An Interview with Anne Enright

Monday, September 19, 2011

Readers of this blog know that I have, in the last month or so, twice brought Anne Enright's new novel, The Forgotten Waltz to this virtual page, once to reflect on Enright's bright capacity with first words and once to review the book in total. Readers also know what a huge fan I am of The Gathering, and of writers who write as fiercely and boldly and still beautifully as Enright.  Today, and without further ado, I bring you this conversation that Anne Enright graciously agreed to conduct—over email.  I asked about that beginning.  I asked about criticism and joy.  I find her answers to be as astute and smart as her books have always been.

The Forgotten Waltz begins with these words:  I met him in my sister’s garden in Enniskerry.  That is where I saw him first.  There was nothing fated about it, though I add in the summer light and the view.  I put him at the bottom of my sister’s garden, in the afternoon, at the moment the day begins to turn.   It’s a simple-seeming beginning, but it is not.  It is a tempo already firmly established.  It is a series of small contradictions, nuance and shadow.  Were these the first words that you wrote for this book?  Does story take hold of you first, when you are writing, or is something else (the sound of a song, for example) at work?

Every book I write I am asked about beginnings, and I look back at my files and am no closer to an answer. Whatever way I begin, it is not large. I don't sit at the keyboard like a mad pianist about to launch into a Beethoven sonata (neither did Beethoven, for that matter). I pootle along. I rearrange things. I write something small and tuck it away. The 'first words' you read have been written and rewritten many times, as have all the subsequent words in the book. The trick is to keep them fresh.  I think I did know what I wanted to write about - I knew a fair amount about Gina and Se├ín. But, at the beginning of the book, Gina does not know - or not yet. I wanted to catch that sense of 'nearly knowing'. My ideal is a text that that holds a sense of movement and ambiguity. All the fun, for me, comes from finding the right tone.  

You are interested, you have indicated in previous interviews, not in the absolute good or bad of your characters, but in the arrangement and consequences of their flaws.  What have you gained, as a writer, by keeping your eye trained on personal fault lines?

I think it is a more honest way to proceed.  

In your books, time is fluid.  It is the stillness of snow.  It is the rapid chaos of regret.  It is leaning forward, trailing back. In Waltz, Gina is 32 then 34 then 32 again, and Evie is a child and then a teen and then she is only a child again.  How do you manage all of that, keep it straight in your own mind?  How much do you already know about the history of your characters when you finally sit down to write your books?

I know a fair amount about my characters, and find out more along the way; the how and where of it. The Forgotten Waltz walks a pretty straight road compared to The Gathering, but actually, both books tell a very simple story about how we change.  The line of a story is different from the line of a life.  I always know where I am emotionally in a book.

How do you suppose your background in television affected the way you approach the page?

Well, that was all a long time ago. I remember I went, with a reporter, to cover the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. We talked and listened and shot footage and drew the large conclusion that this event would not lead to the reunification of Germany but to a new kind of socialism in the East. We weren't the only ones saying this at the time, this was the media concensus. But I found it hugely interesting to be proved wrong on that one: it exposed my preconceptions, my prejudices, and my inability to see or hear what was in front of me (in the taxi, the local radio was playing the banned fourth verse of the national anthem, a pretty damn shocking fact that I managed to ignore). Being right is boring. It tells us nothing. The world is full of people being right. I thought there was room for someone who did not make that claim, and that a book was the best place to do this.  

You have said that your next book will likely be written in the third person.  What do you sacrifice when moving away from the first person?  What do you hope to gain?

I think, with Gina, I have gone as far as I want to go with whatever this is: the way my characters annoy the reader, the way a friend annoys you, even though - or because - you like them so much. People either get it, or don't, which is fine by me. But I just want to open up, creatively. I mean I just want to keep opening. That is part of the impulse to write: that gesture. It is also what happens  when we have a physical book in our hands. We open it. Wonderful.   

How much time goes by between the finishing of one book and the start of another?  How do you clear your mind for the next thing?

There is a time and tide in this. No matter how much I fuss or push, I start writing the next book about a year after the last one is published.

Does writing make you happy?

I really think it does, yes.

Do you care what critics think?

Critics are like mosquitoes. It's worse if you scratch.


Elizabeth Mosier said...

"Critics are like mosquitoes" -- GREAT!

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