Anne Enright is the author of eight works of fiction, most recently The Forgotten Waltz (Norton), and The Gathering, which won the prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2007. And just the morning PW talks to her, she finished a screenplay. When asked if it's an adaptation of one of her novels, she smiles wryly. "No, no. Nothing happens in my books."
Over the course of a three-hour meal in Dalkey, a coastal suburb southeast of Dublin, Enright reflects on her work and the work of others. About a decade ago, Enright became a mother; asked if she worried that having children would interfere with her career, she says that she had been "terrified. But when they were babies, as soon as they were asleep, I'd start writing and when I knew they were going to wake up, I typed faster and faster. There is enormous social pressure involved in having children, but you can't worry about it; it's like not worrying about tidying your house. I had a Swiss journalist over once, I had a baby on my knee, I said, ‘I'm sorry about the state of the house.' When I read the article, there was John Banville, who was a genius, there was another genius, there was another genius, and then there was me, the woman who didn't clean her house. And I thought, the reason we don't know many female Swiss writers is because they're too busy banging the duvet over the balcony."
The characters in The Forgotten Waltz, the story of an affair set against the backdrop of Ireland's recent economic implosion, struggle too with wifely conformity and rebellion. The narrator, Gina Moynihan, is scornful of her sister and of her lover Sean's wife, women who are no longer, as Enright puts it, "players"; both have become full-fledged suburban women. And yet Enright admits to enjoying some of the same trappings; she lives in an affluent suburb of Dublin and at the end of the meal she kindly offers to drive me to the train in her minivan. But, she says, "I found marriage a safe place to write from; because he's there, I can write what I want." This is not a position that, on the surface, most feminists would champion, but in a country where the generation of writers before Enright's risked vilification if they wrote about sex, about "bra straps, for God's sake," there is an unavoidable truth to this statement. "Someone told me that there were more penises in The Gathering than in a medical textbook; I was interested in that disapproval. Surely sex is an incredibly valid thing for a woman to write about."
When asked about the received idea that male writers tackle "big" subjects and female writers the "small," she says, "I get the impression that there are male authors whose wives are bringing them tea while they write about strangling prostitutes. There's a self-aggrandizement in that. Male literature is often about large events that never happen. Most men end up rearing kids and growing old, just like women. I thought that it was hugely interesting that the moment had arrived where Jonathan Franzen could write about family; if you think about it, men have almost been barred from writing about ordinary lives for the last 30 years, but if you look at the men in Dickens or Trollope, all the male characters are family men. There are very few family men in modern male literature, so I think it's brilliant that male writers are now allowed to be important and write about family at the same time. Great. Fantastic."
Enright has recently written a male first-person narrator for the first time, in a short story for a new anthology, but, as she points out, most Irish writers of her generation are men and at the moment, "they're all writing female narrators." Asked why she thinks this is, she's quiet for a moment before bursting out, "Gender envy?!" with a hoot of laughter. And then more seriously, "I don't have any large single opinion about men... but a journalist asked me recently why I have so many male readers. ‘Do I?' I said. ‘That's news to me.' "
Johanna Lane is a freelance writer. She was born in Dublin.