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Anne Enright: ‘Give me Moby-Dick over Persuasion anytime’

Anne Enright: ‘Give me Moby-Dick over Persuasion anytime’

Anne Enright’s 12 books include the memoir Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood (2004), The Gathering, which won the 2007 Booker prize, and 2015’s The Green Road, a family saga described by the New Yorker as storytelling with “the blood-pulse of lived gossip”. She’s currently on the shortlist for this year’s Women’s prize for fiction (the winner will be announced on 13 June), with The Wren, the Wren, now out in paperback. It follows the daughter and granddaughter of a fictitious Irish poet, Phil McDaragh, whose poetry – written by Enright – appears in the novel and was initially published under McDaragh’s byline in the London Review of Books. Enright, 61, was speaking from her home in Dublin.

When did you start this novel?
April 2020. I’d just had the last book out [Actress] when the bookshops closed and the market disappeared; I came back from America after a tour that collapsed as the world locked down. It felt like five years of work had been taken away from me.

What was it like to write through lockdown?
I lost my sense of a final readership; for me, there’s always a hump in the middle where you rearrange everything once you know what it is you’re writing, but my usual turning point was set quite adrift. So I sent it to my agent – he’s a man of few words – and he said: “Good mother-daughter thing going on.” That was all I needed to hear.

In the acknowledgments you mention waylaying the poet Paul Muldoon at Dublin airport. What did you ask him?
I’ve known him for many years. I saw him at the gates carrying his periodicals, so I went up and we had the chats about various writers, you know – Paul never says a bad word really about anyone. Nor would I! I had this terrible rising sense of possibility and necessity: because I email drafts of my novel to my husband six times a day, I’ve always got the most recent draft on my phone. So I thought: “I could just go into my email and show him my poem…” He said he was having difficulty with his glasses [laughs], held my phone out at quite a distance and suggested the repetition of a certain word was not what a great poet would do. It’s amazing he still speaks to me; if anyone came up to me before my flight and said: “Would you take a quick look at this short story?”, I’d back away at speed.

The internet is important in this novel, for the first time in your work.
It was a new technical problem in the way that the poetry was a new technical problem, but I like a new technical problem: when you’re busy fixing it, all the other stuff can happen by accident or in your unconscious process. Some of the students I teach at UCD [University College Dublin] haven’t yet got phones in their stories. We were talking about the internet and one of them said: “But Patricia Lockwood does it, and Sally Rooney has done it.” I thought, well, there’s more than two people online, you know? My solution was never to mention being online: it’s just part of consciousness; there’s no palaver about using an app or anything.

Do readers still get in touch about Making Babies?
They do. When I was writing it, nobody knew who I was. When it became more popular, I took fright. We decided – as a family, you might say – “no more writing about the children”; they deserved a bit of peace and quiet. Those reservations aside, it has been possibly the most useful thing I’ve written. People have told me they found it really helped. I think Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work has been more influential [on writers]; mine is not a cerebral book. I think that’s true to my experience of motherhood as fundamentally embodied.

Thinking of yourself as an individual – what you’ve lost, how to regain it – might be helped by not thinking of yourself as an individual; that is not quite what you are while pregnant and while mothering. That scrabble for assertion of the self we all feel – fathers, too, because parenting does things with time and agency and ideas of freedom – isn’t helpful. I’d love to see a more radical view of the nine months either side of birth as a stage – not to park your ideas of “self”, but to realise they’re temporarily getting in your way, actually.

Does that view of selfhood inform your approach to fiction?
I can’t say I have a grand scheme – I work intuitively – but every character I write requires another character’s point of view: multiple viewpoints, multiple selves, multiple consciousnesses, and that’s fine by me, because consciousness is the great subject of the novel.

How many words do you aim for in a typical writing day?
I stopped counting a long time ago. I was two years late on the deadline for my first novel [The Wig My Father Wore, 1995]; I woke up for two years feeling wretched. I never took another deadline on a long work. What I did – late in the day maybe, 20 years in – was to look at my word count for the year in retrospect and say: all right, I write 1,500 words a week, so if I advance by a proper 200 words a day, that’s a successful day. That was back in the old days of writing anxiety – “How will I get this done?” – when I was looking for props. Now I don’t count and I don’t schedule. I just work.

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What have you been reading lately?
Adania Shibli’s Minor Detail. That’s the last thing I read. Fucking great. Amazing. Flawless. It is a flawless book. It’s really, really good.

What did you read as a child?
I was interested in nonsense poetry at that early time. I came across Dr Seuss in the library – it was too American for us to have it at home – and that was exciting. At six I loved Through the Looking-Glass and read it over and over. I must have read it 50 times. I was a very precocious reader. It took me ages to realise I’m not all that gone on the 19th-century English novel; I mean, give me Moby-Dick over Persuasion anytime. Loving the Brontës and Austen and all of that is an absolute given, it’s like the air that is breathed, certainly in the UK; I didn’t mind them but they didn’t run in my blood the way Moby-Dick did. Everyone fell in love with characters. I didn’t: I looked at them and found them interesting or not interesting.

  • The Wren, the Wren is published in paperback by Vintage (£9.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

Source: theguardian.com