I do think writing is about desire...it’s an emotion, a movement, a want

Sue Leonard talks to Booker prize winner Anne Enright about her work.

I do think writing is about desire...it’s an emotion, a movement, a want

A YEAR or two ago, Anne Enright was sitting in a London hotel eavesdropping. She heard a discussion about books, and on the fact that nobody had written a good book after they’d won the Man Booker prize.

“Everyone expects that the next book will be harder,” says Anne, when we meet in the Royal Marine Hotel, Dun Laoghaire.

“But it was exactly the bloody same. I spent three months looking at the same wall. It was, ‘there I am again’.”

She laughs. Kicking off her shoes, she curls into her armchair. Anne’s bleak, yet beautiful book, The Gathering, won the Man Booker prize in 2007. She’s written, and edited, short stories since, but The Forgotten Waltz is her first post-Booker novel. And it’s even more magical than its predecessor.

Focusing on the progress of a love affair, it’s a thought-provoking look at boom, and post-boom Ireland. Enright captures that fraught, frantic sense of denial brilliantly, yet this state-of-the-nation novel doesn’t dwell on bank collapses, or excesses of money.

“It’s a story of empathy,” she says. “And there are layers of denial in the book. There were in The Gathering, too, but these are more middle-class denials. It’s our idea of the recent good times, and how slightly hectic, hysterical and frantic it got at the end when we were in total denial about it.”

Enright’s reaction to her Man Booker win was measured.

“It was like the world had changed and I hadn’t. And I didn’t see the point of the world changing. I was giving William Trevor an award at The Irish Book Awards, and he said an award is an alarming event. He said you can’t use it in your fiction, and I agree with him.

“The one thing it did do for me, was that I met more readers that year than I had ever dreamed possible. And I was suddenly much more interested in the reader. I wrote this book for the reader, and I used to think I was writing for the approval of the critic. And you can’t get that. I won the Booker and various critics howled.”

This shift shows. I admired The Gathering enormously. But I simply adored this new book — for its subtlety, its flawed muddled heroine, and for the intricacies of all the relationships Enright describes.

How did she get the idea?

“People were saying, ‘nobody has written about the boom,’ and I was looking at boom literature in post-war America. I studied suburban writers, and their big subject was adultery. It’s a fantastic boom subject. Before 2001 we couldn’t afford adultery in Ireland. Ordinary Ireland just didn’t have it.”

The protagonist, Gina, is married to Conor, a nice easy guy whom she loves. Yet when she meets Seán, and older, married man, who is much more controlling and difficult, she can’t stop herself falling for him. And the reader absolutely understands the attraction.

“And actually, Gina and Conor had a great sex life. It’s not that she’s abandoning him. It was actually that Seán was romance. Conor was too real for her.”

Enright lived with these characters for almost two years. Was the writing of the novel like having an affair? She laughs, and hugs her knees.

“I’m sure an affair would be much more fun. But I do think writing is about desire. The book is about frozen desire. It’s an emotion, a movement, a want.

“The sad thing about Veronica in The Gathering, was that she didn’t know what she desired. I thought I will now write a book where the woman really does know what she desires, so the whole emphasis is an over-abundance. Yet underneath, reality is ticking.”

Enright set the start of her novel during the great snow of early 2009. She began writing it then, too.

“And I finished it in November, 2010, just as the IMF came in. That week of snow was amazing. It was the first time it had happened for years and years and everything stopped. I had to go to a funeral in Northern Ireland, and drive a lot of my family up the M1 and down again in the same day.

“It was a very beautiful funeral, but I didn’t want to write about those again. I just felt, ‘whatever this book is about, this is the day.’ This feeling of vertigo and feeling of falling suited my purposes. And I wrote it from the beginning to the end, because it is a simple story.”

I’ve seen Anne partying at festivals. She’s gregarious, and delightfully down to earth.

“I need to party because I’m alone every day. But if I’m too much with people, that doesn’t suit me at all. It’s surprising how close you can get to a character, by simply staying very still. You think how it would be. You imagine the situation very closely.”

While she will talk about almost everything, including the breakdown she had in her early 20s, the shutters come down occasionally. When I mention Irish begrudgery, or the fuss when she wrote about the Madeleine McCann case, there is a stony silence.

“I can’t possibly comment,” she says, eventually.

After the media circus, Anne intends to take a break.

“My husband, Martin Murphy, director of the Pavilion Theatre, will take one too. It’s been a really hard ten years. We’re going away somewhere. I don’t know where yet, but I’m not going to write about it.”

There’s been little feedback on The Forgotten Waltz just yet. But reactions from her friends have been positive.

“People have found echoes of their own life in it. One friend said, ‘Gina is a bit of a strap isn’t she?’ Another said, ‘I am with Gina 1,000 per cent.’”

* The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright is published by Jonathan Cape at €17.99, Kindle edition May 31.

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