Anne Enright - 'The family knows that I'm not writing about them...'
Ireland's Laureate for Irish fiction talks about her latest novel and why privacy matters more as she gets older
Anne Enright is an intriguing prospect to interview. Ostensibly open and ordinary; in reality, deeply guarded, fiercely intelligent and hawkishly watchful.
When we meet, Enright hasn't yet entered into full promotional mode for her new novel, The Green Road. She's unexpectedly giddy and relaxed, with a gratifyingly booming laugh that she unleashes freely.
Enright is best-known for her novel The Gathering, which won the Booker Prize in 2007 and her latest book sees her return to the device of family, this time in the form of The Madigans, with Rosaleen, the widowed mother, at the head of a clan of four grown-up children, now scattered around the world.
The Green Road has been receiving glowing reviews and it's easy to see why. The story, set over four decades, gives us deep insights into the five main characters, all of whom tell us something about ourselves as Irish people, and all of whom you are sorry to leave as a reader.
The book initially started as an attempt to write a female King Lear, says Enright.
"It's about very primal feelings about the mother and the idea of ungrateful children. I don't think children have the gift of gratitude. Later on, as adults, gratitude is something people who are happy enjoy."
Enright has written extensively on the subject of motherhood, as far back as her 2004 memoir, Making Babies.
In The Green Road, Rosaleen's daughter Constance, a mother herself, is the most conventional of the Madigan siblings, a woman who is happy with her domesticated life with her husband and children in Co Clare. There's a line in the book describing Constance as a woman whose body was something more than erotic or decorative, someone whose breasts had "done their time". Enright roars laughing when I mention the line.
"The mother's body is a different object, a different kind of pleasure. In part, I am political to that extent, that I would want to reclaim the functionality of what your body does."
It's a physical detail you don't often get about Enright's characters. "You very rarely know what my characters look like. My editors were constantly asking, 'well how fat is Constance?' Clearly she thinks she's fat but her husband doesn't necessarily think she's fat, or care one way or the other. But I would never put a figure on it. I'm not the kind of writer that has a character look in the mirror, ever. Appearance is not a huge value in my work. How people feel about themselves is possibly more interesting to me. I wouldn't fetishise motherhood, I'm not in the business of prescribing a better or worse life."
Of her own mother, now in her late 80s, Enright speaks endearingly. "She's very proud of me. Ma is great about the books and always has been. It's always hard having a writer in the family. She manages it with a bit of backbone and very good grace."
Is it difficult to write about families without having your own family think it's about them?
"The thing is that the family know it's not them and the people who know you know it's not them, and you can't be too concerned about the people who don't know you. You can't really deal with people's projections, people who might be miserable or toxic, so you're always exposed to that. I do have standards. I don't think everything is copy. And in fact, there's a kind of gathering privacy that happens as you get older. I wrote the baby book [Making Babies] and myself and Martin decided that was a good cut-off point for writing about the children. So there's fantastic copy in our house that I'm not allowed use, or wouldn't dream of using."
Enright is moving into a different phase in her career now. Not only is her writing more confident, and accomplished, than ever, but she was also anointed as Laureate for Irish Fiction earlier this year, which will see her teach in UCD and New York University. She describes it has "half a job, half an honour".
"Something that organises the pride around one individual or post, people really like the ritual element of it. I think Ireland is very proud of its writers but also finds its writers problematic because they're always just down the road. We have an amazing percentage of writers, so it's not bad for business, it keeps it all going." After a beat, she adds in her droll way, "I'm sure it's riven by horrific rivalry but we manage to keep our faces clean."
At the moment, she hasn't yet started working on anything new. She says she is still distracted by the awards cycle in the period after she completes a book - "nobody ever wrote a poem when they were waiting for a bus" - but she says she's getting better at dealing with that.
Did she ever imagine as a child that she might one day be Laureate of Irish Fiction?
"Well, it didn't exist! I thought I was going to be a Sylvia Plath figure in how I'd work - small fragments of hugely interesting work and then not hang around too long. There were very few role models. You didn't grow up thinking, 'I'm going to be like John McGahern'."
The Green Road is published by 4th Estate
Anne Enright will present the Long Night of the Short Story at the Galway Arts Festival on July 26