Presents First Novel Since She Won the Prestigious Booker Prize
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
For many Americans, sudden worldwide fame would be a dream come true. For Irish novelist Anne Enright, who for two decades has been working at what she calls “two full-time jobs, writing and kids,” it was at least a bit of a nightmare. When her novel The Gathering won the Man Booker Prize, Britain’s equivalent of the Pulitzer, in 2007, “it made me very grumpy for a while,” she told an audience at the San Diego Public Library October 10. “It was a learning experience — except I’m not sure I learned anything, except I learned about readers in a way I hadn’t before. All my ideas about intellectual or critical response were ditched. I realized that whatever you do, some mad critic is always going to be mad. What you get from the reader is a much more open and much more treasurable response.”
Enright came to San Diego to promote her new book, The Forgotten Waltz — her first since she won the Booker Prize. It’s about an obsessive love affair between two people, both married to others and with children by their legal spouses, who drift into the sort of relationship they feel compelled to continue despite the guilt and wretchedness it trails in its wake. Though she kept the message subtle and veiled, The Forgotten Waltz is Enright’s response to the economic roller coaster Ireland rode between 2002, when its economy boomed so much it was referred to as the “Celtic Tiger,” and 2007, when it crashed largely due to the same insane sorts of speculation on housing prices that would bring down the U.S. economy a year later.
According to Enright, The Gathering — a tale of family dysfunction and secrecy in which nine surviving children of the Hegarty family come together in Dublin for the funeral of their wayward brother Liam — didn’t get good press from the Irish reviewers. “The people who thought their opinion matters said, ‘This is the wrong book,’” she recalled. “Part of it was that in 2007 we were still in a boom, and the shadow of the coming collapse was being denied by everyone. If you undermined that confidence, it was your fault. If you said housing prices were going to go down, it was your fault because you made them go down.”
Though Enright denies any “big nostalgia for the Ireland that was gone,” she said The Forgotten Waltz was her response to the economic boom in her country and the subsequent collapse. “An affair is very much like an economic boom,” she said. “It’s fun. It’s like, ‘Whoo!’” She deliberately had The Forgotten Waltz take place between 2002 and 2009 so it would encompass both the boom and the bust. She also recalled that, despite her determination not to repeat herself, the way the plot of The Forgotten Waltz shaped itself in her imagination led her to end it with a big scene at the funeral of the heroine’s mother.
In response to an audience question about the “suave monsignor” she wrote into The Forgotten Waltz, Enright said that one of the biggest changes in Ireland is “you don’t see the priests anymore. They don’t wear their collars anymore because they’re tired of being spat on.” That, she said, is a direct result of the scandals about priests committing sexual abuse of children and the church hierarchy covering it up, often by moving priests from parish to parish before the police became aware and caught them.
“The last party I was at with a priest was hosted by an American Democratic family in Ireland,” Enright recalled. “The scandals had been coming out in dribs and drabs in America, but it was only recently that an Irish politician had said, ‘Priests have to obey the law.’”
Asked if it was difficult for her to write another book after winning the Booker, Enright said it wasn’t because she prides herself on making each book different from her others. She cited one novel, The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch (2002), about an Irish woman who became the consort of a 19th century president of Paraguay, which she described as “very lush” and a total stylistic departure from the books she’s written about contemporary Ireland.
“The pressure on me would be to do the same [sort of book as The Gathering] and give the people that ‘brand,’ but I don’t have the intellectual patience for that,” Enright said. “I don’t know if America is peculiar in that regard, but I’d already decided that success or failure is injurious to talent. When you write, you’re not writing for an ‘audience,’ but for an individual reader.”
Unlike many writers, Enright doesn’t set a time during which she writes steadily every day. That, she explained, is a luxury a writer who’s also a stay-at-home mom can’t afford. “My two little daughters are a priority,” she said. “I’m writing all the time. I’m thinking about the book all the time. It sort of functions the way worry might. It’s there with me all the time. I write and listen to the kids all the time. I’m never any good in the mornings. My best work is done 20 minutes before I have to pick the kids up.”
Asked what she’s working on next, Enright ducked the question. “I don’t want to talk about it,” she said. “I’m superstitious about talking about a work in progress. The Forgotten Waltz was easy. A lot of people asked me if it was difficult to write a book after the Booker. It wasn’t; it was easy. It’s having the book out that’s hard.”
Enright said she does “a lot of exploratory writing” about her characters and situations before she actually pulls them together into the book we get to read. “There are a lot more words in the trash bin than in the book,” she said. “The Gathering fell apart many times until I realized that it was about falling apart.” She said that The Forgotten Waltz was a technical challenge because it begins on the last day of the story and then flashes back. “If I’d stayed on the day” — as James Joyce did in his famous Ulysses, which takes place entirely on a single date — “it would have been a much easier book to write technically. You spend a lot of time making things up and then trying to fit them in.”Asked if she had any advice for aspiring writers, Enright said, “I have various little stories I could tell about becoming a writer. It’s just something that spreads throughout your life. I can’t do anything else. It’s been like that since I quit my day job [as a TV producer] in 1993. I’m not enjoyable to be around when I’m not writing. My family will tell me, ‘Go away and write something.’”