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Interview With Anne Enright

January 5, 2012

An Interview with Anne Enright

When Booker-prize winning Irish author, Anne Enright, came to Portland a few months ago, I had a chance to sit down with her to talk about her fantastic new novel, The Forgotten Waltz (W.W. Norton, 2011). It’s a story of family relationships and love amid a backdrop of the recent boom and bust economy of Ireland. Gina is married to Conor as she begins an affair with Sean whose own marriage is failing. His daughter is twelve-year-old Evie. It’s a spectacular look at ordinary people muddling through their middle-class lives.

At first glance your new book, The Forgotten Waltz, appears to focus on adultery as a major theme. But really that’s just a minor chord, right?

Yeah, the hidden story that runs all along is the story of Evie and the unexpected love at the end.

What is Gina’s relationship to love?

All girls know what love is. Love is this amazing catastrophe that sweeps us away so Gina’s kind of discovering something beyond the catastrophe – that is, romantic love.

Why does she start the affair with Sean?

There’s something enjoyably wrong-headed about Gina. She knows it’s the wrong thing and she’s doing it anyway. But she’s driven by a desire that she doesn’t quite understand. Also, from the beginning of the book, we know she’s not going to do the suburban 2.4 kids thing. She’s on the brink of it – the mortgage, the house, the jobs – and she just swerves.

Why do you think she swerves?

Various things are involved in it. She’s a passionate person, and she wants to live a big life. But, also there are things in her childhood that predispose her to chaos. Namely, a drinker father. There was a lot of denial about the father’s drinking. The denial of what it is feeds into Gina’s general denial and state of unknowing. It’s like someone talking to you who realizes what they’re saying as they speak. The realization grows in the book. There are hints and intimations all the way through. She starts to realize what her story actually is toward the end.

It seems like Gina could be anyone one of us at some point in our lives. The quest for love is such a powerful drive. It’s hard not to relate to her narcissism at least a little.

Yeah, she’s doing something desperate and interesting. I’ve never seen anybody be wise in love. Maybe in a book. Maybe that’s why I don’t trust them a lot of the time. Because we’re not wise. Our motivations are mixed and we don’t know why we’ve done what we’ve done. We don’t know how we arrived at this place in our lives. How did I end up here?

Children are a major theme in the book, but Gina doesn’t have much of a maternal instinct. She doesn’t seem interested in having children of her own, does she?

No, Gina’s not going to go there. She finds the whole pregnancy thing freaky, which it is. That’s not said often enough – it’s a very freaky thing. If I were writing a more journalistic book, I would make it clear that Gina doesn’t want to have kids because she wants to stay in the game. It’s a kind of function of her ambition. She’s not going to be saddled. I knew when I had kids that you’re out of whatever that jostling thing is, that getting ahead thing.

I found a lot of humor in your book – dark humor. I thought Gina said some fantastically funny things. I’m guessing that came from your personality?

Yeah, I suppose. There’s a lot of me in Gina for sure, but there’s a lot of me in all my books. I don’t have anyone else to write from. So sure it comes from me. I’m having a lot of fun with the reactions to this book. I feel that readers are mirrors, somebody who’s funny, will find it funny. Somebody who’s miserable will find it a really miserable book. Somebody who’s been cheated on will fling it away and think that Gina is just the worst kind of creature. So you look at reviewers and you can tell quite a lot about them from their comments. That’s a lot of fun.

When you sat down to write this book, did you have a clear idea of what you wanted to say? What was your process?

I did. I wrote it as you read it. I wrote the preface about Evie first and actually wrote it linearly, because it is sort of a cause and effect. I thought it would be interesting to do that step-by-step. I had been kept from the desk for a year so it was pretty much all there in my head. It took me nearly two years. The economy was falling for those entire two years. I decided in January of 2009 that I would sit down and do nothing. I wouldn’t go out or do anything. So I would sit for three months and sink into the book. But the beginning of a book is always the same – a lot of staring at the wallpaper before you get going. So it’s not pretty. I’ve done this so often now that I know that that’s just how it is.

It was handy that you had the economic boom and bust as a backdrop.

Yeah, at least I got a book out of it. There’s always an upside to an economy completely destroyed.

The name of the book and all the chapter titles are musical but there are very few references to music in the book. I was hearing artists like Diana Ross in the chapter titles. What’s that about?

Sheet music is a great way of conveying love. The thing I like about the pop music in the book is that it’s great for being unashamedly foolish.

There’s a lot of sex in the book, but I wouldn’t call it a sexy book. Sometimes sex is described as “too interesting” or “a bit too actual” or “kisses are better than actual sex.” Most of the sex takes place in hotels. What are you saying about sex?

My last book, The Gathering, is full of explicit sexual references because I think it was true to what Veronica was experiencing then – that she was very aware of the physical world. She was very aware of men’s anatomy. We didn’t know what she desired at the end of the book, but she certainly didn’t desire any men in the book. I thought that was really sad that in a book that was full of this sexuality she didn’t have a thing she wanted. So I thought Gina would be someone who really knew what she wanted, and who was full of desire and very clear about her desire. Someone asked me why there were so many male members in The Gathering. I thought, what’s wrong with that? Why is that a problem? Why are women not supposed to write about this very important part of the male anatomy? It causes a lot of bother in the world one way or another, and a lot of good things too, and women are encouraged to think about it in more romantic terms. You know the weird thing that nobody’s mentioned is that Gina has a really active and real sex life with Conor. The fact is that it’s too real for her because it’s about to involve babies. With Sean, we don’t even know if he’s good in bed. Gina would never describe Sean in bed – it would be taboo.

Why did you divide the book into three acts like a play?

Yeah, everything I do has a kind of three-act structure. I’m almost worried about it now. It’s a kind of Hollywood structure. People don’t notice that The Gathering has a kind of Hollywood-style structure, which is, something happens a quarter of the way in, something happens half the way in, and then again at three quarters in. You crack any book of literary fiction and say it’s 300 pages long, for example, what happens on page 150 will be one of the crucial moments no matter what the book’s about.

Were you always a big reader?

Books were always interesting to me. My mother used to bring me to the library every week, and I’d go to the library after school and she was a huge reader. When I was in my twenties, I would sit on the sofa and I would read all day. I would forget to eat. I would read until I had to switch the light on. I read voraciously up until I had kids, and then my reading just sort of fell apart for awhile for various reasons. I wasn’t finding what I wanted in the books. This life is so difficult and amazing and I wasn’t finding that in the books. Slowly, I’m getting my reading back together now. Now I’m really a very slow reader and I get very impatient with books because they make me think of my own books. I read until I have to write the thing.

You have two children. Did you always want to be a mother?

No, that was all a bit of a shock to the system really. I thought I’d lose a book for every baby – somebody said that to me. But that turned out not to be true for me. I didn’t write much while I was pregnant. It’s like writing when you’re waiting for a bus. It’s really hard to write while you’re waiting. I wrote like crazy when they were born because I really needed the money. I thought everything was going to fall apart, so I wrote to hold it together. Really wrote all the time for ten years. I thought it was such a blast when I had them. I wish I hadn’t started so late. If I hadn’t put it off so long I would have had five. I was 38 when I had my first and 41 for the second.

I see my friends who have children who are now having children of their own and it seems like a big cult that I’m not part of.

It is a cult – that’s a very good word. Having a baby is like becoming a member of a cult because like a cult, you’re woken up at random hours of the day and night and you have to placate and worship. That’s what they do in the Moonies, they wake them up in the middle of the night and make them pick beans in the field. That’s what they do in re-education camp when they break people down to try and make them believe in something. Having a baby is a perfect example of how well it works because you end up loopy and talking about these human beings endlessly and alienating everyone else. Yes, cult is a good word for it.

Anne Enright was born in Dublin where she now lives and works. She has published two volumes of stories, collected as Yesterday’s Weather; one book of nonfiction, Making Babies; and four novels. Her novel, The Gathering, won the 2007 Man Booker Prize.

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