Sean O’Hagan, interview with Anne Enright, in The Guardian (1 May 2011)

Details: Sean O’Hagan, ‘Anne Enright: 'I was always on the side. Like a salad’ , interview with Anne Enright, in The Guardian (1 May 2011)- available online; accessed 23.11.2017.

I am having lunch with Anne Enright in a restaurant in Dun Laoghaire, which lies between the city of Dublin, where she was born and brought up, and the seaside town of Bray, where she now lives with her husband, Martin Murphy, a theatre director, and her two children. Inevitably, we are talking about Ireland’s ongoing economic crisis.

“One thing the crash did was show up just how much blather, both written and spoken, that there is in this country,” she says, laughing. “The national conversation has been going on forever and now it just bores the pants off everyone. And you know what, the people who talk for a living don’t actually do a damn thing except talk. I think that recently there was almost a collective realisation that this was the case and, you know, I was kind of delighted by that.”

Enright cackles into her soup and looks slightly guilty at the same time. She has the air of a mischievous and unruly child and her thoughts flow into words with a kind of lateral logic you have to concentrate hard on to keep up. Her irreverence and her easygoing, though often caustic, wit are present in her fiction, particularly in the voices of her female characters. In her new novel, The Forgotten Waltz, the narrator, Gina Moynihan, is a young woman who has tasted, but is now in furious retreat from, everything that is expected of her: early marriage, house, family, the slow erosion of spontaneity for routine. Like her creator, she has an eye for the absurdities of modern Irish life and a gift for describing them with a gleeful attention to detail.

Early on in the book, Gina attends “the kind of party where no one ate the chicken skin” and surveys the room with the withering gaze of the natural outsider.

“They were talking about plastic surgery. Indeed, a couple of women in the room had the confused look that Botox gives you, like you might be having an emotion, but you couldn’t remember which one. One had a mouth that was so puffy she couldn’t fit it over the rim of her wine glass .... I recognised someone from the telly over by the far wall, and an awful eejit from the Irish Times ... the Enniskerry husbands stood about and talked property: a three-pool complex in Bulgaria, whole Irish block in Berlin.”

As vignettes about the vulgarity of pre-boom Ireland go, that passage takes some beating for its brevity and black humour, its near-perfect evocation of a certain lifestyle that epitomised those unreal times. But the giddy rise and sudden fall of the Celtic Tiger economy provides only the glimpsed backdrop to The Forgotten Waltz, which is essentially a novel about illicit desire and its consequences. It is deft in its delineation of an adulterous affair that wreaks the usual kind of havoc but then grows slowly into something more, in its disregard for the conventional moral imperatives that still stalk many novels on the subject of forbidden, and potentially destructive, female desire.

“Gina is someone who acts, who sets the affair in motion,” says Enright. “It was not something she was helpless to. I am interested in creating female characters who are no better or worse than they should be, who are, in fact, just themselves. I don’t want to invest them with some idea of the goodness or the wickedness of female nature, but I am drawn, as most writers are, to flawed female characters - flawed as opposed to bad.”

Were it not for the quality of Enright’s prose, her acute ear for dialogue and her tendency not to take the well-trodden narrative path, The Forgotten Waltz might seem slight after the sustained intensity of The Gathering, the novel that won her the Booker prize in 2007. That novel was a thing of brooding beauty which touched on the collective trauma that attended Ireland’s belated acknowledgment of the systematic sexual abuse of children by priests. The new book is a lighter read. Is it, I ask, a reaction to the weight of expectation the Booker accolade inevitably engendered?

“Well, I’ve heard people, usually writers, say that no one wrote a great book after winning the Booker, but I honestly did not feel any big pressure. The Gathering did hang over me in that it was darker than I thought at the time. I wrote it at a desk in a small room that I have not been back to since. It was a quite unpleasant place to be in some ways, just personally for me, and I wanted to close the door on

Did winning the Booker prize, for better or worse, change her life? “No, not really. What happens is that the world changes very quickly, but you don’t. The world suddenly looks at you with different eyes, but you’re not different. So, that’s interesting. The crowd is illuminated suddenly and I don’t really do crowds all that much. Readers only happen in ones.”

Enright grew up in Dublin “on the border between Terenure and Templeogue”, the youngest of a family of five, all of whom, she says, “were brainy and did well at exams”. She was the youngest and the lone creative in a family of successful professionals, gaining an international scholarship that took her to “a funny school in Canada” for two years in her teens. “When I came back,” she says, “Ireland did not make so much sense.” You could say she has been trying to make sense of it through her writing ever since.

Having gained a degree in English and philosophy at Trinity College Dublin, she was given an electric typewriter by her family for her 21st birthday and, soon after, won another scholarship, this time to the University of East Anglia, where she studied creative writing under the tutelage of the late Angela Carter. In a recent essay for the London Review of Books, she wrote of Carter’s importance to her and of her fractured sense of self when she first attended the course.

“I was 24. I had no idea how to live in the world, let alone write about it; the self who was supposed to produce some kind of narrative by the end of the year seemed increasingly fugitive and fragmented ... I worked all the time, but inspiration did not strike. There was no shaft of light. If the words came from anywhere, it was from a point over my left shoulder, like a taunt. I do not think I was entirely well.”

Even after her stint at East Anglia, Enright came to fiction slowly, first working as a successful producer and director for the Irish national television channel, RTE, where she produced the acclaimed comedy show Nighthawks, a groundbreaking mix of standup and satire. While working in children’s television, she wrote The Portable Virgin, a short story collection that won her the Rooney prize for Irish literature in 1991. It was followed by her first novel, The Wig My Father Wore, in 1995, an uneven tale that blends surreal comedy - a stern Irish father sports the ridiculous hairpiece of the title, which everyone else pretends not to notice - and Angela Carter-style fantasy - an angel falls to earth and marries Grace, the female narrator.

Two other novels followed, What Are You Like?, which examines the ties that bond through the story of identical twins separated at birth and raised apart in London and Dublin, and The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch, which saw Enright use a third-person narrative for the first time to recount the story of an Irishwoman who, in the 19th century, becomes the long-term mistress of the Paraguayan president, Francisco Solano López.

“The next book will be in the third person,” she says, as we order coffee and the interview winds down. “I’m starting to think my narrators’ sentences are getting too big for them, and they are getting to sound a bit samey and, more disturbingly, a bit too much like me.” She cracks up laughing again. “The thing is, though, I love doing voices. And I love the characters not knowing everything and the reader knowing more than them. There’s more mischief in that and more room for seriousness, too.”

In 2004, Enright published her first and, to date, only non-fiction book: Making Babies: Stumbling Into Motherhood, a kind of antidote to all those self-satisfied books about the joys of giving birth. Of late, despite what she jokingly calls “the curse of the Booker”, she has been prodigious: another short story collection, Taking Pictures, came out in 2008, and she recently edited The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story.

Does she consider herself an Irish writer? “No, I was always on the side. Like a salad.” Another cackle of laughter gives way to a frown of concentration as she reflects on the question. “I guess I’m engaged with the tradition even insofar as being against it. The periphery has always been the more interesting place for me. I didn’t quite fit and that suited me. I never wanted to be mainstream as a writer, but look at what’s happened.”

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