Tag Archives: Edna OBrien

Why I Write

book cover diving

Philip Roth once said that real life was so extraordinary that no fiction could compete with it – if a writer invented such outlandish plots no one would believe it. Thinking about this, it strikes me that among the chaos of the life lived; a fictional world is eminently more controllable, more safe. I think I have always written in order to explore what motivates people to do the things they do – in particular the small cruelties, the manipulations and then the self-justification that follows.
I was never much of a reader as a child, so I jumped straight from the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson to Flannery O’Connor, George Orwell, Edna O’Brien and Sylvia Plath. The choices were arbitrary – based on chance and my immediate reaction to the first pages more than anything.
Falling under the long shadow of Plath the dark dreamer, good scholar and perfectionist was silly. I couldn’t have been more different – a lazy, lousy scholar, impatient, messy, feckless – but there was Sylvia, her tape-recorded voice, that clipped bitter delivery of the words, the strange nasal accent, the nursery rhyme rhythms beating out the poems including ‘Daddy’ and ‘Lady Lazarus’ to a group of young students. We were doing a foundation course in art and once a week a post-graduate student from the university came to teach us what was loosely called ‘Liberal Studies’. As I remember it, he gave no introduction to the recorded poems, but after said, ‘This poet took her own life just months after writing this work…’
We were then invited to discuss our reactions. One young man began by condemning Plath, saying she was cruel, irresponsible, selfish. I was shocked by the level of his anger. I found myself speaking up for her, defending her.
Is that why I write?
Years before that afternoon in Art College, when I was fifteen and staying with a friend at her aunt’s house in Brighton, I had been lounging on a bed when something whispered my name very close to my ear. On opening my eyes I saw that my friend was over on the opposite side of the room. Later that night and on subsequent nights something was scratching at the walls of the same room – scratching and fluttering and seemingly trying to get to me. When I returned from the holiday I discovered that my mother had given a necklace of mine to a psychic who did ‘readings’ from such intimate possessions. When I met the woman she told me that I was like her – I had the power to be a seer. Three years later I retold this story to some friends in a pub. One young man was scornful and angry. ‘Go on then,’ he said, ‘do your mumbo jumbo!’ I was reluctant but the crowd egged me on. The psychic had told me that to do it I should just quietly hold the subject’s hand, close my eyes and empty my mind. I did this. There was nothing. Nothing at all, but then I saw gently lapping water, tall reeds and sandy banks. Something like an estuary.
‘Well, come on, then. What did you see?’ he said with a sneer.
All eyes were on me. ‘Oh, nothing really, just water and reeds…’
At this he was furious. Frighteningly angry as he stood up and stalked out of the bar.
Someone then told me that recently his flatmate had been depressed and had drowned himself in a nearby estuary.
Is that why I write?