Anne Enright: ‘As a writer, your problems are your solutions’

Anne Enright's new novel explores gender, memory, family, art and glamour through the story of relationship between an actress and her daughter


A little girl sits in the wings of a theatre, her face turned away from the camera towards a woman on stage, illuminated by a single spot, her arms raised to receive the acclaim of an unseen, adoring audience.

The evocative, slightly unsettling photograph is of the young Carrie Fisher and her mother, Debbie Reynolds, in the mid-1960s. Anne Enright had it on her screen when working on her new novel, Actress, and now it’s on the cover.

“It was the same with The Green Road,” says Enright. “ I have various things on my cork board and on my desktop, and I might use them as a reference point. And that photograph was one of them. So, when we started talking about covers, I said, well I have this, and we went through a few other options and settled on that.”

For Enright, the image seemed to sum up something she was seeking to explore. “I’m interested in that moment of glamour, which is almost a moment of loss as well. Once you see something so beautiful and false, you’re losing it at the same time. So that was the psychological moment, very, you might say, psychoanalytically rich. It’s about beauty and it’s about possession and then losing the beautiful object to the world.”

Actress tells the life story of Katherine O’Dell through the memories of her novelist daughter Norah. A Hollywood star for a brief moment before she returned to Dublin in mysterious circumstances in the early 1950s, Katherine becomes a grande dame of Irish theatre, and Norah grows up in the shadow of her celebrity. Spanning most of the 20th century and edging into the early years of the 21st, the novel is a warm and generous portrait of a relationship between a daughter and her famous mother.

Or maybe not. “It is and it isn’t,” Enright counters as we sit in the Cellar Bar of the Merrion Hotel on a bright, cold, January morning. The former Irish fiction laureate and Booker prize winner says she was interested in the intersection between the psychological dynamics of childhood adoration and public adulation.

This is a relationship, she says, where “the child and the world are uniquely in accord. It’s ‘My wonderful mother’ at the age of two or three or whatever, and the whole world agrees with her. And she never loses that. It’s not quite denial but it’s an idealisation of the figure of the mother. It’s not a refusal of facts so much as a transcending of facts.”

Enright paints a picture of a particular mid-20th century Dublin bohemian milieu: gay RTÉ producers, sexy celebrity priests and boozy academics

It’s also significant, she says, that Katherine is a single mother. “I have seen that in a couple of instances. My own mother’s mother was a widow. We have no real clear image of what my granny was like because she was ‘just perfect’. But she couldn’t have been perfect. This relationship [in the book] is not perfect.”

That said, there’s none of the pathological narcissism which is sometimes associated with these particular types of mother-daughter relationships in memoirs like Mommy Dearest. Katherine is a loving mother to Norah. There are no coat hangers.

“There are no coat hangers and there is a real sweetness between the two of them,” Enright acknowledges.

The word “actress” was expunged from The Irish Times stylebook some years ago. They’re all actors now. The gentle archaism of the word hints at several of the book’s themes, which include gender, power, mental illness and violence, but also friendship, long-term monogamous relationships and nostalgia for generations of Irish theatre.

Enright paints a picture of a particular mid-20th century Dublin bohemian milieu: gay RTÉ producers, sexy celebrity priests and boozy academics, all permitted a greater latitude in their personal lives than the rest of the population as long as they didn’t stray too far over certain unspoken lines.

Anne Enright’s new book Actress is out on February 13th. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill/The Irish Times
Anne Enright’s new book Actress is out on February 13th. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill/The Irish Times

“There are various threads that are out there that if I was a sociologist or an historian, I would be able to say, this is actually something,” says Enright. “But I’m just picking up the atmosphere, the ambience, and using it. Micheál [Mac Liammóir] and Hilton [Edwards] were a really strong thing at the beginning, because they were a gay couple, living together in Dublin, and nobody cared. Everybody expected it of them, and that was all fine. So there was a kind of safe zone for people. I talk about that in the book – Katherine says that she kept herself more or less neat, and kept her love life out of the public eye. Certain things were understood in those days, so they were let get along with it. But those bohemians, a lot of them died ferociously young – they had tough enough lives, really hard – much of it self-inflicted. It was a pretty hard scrabble.”

The novel is also a tribute to the craft and graft of the jobbing actor. Katherine’s moment of Hollywood fame is fleeting but her stage career spans four decades, from the fit-ups of the 1940s to the Polish avant-garde of the 1980s.

“Do you remember the Poles in Dublin in the early 80s?” asks Enright, recalling plays in the Project Arts Centre in which women actors were required to empty bags of sugar over their heads. “During Waking the Feminists, one Polish actress got up and said, ‘You’ve no idea what is done in the name of art in Poland’. It’s very much about female abjection, used as a kind of political, polemical tool and it had been the case in the British playwrights of the 70s, that they would use the abjection of the actors as a Marxist f**king statement.”

All of this and more is skilfully interwoven with Norah’s own story, and the twists and turns of her own life and marriage.

“Sometimes I get people saying, ‘Could she just not write the book?’, you know, from A to B,” says Enright. “The Forgotten Waltz nearly went from A to B, [but] there was a hinge in the middle. This was more curly-wurly. I had a really curly-wurly book until August and then I decided okay, what would I lose by doing it much more chronologically?”

Anne Enright, former Irish literature laureate, Booker prize-winner and author of Actress .Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times
Anne Enright, former Irish literature laureate, Booker prize-winner and author of Actress .Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times

Our conversation in the Merrion is also a bit curly-wurly, hopping from one subject to another, from serious to funny to occasionally stalled (probably my fault). Enright will sometimes start on a particular line of thought, then reverse rapidly back out of it, or say “don’t use that”. She’ll cite unnamed people and add quickly “who you don’t know”. She’ll worry at words like a dog with a bone – at one point whether “numinous” or “liminal” is better.

She picks me up sharply when I use the word “ambiguity” about the different ways people – abusers and abused – think about past events. “You can’t say ambiguity,” she says. “The thing about penetration is that there’s no ambiguity, that is where ambiguity ends.”

We settle, slightly uneasily, on “ambivalence”.

Norah tells her story from the vantage point of the suburban empty nest she shares with her husband of 30 years. Enright says she had wondered for some time why she didn’t see more representations of monogamous couples. “You know, the world is full of them and nobody’s interested enough to write about it,” she says.

“Marriage in the book is not represented as a stable thing. It’s full of push me, pull yous and tugs and irritations. It has its own wants and dissatisfactions that keep it in balance somehow and it isn’t necessarily boring to the participants at all. It might be really quite interesting to the people who are involved in it. “

Such stories have traditionally been disparaged by cultural gatekeepers, she says. “If you write a chilly, disconnected narrative, that means that you’re a very fine fellow. And that makes your reader also feel very elevated and intelligent and all the rest of it. If you write connected fiction, that means you’re a girl, and that there’s something fake about that, about connection.”

The three lectures she wrote during the stint as laureate were about the female voice, heard and unheard. Was this undervaluing and mistrust of the female voice one of the motivating factors in her decision to take up the laureateship, a sort of donning of the mantle of civic engagement in the aftermath of the passing of a generation of male Irish literary lions such as Heaney and Friel?

“They didn’t have a huge amount of civic engagement,” she says drily, but mention of Friel and Heaney brings up the controversy over the absence of women in the original Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing almost 30 years ago. “That’s why I was interested in ideas of authority. I wanted to get under the skin of it a little because I haven’t read as widely as I perhaps should have done in feminist theory. I’m just interested in how people style things and how that styling changes.”

'The idea of talking about unconscious bias or spelling things out in gender terms and all the rest of it, I actually felt mildly nauseous while I was doing all of that'

She changes tack. “I have never written about fathers,” she says.”And that absence is really interesting to me. In this book I fragmented the absence and I turned the absent father into a load of different archetypal figures from the movies. And because I was told in college that women were seen one way or the other, I’m really interested to consider whether women see men in one way or the other, in terms of the good man or the bad man. Who is the bad man? It’s part of the lie of masculinity really to be in some way uniform. It’s kind of unfair.”

The fragmentation of traditional masculinity offers opportunities, she thinks. “Not just to look at how masculinity is experienced from the inside – which must be various and problematic and all kinds of things – but also to consider in a deep sense how women consider men. I don’t think people have talked about that much. Why do we stay in the room when powerful men are exerting their power in an inappropriate fashion? What keeps us there? Is it a question about how we experience authority? Also, when the authority turns into a creep, is there something else that is actually being outraged about our ideas about what authorities should be to us? One of the things they should be is not sexual. So that power dynamic is worth observing within our own heads.”

Those questions about women and authority were at the centre of her laureateship “It’s kind of interesting to investigate what our ideas of elevation or subjection or service or obedience, or goodness, or morality, where, how they are formed,” she says and doesn’t disagree when I describe it as an overtly political act.

“It was in the world and it was practical, yeah. I think the work of the fiction writer is to get to tickle something in the psyche that turns up a new kind of sense of possibility, maybe. But as laureate I had to do it in a literal and pragmatic and serviceable way. I had to make things evident.”

And what was that experience like?

“Terrible! I mean, no, I mean I loved it. No, no... I have said two extreme things that are not entirely true. I liked and appreciated the laureateship and I found that an interesting thing to have happen in my life. But the idea of talking about unconscious bias or spelling things out in gender terms and all the rest of it, I actually felt mildly nauseous while I was doing all of that. “

I wonder what caused the nausea.

“I thought I was going to damage my career,” she says. “I had broad and more or less sensible things to say. Women are now reporting more private and difficult matters and I really understand how they’re doing something that they find astonishingly hard. That they think that they’re going to be punished in some way. And as we’ve seen in our courts in cases of rape, they are punished. So, there is always that danger somewhere deep in my psyche as a woman that the reward for speaking out will be punishment of some kind.”

Anne Enright’s new book, Actress
Anne Enright’s new book, Actress

Add to that the particular vulnerability of the freelance artist. Actors and writers, have the same problems that all freelancers have, she says. “They’re open and vulnerable to abuse because they’re always looking for a job. They have no stability and security and they have no tenure. So, when we seek to protect actors and artists from predation by people in power, we’re only doing what needs to be done throughout the economy for freelancers in general.

Creatives are particularly vulnerable, she says, “because, although they are admired, there is a feeling that they’re going to do that anyway. Writers are going to write. Poets are going to make poetry. So, they’re kind of holy fools. There’s been a feeling that you can turn over your creatives without too much bother because there’s plenty more eejits out there. So, if we put protections in place for our artists, that resonates throughout the wider job economy.”

Many of these issues come back simply to governance, she says. “The kerfuffle about Michael Colgan some years ago proved very simply that nobody should be the chairman of their own board. The Arts Council should be making sure that no one is the chairman of their own board. The issues of bullying within the Gate were not addressed by the board because Michael Colgan was its chairman. It’s a bit like Al Capone, get them on the taxes.”

What of the argument that the pursuit of excellence must always be the most important value?

“Excellence just becomes an assertion of purity by the person who decides it and of something being wrong – but you couldn’t really say what it is – about the people they’re being mean to,” she says. “It’s an interesting word to choose because it’s always the fault of the person who has been preyed upon. It’s their fault because they’re no good, so we can do with them what we like.”

The “present day” of Actress is set about 10 years ago, which would make Norah around 10 years older than Enright, who is 57. She has written in the past of how she sees her own generation as one in transition between the old Ireland and the new. So, when she wrote that the writer Sinead Gleeson had a fearlessness that characterises that younger generation of Irish women, was that a statement of regret?

“It would have been great to be ten years younger,” she says. “In terms of the freedom of intellectual movement that I would have experienced. But you make work from the tensions that you need to dissolve or resolve, so those tensions are always a gift. Your problems are always your solutions, as a fiction writer.”

Actress is published by Jonathan Cape on February 13th. Anne Enright will be in conversation with Kathy Sheridan for a live recording of The Irish Times Women’s Podcast at Liberty Hall Theatre on February 22nd. Tickets available at penguin.co.uk/events. Enright will be at the dlr Mountains to Sea Book Festival on March 28th. Booking from mountainstosea.ie