Anne Enright was born in Dublin in 1962. Her first book, the collection of stories The Portable Virgin, won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature in 1991. Since then she has published four novels: The Wig My Father Wore (1995), What Are You Like? (2000), The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch (2002) and The Gathering, which won The Man Booker Prize 2007. She has also written a book of essays, Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood (2004). Her short story ‘Honey’ won the inaugural Davy Byrnes Irish Writing Award in 2004 and is included in her second story collection Taking Pictures to be published by Jonathan Cape in March. She lives in Bray, County Wicklow, with her husband Martin and their two children.
We’ll start with your early experiences. Were there books around when you were a child?
Yes, there were books around. There were always books around the house, and we went to the library. My parents were both readers. My father is a retired civil servant— my mother is also a retired civil servant but she retired very early after she got married. My mother’s family in particular were very book orientated. My grandmother went to UCD in the early days, maybe the second year that women got Degrees. She read all her contemporaries, she read very widely in Irish literature. My mother was a big fan of Graham Greene and Daphne du Maurier and those kind of people. My father doesn’t read fiction at all any more, but I don’t think men do, over the age of forty, unless they’re obliged to. My father’s influence is much more ludic, games and words and puzzles and all the rest. He’s interested in different languages. They had a remarkable education really. When you meet people from other countries, you realise essentially they got a free public school education.
Did they direct you in your reading?
My mother did. There are two types of children: The Wind in the Willows children and The Alice in Wonderland children. My mother would have been very much Wind in the Willows and she wanted me to read that. I was very much Alice in Wonderland. Also, I didn’t like Dickens as a child; much to her disappointment. I was already not into that realist tradition.
I was an early reader and a precocious reader and I read everything. One of the interesting things about precocity is that you’re not all that worried if you can’t understand the book, comprehension isn’t the first or core value. There was a brief period in adolescence that I thought you did have to understand the book. Then I studied ‘The Wasteland’ and I realised I was free of this sort of silliness of having to nail everything down, and was back in a much more interesting, more musical, playful space where you didn’t have to understand it in order to enjoy it. The effects could be much more indirect; a different part of your brain could be engaged.
At what stage did you begin to think that you’d become a writer?
Well, I think you’re culturally obliged to be a writer if you’re of a certain inclination or temperament in Ireland—or at least that’s how it was when I was growing up. It was certainly implied that I would write. I don’t know if it was any more chosen than choosing, say, marriage. Do you know what I mean? It was culturally ratified (laughs). It was an available thing to do, a place where you could be both maverick and in some way respected. I don’t know how inevitable it was. I’m happy in my arranged marriage. I’m glad it was my cultural destiny and that I didn’t turn my back on it.
At what point did you start writing?
I wrote bad poetry when I was in school. I went to Saint Louis in Rathmines and then I went to a school in Canada when I was sixteen. I got this peculiar scholarship to this international school where everybody was on scholarship. I had two years of education there, which was amazing, and I wrote poetry there as well, and my English teacher would tear it apart in the nicest way.
When I was there the very sort of unpleasantly patriarchal Director of the college— very benign, but patriarchal at the same time—somebody had asked him what I was going to do when I grew up and he said, I think Anne’s going to blow the world apart with her writing. Which is the first time anyone had called me a writer or anything like it. Of course, at that time, the Irish were thought to be blowing the world apart in other ways so I think there was a link in his head between bombs and prose, which I wasn’t entirely comfortable with. But it was an interesting idea, and it sort of lingered.
Then my family got me a typewriter for my twenty-first birthday and I found the transition to the keystrokes and all that really fantastic. The whole longhand thing is too lyrical and easy, too lady for me actually. If you want to write a lady book then do it in longhand: the sentences go on, from line to line, and you’re very happy with yourself. The keyboard demands objectivity at an earlier stage I think and it also works the rhythms more strenuously—it is like dancing on a sprung floor.
And then your first time getting work published?
The first thing I published was in 1989. ‘Smile’ was the story I wrote as my application for the University of East Anglia and it was the first thing I ever wrote in prose. Then I spent a couple of years wondering what it was I had written and trying to write a proper short story instead. My second short story was going to be a proper story, in third person and past tense. And I realised I couldn’t write a proper short story—and then a number of years later I realised I wasn’t obliged to. So I wrote in East Anglia but I threw everything out, and then when I came back I went up to Annaghmakerrig for six weeks—because I had nowhere to live and I had no money—and I wrote the other three stories that are in this collection [Introductions to New Writers 10, Faber and Faber]. The three terms in East Anglia produced nothing, but the application and then with the relief of being out of the place obviously (laughs), my morale improved.
How do you look back at that time in East Anglia and the value of doing the Masters?
It’s very hard to extract something from your life—and it’s similar with RTE, you think how much time, and more importantly how much of my young energy and talent did I throw into that fucking stupid organisation, RTE? There’s no telling what would happen if something were taken out of your life. So, I don’t know. I think East Anglia was important because it was lovely to meet Angela Carter. She condescended to me in the most wonderful way. She was fantastic and didn’t criticise my work in any way whatsoever; she’d say it was fine and then just rabbit on about whatever she was rabbiting on about. That was wonderful.
They say what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger, but I’m not sure about that either (laughs). I don’t know. I think possibly because I had a long dark night of the writing soul there, I realise now that if it falls apart, it falls apart. The book always falls apart. You will always fail. It’s a given, it’s a constant, it’s going to happen over and over again. Maybe it took me a while to realise that because I didn’t produce anything proper in East Anglia, but because it has happened on every book, then I realise, well, you can actually deal with this, even though there will be always difficulties along the way.
There is a proliferation of these courses now? How do you feel about them?
I’m not against them. I’m absolutely not against them. East Anglia is distinctly British, and you find references to it in the English critics where they say it’s typical of the fiction of an East Anglian graduate that, for example, everyone will sit down and have a cup of tea. Well I’m an East Anglian graduate and the first cup of tea I ever had in a book was in The Gathering. I never boiled a kettle in prose until then.
Going back to RTE, you did at least get the setting for The Wig My Father Wore from that experience.
That’s possibly not the best thing that came of it. But I do read writers now sometimes who’ve never worked and there are loads of them. And also writers who’ve never had children, and there are loads of them too. Really the stereotypical writer is someone who has never worked and never wanted to have children. I think it does you no harm at all to see how ordinary people spend their days. In RTE I thought I had learnt all I needed to know about human ambition and its essential silliness. It’s interesting to see how institutions work. It’s interesting to see how authority is claimed or denied, it’s interesting to see how paranoia accumulates. All of that went into the first book and it also goes into the rest of the work here and there. It’s all grist to the mill, you know.
What would you say is your project as a writer?
I don’t have a project as a writer. I decided very early on that what I wanted was not a career but a writing life. So that whatever I did would be essentially to keep that afloat. I would have to put some things in place in order to facilitate this. What I was going to do was to keep writing books.
What were those things you had to put in place?
Somewhere to live, which I had got sort of established before I left RTE. And to somehow be sure that the next book would be published. That doesn’t always happen. I kept—and still do keep—a keen eye on how people manage to keep going, or not. I don’t know why I thought of it from the start as being a long game, except that there’s perhaps no other way to think about it. I was very interested in how people keep themselves hungry enough, and not too hungry. There are a lot of people who want to write but can’t afford to and there are others who have too much money to be bothered. It’s very untypical for women to write, if they have a rich husband—that never works, or very rarely works.
I also wanted to have kids and be able to do all of that. I think that was also a part of my idea of what a writer’s life should be, specifically a woman writer’s life. You are an example to yourself of what a life is or could be, and women’s lives very often involve children. That’s not why I had children (laughs), it’s not the primary reason, but it’s a collateral effect of it.
Where does a novel start for you?
I’m too superstitious to say. I think the thing is never to start anything. I keep writing continuously and then surprise myself. Then I have to look back at the early computer files to see where something actually began. I’m actually running out of these fragments now because I’ve been, relatively speaking, very productive in the last seven years.
I always panic around New Year’s Eve, the week of New Year. I remember I sat down one year and wrote out a list—I just started to brainstorm for fifty-two stories that I’d do. I don’t know how many I got written down, maybe fifteen, but they were all there. The stories were fully there, from the first words. It’s really funny that, as a writer, when you have a sentence, a lot of the work is to sit and watch the sentence, to see what it implies. It can imply an absolute world of its own: fictional, linguistic, with all kinds of textures.
Reading your work it’s clear that the sentence and what it can do is very important to you.
It’s all about sentences really. My talent is for sentences but I’m beginning to think writers are only really good in so far as they fight their talent. Good writers are helpless to their talent but really good writers fight it. So if you have a talent for misery you should really write a cheerful book. You know it’s like Flaubert writing Madame Bovary and he hated Madame Bovary; he thought she was dull, provincial and ordinary, but he had been challenged to write about ordinary life, and he did it. And then he went off and wrote Salammbô after Madame Bovary and he was happy as a pig in shite writing about ancient Carthage, parades of elephants, epic war scenes and everything. He thought that this was the proper stuff of writing. The moral of that story is that he was only good in so far as he fought his natural instinct.
I feel that about people whose talent becomes somehow indulged. Do you know what I mean? So my problem is—one of my many problems—that my talent is for sentences, and I should be working towards paragraphs.
Was there an element of you writing against your talent when you wrote The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch? It’s in a very different register from your other work.
It is a different register. But I wrote it as a bit of a holiday really. Martin told me to write it. I wasn’t working on a book and I can be very antsy when I have no book. He said write a book about your woman we came across when we were in Peru. He doesn’t throw out suggestions every day (laughs), so I thought yes, I’ll do that. And I was very happy writing Eliza Lynch, I thought it would really go and go as a book. And it didn’t really, at the time, but it has garnered a sort of… it is taught a certain amount.
Was it liberating to write it given that it was a shift away from the very contemporary nature of your other books?
Yeah that was nice. And the fact that the story is already known. But, of course, I had to do something structurally interesting. The historical novel challenges our ideas of time because the reader knows what happens: what happens is, they die. So the interesting thing is in what way do they die. So that’s why I ran the two time lines against each other: Eliza was carrying the future in her belly. Eliza only came together when I realised she was pregnant going up that river. Because I’d started writing it when I was pregnant.
I went back to a more modern register then, in part because What Are You Like? had been more successful, it had struck a chord. You do listen to the echo, you know. Not in terms of the critics or sales—Eliza would have sold more than What Are You Like?—but you do listen to the silence after the book is finished.
But I might go back. I have two ideas at the moment but they’re set in the twentieth century. History is problematic enough, each time has its own signature and its own register, and its own language so I don’t know if I want to go and construct another language for 1953—unless it’s there. The language for Eliza was very much there.
Do you spend much time planning out your books?
Not enough! Ah no. It’s like the Italian Renaissance painters, they would have this cartoon of the finished picture and then they created it as they went. I am more like someone painting a single mark who then stands back from the canvas and goes, well, what does that mean, and then I make another mark in juxtaposition to the first one. So I work blind—or I think I do. If I look at very early fragments for The Gathering, I realise that it was all there. And I couldn’t see that it was all there, it took me two and a half years to tease out what was in my head. Some writers know what’s in their heads and they sketch it out, but I find that kills it. So I spend a lot of time groping around.
Colm Tóibín has spoken about having the entire book in his head before he begins to write.
He talks it on the phone. He’ll speak it as a story: I’m writing this. I couldn’t do it for love or money. And yet because it’s so excruciatingly difficult to do, it’s probably a valuable exercise. There’s this idea that writers are too precious to tell you what their book is about; they don’t know yet. But to have the nerves of steel to say this is what it’s about.
I’ve read in another interview you did that your advice to new writers would be that it is the rewriting that is all important. When you rewrite, are you building up the work or paring it back?
If I’m talking to new writers one of the things I say is that what you have to do is manage your emotions about your work. I think the first impulse of writing is in a place of flow, a really very blessed place to be in, writing a first draft. Some writers find it very difficult to rewrite because of the disgust that they feel for that act of what psychoanalysts call extromission. Adam Philips gave this great talk in Dublin and he was saying how R.D. Laing had done this experiment on it. He made people spit into a glass of water and then drink it and then spit into the glass again, and nobody could do this more than four times; they couldn’t drink any more. And Philips himself, I asked him, does he do it, does he edit his work and he said no, I don’t drink the spit, I won’t drink the spit (laughs). I say that rewriting is where it’s at, and I say it because people write work that could be good if only they’d rewrite it. And their emotions about it are less than relevant (laughs).
I rewrite all the time. So when somebody says they do six drafts or something like that, I’m always amazed because I don’t know how they know. A book is never a stable object for me and it is never finished. I rewrite when I’m doing a reading! My early rewriting is a question of distillation and concentration; the challenge is to make it undiluted. And a lot of it is working on the rhythm.
And do you give the work to somebody to read?
Martin is the gatekeeper. He reads all the work. He used to be—but I don’t think I have it any more—he used to take exception to a certain brittleness of tone. He’d say that’s too… and he was usually right. He has a very high ideal of what I should be in my written persona. But he’s never objected to the content. He’d be my first reader.
Then it’s read by Robin Robertson in Cape. He’s a wonderful editor but he doesn’t edit me, line by line. I think he digs into other people’s work. I’ve worked with him from the start, but he only makes very quiet comments. I thought for a while it was because he just wasn’t bothered. But maybe he’s just confident I’ll be able to manage all of that for myself, I’m not sure. He’s a very good intellectual place to write towards— he’s tough and he’s a poet and partly also because I would have a kind of argument with a lot of his list. There is an intellectual argument going on. But I’d also have an argument going on with my fellows in Irish writing as well. There is a discourse happening through the work. A lot of the time a writer is saying, no, no, it’s not like that, this is how it is.
In your preface to Making Babies, you apologise to all the people the book might upset. Is there a sense that as a writer you have to make that apology for all the work?
Yeah, yeah, I apologise for everything, I regret everything (laughs). Well, the baby book, it’s interesting really, it is a poetic challenge when you are writing about real people, to do it in some way that doesn’t demean them. That doesn’t own them, that doesn’t lock them up, you know. That frees them up as well. So that’s what I wanted to do.
Do people confuse what is fiction and fact in your work and does that concern you?
I don’t give a shit about that. A book is a book. I’m careful with my non-fiction. I’m not vengeful as a writer. I’m very fortunate that my immediate family have always known what a book is. They know it’s a book. They’re often in the non-fiction, but they’re quite reasonable about it, and I’ve never had any problems about content from siblings and parents.
Mothers and the theme of motherhood come up a lot in your work. Even when the mothers are absent they are crucial.
I cannot remember who said that mothers are so important in Irish writers’ work that they don’t exist, I mean on the page. Somebody’s autobiography and I don’t know whose it was, the mother got half an actual sentence even though the book was essentially all about her. They are in some way unwritable in the Irish context. I don’t want to think about it too much because I don’t want to mess with it. One of the only possible ways to write about mothers is by making them absent, that’s one of the tricks. In the baby book I wrote about my daughter learning how to speak, and there’s this exchange, a mirroring of words, which led me to think that all language is given to you or received from the mother. It happens in the maternal space.
I know I should read Lacan or Kristeva again. I have a theory that all writers have big mothers, that mothers are big figures in all writers’ lives. I’ve floated this at various tables at various conferences and I’ve never not hit home. And one guy—who shall remain nameless—he started to cry, just started to cry. What’s all that about?
I mean the personality of your mother matters, but it’s not a question of personality —finally. I like to occupy a very primal space when I’m writing, which I think comes through in The Gathering. In this book as well I talk about the very beginnings of narrative being in the body, the body is the place where narrative begins, and where stories finally lodge.
You also write a lot about the body.
I write about the body and I’m very happy to do so (laughs). That’s partly a gender thing. If you’re looking at gender, which as far as I was concerned from a very early age, is mostly constructed. There’s the instinct in children as well, that they’re not going to do the pink thing, or they are going to do the pink thing, the kind of choice that they make when they’re about two or three, whether to be a girl or not. I had very strongly committed not to be whatever a girl was. There were fewer options in those days, it was less of a consumerist issue than it is now. Gender is more of a game, more of a commodity now. But gender was very onerous to me as a system of values. In my grandmother’s house down the country—my father’s mother’s house—where I’d have to set the table for the boys coming in for their tea. This nonsense! I refused to set the table for the boys. Why could the boys not do it? I couldn’t see the biological necessity of putting knives and forks out on the table.
In response to that you say, well, there are differences between men and women, and they are anatomical, so let’s get back and talk about what it is to occupy one kind of body instead of another kind of body. There are possible differences to be discussed there. So yes, I write about the body a lot, or I use the body a lot. I think women’s bodies are really interesting. There’s a line in The Wig where she says a woman’s body causes a lot more anxiety if you happen to have one yourself. Which I stand by now.
Through the years you’ve won a number of prizes—the Rooney Prize, the Encore Award, the Davy Byrnes Irish Writing Award—culminating in the Booker Prize. What have each of those meant to you?
I still don’t know what the Booker means. For the first week or so, I thought everybody had gone slightly mad. It had a lot of an effect on other people; it didn’t have a lot of an effect on me. It was a very nice night and all of that.
I also felt on a larger scale what people feel all their lives: that with writers people like to attack them as much as they like to worship them. Neither is necessarily anything to do with the writers themselves. You get that in Dublin all the time. You get unnecessary aggression in Dublin all the time when you’re a writer. It’s just now writ larger because it’s the Booker. That aversion and attraction, the magnetism gets stronger.
I know I’ve said I haven’t changed much myself, but recently I have had terrible surges of entitlement (laughs) and I wonder why my life hasn’t changed.
The positives though are that you go into a bookshop now and all your books are there.
That’s nice, yeah. It’s nice to see your backlist. You never know how successful you are or how unsuccessful you are. I think that’s a given, that writers never know. That’s one of the reasons why money has a value, the type of deal the writer has, that validation, because they’re looking for something that’s tangible. And this is partly because there’s always a creative shortfall. You’re always disappointed with your books so you’re very alert to criticism and you can’t understand praise. You’re disappointed already before the book goes out. Writers aren’t very good at being successful.
So whether I was a successful writer before or not, I did feel I wanted to make the books stick. And the Booker makes them stick. So that’s fantastic. The Encore Award and the other ones, they’re boosts along the way, and the money of course was important. I didn’t have any money.
The day after the Booker there was that very negative report in the Irish Times by Eileen Battersby. How do you deal with that type of thing?
(Laughs) A part of me says if you can survive Dublin you can survive everything.
But you’ve had that sense for a while. Did I hear you say somewhere that you didn’t think Ireland understood what you were about?
Well, yeah… The Irish thing. I did kind of think that if Ireland started to get the books that the game was over somehow. The writers I respect most annoy Ireland. So to be loved and praised by the Irish Times is perhaps… yeah I can’t finish the sentence, I’m not going to stir the pot. If you’re not annoying Ireland in some way you are doing something wrong. You look at someone like McGahern: he was domesticated very quickly. He is an angry, subversive, dangerous writer and we turned into him four bullocks in a field. So ideas of authenticity and the rural and all kinds of things get mixed up with the idea of McGahern the writer. But you read his short stories and they are grenades rolled across the floor of Irish life.
Who are the writers that you admire?
In Ireland? People give out to me for having so much of Joyce in my work they think, well how presumptuous! I don’t admire Joyce or not. He’s just there, part of the texture of how language is in Ireland. I don’t admire Joyce in that way. I love Beckett, I love Flann O’Brien. I like distinct books from among my contemporaries. I was in a jungle in Peru and a German asked me what are the Irish books he should read. And that’s really a hard question to answer in a jungle in Peru (laughs). There are certain books that kind of rise: like The Butcher Boy or The Book of Evidence or The Master. In the last seven years, I’ve had two children and written four books so I haven’t read in the same way that I used to. If there’s an Alice Munro book coming out, I’ll very happily read that.
So you’ve the collection of stories, Taking Pictures, coming out next?
Well, that has been there for ten years, building up.
And in the lull after the Booker is it difficult to settle back into writing. Are you under more pressure?
It’s hard to describe what my need to write fiction is like. It is like looking at the sea, thinking it would be lovely to have a swim. To go for a swim in that water, that’s what I really want to do. And I haven’t had a chance to do that since the Booker.
It’s like giving up smoking too. Your unconscious will give you several hundred reasons to smoke, and your unconscious will give you several hundred reasons not to write a book. The Booker is just one of those reasons. The writing life is extremely long and it happens day by day over fifteen, twenty, thirty years. So I might write a shite book, but I’m going to write a book.