Opinion: the archives of writers like Edna O'Brien and Philip Roth give us both a sense of their writing process and flashes of their life

By Dan O'Brien, UCD

What can an author’s archives tell us about her work? Should we not be happy with the finished product? After all, we do not need to barge into a chef’s kitchen to appreciate the meal. For many lovers of literature, it is unnecessary to dig beyond the published book itself. But for others, obsessed with the craft of writing, archives are deeply fascinating places.

While almost everybody drives, only a few are compelled to take a car apart to see how it functions. This is the role of the literary researcher, dissembling the book into its disparate parts to see what makes it tick, what influence older models have had and what engine drives it forward. The archives allows us a glimpse into a writer’s workshop. There we see the immense diligence it takes to construct a novel; we also witness the many failures, the roads not taken, the breakdowns (of both writer and writing) and the eventual track to publication that leads the book out into the world. 

Over the past five years, I have had the pleasure of investigating the archives of two of the twentieth century’s major authors, Ireland’s own Edna O’Brien and her Jewish-American friend Philip Roth. Their papers reveal not only powerful imaginations, but powerful work ethics too. It is both daunting and inspiring to watch a novel take shape over dozens of drafts.

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTÉ Radio One, A Tribute to Edna O'Brien hosted by Joseph O'Connor and featuring writers, actors and musicians

Sifting through these pages it becomes apparent that great works of art are just that: work. They involve countless hours spent alone in a room facing the empty page, trying to make, as O’Brien once remarked to Roth, "something out of nothing". A writer is like one marooned on a desert island, fervently rubbing sticks together, waiting for a spark that can be fanned into a warming, signalling, blaze.

O’Brien’s papers are split between Emory University in Atlanta, where they rest alongside those of Seamus Heaney, and University College Dublin, with those of the playwright Frank McGuinness and short story writer Mary Lavin. I was first struck by the sheer variety of material. There is correspondence stretching back 50 years (one intriguing folder is labelled "Letters from Maniacs"), recorded telephone messages, notebooks, diaries and pictures. These are alongside such material as manuscripts (written drafts) typescripts (typed drafts), and proofs (final drafts) of novels ranging from her early banned Girls in their Married Bliss (1964), to the explosive Night (1972), the epic 1990s Irish Trilogy, and her transatlantic masterpiece The Light of Evening (2006).

Her handwritten notes often provide hints as to what she was reading as she wrote these books, from Virginia Woolf, to Dante, Harold Pinter, Anna Akhmatova, Toni Morrison, and T.S. Eliot. Her love of writing first drafts on hotel stationary mean we can also track where she was when she began a specific novel (though she has lived in London for the last half-century, many of her books are born in the west of Ireland).

"O’Brien’s letters make apparent her fight against Irish censorship laws in the 1960s"

Not only do we get a sense of the writing process, we also get flashes of the writer’s life. For example, O’Brien’s letters make apparent her fight against Irish censorship laws in the 1960s. There are also some interesting surprises. Out of one notebook fell a pressed flower, while I found mass cards and distressing anti-abortion leaflets from the early 1990s in another (see O’Brien’s acerbic 1996 response to the X case, Down by the River). The archive is not merely a place of dusty documents then, but of the artefacts of the author’s lived life. 

Roth’s papers lie in the Library of Congress, Washington D.C., while his book collection has been bequeathed to the library in his hometown of Newark, New Jersey. In all, his papers come to 255 boxes (each the size of a large shoebox), in which can be found drafts of many of his most compelling novels such as Goodbye Columbus (1959), Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), The Counterlife (1985), and his 1990s American Trilogy.

Also evident in the voluminous correspondence is Roth’s support of writers behind the Iron Curtain like Milan Kundera, Ludvik Vaculik and Bohumil Hrabal, whom he visited and whose censored work he published in his "Writers from the Other Europe" series for Penguin. Roth also supported writers like O’Brien, as she acknowledged in a 2013 speech at his 80th birthday: "when I had some prolonged roasting from critics… he persuade[d]… The New York Times Book Review to arrange a conversation interview… He is a frugal man, but also capable of real and subtle generosity". In a 1984 letter, O’Brien wrote to thank Roth for the preface he wrote for her recently published short story anthology A Fanatic Heart: "I think that not only do you befriend the Czechs but hah, you also befriend the Irish and you will be crowned king of the tortured minorities".

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTÉ Radio One's Morning Ireland. Dr. Kevin Power, Assistant Professor at the DCU School of English, pays tribute to novelist Philip Roth

Like O’Brien, Roth was the receiver of many fan letters - some of the strangest ones inspired characters such as the volatile Alvin Pepler of the 1981 novel Zuckerman Unbound - but he was also a writer of them. When he liked a book, he let the author know. His correspondence is therefore wide ranging, including the Israeli author Aharon Appelfeld, the British writer Angela Carter and his fellow Americans Joyce Carol Oates, Michael Herr, John Updike and Cynthia Ozick.

Though his reading was eclectic, he did appear to have a particular fondness for Irish writers, and references to J.M. Synge, W.B. Yeats, James Joyce and O’Brien abound. The Irish-American writer James T. Farrell, whose Studs Lonigan Trilogy chronicled the lives of Irish second and third generation immigrants in 1920s and ’30s Chicago, wrote to a young Roth to praise his novel of Jewish assimilation Goodbye, Columbus (1959): "(you have) something lacking in most of your contemporaries… saturation".

O’Brien too bears an affinity for Jewish-American authors, having befriended many of the seminal writers of the 20th century, like J.D. Salinger, Joseph Heller, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Norman Mailer and Isaac B. Singer, and mentored some of the younger generation, including the feminist author Erica Jong and the African-American Jewish novelist Walter Mosley. The archives thus warn us against studying a writer solely within the confines of his or her own national tradition, instead encouraging us to see them as part of a global literary network.

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTÉ Radio One's Arena, a 2012 public interview with Edna O'Brien 

Archives open up a window into the mind of the labouring writer. They make us appreciate the dexterity and tenacity of their trade. Through them, we can trace the historical and political contexts of a book and observe the transformation of everyday material into timeless literature. The friendships that sustain writers, the rivalries that propel them, and the books that inspire them are all there waiting to be discovered. More than anything else, however, archives remind us that a great book is not simply an expression of genius, it is a testimony of struggle. As O’Brien recently put it at Listowel Writer’s Week where she received the John B. Keane Lifetime Achievement Award, literature is a "road into magic". Tellingly, she added "I nearly said madness". 

To find out more about Edna O’Brien and her archives come along to Infamous, Influential, Beloved: Irish Writers Celebrate Edna O’Brien in the Fitzgerald Chamber, Student Centre, University College Dublin on Monday September 17th at 7pm. Frank McGuinness, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, Sean O’Reilly, Danielle McLaughlin, and Louise Nealon will read and respond to the work of Ireland’s greatest living novelist. Admission is free and tickets are available here

Dr Dan O'Brien is an Irish Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow at the School of English, Drama & Film at UCD


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ