Walk the Line with Anne Enright: ‘I write what I need to write and I hope the reader finds it true’
The Booker prize-winning author on the evolution of the Irish writers’ scene, the unconscious bias facing female authors, and inspiration for her latest novel The Wren, The Wren
I remember very vividly the books I read in childhood. I also have a memory of learning how to write – I mean how to make the right shapes between the lines of the copybook. I don’t remember the content, but certainly, by 11, I was writing purely for the joy of it.
Not all children are as invested in language, but many love representing something imagined in pictures, stories, poems; it comes easily to them. I still have a nonsense poem I wrote at that time, it was my ‘first’ poem and I was very proud of it. Sometimes, when people ask, ‘How do you learn how to write fiction?’, I think the better question is: how or why do so many people forget?
I had a book, Actress, out in late February 2020. It had taken me many years to write and on publication it flew into the pandemic like a bird into a windowpane. This was a small trauma in the midst of the global Covid-19 disaster, but it left a very silent, almost serene aftermath.
In the days of lockdown, I found myself reaching for poetry, especially old Irish poetry, and becoming very invested in the natural world. At the same time, I found myself stuck with a no-nonsense, get-over-yourself character called Carmel who was remembering a time of terrible rupture in her life, when her father abandoned his family. Once I made the father an Irish poet, those two strands came together. Later, when Carmel has a daughter, Nell, who is a bit of a poet herself, The Wren, The Wren took final form.
The book is about a daughter separating from her mother and making her own mistakes. It is about a mother’s difficult and abiding love for her child. The questions asked are also about poetry – transcendence, beauty, and solace – and their place in our lives.
I am a professional writer; I have been doing this for 40 years. Sometimes I feel I have to say this basic fact out loud, because I am constantly asked, ‘How on earth do you do it?’ questions that I feel male writers are not asked, as though their books are a given (man works, man thinks, book is written) and mine are a surprise.
I remember a time in the culture when people were surprised that women drove cars, when other women said, “How on earth do you do it?” and men complained about their lack of speed on the road, calling it dangerous.
I am also constantly asked about the darkness in my work. This is the literary equivalent of women suggesting you put on a bit of make-up to look nicer, or men telling you to ‘cheer up, love’ as you walk past them in the street. I write what I need to write and I hope the reader finds it true.
I don’t have favourite writers any more. I have writers I reach for at different moods or moments, or when I need to catch something for my own work.
I think my best reading was done in my early twenties, in a time before the internet, when you went into a bookshop and scanned the shelves, read a paragraph here or there, and bought something because it caught your interest.
In this way I found Angela Carter, Toni Morrison, Alice Munro, Gabriel García Márquez, Cormac McCarthy, John Updike, and a book of tiny stories by Jayne Anne Phillips. Some of these lingered, others I let go. I was not reading Irish writers, because at the time I thought Ireland was culturally crooked. It was the mid-Eighties, the decade of referendums, and the books I loved were an escape from that.
Now, I read Irish work very happily, it has just got so good. I especially like work by women writers younger than me, I love their confidence and truthfulness. Claire Kilroy and Megan Nolan both produced terrific work this year.
When you are a writer, all experience is grist to your mill. So every obstacle is an opportunity, every problem is a solution. When I had children, I was too busy and too interested in them to dream up a new novel, so I wrote about having babies. The pandemic also yielded some good things for me that I want to hold on to. It was a great realignment of all our priorities.
My mother gave the best advice; she could reduce much experience and insight down to a line or two. “Never marry a bastard,” she said, very sensibly, and added, “There’s no excuse for it,” as though she knew all our self-deceptions and what the attraction there might be.
The Wren, The Wren by Anne Enright is published by Jonathan Cape and available in all bookstores