An interview with novelist and short-story writer Anne Enright appears in the Believer’s January issue, and we have for you here another Logger-exclusive portion of Conan Putnam’s conversation with Enright, featuring more about yoga, adapting Angela Carter stories for children, censoring oneself, and refusing to answer any questions about progress.
I. There will always be hills.
THE BELIEVER: You’ve said that you feel very much at home at your desk. Was it hard to take back your privacy after you won the Man Booker Prize in 2007 for “The Gathering”?
ANNE ENRIGHT: It was hard to get back a sense of creative territory, an uninvaded creative space after The Booker. But I don’t know if you do ever give up your privacy really. You have the persona that you have, that you present for public occasions. And you have the creative thing, something that you have to guard quite closely. Although I was worried about it, especially with my fiction, I was very careful, somehow, and I didn’t lose it.
BLVR: Maybe because it is so precious to you.
AE: Fiction certainly is more precious and somehow easier and more necessary for me than my journalism. I don’t make it important to the point that I become neurotic about it. It’s important like hills are important or the sea is important. It’s just there, you know? I console myself with the thought that there will always be hills.
BLVR: Can you talk a little bit about that state you need to be in when you are beginning a new book?
AE: Starting a new novel is always hard. It’s always fretful. You have to move through various stages of anxiety and agitation and then you have to wait for it all to subside. Exercise and yoga do not clear your head. It’s like a lot of things. You have to be cut off, at home in the silence, you know?
BLVR: Do you think that’s what attracts the muse back, that silence?
AE: I don’t believe in the muse. No. It’s just one sentence after the other. And I’m at a bad stage to be talking about this. It’s hard for me to discuss right now. I’m leaving on Monday for Germany for five days. And then I’m going to sit down and start the new book when I come back.
BLVR: Then we don’t have to talk about that.
AE: No. Don’t make me cry.
BLVR: I thought crying came at the very end of a book.
AE: Yeah. Crying comes at the end. I didn’t cry at any time during The Forgotten Waltz but I was surprised at the end at how much I really loved the little girl, Evie, in that book. Children are very distinctively unknowable in the sense that, whether we are related to them or not, we use them all the time, for our own projections.
BLVR: What do you mean?
AE: Children don’t stay still in our heads. They’re hard to fix. I do like that about them. I like having a bit of a chat out of my kids. It’s one of my favorite things to do.
BLVR: Do you think you’d ever write a book for children?
AE: I don’t know who I could write a children’s book for, apart from my own children. When we were still reading books to the kids at night time, I’d be reading Roddy Doyle’s children’s books, which are a total delight to read aloud. They really make so much sense. The kids just bundled into them. And they asked me, Why don’t you write a book like that? And my answer is, I can’t. It’s really hard. I made up a couple of stories for my daughter one summer when we were driving through France. But god, it killed me. It was really hard work. One was an adaptation of Angela Carter’s The Tiger Bride. You know, that one where it’s sort of Beauty and the Beast and Beauty turns into this fabulous beast at the end of the story, instead of the Beast turning into a human, very handsome prince. Rachel was three. She was just at the age where she was bothered by pink. There was a pink-to-the-max thing happening among her pals and she wasn’t comfortable with all the pink, and she decided after I told her that story that she wasn’t going be a princess, she was going to be a panther princess. And suddenly pink as an issue disappeared for her. She just got really into animals instead, and I thought, Thank you, Angela Carter. She couldn’t have served my life better.
BLVR: She was your teacher when you were at the University of East Anglia and very supportive when you were just starting out as a writer.
AE: She was, and yeah, to take away what was an annoyance to Rachel, an encumbrance to her – the need for pink. What a great gift.
BLVR: Can you remember the moment when you were growing up when you knew you were going to be a writer?
AE: No. I do remember writing an essay about my entire class being washed up on a desert island. It was a little social satire I wrote when I was about ten. And I put everyone in, and they each had a line. All the cast, you know. And I read it out to my mother one afternoon after school. I read all of that kind of schoolwork out to my mother. I remember being amazed at how external and public and possible all of this was.
BLVR: Do you feel you make progress as a writer, novel to novel?
AE: I refuse all questions about progress! Because the underlying assumption is terrible. Book to book, things get easier and harder. For instance, it’s harder to bring a book out when you’re older.
AE: You’re not as keen on struttin’ your stuff. You’re not as young and hopeful. Now, as I approach my next book, I feel that I’m going to break out of what I know to do something unknown. I’m going into new country.
BLVR: Do you think your yoga practice will help you to push into new territory with your next book?
AE: I don’t know. Certainly, if we’re looking at mid-career work, there are different emotions behind it. There is less of a fury for the truth, perhaps, and less show-offy sort of stuff. So I’m interested to see what those emotions will be. I don’t know whether the yoga will help. But I do feel a pull to a certain kind of writing that I haven’t had before.
BLVR: You’ve said that you feel it is part of a writer’s job to have an uncensored head, to know what you know. You said that women censor themselves more than men. Why is that, do you think?
AE: It must be very deep in our upbringing. I felt it all the time when I was growing up, but obviously it didn’t really work with me. There is a sense of girls ganging up together at a certain age and becoming nice. There is very strong social pressure from each other for about eight-year-old girls up to teenagers. They say to each other, “How could you do/think that?” Girls are continually correcting each other’s behavior. In groups, particularly. They are very clumsy socially with each other. They flounder around with the texting and bullying. They don’t quite know how to do it yet. They have to learn ‘nice’. We must pick that up from our mothers too, somehow. Not being super-nice necessarily, but not thinking bad thoughts. I was in Germany last week and a woman said to me, “You say things in your books that people don’t even allow themselves to think.” Well I’d like to know, what does she think about all day?
BLVR: Mortify your curiosity, as the nuns used to say.
AE: Wow. We didn’t have those kinds of nuns. Mortify your curiosity. That’s fabulous.
BLVR: Did you grow up in a competitive household?
AE: There were five children in our house. I am the youngest. We all ran around and we were all clever and argumentative. Each child was good at a different thing. I think that was partly engineered by my parents so that we wouldn’t compete directly.
BLVR: Was there censorship in your house, when you were growing up?
AE: I remember my mother’s insistence that we were ordinary people, that everybody was in it together and nobody was in any way extraordinary. It was seen as a bad thing to be extraordinary.
BLVR: Do you think that was a subtle form of censorship?
AE: Maybe, because even as a child it seemed to me that we were all extraordinary. The people who lived in my suburban road were extraordinary. I always had a kind of interest in the truth, and I think that areas of taboo are where the truth is at its keenest. If something is taboo, I’m very interested in lifting that taboo. Because if you lift, for example, a sexual taboo, you realize that what’s behind it is nothing, a lot of the time. For instance, we were reared in an atmosphere where sex was hidden. What I found as a writer was that when you look at what the taboo really is, you see that “Oh, it’s just people doing that,” not necessarily something vast, mysterious and terrible. It’s just that. In the writer’s hands, it either turns to dust or it becomes quite beautiful. Not censoring yourself means knowing what you know, writing it down.
BLVR: Can you elaborate on how that works when you’re at your desk, writing a scene?
AE: You just stare. Wait for the characters to show themselves. You have to move past the first display. It takes a kind of predatory stillness so you don’t break too soon and describe the most obvious thing. If I’m looking for how a scene is going to play, or how to move the story forward, that is always a question of waiting until they drop the mask.
BLVR: Were you always aware that you don’t censor yourself very much?
AE: No, there are things that I still have to censor. There are areas of taboo that I go to and I realize that it unbalances the prose and I have to take it out. For example, race. I never talk about race. Things about race might go through my characters’ heads, but if they do, I take them out pretty much immediately because it makes the sentence and the paragraph about something else completely.
BLVR: You mean, it’s just too explosive, or too political for your work?
AE: It overbalances things. It unbalances things. All humans probably have an internal prattle about race as well as about money; money is quite taboo. You can’t talk about how much money you have. You can talk about how poor you are sometimes, but you certainly can’t talk about how rich you are. That’s completely taboo. But you also would have thoughts about the taxi driver from one part of the world or another part of the world and you can’t write that down. That’s taboo.
BLVR: Do you think, as a Caucasian person, maybe the guilt is stronger when you are writing about race than when you’re writing about sex or money?
AE: No. I think it’s a rational thing. You don’t want to confuse people with your thoughts. You don’t want to encourage racism. I was talking with some German filmmakers last night and they asked if I know by a person’s last name whether they’re Catholic or Protestant. That was a taboo in our society for a long time. You would not mention a person’s religion to their face. I like finding out about peoples’ lives. I like saying things that are normally considered slightly impolite. Things about religion, for example. That’s about ethnicity as well. These are the textures of our life. We don’t just hang out with people who are the same as us. And we always have an internal dialogue going on in our minds about the world around us.
BLVR: What do you mean?
AE: Internal prattle, literally prattle. And every so often it bubbles over into the world. I remember once my mother put on a pair of shoes and she said, “They make my feet look very Protestant.” That’s exactly what I mean by that prattle.
Conan Putnam is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Her fiction and articles have appeared in the Sewanee Review, the Seattle Review, Other Voices, the Chicago Tribune and the San Francisco Chronicle. She is currently working on a novel.