[Novelist, Short-Story Writer]
The assumption that one must progress
The ending of The Little Mermaid
Stephen Frears’s choice of camerawork in The Queen
I first met Anne Enright on a balmy evening in October 2011, at Book Passage in Corte Madera, California, where she read from her sixth book, the novel The Forgotten Waltz. Enright is an expressive reader. She gripped the podium with one hand, holding the book in the other, balancing her foot on the tip of a high heel in such a way that it was possible to picture her as a girl, reading out her compositions to her mother in the kitchen after school.
A self-described “passionate writer” who brings all of herself to every book, Enright has the rare ability to draw the reader so scarily close to her characters that you sometimes find yourself pulling back. Her first book, a collection of short stories called The Portable Virgin, was published in 1991, followed by four novels, including What Are You Like? (2000), which was shortlisted for the Whitbread Novel Award. In 2012, The Forgotten Waltz was awarded the American Library Association’s first Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. Her best-known book is The Gathering (2007), for which she won the Man Booker Prize. In it, a young woman tries to untie her family’s tangled past as she brings home the body of her brother, who has committed suicide, to be buried in Ireland.
Enright was born in 1962 in Dublin, and currently lives in Bray, a seaside suburb of Dublin, with her husband, Martin Murphy, a theater producer, and their two children. She graduated from Trinity College with a degree in English and philosophy. After college, she worked in fringe theater as an actress and a writer, then worked as a television producer and director at RTÉ, Ireland’s national radio and television broadcasting station, which drove her to the edge of a breakdown. An essay on this experience is contained in her only work of nonfiction to date, Making Babies, published in 2004.
I caught up with Enright for tea and an interview on Skype after she returned home from her book tour. On paper, Enright can be sharp, but what is most disarming about her in conversation is her humor, sensitiveness, and directness. She was between books when we spoke, and at times she seemed a bit uneasy. This was offset by her soft Dublin brogue, which created a sense of cheerful spontaneity.
I. WHAT YOU HAVE TO DO IS NOT LEAVE THE HOUSE
THE BELIEVER: Your new book, The Forgotten Waltz, is a novel about adultery in boom times. Can you talk about some of the ways adultery has changed since, say, John Cheever’s time?
ANNE ENRIGHT: I don’t know if adultery as a plotline has changed that much since Victorian times or even since Shakespearean times. In The Forgotten Waltz I have a discovered letter, quite quietly and naturally lost in the house. But that’s just the mechanics of revelation. I don’t know that finding a text on somebody’s phone is much different than finding it written with a quill on a piece of paper, but it is part of the fun.
BLVR: Contact between lovers by text message has to be so brief. I wonder if that technologically enforced brevity works against the way women think and talk.
AE: I hadn’t thought about that, really. I had a lot of difficulty with one line in The Forgotten Waltz, where Seán texts just the number of the hotel room to Gina and she says it’s the sexiest thing you could ever get in your phone. She spends a lot of time waiting by the phone, with a sense that it must ring, so this idea of the phone as an unexploded object that should suddenly come to life with a message from him was very fitting. It emphasized the fact that she feels so utterly connected to him and can’t understand that he’s not there, in the phone. The world has gone really quiet because of email. Then it got quieter again because of text. That’s just the way it’s gone. It’s not a very talky world.
BLVR: Does that bother you?
AE: I don’t know why it should. Sometimes I will spend two or three days not speaking to anyone outside of the immediate family when they come home, and then I find that I’ve been emailing like fury. Once you give in to that silence, it’s quite nice.
BLVR: Can you talk about what happens as you work your way into a new book, what that part of your process is like?
AE: What you have to do is not leave the house. You have to not get up and get some exercise and do yoga and clear your head. It’s the opposite of that. You start writing, and it falls apart very quickly. And then you have to start again. In the beginning, you have a plan for a book that everyone will love in various ways. And then you start writing and you realize you have a different kind of book on your hands. And so the easy, conventional novel, the idea of that novel, falls apart, and you must start writing the thing itself. If you resist and you continue to pursue the easy idea, you get a fake novel, written according to a preordained pattern. The world is full of them. You have to be less controlling. It’s like getting a herd of sheep across a field. If you try to control them too much, they resist. It’s the same with a book. If you try to control it too much, the book is dead. You have to let it fall apart quite early on and let it start doing its own thing. And that takes nerve, not to panic that the book you were going to write is not the book you will have at the end of the day.
BLVR: And then what happens?
AE: You write and you write and the great difficulty is getting three-quarters of the way there. With The Forgotten Waltz I needed to work and work until the shift was possible.
BLVR: The shift?
AE: The first-person narrator always has to be very solipsistic. I needed to somehow break Gina’s solipsism. I needed to know who she was. I don’t know how we know each other or how well we know each other at any age or stage of life. The unknowability of one human being to another is an endless subject for novelists. Three-quarters of the way through the novel, once I got Gina looking at Evie, looking at the child’s life from the inside, then I knew I had the shift that I was looking for. Once I got there, the end started to write itself. There is a run, a fantastic slide toward the end. And with the run there is this terrible pang of loss.
II. ONLY GROWN-UPS CAN END A STORY
BLVR: Why do you think endings are so difficult, psychologically, for a novelist?
AE: I don’t know what it is. I look at my children’s narrative capabilities and they do nothing but make stories, and yet they do not know how to end them. At one stage I was intrigued enough to try and train my daughter, Rachel, into ending her stories. She was eight at the time. I would say, “Give me the ending of the story,” and she’d launch into this story that got ever more detailed. And I’d say, “Now, pretty soon now, you have to give me those last two sentences.” It’s an incredibly hard thing for a child to do. I don’t know when we learn how to end stories. We must be fifteen or sixteen. Or maybe it’s something only grown-ups can do. Only grown-ups can end a story.
BLVR: What’s the requirement for an ending in an Anne Enright story or novel?
AE: Things cohering, coming together. And after that, something else. Something new. A sense of opening. What I am looking for, technically, is a certain quality to the silence after the last sentence. The quality of that silence is what you have in mind. You don’t know how you’re going to produce it while you’re writing the last page. It’s a certain feeling of how that silence is going to feel or how the silence before the book began has changed into this different silence after the book ends. Which is a poetic and abstract way of putting it, but it’s just true. I rewrite the end endlessly, but I know I’m there. I know I’m on the last hundred words.
BLVR: Maybe that silence is the thing the children don’t like. They are noisy creatures.
AE: Yes. They like more, more. I’ll have to talk to my children about it again. It’s possible my son would be able to do endings, because he likes puns. And puns are already an ending and a transcendence. If you write, as it were, to the joke, on a large or small scale, you must be able to do endings.
BLVR: Is there a writer who is good at endings?
AE: Alice Munro does fantastic endings. She can turn a story that could be a Gothic story of disaster into something that is all right. I’m looking at her latest collection, Too Much Happiness, and there are stories in there that could go appallingly wrong because you’re so deep in the forest, but actually, in a very hard-won and also in a kind of unexpected way, things turn out to be all right. She’s a master at taking extreme narrative events and not avoiding them but healing them somehow. Alice Munro is wonderfully human. Angela Carter, on the other hand, goes for the metaphor. “The Tiger’s Bride” has a highly metaphorical ending that’s really closer to Flannery O’Connor and her interest in transcendence and epiphanies. I group these two together because of the little somersault at the end. The story is the run-up, you get the somersault, and then the story ends. You get the lift. You get the shift, linguistically, into metaphor. You get the Thing.
BLVR: Alice Munro says that she knew she wanted to be a storyteller when she was a girl and she read Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.” She says that when she came to the ending of that story, she was appalled. She went outside and walked around her house, making up a happy ending in which the little mermaid got the prince and she didn’t have to be changed into foam in the sea.
AE: That agrees very directly with what I’ve been saying. Alice Munro just makes things better with her stories.
BLVR: At the end of The Gathering, the main character, Veronica, says, “I just want to be less afraid.” At the end of The Forgotten Waltz, Gina reaches out to Evie. She seems more fearless than Veronica, who kind of talks tough and is just really angry.
AE: Several months ago, I was doing a conference call with a book club for the blind on The Gathering, and none of them seemed to like the book very much. One of the club members asked, “Who did you write it for?” And another woman said, “I think you wrote it for Veronica.” And I found that very moving. I’d never thought of it that way before.
BLVR: Veronica has more ghosts following her. She has her brother, Liam, and all these other guilty thoughts because of the abuse that happened that she never talked about.
AE: Yes. Gina doesn’t carry a burden of history like Veronica does. When Evie says, “What’s ‘Gina’ short for?” Gina says, “Nothing. My mother just liked it.” For an Irish character to say that is pretty astonishing. For an Irish writer, names contain generations of history. In fact, the only Gina that you would meet in Ireland these days would be a Regina, which would be a grandmother’s or a great-grandmother’s name, a family name, handed down, and it would date back, maybe, to Queen Victoria’s visit to Ireland in the nineteenth century. It might be what we call a “Castle Catholic” name. A “Castle Catholic” was a Catholic who was true to the British Empire. Not the Anglo-Irish, who were Protestants and originally from England, Castle Catholics were the Irish middle classes who supported empire in some sentimental, tabloid-reading kind of way. I mean, this is the kind of lineage that Gina could come from, but she doesn’t care, or know. She really doesn’t carry a burden of history. She carries a burden of denial.
BLVR: It seems as if Gina’s always struggling to stay on the surface of her life.
AE: Yes. Details are something people don’t think about during boom times, because that would mean the boom is failing. The boom is all forward-thinking, people saying, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” In The Forgotten Waltz I wanted to reflect the way people were talking on the streets. There was something about the hecticness and denial of people during the last years of the boom that seemed to me very like the denial mood of an affair. People were saying, “We’re buying the bags. So don’t tell me that housing prices are falling.” It was all “Can we just please forget all the historical misery now, because we’ve bought our way out of it.”
BLVR: Historical misery, meaning the Great Famine, the Troubles, your cultural inheritance, right?
AE: Yes. In Ireland the boom sort of proved that money clearly can’t buy history. Or maybe it proves that the terrible things that happened before were not just a result of poverty. Because that’s what Ireland was. It was just goddamn poor. Ireland has a reputation for wonderful hospitality. People say, “Aren’t the Irish wonderful. So many marvelous writers. Such a beautiful place.” Blah, blah, blah. No one bothers to talk about how poverty just wears you out. How poverty is a really stressful, shaming tradition. Nobody here says, “That’s what happens when you’re poor.” And then when they escape poverty, it’s different.
Look at the success of Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes in the United States. There is no doubt that it is a very well-written book. But it is overwhelmingly about things that Irish people escaped from when they emigrated. It is interesting to contrast the reaction of readers in the United States with readers in Limerick. In Limerick, people were outraged because it portrayed them in a less-than-lovely light, as poor. And here was Frank McCourt, a big success over in America, and they were still stuck in Limerick. What is even more interesting is that now, fifteen years after all that contention, the people of Limerick are setting up a Frank McCourt Museum. Because that’s what Ireland does with its goddamn misery. It turns it into stories and then gets the tourists back in to celebrate those stories. So you see the irony of it.
III. THICK ANKLES
BLVR: Have you become more aware of your Irishness as you have traveled the world?
AE: One of the things you want with travel is to get away from yourself, and one of the things about traveling as a writer is that you are obliged to talk about yourself all the time. So you are in some amazing or lovely or interesting place and you’re talking the same talk about yourself and about Irishness, until you want to throw up. Sometimes being Irish feels like a job you never applied for. I don’t mind being Irish, but I am not a big fan of nationalism.
BLVR: How do you recharge, get the creative juices flowing, after a spell of traveling to promote a book?
AE: You have to try to stay healthy. The road is tough. I do an Ashtanga class when I am home. It’s a very hard kind of yoga and I am really crap at it and everyone in the room is very lithe and I’m not, but I feel all that is good for me, that it is important to be bad at yoga. It’s a flow practice, and the sequence of poses is always the same, and it is synchronized with the breath. Anyway, as we know, in yoga there is no progress. There is no proficiency.
BLVR: Does it help you write?
AE: You learn a lot of the same lessons at the desk that you learn on the yoga mat. You learn to observe your emotions about your work rather than indulge them. When you find yourself saying, “This is terrible,” “This is brilliant,” “This is sad,” you learn to just watch those emotions rather than believe them. And there is a monastic quality about working at the desk every day for many years that yoga seems to make sense of.
BLVR: But why do the yoga if there is no progress?
AE: The underlying assumption of that question is appalling: that you must progress in order to do anything.
BLVR: Is your yoga a spiritual practice?
AE: I don’t quite know what “spiritual” means in this context. Or any context. Is it something like looking at a sunset? Spirituality is a spookily private part of people’s makeup, really. Ashtanga is a very physical practice. It’s all about the breath. The asanas are very simple things that you just repeat, really.
No, I don’t get very transcendental about yoga, I have to say. At the beginning, some years ago, I used to see amazing things in Savasana [corpse pose, lying-down meditation], but I don’t anymore. Amazing little thoughts would come, hovering, from nowhere. But not anymore.
BLVR: All of that traveling after you won the Booker Prize must have been pretty amazing. And physically demanding as well.
AE: Yes. When I was suddenly in the public eye after the Booker, it was a very steep learning curve. When I was on the road, I would have to go to the department stores to buy something to wear for the next day. Shoes were always easy, because it’s easy to buy shoes. So I bought a couple of pairs of shoes after the Booker, yeah. I was never interested in shoes before that. But they’re quite fun.
BLVR: Why are they fun?
AE: It depends on if you’re happy with your ankles or not. If you’re happy with your ankles, you’ve got one bit of you sorted that you don’t have to worry about if you have a nice pair of shoes.
BLVR: Helen Mirren complains that that’s a part of her that she doesn’t like. She says her ankles are too thick.
AE: When Stephen Frears put the camera right down on the floor, for The Queen, I thought that was awful. I don’t know how a big star like Helen Mirren let the film be cut like that, because he photographed her thick ankles. He made her look frumpy, and she’s anything but frumpy. He got the one frumpy bit of her, and he made it six feet tall on the screen. I would have killed him.
IV. PLOT IS A KIND OF PARANOIA
BLVR: You’ve said you don’t do plot. If that’s not how you structure your work, then how do you break up a narrative into a book?
AE: I do story, as opposed to plot. I’ve recently become slightly gendered in my theories about plot. I think that men really like to build a book like a machine, you know? The lever you pull that makes the cogs go round and then the balls drop. Right? I don’t do it that way. I grew The Gathering like mushrooms in a shed, like something in the dark. A story is something that’s looking for insight, I think, whereas you plot a book to have an effect. Story is about pulling the reader in and a plot is a more externalized mechanism of revelation. A plot is more antic, more performative, and less intimate. When you’re telling a story you’re telling it into someone’s ear.
BLVR: That would seem to make your work more personal, more about process. One of the joys of reading your books is the feeling they give of someone you care about learning to find the shape of her life as she is living it.
AE: Some readers just can’t deal with that at all. But that’s what I like, the way that the narrators realize what they say as they are saying it. I just like to mimic the way people I know talk and tell stories. I suppose I am interested in the way women talk about their lives and describe their lives to themselves. And these are not plots.
BLVR: But you make them hold together like a plot.
AE: Plot is a kind of paranoia, actually. It implies that events are connected, that characters are connected, just because they are in the same book. I like the way Pynchon exposed the essential paranoia of plot in The Crying of Lot 49. When I read that book as a student, I realized that if you bring coincidence or the mechanics of plotting into a book, it begs all the questions about who is writing this book and why, or why you’re making this mechanical toy do these things. That, to me as a reader, is slightly alienating. But, you know, things do happen in real life. People die in car accidents. There are connections and coincidences.
BLVR: Your novels have a lot of ghosts. The characters are always bumping into the ghosts and the ghosts are bumping into the characters with no real explanation. American writers don’t do that so much.
AE: My ghosts are more like metaphors. They’re like, just words. They vary hugely in their metabolic content—how physical they are or how real they are or how visible they are in the sentence or the room. All of these things are up for grabs, really. Some of my ghosts are corpses in the room. The thing that won’t go away. Whatever it is, in whatever form. That’s the ghost.
BLVR: That headrest in Veronica’s car, in The Gathering. That was a great ghost.
AE: Yeah. He’s a ghost. I looked out the window one day and there was the car. Martin, my husband, had put the seat forward to get something out of the backseat. But when I saw it I thought something catastrophic had happened in the car. It looked like a body with its head on the dash. Suddenly I thought someone had died in the car. It was just peripheral. Just a little flicker. But then I had to check. And, of course, it wasn’t a dead body, it was just the seat.
BLVR: But it pulled you right in.
AE: I was intrigued by this recently when I was reading a story on the computer. It’s always hard not to click away when you’re on the computer, but I was on a plane and there was no Wi-Fi. I was reading a story by Jhumpa Lahiri and I was struck by the realization that the moment I wanted to click away from it was some moment of engagement, which was very like intimacy, and I was slightly averse to this happening. It was one of those moments when the reader is invited in very close because something has started to happen and it’s a slightly uncomfortable moment, and I think it’s where a lot of the satisfactions of fiction lie. The relationship between the words and the reader is very intimate. The reader lets them get very close, very much inside her. Which is why I love readers as opposed to critics. Readers allow the words to get close; they’re not always pushing them away to see what they’re doing.
V. THE HAIR HAS TO GO
BLVR: Gina and her sister, Fiona, in The Forgotten Waltz represent two extremes on the career woman versus stay-at-home mom spectrum. Gina is married, but she has no kids. She devotes herself to work and to her affair with her lover. Fiona, is married and stays home with her kids. In The Gathering Veronica tries to juggle both, then quits her job to raise the kids. Where are you on that scale?
AE: Veronica gave up the job to stay at home and she didn’t regret it. She has a fight with her husband, Tom, over how his time is far too important to spend looking after the children, whereas her time is not. I’ve found among my own contemporaries that when you have the kids, it’s a—
[Enright’s husband, Martin, enters, looking for something.]
AE: Here’s Martin. I can’t talk about my husband, because my husband is in the room. But I can tell you, when the kids are small, it’s really a kind of crunch point.
BLVR: Don’t crunch your husband.
AE: No. I certainly would not. But I might if he doesn’t get it together and find the bit of paper he’s looking for and leave the room.
[Enright and her husband laugh and he leaves the room.]
AE: When kids come, something happens, which is that gender isn’t a game anymore. It’s easy to be equal when there are no kids. But when a kid comes along, the shit literally hits the fan. It was amazing to see the changes, not just in the women I know but in their husbands, and how threatened some of them were, and how they refused or embraced the challenge of having kids. It seems that it very much boiled down to what kind of man you were with. No woman that I know is capable of leaving her child down for thirty seconds. She can’t walk away without making sure that everything is absolutely as secure and safe for her child as can be.
There’s no getting away from the fact that minding children, with all their endless small necessities, makes you feel less important. Some of the males in my generation couldn’t handle this at all and were extremely challenged by it. So I’d say the chips are down for four or five years, and then the kids go to school and things get easier, but there’s no doubt about it, if somebody drops the baby, the person who catches the baby is going to be the mother.
BLVR: I’ve noticed that some women are more adept at catching the baby and some actually want to catch the baby more than others do.
AE: This is what I mean. The debate is always framed in female terms, as though it was women’s business, not men’s. When life is unfair, the people on the losing side spend a lot of time worrying about what they are doing, questioning themselves. And the people on the winning side don’t think at all. They don’t have to. But the problem is still about fairness, not just about women. Do men want children? I think the answer is yes. So what are they going to do about that? Having kids is very difficult to do on your own, and it’s really crazy difficult to think you’re doing it as a team and to find out that you’re not actually part of a team.
BLVR: How do you, Anne Enright, hardworking, prize-winning novelist, do it?
AE: It’s well known that I have a very long-suffering and wonderful husband. Martin is one way I do it. When he was working full-time, the first year of the kids’ lives, I typed while they were asleep. The other thing I do is I don’t sweat the small stuff. If I ever find myself cleaning the car, I say to myself, Why are you not writing a short story? People think motherhood involves a lot of domestic labor, and it doesn’t. It involves being nice to your children as often as possible. That’s part of my trick. I don’t have that anxiety about meeting their needs. I think young children in the Western middle classes are objects of incredible anxiety.
BLVR: Perhaps it’s because there are more dangers in the world.
AE: Are there? My kids are supposed to live till they are one hundred. You don’t have to have a perfect house or a perfect relationship with your child or a perfect child, and you yourself do not have to be perfect. Is there anything I’ve left out there?
BLVR: Perfect color job on your hair, maybe?
AE: No. The hair has to go. In terms of time, I’ve always had a kind ruthlessness about my writing. If I’m allowed to do that, then I’m fine. I don’t need holidays. I don’t need my hair colored. I don’t need to have the kitchen right. I’m not saying I’m in any way perfect or I don’t let these things intrude, but if I’m allowed to write, I am sorted. If I can’t write, then I get worried about everything and it’s hard to sleep. I used to dream in five acts. I used to steer my dreams. I used to have more fun asleep, but in the ten years since I had kids, there’s been a dream deficit.
BLVR: Maybe when your children go off to college you’ll start dreaming more.
AE: Maybe. When you find yourself alone, or in a transition, you dream more. These are also the times when you read books. Teenagers and middle-aged women read books. People whose lives are upside down often read fiction. When you’re not sure where you’ll end up or how you are going to be, and you’re looking for some way forward, fiction is a great friend.
BLVR: And there’s always yoga. Don’t forget the mat.
AE: [Laughs] Yes. The mat. Surya Namaskar A [a sun salutation].
BLVR: I’ve got my mat. If you’re agreeable, we could end with a sun salutation.
AE: You mean while Skype is on?
BLVR: I’m willing if you are.
AE: Fantastic. I’ll get my mat.
[Her voice fades. After a minute or so, I hear the slap of her mat on the floor.]
BLVR: You ready?
BLVR: Live the dream, Anne.
[Enright laughs. We do a sun salutation, silently.]
AE: I’m on my third breath.
BLVR: Me too. That feels good.
AE: It does feel good.
Illustration by Tony Millionaire
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