Robert Birnbaum in Conversation with Anne Enright

November 3, 2011 | 3 books mentioned 2 15 min read

If you don’t think the lads dominate the Irish literary landscape with all manner of Colums and Seamuses, quickly, name three Irish women writers. I’m guessing two of those would be Edna O’Brien and Emma Donoghue. And one of those would no doubt be Anne Enright, whose novel The Gathering, garnered the prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2007.

covercoverEnright has followed up that dark novel with The Forgotten Waltz, which on the surface is a lighter more external narrative. Set in 2009, Gina Moynihan, a married mid-30s IT professional, looks back at her adulterous adventure with a married man named Sean. It’s a survey of that dysfunctional coupling with precise snapshots dating to Gina’s first sighting of Sean at her sister’s housewarming barbeque seven years earlier.

The period of her dalliance corresponds to the economic bubble known as the Celtic Tiger when, much like other countries riding an economic upswing, the material world dominated the attentions and energies of Ireland’s striving classes (and then some). And so Enright, who is acutely observant and precisely expressive, paints that consuming hysteria as the backdrop for the Gina’s romantic and illicit thrill seeking.

Robert Birnbaum: Did you look at any news source this morning?

Anne Enright:  Umm, yeah I glanced at the papers.

RB: What the big story for you today?

AE: Me, I am checking the Eurozone and keeping an eye on the banks. Whether they are going to fall apart — how slowly or how quickly.

RB: Who is going first — is Greece going?

AE: Greece hasn’t gone. They really are going to work to keep it together. There hasn’t been any doubt about that for a while. On the panic level, the worst panic level was probably September, October 2008. After Lehman’s, when the Irish government guaranteed all the banks. Everybody was going crazy about this decision that was made to guarantee all deposits in Irish banks. But in fact I had gone to bed the night before with the assurance that I was going to go into the bank and take all my money out the next morning.

RB: How much has the defanging of the Celtic Tiger affected you?

AE: Personally, I am really lucky. I am always out of sync with Ireland, you know. When Ireland was booming away, I was sitting in my garret, writing The Gathering, rearing two small children out in Bray, which is south of Dublin, wondering why this had nothing to do with me. All I got from the boom was ripped off.

RB: Oooh.

AE: It’s true. Childcare, fees, everything was ridiculously expensive. My nieces and nephews are coming up to their 20s now — so my generation and their generation missed the worst of it. The worst of it hit the people in their 30s. And their early 40s, who really felt the need to buy a house they couldn’t afford, in a place they didn’t want to live and stuck with partners they don’t like anymore.

RB: Much like the characters that appear in The Forgotten Waltz.

AE: Yeah, The Forgotten Waltz is full of real estate that’s unsellable.

RB: Is this an Irish novel?

AE: Umm, when you think about it, it’s a highly contemporary novel set in February 2009, when the economy is falling. There is real estate in it. There’s money in it.

RB: Designer names.

AE: Designer labels. You look at John B. Keane’s The Field, and love and land; we always understood the connection between the two in Ireland. So, it’s Irish to that extent. It’s also interested in family ties and family love and what’s the difference between romantic and family love. That’s quite Irish as well. It’s Irish in that you can’t get away from those forces. The novel is a highly individualistic form — my characters are dragged back to the communal, (laughs) blood ties — and that’s quite Irish.

RB: To look at it, the focus appears to on adultery. But–

AE: Yeah (pauses) actually, it’s a book that seems to be about adultery but is about a different kind of love that sort of creeps in afterwards. On February 6, 2009, it was a day of snow in Ireland and the place was stalled. I was making a journey through the countryside with my family in the snow with all of them annoying me about how to drive —

RB: (laughs)

AE: “Watch out for the black ice,” and all of that, in the back of the car. It was a very melancholy sort of moment — the country was falling and we didn’t know how fast, how far. And something about the stillness of that day (pauses) — you know, it made me think of the silence after all the noise; all the hubbub has stopped. And that’s when reality come stealing in. I’m not against reality. The adultery part of the book is glorious and fantastic, full of denial and bliss and getting away with it–

RB: And passion.

AE: Passion, a bit like the boom. Doing what you want. The country was doing what it wanted for a while.

RB: Maybe, it could be viewed as mass hysteria.

AE: Well, there was a hectic quality to those last years. And there was a lot of — you were not allowed disbelief. If you said it’s all going to come falling down — no, you have to believe in property prices, if you don’t they will crash.

RB: Barbara Ehrenreich has written about this industry of self-improvement rooted in being positive and upbeat.

AE: But it really works economically. Until it doesn’t work at all. It’s a confidence trick — you take belief out of the system and all the money turns into dust.

RB: It’s true in a lot of areas. It’s true in sports. Is it true in writing? Writers don’t have any confidence (laughs)

AE: Writers have a lot of emotions about their work, and about themselves in relation to the work. None of them matter that much. It’s just a way of making you get to the desk a bit more, with more intensity. But yeah, writers always think their work is no good and they have no confidence and yada, yada, yada.

RB: After you won a major prize and went on to work on the next book how did you feel?

AE: I felt just fine. The whole prize thing was so external and so much hard work, actually. And I felt so relieved to get back to the desk, you know.

RB: You were in some way anonymous before winning the Man Booker.

AE: I felt a bit robbed in that way.

RB: (laughs)

AE: Because books are incredibly personal items and you have to keep vulnerable, to keep your vulnerability at the desk. Too famous is not good — for whatever limited amount of time that that happens.

RB: Did I read correctly that you never returned to the room where you wrote The Gathering?

AE: You’ve been doing your research? (laughs) Well, it’s a small room and full of books, it’s a bit unmanageable as a space. No, I didn’t go back, really. I mean, I never wrote in that room again.

RB: Are there other things in your life that you do but can’t explain? Like that — can you explain why you never wrote in that room again?

AE: I didn’t realize I wasn’t going back for a long time. And then I did [realize]. Yeah, I knew why — it wasn’t much.

RB: Sometimes we call those ghosts or skeletons, hanging there, not fleshed out.

AE: Yeah, it’s more an aura.

RB: When I spoke to John Banville recently, he was very positive about the future of the U.S. — the great hope of civilization. When you come to the USA what do you see and feel?

AE: It’s more interesting going to China and looking around China (both laugh). Sean in The Forgotten Waltz, says you should go to Shanghai, just to see that it’s all happening, it’s all real. It was very much my experience in Shanghai, these eight-lane highways with no cars on them. Ah, what do I think of America? Elsewhere is always important for Irish writers because Ireland is a little bit like that room where I wrote The Gathering. (laughs) I always wanted to come back to it (laughs). It’s a complicated place for writers. It’s the origin, it’s the spring of it, you know. The place things come from.

RB: The U.S. is the place things come from?

AE: No Ireland is. Elsewhere is really important for Irish writers because that’s where your book goes. And, the flavor of the readership is important. Or the critical response. America has always been a great opportunity for Irish writers.

RB: And the Continent?

AE:  France is slightly impermeable to foreign influence. They say in France, “But we have so many great French writers” — none of whom are translated into English, of course. You want to say, “But who are they?” Germany is important.

RB: The French like Paul Auster and Julian Barnes?

AE: Yeah, they like what they like. Paul Auster walks down the street in Paris and he is bothered. People take his picture. Germany is interested in Ireland in a way that France isn’t. France thinks we are savage (pronounced with French accent).

RB: (laughs) Well, so that should be a positive. Does that mean wild?

AE: Untamed.

RB: Don’t the French use the word apache as a positive description?

AE: I know — of course, they consider themselves very tamed, very sophisticated. It’s not so interesting to be looked upon as some sort of wild object. Fintan O’Toole wrote an article in The Irish Times about how important America was to a whole generation of Irish writers, but he didn’t include me in the list. He said partly because I was a woman. I didn’t know that as a woman I would be less interested in America. I am a little outside the run of regular Irish writing which has post-colonial concerns. So I don’t write about that kind of power relationship between the rural and the urban between Ireland and England, between the noble savage and the chilly aristocrat. Within that argument, America is clear space and an opportunity. And also it has a huge diaspora Irish community. So there is a kind of melancholy connection between the two countries — of loss and opportunity.

RB: Irish Americans are strongly supportive of what is exported from Ireland?

AE: In the readings you meet them. My name is Anne Theresa. I met an Anne Theresa Enright in Australia — Melbourne. And I met an Anne Theresa Enright; it may have been in Kansas, I’m not sure. They looked like each other. They didn’t look like me. I knew there were different Enrights. I am signing books and there is often, there used to often be a Bernadette. We’d know when she was born. She was born when the Song of Bernadette came out as a movie. And then Martinas were born when Saint Martina was being canonized. Not only can you spot trends, you can know what age people are when they tell you their names. Why did Banville voice his admiration for America — he wants Americans to buy his novels? They do. They love him.

RB: I live here and I have my disappointment about the USA. I am buoyed by this Wall Street occupation.

AE: Who’d a thunk it. In Ireland there was a march  — 50,000 depressed middle class, middle-aged people walking silently through the city, through the streets in their good shoes. Not their best shoes, but in their decent walking shoes.

RB: One day?

AE: One day. Nobody burned any cars. In Greece they were turning cars over in the streets.

RB: Do you believe in class warfare? Isn’t there complicity between such people?

AE:  Yea, but of what kind? It’s a bit like Regina says in the book — the way people have, the way men have of getting ahead. For no ascertainable reason the guy just has a talent for being “on side.” It’s not an envelope full of money. It’s not any of these things — it’s just because–

RB: How or why did you decide to use the title, The Forgotten Waltz?

AE: I was sitting in a chair downstairs writing and the afternoon radio was on, the classical station and he said that was the “Forgotten Waltz” by Franz Liszt. I was half way through the book and I just put it in a headline, as an email to my editor. And I don’t talk to him really at all when I am working. I pressed send to see what it would look like. And then it came back and it was on the title of the email and it looked just fine.

RB: There are no other obvious reference points in the book.

AE: There are various dances.

RB: You also title the chapters after pop love songs.

AE: There is one reference. I mean, there is nothing cheesier than putting “a waltz that has been forgotten” in a book called The Forgotten Waltz. Gina is in the room at the hotel where they have their affair, and says, “…the shape of our love in a room like some forgotten music, beautiful and gone.” So that’s the waltz. Also, I wasn’t going to do explicit descriptions of sex in this book because I didn’t think Gina would. A forgotten waltz is a better way of describing what has been going in between her and Sean. This romance, this game.

RB: And the chapter titles? Any concern that they will be distracting if the reader notices what they are?

AE: I wanted the songs to be catchy and a bit kitsch. Because love is best described in song, I think. The thing I like about pop songs is that they are aware of the foolishness of love. They are delighted by the foolishness of love. I mean, Gina clearly is a woman who likes to be in love and who wouldn’t, ya know? Do they stick in your head and annoy you?

RB: No, they don’t annoy me. It’s another thing to reckon with for a close reader. Do they mean something? Are they clues to the chapter? Is there a code in their order?

AE: Well, there’s a whole heap of The Good Soldier [Ford Maddox Ford] in my Forgotten Waltz — after the fact. Edward, in it, falls in love with the girl at the end — his ward. It depends how plugged in you are to music.

RB: I was tempted to create an iTunes playlist to see if there was a message in the sequence

AE: No, it’s a little more arbitrary that that. As in some of the chapter titles were there before — Like “There Will be Peace in the Valley” which is sort of a little anomalous. And “Love is Like a Cigarette” which is slightly anomalous too. Before it gets into the catchy, boppy, you know, “the Shoop Shoop Song.” Yeah. And then the Leonard Cohen — I had a lot of doubts about putting in the Leonard Cohen. Because his lyrics — he’s too interesting (laughs). You know?

RB: You must listen to music a lot?

AE: I listen to classical music. I had some trepidation with the song titles because I hate the way boys do music — because I always like the wrong things. “Oh you like that, yeah?”

RB: Give me an example.

AE:I don’t know — it’s sort of what I mentioned about men — they use music as a counter. I don’t know what the game is. ”You say Arcade Fire?” “Oh you like Arcade Fire?” “Yeah, I don’t know about Arcade Fire.” Constantly pushing their taste. In a kind of slightly strange–

RB: Using groups as identifiers or parametrics. You are supposed to understand something about someone.

AE: It’s slightly a competition and it’s slightly warm — because music is a filter. If you like something you are really quite exposed by liking it. I listen to Bach. No, I don’t. My husband brings in the new stuff. I am slow to catch on to his stuff. It’s amazing that with the Internet our external sources get smaller and smaller. It’s all about selecting.

RB: Your life is composed of writing and raising your kids–

AE: Which isn’t conducive to keeping up with the music scene, I have to say.

RB: How old are your children?

AE: Eleven and 8. I couldn’t even listen to music after they were born. That was the thing that went.

RB: Because?

AE: I don’t know. It wasn’t talking about emotions that I had.

RB: Did you play Mozart to make your kids smarter?

AE: There’s Mozart around. I do love Mozart. But I didn’t do that. Actually, it put Rachel to sleep. Now they’re coming in and she has her earphones on. Do you know Adele? Adele is on the other end. She can sing.

RB: How much of your life is now devoted to the persona of being a writer? Conferences, festivals, awards juries, and on?

AE: I get invitations — I’m a conscientious sort of chick. I said yes and I went to Australia. It was amazing. I suppose it was amazing. Martin my husband said, “Just do it, do the year.” As opposed to Linda, Roddy’s wife—

RB: Roddy Doyle?

AE: Yeah. When he won [the Booker] they looked at the schedule and decided what he was going to do and said no to the rest of it. He’s very unswayable. I met Kiran Desai. She had won the Booker. And we met in Colombia — in Cartagena. I was there for 2 days. I mean what a life. It was fantastic. I didn’t have much time to go outside.

RB: You would never had gone there–

AE: No. And to meet Kiran Desai, also a great pleasure. Although we did kind of glance off each other. And she said I am going to sit down in March. I emailed her next March and she was doing something else. (laughs) Really, it was hard. I have to say, ”No more, absolutely no more.” So then I sat down in January and looked at the wall for three months, until March basically. I had the book started. It’s the same thing, the same problem as it always is. You have to sink in order to write a book. I don’t mean in a depressive sort of way.

RB: Focus?

AE: It is like a depressive state. You have to sink into it — not even focus. You have to diffuse as much as anything else. Just in those early days — to lose control of it and to be helpless and not know what you are doing. And then the focus comes sentence by sentence.

RB: A vulnerability and openness. I’m reminded of Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart) who said that in order to hit really low notes, to sing in low registers, you almost had to go to sleep. Almost suspended animation, hibernation

AE: Ah, ah hah. Those are both good.

RB: Was it hard to come out and talk about The Gathering — since, as you say, it was more private, seemingly more personal?

AE: The great thing about having done two books — people ask if they are autobiographical? — and I am really delighted when they ask that because it means I have succeeded in what I wanted to do. And I have never bothered about those questions. But you know, I steal from my own life quite freely. So some of it, yes for sure happened to me.

RB David Shields [Reality Hunger] would say it was all autobiographical.

AE: (laughs) You have no other place to write from. You can’t be someone else at the desk.

RB: You change some names and some nuance and–

AE: No, actually it much more mechanical, no as organic as that. You steal a bit. For example, I once took a train journey to Gstaad, and I’ve been waiting to use that train journey for 20 years.

RB: You have vivid recollection of the details, exactly as you think it happened?

AE: Oh yeah. Oh yeah.

RB: What now?

AE: I have nothing on the screen for the first time in 10 years. This summer I stopped working for the first time in 10 years. I would be in holiday saying, “Isn’t it lovely being able to write my book in the sun?” And so I stopped. We went to South East Asia for a long trip with the kids — came back and I had two weeks when I didn’t work.

RB: That’s a good feeling?

AE: It’s like being young again. It’s amazing. I haven’t a single idea, a single fragment.

RB: I assume you love writing and are devoted to it?

AE: But this is the first time I’ve stopped in 10 years, yeah. Maybe it’s a bit like ooooooooohh yeah? No I am very poor company when I am not writing — so I do need it. Everybody around me needs it.

RB: Am I the only person willing to talk with you right now (laughs)?

AE: I’ve been fine.

RB: You don’t know what to make of it?

AE: Yeah, it’s great. I mean, I have some intimations.

RB: Is there anything else you want to do in addition to writing?

AE: No (pause). No.

RB: You produced a TV show.

AE: I did yeah. I was a baby. I was one of those trendy young media types that get burnt out, thrown on the scrap heap in four to six years. So I was that one.

RB: Like Tina Fey?

AE: No she’s a bit older and she is a much better manager than I ever was.

RB: Like the woman in the BBC’s “The Hour”?

AE: The woman in Broadcast NewsHolly Hunter (laughs). No, I used to do things to earn money and there is a kind of balance there. Where you are writing stuff to earn money, but you are writing. So that’s OK. It’s as good a reason as any other. And so it really pushed you. And you go places where you wouldn’t necessarily have thought to go. And I am a great believer in a bit of hard work actually. I was reduced to walking around hands on my forehead saying “Where’s my book?” So, I don’t have to do that so much anymore.

RB: Do you have a timeframe for writing a book?

AE: No.

RB: You churn away at it?

AE: I do.

RB: Can you imagine spending seven to 10 years writing a book?

AE: I can. You know Trollope wrote for three hours every morning. And if he was finished with a book an hour and a half in, he would start another book. But he knew three hours was it.

RB: Do you look forward and have a sense of where you want to go, what you want to accomplish?

AE: (pause) Staying alive is a good way of advancing in the literary world. I am slow — I did a count. It was too scary. I reckoned I have five books left — but it was too scary. I am quite interested in looking at the idea of the late style. And the feeling after a certain stage that you don’t give a monkey — so that you are able to expand on the page or go somewhere strange. Strange (chuckles), I don’t need more strange.

RB: You don’t strike me as someone constrained by much.

AE: No, I wouldn’t mind — you change so much from decade to decade. I like to sort of reflect in the book, where I am. Or find out by writing the book where I am. So, I am into my 50s now and I am thinking it would be good to write some longer, more — having a book that you don’t really know what the edges are so precisely. Does that make sense?

RB: When you are well published you have a couple of jobs.

AE: Yes, it’s an absolute full-time job — the Booker was another full time job. And I had two full-time jobs already. I had a home to run and I had books to write. It was a third full-time job, for sure. And then there’s being the travel agent. After the Booker, I was on Expedia saying, ”I think I can do this — this journey can be done in under 20 hours.

RB: What’s your feeling about winning awards in the future (laughs)?

AE: I am sure I will get a bit plaintive. After the Booker they don’t give you any little ones any more — they give them to other people on the way up.

RB: Some people claim about these awards that they don’t mean anything until you win one–

AE:  They mean everything when you don’t have one.

RB: Really?

AE: Yeah. “If only I had the Booker.” I was taking to my husband, we were in Indonesia and we were looking at shooting stars and my daughter asked me what I wished for? And I said, ”Probably that I win the fucking Booker Prize.” (laughs) I really wanted it.  Ever writer has that–

RB:  Some awards seem to mean something and some seem to be beauty contests.

AE: Yeah, yeah, sure.

RB: I like the IMPAC Dublin because the long list comes from librarian nominations from around the world.  Also, the MacArthur–

AE: And the Lannan. I’m the only person I know who doesn’t have a Lannan (laughs).

RB: We could talk some more but you need to go. So thanks.

AE: Thank you.


Image Credit: Robert Birnbaum

is OurManinBoston, editor-at-large at IDENTITYTHEORY.COM, and contributing writer at He lives in West Newton, MA with his black dog, Beny. Every year he begins reading countless books and finishes 150, more or less. Not a bad life, eh?


  1. I can’t believe it never occurred to me before that the Oprah-esque you-are-what-you-think-anything-is-possible private school of “self-help” is related to the public craziness of the fake booms on Wall Street.

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