us: “Good writing is vital to our lives. Our inner life, our most vital life, our dreaming life—that needs literature.”

On the ruthless drive to write: “I spoke with someone today with the gift to write and the inclination, but [she] didn’t have that ruthless thing to do it. That’s not an admirable trait, but a necessary trait for a writer.”

On writing and being happy: “If someone were to ask me if the writing life is a happy life, I’d have to say no, and that if the writer were happy, she wouldn’t be a writer.”

To clarify her point after McCann “intently” disagreed that writing and happiness can’t coexist: “There are many kinds of writers. Some are happy. I’m speaking of a particular kind of writing I am drawn to.”

On happiness and separate lives: “The good part of life is one strand of life. The part who goes in a room to write—that’s completely separate.”

On the challenges facing women writers: “Women writers took longer to get to the table, so there’s a greater backlist of men writers. Women have to earn their place at the table, which they are doing . . . It is harder to be accepted as a woman. It is harder. Even in this day and age.”

On writing and elitism: “I don’t think of it as an elitist job. It’s like any other job. It just requires concentration and isolation to get words down.”

On her beloved grandson, Oscar: “He’s a potentate. He’s a nightmare. There’s something symbolic with Oscar. It has something to do with old age and young age. He’s like a bud. A little bud of life.”

Finally, what Philip Roth said to O’Brien after finding her in a state of anxiety while writing her James Joyce biography: “‘The made-up stuff is easier, isn’t it?’”