An Interview with Anne Enright

'Layers of Knowing, and Not Knowing'
This story is included in these collections

Anne Enright’s new novel is The Green Road, a title referring in part to the walking path across the rocky expanse of the Burren in Ireland’s County Clare. Enright has authored five other novels, including The Gathering, which won the 2007 Man Booker Prize, and three story collections. She recently spoke with Commonweal digital editor Dominic Preziosi about the mythologizing of Ireland in literature; about Pope John Paul II’s 1979 visit to Ireland; and about being named Ireland’s first fiction laureate.

Dominic Preziosi: It seems readers might come to a novel about Ireland with expectations of encountering a particular, and familiar, Irish world. But in The Green Road, you present something that’s very different from those expectations.

Anne Enright: I was walking the Green Road of western Ireland myself and thinking this place has been so written and rewritten and overwritten. But there I was and it was real, and the effect of it was personal. And it wasn’t to do with the Irish Literary Revival or anything else. I mean, the stones were there under my feet. I had avoided that part of the world for a long time even though my father came from there, and it occurred to me: Why shouldn’t I own it as much as anyone else—or as no one else?—and use it as necessary in the story. It’s the place where people imagine the innocence of Ireland; the innocence still inheres.

What I’m doing is trying to write a story and using what’s available. I was going to say I’m not a mythologizer, but in fact there is a very big swing to mythology in The Green Road. It’s only partly Irish though. You could say there’s a blast of King Lear in there, and also a poem that I didn’t even know was in my head, by Emily Lawless—“Fontenoy, 1745”—in which she speaks of Ireland as a lamenting mother. The suffering of women was highly valued in my youth. A big premium was put on female suffering. It was not so much admired as expected, and seen in some ways as transcendental. And I had no interest in that form of suffering. I just didn’t see what was in it for me, basically. That lamenting of “mother Ireland” in Lawless’s poem becomes rather dreary. It’s a very cold figure of Ireland who throws her daughters and sons away.

DP: In The Green Road a number of characters leave Ireland—the brother Daniel, for instance, who when we meet him as a boy wants to be a priest. But when we pick up his story years later, he is in New York, living a much different life.

AE: The landscape in which the novel is set is saturated with ideas of emigration. It’s the last place before America, on the fringes of the Atlantic. And people just left it all the time. Daniel in effect leaves the book before he makes an entrance again. And he’s a stranger when we pick up with him again. To the people in New York, and perhaps to himself as well. It takes history a while to catch up with him. It takes a while for his personal life and social life to chime in some way that’s bearable for him. But even then it’s a bit of a struggle for him.

DP: How realistic or genuine is Daniel’s belief early on that he will become a priest?

AE: Daniel is maybe seventeen at that point in the book, which is set just after Pope John Paul II’s visit to Ireland in 1979, and he believes it himself. It’s when he comes back years later and looks at his bookshelf, the Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Tennyson, all of these poets, that he says: “How did I not know in some way?” There are multiple ways to know anything. And this is Ireland in the past thirty years: They’ve started to know things more properly. There are layers and layers of knowing, and not knowing. Daniel questions his own sense of denial. And when unknowing turns into denial is another question. It’s very deep in the psyche and it takes a while to emerge.

I missed the pope’s visit because I was in Canada. And I was getting these ecstatic letters from friends, one of whom was a born-again charismatic non-Catholic Christian, and suddenly became super-Catholic. And one of whom was a very laid back, beyond-atheist atheist, who was just delighted and amazed. It seems to me that that excitement was a sort of fever pitch of denial, the same way Ireland’s economic boom was a fever pitch of denial. What was happening was very antic. It was dancing over the chasm, really, like Wile E. Coyote in “Road Runner”—nothing happens until you look down. It was the last hurrah for the Catholic Church before the changing of the brand. And it took a long time for those changes to break through the institutional power of the church. But those changes were real on the ground.

DP: Was the abuse scandal the precipitating reason?

AE: It wasn’t about the sex abuse. We didn’t know such a thing could be possible, let alone exist. People just wanted to live their lives and fall in love and, you know, whatever proceeds from that. Have sex. Sex was the first thing. The abuse came much later, in the nineties. Before that, it was literally asking some woman in Tipperary not to have eleven children. It was basic issues about people’s lives, about contraception and premarital sex and how all of that was regulated. This was before any arguments about divorce, or abortion. The argument was for contraception, and it was 1983 before this came into law, four years after the pope’s visit. I mean, when the pope was in Ireland, contraception was illegal! It’s just astonishing when you think about it. It was just about living the life people lived in other countries without question. That atmosphere in the 1980s was very claustrophobic. There was all this keening about the economy and the loss of the youth, and though the jobs were no longer there the people who were coming to America were trying to escape that moral atmosphere as well.

DP: You were recently named Ireland’s first fiction laureate. Did you have any sense that such an honor was coming?

AE: I knew the thing was in the air and then I got the phone call in December. I had a few lovely weeks when no one else knew. In some ways it’s a great honor. That’s one thing to do with a writer, is to give a writer a label and an honor. So there’s a ceremonial and formal thing that’s lovely.

DP: How do this and winning the Man Booker Prize rate in comparison?

AE: All of these reputational issues are problematic and can be intrusive to the creative process, or not, however you manage them. But you can really only ever be praised at home. It’s very important. Ireland’s one of those countries with a culture of reluctance when it comes to praise. It’s almost as if you have to succeed in every corner and cranny of the universe before you’re accepted in Ireland. So it’s much more special than the Booker.

DP: You started in television, but did you always have intentions of a literary career?

AE: I only went into television by accident. I was going to be a writer—I had done a master’s in creative writing. I’d been working in the theater, while in the desert of unemployment. And then I got the offer of a job writing a soap for television. But then I went and did the creative writing program in England.

DP: Did you start placing stories right away then?

AE: During that year I tried—and failed—to write not just the great Irish novel but beyond that, the great world novel. It was a huge thing, and a complete failure, and I threw it in the bin. I had a long and lonely and hard year there. And I came home and bashed out four stories and they were immediately taken up by Faber for a collection. And I was set then. I was on the road.

DP: Do you think a writer has to go through this process of failing first, of taking on this project that might not even be the right project, but experiencing that so as to know how to go about doing things the right way?

AE: I’m sure there are some blessed individuals who just sit down and type, but I haven’t met them, I don’t think. Even now, twenty-five years on, you sit down and write the wrong thing and have to throw that out and start writing the proper thing.

DP: You write of looking back on early stories and saying “worst of all, women in my early stories have children and say the experience has not changed them. How wrong can you be?” “Change” can be read in a number of ways there. What did you mean by it?

AE: What would be more accurate is to say that having children has not connected them. The women in the early stories are in a high state of disconnect. There’s a sort of modernist impulse there, I think. Now, I think of Kafka, what if children had come out of him and turned around to look at him—how would his disconnect from the world have survived such an experience? And I think the answer is: With great difficulty. I’m quite interested in taking the bleak or disconnected or modern or male stylist/writer/narrator and giving him, or her, a mother. Put the mothers back in, put the children back in to discuss the roots of ennui.

DP: You’ve received acclaim for your short fiction and novels alike. Is there a form you feel more suited to, or that you prefer?

AE: I really used to love writing short stories. I was slightly alert to the reputational issues—you know, that short stories are considered harmless. You could get a nice pat on the head for being a good short story writer, but I didn’t want my stories to be harmless. So then to actually swing in there, into the public space with a novel, was considered something else. I do love short stories, but I haven’t written one for a long time. They’re very personal for me. I think as you get older it’s harder to be personal.

DP: There’s a lot of humor in your short fiction, which I think is something that a young reader might not pick up on but that an older reader does. Were you aware of the humor lurking underneath the surface in your stories?

AE: Like you I always thought literature was a very serious business and there were no jokes in it. But I had an English teacher when I was young who said of a poem by Keats, “Well, we all know what that means,” meaning it was about sex. And I went up to him after class and I said he had ruined Keats for me. Can you imagine? Two years later I thought that this was the best discovery ever. You can have irony and you can have humor. And there can be rude things in books. I was reading Lolita by then, I was reading Mailer. I was reading a lot of stuff in my early teens, reading was a free sport in my house. Nobody was saying, “What are you reading that for?” Anyway, sometimes I don’t know that I’m making a joke. I may find it funny but it doesn’t have the rhythm of a joke or a punchline. There were all of these families on the road I grew up on, where the women—their sense of humor was quite dark. I mean, dark things happened. People died. And they made jokes. It’s not necessarily a literary humor.

DP: What about this “safeness” of stories? Was there short fiction that when you encountered it made you think: “This is how I want to do it”?

AE: I read all of the Father Brown stories, because they were short and accessible. Somerset Maugham, Conan Doyle. There were a lot of them around. There were also many editions of Frank O’Connor. And then my sister, who was older than me, brought home a book called The Naked I. It was fiction from the seventies. It had Coover, Barthelme, Sylvia Plath, and it was a complete revelation. First of all, there was the swagger of the American first person—just pure confidence. And the lack of apology. What I loved was the brazen edge between confessionality and swagger. Those writers had a way of saying things that made them funny and radical. You know, the “I” was not much used in Irish fiction. You had to write about everyone else rather than about yourself. To write about yourself or even the character’s self was seen as a kind of selfishness. And women in particular would be seen as selfish.

DP: Was there any specific writer who influenced you? And who are the writers who appeal to you today?

AE: When I was in college I came across Jayne Anne Phillips and Grace Paley. Today my reading is broken by the fact that I’m writing books. I’m catching up with early Lorrie Moore at the moment, and that seems incredibly good, and I know I’m going to like it. I’m also reading the first in the series of the Melrose novels by Edward St. Aubyn.

DP: Rosaleen Madigan, the mother of the family in The Green Road, is a character I think might resonate with many readers. How did you go about creating her?

AE: I’m interested in narcissism, basically, and abandonment. The false and perfect self of the narcissist and of the writer. Rosaleen is constantly on the brink of being abandoned. She doesn’t really grow up or change, she just gets slightly worse. She loses her fabulous charm. The things that worked don’t necessarily work anymore, so she just makes her life smaller. I think people do that as they get older. They don’t want to know about things outside. In her case, she’s affronted by her children leaving her. Daniel leaves, and Emmet, the other brother, leaves to be an aid worker in Africa. Why is her son worrying about famine in Africa when he could be thinking about his mother, who’s there on her own? Rosaleen is a woman who has only recently started talking about her childhood. You might think this kind of person would create a wonderfully fabled childhood but she doesn’t. She doesn’t really have a past. She has a father, and that’s the important thing. The mother is just a blur for her.

DP: You’ve written of the creative moment “as something that can’t be repeated,” something “both wonderful and melancholy.” Do you still find that to be the case?

AE: This time out, yeah. I’ve been writing some pieces about the novel and have repeated some things about walking up the Green Road. I recently wrote a piece too about being found under the dining room table at the age of one covered in Marmite. And I realized as I was writing it out that I can’t write this again. You can only be covered in Marmite once in your life. And you can only find the words for it once. You can’t endlessly be banging on about it all. And then, you sometimes find yourself being very careful with your experiences; you don’t want to squander them on a short piece, for example. And that’s a sort of false stinginess. You have to ration it out but believe there’s going to be more. You can come at it from some other angle or use it some other way. But I do sometimes have that essentialist sense when I sit down to the desk and think: “This is it.” 

For more interviews from Commonweal, see our full list.

Published in the July 10, 2015 issue: 

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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This story is included in these collections:

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