Anne Enright Keeps Getting Better: A Conversation About “Actress”

WORKS DISCUSSED:
Actress (New York, W.W. Norton, 2020)
The Forgotten Waltz (New York, W.W. Norton, 2011)
The Green Road (New York, W.W. Norton, 2016)
The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch (New York, Grove Atlantic, 2002)
What Are You Like (New York, Grove Atlantic, 2000)
Making Babies (New York, W.W. Norton, 2004)
The Long Gaze Back, edited by Sinéad Gleeson (New Island Books, 2015)
Yesterday’s Weather (New York, Grove Press, 2009)

 

 

On a gloriously sunny March morning in New York City, I meet Anne Enright for a cuppa at a teahouse tucked away in the theater district. It is an appropriate spot for discussing her latest novel, Actress, whose protagonist Katherine O’Dell becomes an international sensation while starring in a smash hit Irish play on Broadway. The book is narrated by Katherine’s daughter Norah, who chronicles the meteoric rise and fall of her celebrity mother in an attempt to uncover her hidden truths.

Norah reflects, “People ask me, ‘What was she like?’ and I try to figure out if they mean as a normal person…what was she like as a mother, or what she was like as an actress—we did not use the word star. Mostly though, they mean what was she like before she went crazy, as though their own mother might turn overnight, like a bottle of milk left out of the fridge. Or they might, themselves, be secretly askew.” Actress is the exquisitely-written story of a legendary woman whose life is upended by the forces of fame, power, sex, and violence. Anne Enright just keeps getting better, and I can’t wait to talk to her about her new novel.

She has just arrived in New York from Dublin, and she searches through the list of loose-leaf teas which extols their various healing properties, trying to find one that will cure her jet lag. We peruse the extensive menu, debating what to order and marveling at the steep prices (if you’ll pardon the pun). Enright raises an eyebrow over the top of her menu and gleefully exclaims, “Let’s just blow the budget, shall we?” The order barely hits the table and we find that we’ve gobbled up all the biscuits already. We gaze forlornly at the empty plate, in a moment of silence for the dearly departed. Then she takes a sip of her tea and leans forward with a warm smile. “Let’s talk,” she says.

 

DAWN MIRANDA SHERRATT-BADO: Firstly, congratulations on Actress being longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction! You were shortlisted previously for the Women’s Prize for your novels The Forgotten Waltz and The Green Road. What does it mean to you to be recognized as a woman writer specifically?

ANNE ENRIGHT: Well, I’ve been shortlisted twice for the Women’s Prize, so…third time lucky? [Grins mischievously] This year, the Women’s Prize has an especially fantastic longlist, and just the fact that Actress has made it is good enough for me!

 

DMSB: You recorded the audiobook of Actress, and I look forward to hearing the novel in your voice! What are your thoughts on audiobooks versus hard copy? And what was the process of recording Actress like?

AE: I kind of love it! People have said to me in recent years that they “heard” a book of mine, and initially I’d find that mildly insulting, until I realized that it’s just a whole other way of experiencing a book. There’s a lot in Actress about ideas of possession and intimacy, and those concepts are also linked to the reading experience. It can be one of possession. When, at the end of the day I tell my husband that I want to read him out a bit from a book I’m writing and he says no, I want to read it, and I say no, you can’t read it, there’s a tussle there of who possesses the text. The audiobook is very unpossessed. When you record it yourself as the author, it’s just great! It took two and a half days of my life, and I loved it. Because so much of the language in fiction is performative anyway, I’ve always made sense of the work by reading it aloud.

 

DMSB: You’ve remarked that when you write a new novel, “you are often answering a question that was posed by the last book.” What question is Actress answering that was posed by your last novel, The Green Road?

AE: Or I find out what question is posed when I finish the book! In the case of The Green Road, I finished the book and said, well, what was that about? I think the question of that book is something about narcissism and compassion.

In Actress, I’m thinking about the glorious circumference that is theatrical space and what happens when people are watching someone onstage or on screen, and how the boundaries dissolve, and how you enter into a fiction or you start believing a fiction. Narcissism is a useful word there, and it somehow becomes communal. In order to do that, the protagonist Katherine O’Dell needs to reach into ancient feelings and resources within herself. She has a highly technical style, an older melodramatic style of hauling it up from the depths. And when it works, it’s quite something.

On a deeper level, the question must be different in Actress than in The Green Road because in the latter book there is a kind of emptiness, an unknowing place in Rosaleen Madigan. Her children can never really catch a sense of themselves as being anything other than a figure in her drama. But at the heart of Actress, Katherine and Norah have a very sweet, very romantic, mother-daughter relationship.

 

DMSB: The dead/unknowable mother is a central theme in Actress, and one that recurs in several of your novels. In The Forgotten Waltz, when Gina’s mother Joan dies, she says, “If I had been able to see her, instead of being surrounded by her, my beautiful mother, then she might still be alive.” In Actress, Norah attempts to tell the reader what her mother Katherine was “really like”. Can we ever see what our mothers are really like, or are we too surrounded by them?

AE: I do an awful lot of stuff about inside and outside, my story “Night Swim” also looks at this theme with the mother and child. I could work on all of this stuff as a critic, but I prefer just to do it in my fiction. Figuring out the inside-outside problem is maybe a pregnancy image. Certainly, there’s Russian doll imagery in Actress.

When you’re writing a book—and this book in particular—you ask the question: is the book going to be the monster, or is the monster going to be in the book? It’s about nesting your narrative, and framing it. With Actress, the monster is very distinctly in the book, and she wrestles it back down. The book is not itself a monstrous object. I think The Gathering struggles to get the monster into the book, and it’s fragmented by the monstrousness of the story.

 

DMSB: You do a lot of research when starting a new novel. What was your research process for Actress? I thought that Phaedra must be in there somewhere.

AE: Yes, I read your review of Actress in The Stinging Fly where you make the link to Phaedra—thank you so much. She might be in there with Proust. For this new book, I was reading Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and I went back to those passages with the actress la Berma, and I was thinking about that. I was also reading Roland Barthes’ The Grain of the Voice, and The Queen’s Throat by Wayne Koestenbaum, and I thought, no, I’m going to back away from all of these texts and just write my book! In fact, I tell a lie—I ordered a copy of The Grain of the Voice and then I lost it in my study. [Laughs] So that is my process.

 

DMSB: Actress addresses the impact of the Troubles on Dublin— particularly the burning of the British Embassy— and you write about “the changed national mood.” Katherine O’Dell is photographed on a protest march in Derry and Norah describes her as “in the front row with local women and civil rights activists. She had a kind of housewife scarf knotted under her chin, though it was actually Hermès… it is possible she was involved with a ‘sympathizer’ or even with an actual member of the IRA.” I’m curious about the appeal of republicanism for Katherine.

What prompted your decision to write about the Troubles in Actress? Is it part of the novel’s larger exploration of conceptualizing Irishness?

 

AE: I’m very interested in the difference between fantasy and the real world in this book. And the whole huge difference between the idea of romantic Ireland and romantic rebelliousness, and actually causing physical damage to another human being. It’s amazing how often that line is ignored in discussions about national mythologies. I think that if you’re reared in Ireland, you’re reared with a series of ideas about Irishness that were formed in order to sell Irishness as some kind of product, one way or the other.

Now in my middle age, I think that Ireland is a very nice place to be. But we know that all of those mythologies are fairy tales used to insist on our loveliness at a time when it was a damaging trope or a denial of the worst kind.

Photography of author Anne Enright

All of that became really evident, not just during the Troubles, but also in the links between Irish-Americanism—which is a whole other kind of Irishness—and the republican movement. It just seemed to me to be romantic in the worst sense.

I remember being in LA maybe a decade ago, and I said I would give up my Irishness if no one had to die. That to me would be a perfectly acceptable sacrifice. Two young Irish-American men came up to me in the signing line afterwards and they said to me, how could you say that about your Irishness? How could you say that when your Irishness is so precious? I mean, it’s not a proper choice because it’s not actually going to happen. But were they given their choice of Irishness versus somebody being blown up in the street, they’d say “Irishness first.” Within that false choice, they took that side.

In Actress, Katherine is happy to adopt many of the clichés of Irishness and to make them lovely. I don’t want to overstate anything about Katherine because it’s quite possible that she has a permeable sense of self. She isn’t somebody plotting her shifts of identity—they kind of happen to her. It may be Katherine’s way of managing the trauma of her past—her interest in the “bad man.”

 

DMSB: You’ve written in the Guardian about Brexit and British imperial nostalgia. Do you feel that Brexit has affected the British perspective of the Irish?

AE: I think that Brexit is just a statement of something that had always lain latent in the English imagination, in that it wasn’t very interested in the Irish “problem,” as it were. Ireland was always too near to actually separate from. They couldn’t understand it as a separate country.

 

DMSB: Hence “Irexit.”

AE: Oh God, yeah! There’s an air of incomprehension about Ireland, and that became really clear during Brexit. It’s not that they hadn’t figured out how it would affect Ireland, they just really didn’t care. It is about a sense of isolationism. It’s really interesting how these kinds of national mythologies continue to resurface, in increasingly hardened and brittle versions. I don’t know how this cycle will go, or where it will all end.

 

DMSB: Your historical novel The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch features a real-life Irish woman who relocates to South America and becomes consort to the dictator president of Paraguay. Although the Irish historian Roy Foster praised its “probing irony” and “finely-tuned historical sense” in his review, some critics seemed ambivalent about the book’s “Irishness” and therefore its merit. Do you think this has to do with the foreign setting, or something else?

AE: Really, it wasn’t Irish enough for them? [Laughs] The book is about consumption, and Victorian consumption in particular. I was also writing about the boom in Ireland, although nobody noticed that at the time. I’m fond of Eliza because with that story I’d got something I had really wanted to get in a book. I’m surprised by the critical reaction to it.

 

DMSB: Perhaps it’s because people still expect stereotypically “Irish” books from Irish writers, and you’re looking at global Irishness.

 AE: Oh, I’m hugely interested in the global Irish. They were everywhere! You go anywhere and you’ll hear about this history of the Irish role in Empire. I was in Hong Kong and someone told me that there was an Irish engineer who built the landslide prevention system that holds the whole place together, and he was called Slopes Malone! It’s endlessly intriguing stuff, because it’s not what you were told in school. And I’m really interested in the things that we’re not told.

 

DMSB: Is that why you wanted to reimagine Eliza Lynch’s story? She’s lesser-known, and she’s typically regarded as an unsympathetic historical figure.

AE: Well, yes, I suppose she is. When I was writing about her I was thinking about women like Imelda Marcos, the former First Lady of the Philippines. She was the wife of a dictator who was sending out tanks to kill people, but people complained about her shopping habit. Imelda liked expensive shoes. That was also part of the mechanism of Eliza, her shopping habit. There is a kind of odd incomprehension about these powerful women, and how they shop.

 

DMSB: Speaking of fashion, I’ve noticed it’s a theme that pops up throughout your work. Aside from Eliza’s couture, there are Chanel suits, “maybe-Dior” dresses, Issey Miyake frocks, Armani jackets, Hermès scarves, designer handbags. The luxury Irish department store Brown Thomas makes repeated appearances. Maria in What Are You Like is a shop girl on Grafton Street in Dublin. Are you a fashionista, Anne Enright?

AE: No, I don’t know how to dress! I look at fashion, but like someone who doesn’t know how to do it. It’s endlessly interesting to me, but I’m odd about clothes. I just wear the same thing all the time. But it’s really terrible—I can actually price people’s clothes! I’ll say to my friend, oh wow, is that Erdem? And they’ll look at me in shock.

 

DMSB: You are one of the few authors who write really well about sex. I think it’s safe to say that you’ll never be nominated for the “Bad Sex in Fiction Award”! Why do you think there is so much bad writing about sex in fiction?

AE: Why thank you, thank you very much. Just to clarify this thing about bad or good sex, an American reviewer said in the New York Times that the whole book Yesterday’s Weather should have been called “The Bad Sex Weekend.” It annoyed me. It’s not bad sex, it’s just really good sex with the wrong people. Bad sex has a shifting meaning. I write about sex as connection, rather than sex as theater or performance, because that doesn’t interest me.

There is a kind of misogyny inherent in a strand of writing about sex by men who portray it as punitive and unpleasant. I want to reclaim the idea that there are two people in the room, and both of them are prone to desire. There is a reclamation of sex and sexuality in my writing. It is very deliberate with Norah’s marriage in Actress, the idea that not all sex is terrible. I want to re-subjectify the female experience of sex.

 

DMSB: You also write very well about pregnancy. Your memoir Making Babies describes this experience, and it’s a central theme in The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch, some of the stories in Taking Pictures, and “Three Stories About Love” in the anthology The Long Gaze Back. Pregnant women are treated like public property, as though their bodies are not their own. And you examine how they’re perceived simultaneously as lovely and glowing Madonnas, and incomprehensible, “monstrous” creatures, akin to the giant insect in Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Why do you think pregnancy is still misrepresented and underrepresented in fiction?

AE: Pregnancy takes a hugely long time, and it’s a significant time in a woman’s life. But there are astonishingly few books that fictionalize this. It’s a very odd and magical state, and it’s underwritten because it’s a Manichean state. It’s an animal state and it’s a miracle, so it’s both very low and very high. Women will try to intellectualize pregnancy, but it’s an organic, prelinguistic experience. It’s difficult to write about pregnancy.

 

DMSB: You said in a 2003 interview that you had “avoided” canonical Irish women writers because it was a matter of “making your own way.” Have you changed your mind about this?

AE: I would separate my creative writing from my critical writing here. I haven’t entirely changed my mind, because it wasn’t entirely true in the first instance! But this is a question about how you accommodate tradition as a writer, which is an almost uncomfortable question. I did a series of book reviews of women writers, and I did a big piece about Edna O’Brien in the Guardian. I’ve written about Eimear McBride and Sally Rooney and Mary Costello and a few others.

I made a conscious decision about ten years ago that I would do this because I found the critical culture lacking. When I started publishing, I didn’t feel that there was anyone of weight who could read my work and praise or deny it on its own terms. There was no one there for me in that sense. With my critical writing, I wanted to help out those emerging writers and give them what I hadn’t got when I started out. I realized that I was in a place to do that and I did it very deliberately.

The canon is something that academics and critics decide. It’s really not part of the creative impulse for me. It’s something that academics and critics have a relationship to and that they’re trying to fit me into. But it’s an external mechanism.

 

DMSB: On a recent radio show you said, “I’ve always been interested in the woman at the bus stop and in ordinary people’s lives and that’s partly a feminist project for me.” Can you elaborate on your feminist project?

AE: When I started writing short stories, my protagonists were mostly women because it didn’t really occur to me to write men. It suited the form really well that these people were somehow trapped, by social circumstances or by the language of the story itself. They were also released by the voice, by the articulation of their difficulty. And those women were ordinary. You know, I made up Katherine O’Dell because I was tired of men writing the lives of fantastic, monumental, dead men in a way that would make them look fantastic and monumental themselves.

 

DMSB: A lot of that goes on in the field of Irish history!

AE: Yes! But I don’t have access to as many fantastic, monumental, female historical figures because they were often obscured. So, you’re often writing about women who have failed, or are lost, or didn’t make it, or who did make it and now they are forgotten. This kind of work can be enmeshed in difficulty, and lacking in the essential pleasure of writing a book that you could really enjoy reading. Katherine O’Dell is damaged, but I also wanted her to be fantastic. My feminist project does involve history and reclamation, but it does not involve endlessly dwelling on the difficulties of the past, because that isn’t empowering. I want to write books that are a pleasure to read.

If you were a woman of my mother’s generation, you could only be ordinary. Once you were married, you were confined to a life of domesticity and humility. There was no such thing as an extraordinary woman for my mother’s generation, because extraordinary women were “fallen” women. The extraordinary woman was bound up with ideas of sexual shame. But the mothers that I write about do manage to escape some of that restriction. As a writer, you’re working between these paradoxes all the time, trying to find a trapdoor.

 

DMSB: You just published a wonderful new short story, “Night Swim,” in the New Yorker. No Authority, your book of writings from the Irish Fiction laureateship, also includes two stories. Will you write another collection of short fiction?

AE: I’ve published several short stories in the New Yorker and I call them my modernist manna! They’re either standalone short stories or they’re linked—I haven’t figured that out yet. I wouldn’t mind putting them together in a collection with a big novella to ballast it.

 

DMSB: Have you thought about writing a novella?

AE: Yeah, but only as part of a larger book with other stories in it. I’m thinking structurally, as I often do between books. I’m very slow.

 

DMSB: I don’t think you’re slow. You publish a new novel every five years or so – that’s really quick. But it feels like a long time for your readers while we’re waiting for the next one!

AE: [Laughs] Well, I like to build up the tension.

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Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado is a Visiting Research Fellow in the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen’s University Belfast. She has taught at Maynooth University, the University of Edinburgh, and the Scottish Universities’ International Summer School (SUISS). She is the coeditor of Female Lines: New Writing by Women from Northern Ireland (New Island Books, 2017). Dawn has also published in Irish Studies ReviewReview of Irish Studies in Europe (RISE), Breac, Callaloo, Open Library of Humanities, The Stinging Fly, Sunday Business Post, the Political Studies Association Blog, Four Nations History, and Writing the Troubles. She is a regular contributor to the Dublin Review of Books, The Honest Ulsterman, and The Irish Times. Follow her on Twitter @drdawnmiranda.