The singular Irish writer discusses her recent novel, The Forgotten Waltz – an honest, consuming and characteristically biting examination of Celtic Tiger Ireland.
Anne Enright sipped on a jasmine green tea while I, in a moment of mild panic, had ordered something called white monkey. We met in a little tea house in Manhattan’s West 50s in early October, during her nationwide book tour to promote her latest novel, The Forgotten Waltz. She had been up at 5:00 am that morning, did an interview in Philadelphia and took the train to New York. Later that night she would feature in a Q+A session on stage at Symphony Space. “The road, the road. It will eat you up,” she lamented in her uniquely ironic and frank manner.
It’s a practice she had to adjust to quickly after her 2007 novel, The Gathering, won the prestigious Man Booker Prize and propelled her to fame. The Gathering, which she readily acknowledges “put readers through the wringer,” told the dark and immensely absorbing story of the Hegarty family. Narrated by Veronica, who is grappling with the death of her twin brother, it explores how infatuation, repression and abuse can cycle back to affect generations to come, and how strange and changeable the world is when one is grieving.
Born in Dublin, Enright attended Trinity College, Dublin and went on to study with Angela Carter at the University of East Anglia. Back in Dublin, she worked in television for a few years with RTÉ, and published her first collection of short stories, The Portable Virgin, in 1991. Since beginning to write full time in 1993, her works have included the novels What Are You Like? and The Wig My Father Wore, and Making Babies: Stumbling Into Motherhood, a collection of essays. Enright lives in Bray with her husband and their two children.
Enright’s latest narrator is Gina Moynihan, a fairly average 30-something middle-class Dubliner who works in IT (and happens to share her author’s talent for idiosyncratic, bang-on description). She is married to Conor Shiels, with whom everything seems “slightly too much,” but in love with Séan Vallely, an older, also married man with a mysteriously troubled daughter, Evie. The Forgotten Waltz pairs what on the surface reads as a conversational re-telling of a juicy affair (The Huffington Post declared it “Fall’s Sexiest Novel”), with a much deeper meditation on the mania of Ireland’s Celtic Tiger years and the slow settling of reality that followed.
Why explore an affair and Ireland’s recent history together?
Well, it’s always fun to explore adultery in prose. Adultery is a great subject for a society where old values are changing. Some money comes into the country and there’s a new sense of possibility. The old authorities are not what they were, so people have to create their own personal morality. People are doing things not because they’re told to, but because they tell themselves. There was something about the last five or six years of the boom, it was so frantic and so hectic and people basically were saying that you have to believe in this or it will all stop – if you stop believing in house prices, they will all crash, and the crash will therefore be your fault.
A Tinkerbelle mentality?
Like Tinkerbelle, exactly. It was a huge confidence trick, as bubble economies are, and so when the belief went out of the system, we realized we didn’t have money, we had debt. But there was something about the boom, with people getting what they wanted – for once – and people being a bit greedy and enjoying it, feeling that they deserved it, that it was their time, their turn. I thought that this was similar to an adulterous liaison. The attitude was “This is fantastic – and we’re getting away with it!”
I found all of the little signs of decadence to be very effective. The designer labels – Pauric Sweeney and Issey Miyake – the real estate lingo and the wine talk. Did you do any research for those details or were they just there?
I didn’t have to do that much research. The brilliant thing about writing a book that starts in 2002 is that it’s really, really close. When the copy editor was looking at it and saying “What is this Issey Miyake dress?” I could send him a picture of nearly that dress. I just go online and there it is.
I get a little bit upset when people don’t like Gina and find her materialistic, because I’m pretty like Gina in a way. I wouldn’t have minded an Alberta Feretti wedding dress – I wouldn’t have had the style, but it’s lovely stuff. I don’t know if that makes me a shallow person. I mean, I’m a writer, I can’t be a shallow person!
She’s probably more knowledgeable about wine than she should be – I definitely did a lot of research for that myself, so maybe that’s where the character and the author merge a little bit.
I really enjoyed that though, how even her taste in wine follows the times and gets increasingly snobby. At the beginning she’s “mad into Chardonnay” but a few years on she’s drinking Canadian ice wine.
Yeah, I remember my brother told me about somebody in his circle who said that he was “really bored with Chardonnay.” That was at the beginning of people really naming the wine by the varietal. My brother thought it was such a pretentious thing to say. So, you know, that’s [one of] those tiny little details you pick up over the years and then put in when they’re needed.
But I do think the excesses of the Irish boom are much, much worse than Gina. She’s just a foot soldier. She’s just got a job, she’s not buying and selling, she’s not borrowing huge amounts of money. She’s just living a life really.
I quite liked inhabiting the character, though. It was nice this time around. Veronica in The Gathering was so sad, so Gina was a bit of a break. Also, I’m getting older, and so to inhabit a character who was in her 30s, that was fun.
You started writing The Forgotten Waltz around the same time that the book itself begins. What was that like?
I wrote it from beginning to end. I didn’t skip ahead in my own writing, and that was unusual for me because I usually write in patches and then a book sort of rises to the surface, like a cup filling up, and when it’s full I know I’m finished.
What was it about this story that saw you writing in that way?
I did it as a discipline, because the novel is about cause and effect and that feeling of “What brought me here?” so I wanted to do it step by step. I probably also did it because I’d been kept from the desk for so long that I knew pretty much what the book was going to be by the time I sat down. I didn’t know the finer details or anything, but I had a pretty good idea. I’ve always wanted to do that, just sit down and Write. A. Book. You know? It’s the way it’s supposed to happen and then it never does.
Did your writing or your approach change as things grew worse and worse in Ireland?
It was very strange. Lehman Brothers went down in September 2008. I sat down in January and stared at the wall for a while, and then that week of snow, everybody knew that whatever had happened was terrible, but they didn’t know how terrible. I finished the book just as the IMF walked in the door. Literally as I was writing it the bubble had burst but we hadn’t heard the pop. We had been falling but we didn’t know how fast, we didn’t know how far…And I was really sad about what had happened to the country. I mean, I wasn’t really on board for the boom, I didn’t really get anything out of it. I was living out in Bray with small children, which wasn’t exactly the glamorous boom-time life. But I still was really angry and upset by it all falling apart.
A great similarity between The Forgotten Waltz and The Gathering is the presence of a central moment. In The Forgotten Waltz it’s when Gina first sees Séan in her sister’s garden; in The Gathering, the scene of Ada and Lamb’s first meeting in the hotel foyer, [which Veronica re-creates over and over in her head]. What is it that you like about those moments?
Yes, the garden is very like the scene in the Belvedere Hotel. Obviously I’m leaving these things with reluctance….That hotel scene, I was at it for three months and nothing happens. And nothing happens in the garden. [Séan] turns around and he sees [Gina] and Evie comes up with a mucky face. Someone else asked me about all the looks in my books. I don’t know why I return to looks all the time. I rarely describe my characters’ clothes, for example, they never really look in the mirror. I don’t objectify my female characters, I’m not interested in the male gaze as a problem, which many women writers are. It’s a very good problem to be interested in, but I don’t do that. But I did have to go through The Forgotten Waltz and do a word search on “look.” I had a real thesaurus moment, I had to go for glances and take out some, weed them out. There’s a play of glances throughout the whole book. I’ll have a blind character the next time around. Though that would be a bit exploitative.
I was at a conference at Princeton earlier in the year where you were talking about the Irish short story, and you mentioned something, which perhaps got lost in the overall Irish focus of the day, about misogyny in contemporary literature – how trendy but seldom discussed it is. What did you mean?
Yes, it’s trendy. I think male writers like to look fierce. There’s a lot of showing off in writing in general, whether male or female. And I think there’s probably a puritan streak of disgust in modern fiction. Think about someone like Irvine Welsh, you know? He’s very involved in disgust, which is part of the misogynistic impulse. Counter to that, you look at somebody like Jonathan Franzen, who’s writing about the family. I’m delighted that men can write about the family again. The Victorians did it very easily, so how did we rear generations of men who couldn’t go there? What was so wrong about it for them? Maybe it was a general flight from intimacy socially that isn’t just male.
But everybody admires all these horrible, leery descriptions. They think they’re great, and I can’t help taking it personally. I don’t actually mind misogyny when it isn’t lazy and show-offy. I don’t mind [Charles] Bukowski, for example…But if women complain about it, then they’re seen as being bad sports or something.
How conscious of this are you when you’re creating your female characters, or your male characters’ interactions with your female characters?
I don’t know if Séan is misogynistic or not. He is anti-fat, which I always think is a bad sign. And there is a slight streak of misogyny for sure in Veronica’s husband. She’s very troubled by his potentially ruinous sexuality. But in fact, Veronica’s husband is probably just a regular guy. She’s got all these monsters and this phantasmagoria in her head.
I said once that the world is full of male writers who write about strangling prostitutes while their wives make them tea. You know, they lead these very quiet lives and then they sit down and they have their imaginations outfit the worst possible things. That’s like what Veronica has. She imagines the worst of her husband’s sexuality. Another of my characters says about men “the things they want and the damage they’ll do to get it.” But she is in love with her husband, too.
My personal experience with men is actually very good. I have a really nice father, my brothers are great. I can’t even talk about my husband, he’s fantastic. And so these images of men that you get in literature who are so horrible and so vile don’t ring true to me. I think it’s a noise writers are making, a kind of noise. So I don’t get too worried about it. I have great faith in the human heart, personally. I do.
So many other stories of affairs have women throwing themselves under trains or living in guilt and misery, but Gina isn’t like that. It seems like there are a lot of gentle ironies about her situation rather than any strong judgment or consequences. How did you create that balance?
The biggest irony happens between the writer and the reader, because we’re both listening to Gina and we’re not believing her entirely. It’s that distance between what she says and what we see is going on that’s fun. I’m always amused when people take what Gina says literally. She says “Séan’s wife is really boring and middle-aged.” Then a reviewer says “Séan, married to a boring middle-aged woman,” but you have to say “No, no. Actually, that’s what Gina thinks.” That moral game is interesting to play. That is the line I’m walking through the book, until reality sort of surfaces towards the end and Gina starts to see what we have intimated. She has intimated it as well, but she starts to see it properly for the first time. And when she sees it properly, it’s not a tragedy. I mean, reality, which is what hits at the end, isn’t a tragic thing. Reality isn’t always a dose of cold water.
Do you read your reviews?
Oh I do. It’s very hard not to with the Internet. I think writers who say “Oh, I never read the reviews” are always lying… You have to keep an eye.
I read the reviews not without some anxiety. But now I amuse myself by thinking about the reviewer’s personal situation and what they think about Gina. It’s usually wives and mothers [who] disapprove – maybe. There was one quite mistressy review, by a woman with a lot of lipstick who thought Gina was fab. So I really saw that it depends on where you’re coming from, how you’re going to view the character. And actually, people are beginning to realize that the character and the book are two different things. But it takes years before you know what you’ve written.
One review [Francine Prose’s in The New York Times] said with a lot of conviction that the book was an indictment of “the self-involved material girls our era has produced.” Were you indicting anyone?
No. I have great understanding for people who won’t lead the regular life, who want to do something big, something that might be wrong-headed. I understand that impulse very clearly. So the book is a tiny bit more moral than I’d like, and that is because of the child. Maybe it’s because I’ve become that woman with children that I love putting children in books. But it also matches my interest in the difference between sexual and romantic love and family love. Or love you choose, if you choose, and love you can’t get away from even if you try, which is the family stuff. It’s a great nexus.
Your earlier work has a very surreal quality, which hasn’t been present in your last few books. Where did it go?
Well, you change all the time, you evolve as a writer. I’m probably more interested in real life than I was then. But I still want to write sentences that surprise, sentences that change. I think a lot of what you might call surreal I would call metaphorical, just as a matter of classification. There would still be a metaphorical impulse in my work and there would still be the element of surprise on a more mundane level. I mean, in The Wig My Father Wore, the only actual unreal thing was to have an angel in the book. The other ones, they’re a little bit unreal, they’re a little bit surreal, but everything is logical, everything is mechanically or biologically possible.
The Portable Virgin, though, definitely had its impossible moments.
Yes, it did, and What Are You Like? I don’t know, maybe it’s something about occupying the middle ground more as I get older. I wasn’t a natural partaker of the Irish tradition, I think, because there was so much to say that had been unsaid and because life was so absurd in many ways, in Ireland in those days, that the only conscionable response, the only proper response was to be surreal. Maybe moving more towards the real is kind of also moving towards being more in charge, being more connected to things…. Also, you know, my earlier work wasn’t very much noticed, so I might have moved more towards the kind of work that is noticed.
What’s next for you?
I’ve been working since the kids were born 11 years ago. I think I did have a few holidays, but the last couple of years I’ve been working throughout, still writing in that pleasant village in France instead of having a holiday. So after The Forgotten Waltz came out we took 10 weeks off and had a big break, a big mid-life trip around Southeast Asia. And I didn’t write a single word. My children wrote large graphic novels and screenplays, but we were too busy washing out their clothes and sorting out their swimming costumes. I’m not writing at the moment, and that is amazing, I have not done this for years. It might last at least another three minutes, we’ll see. I’m going to write slower. Spend maybe three or four years on a big book. That’s what’s next. I’m going to not write, and then I’m going to write.
I heard that you may be switching to third person for the next one?
Well, that’s the rumor. I’ve been spreading around rumors about myself! I don’t really know, it takes ages. You have those thoughts and then they don’t really matter once you get going. Writers are always thinking “Is it right? Is it right?” But then when you write it, the ones that are written in order to be right are seldom good, they’re kind of constructed objects. If it’s going to fly, it’s going to come from somewhere else. This in a way is a right book, but it comes from a considerable amount of feeling about what happened to the country.
In what way do you think it’s a right book?
Well, if the public cry goes “Where are contemporary Irish novels?” and you say “Here’s one,” it’s right in that sense, in some kind of public sense.
Considering how immediately you started The Forgotten Waltz as the recession unfolded, do you think it might be among the first of many boom-and-bust novels in the years to come? What do you think it’s like for Ireland to have [the Celtic Tiger and the recession] already being rehashed in literature?
I don’t know. When I was working in telly I went to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and I was walking around these momentous streets looking at the East Germans – everyone thought we were East German because our clothes were so terrible – and I said to myself “Walking these streets now is the next great European novelist. This has to produce books beyond books.” And yet, East Germany has not produced three we can readily name, and that was 1989. History doesn’t produce novels in that way.
There’s a little-mentioned fact about the way Irish writers are promoted abroad by their own government and are used in an almost ambassadorial way now. Writers are not tamed creatures, and they’re not writing in praise of the country. More often it’s the opposite. So there’s an interesting little double thing that’s going on: wonderful Irish writers, most of whom are saying very harsh things about the country. I don’t know if I should point that out or not, that good Irish writing comes from bad Irish situations. But there’s no other way to describe it.
When The Gathering came out people were saying “Why are you so miserable? We’ve got money now.” I wrote it in about 2005 and then nothing happened for another few years, and I thought “Have I got it all wrong?” But as it turned out, I didn’t.