Anne Cunningham on Anne Enright

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Anne Enright interviewed by Niall McMonagle

Smock Alley Theatre, Saturday 23rd May

On the day that Ireland voted yes, I found myself wading through the jubilant crowds outside Dublin Castle, trying to weave a path to Smock Alley theatre. It’s tough, attempting to muscle your way through a crowd in full party mode. But I bravely resisted the urge to simply give in and party on down – I had work to do. And I’m so glad I did it.

Listening to Anne Enright wasn’t work at all, as it happened. She is as much of a joy to listen to as she is to read, and has as much presence on the stage as she has on the page. She made us laugh and smirk and remember and try to forget in a short space of time that seemed longer, somehow, as she crammed so much of herself – with rare honesty and integrity – into a mere 90 minutes.

Niall McMonagle, asking her about her new novel The Green Road, wanted to know if this is a Mother Ireland book? (The matriarch of the family in her novel is called Rosaleen.)

“No, I do it for laughs really – to annoy people!” she smiled, adding that her book is about separation and connection and the Big Separation for everyone is surely that of leaving one’s mother. “We leave our mother and return to find the human being” she said.

In that case, was it simply a modern twist on the King Lear story?

“It’s actually through the writing of two books – one on compassion and the other on a kind of female King Lear that this book came about” explained Enright.

Somewhat surprised, her interviewer asked did she not have the ending of those books in mind, how could two books end up becoming one? He quoted John Fowles’ always knowing the end of his novels before he begins (although it’s John Irving who is famous for that quote), and Anne Enright described how she “travels blind” through the writing process. She has a vague idea of shape and plot but says her books are not narrative driven, she doesn’t suffer from “narrative adrenalin” and prefers to think of them as “taking a bath”.

And then the old turkey came out – a mandatory question for women writers, I’ve heard it asked again and again and again: Had she ever considered writing in the opposite gender…yawn…? Really, you gentlemen interviewers, you should know better. Who asks male writers that question?

Ms Enright seemed to consider the question to be as tiresome as any woman would, and since most of the interview was about The Green Road, I could see her oncoming answer like a train down the track at top speed. “Two of the characters in the book are men” she replied.

“I write 3rd person in the past tense, both male and female. It’s not a question of gender at all, it’s a question of character and that character’s place in the story.”

Being a generous-spirited woman, she showed not one teeny sign of being irked, but the annoyance among the females in the audience was palpable. On the very day we voted for equality on an inherently gender-based issue, that such a question could be asked – and not of an MA writing student, but of a Man Booker prize-winning author, a woman whose prose stands alongside the finest living writers… I found it preposterous.

A question from a member of the audience during the Q & A prompted Enright to give us her frank opinion on the “preciousness” of some writers.

“I’m a professor myself”, stated the audience member, “And Virginia Woolf insisted that writers need a room to themselves – a room dedicated only to writing.”

Ms Enright was gracious as always in her response: “If you’re going to be a good writer, then you need to understand that you’ll never make much money. So you need to cut your cloth and get used to living modestly. Good writing is not about having a dedicated writing room. It’s about the page. It is always – always – about the words on the page.”

By Anne Cunningham

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