Author Q&A: Anne Enright

Actress
(Jonathan Cape)

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Longlisted for the 2020 Women’s Prize, Enright’s seventh novel returns to familiar themes of family and motherhood. It’s a story of secrets and parts played, following Irish theatre legend Katherine O’Dell – from early stardom to end-of-career infamy – as told by her daughter Norah. 

Reflecting on the Dublin of her youth Norah says it was a “small town… and I do miss it.” Is there something unique about Dublin as such a small city that’s still a capital?
When I was a student in the early eighties in Dublin’s Trinity College, it would be rare to walk the city centre streets without bumping into someone. You could do a circuit of the pubs in the evening, and find a choice of company. In fact, I put too many pubs in the novel – Norah went to UCD, a decade earlier, when most of the students went home for their tea. But Dublin was essentially the same for Norah as it was for me: a small town with few resources and big ideas about itself. Dublin provides a great fictional space in which to explore ideas of self-importance. It was also at the heart of the cultural fire that kept us all warm in those impoverished decades.

She goes on to say: “We have all got very disconnected since, which is to say, sane.” Why does disconnectedness equal sanity, and what were you exploring more broadly about madness in this book?
The people who attend her mother’s party in 1973 at the beginning of the book are all, as we like to put it, “living in each other’s ear”. They feel part of each other’s lives and also part of the same “thing” whatever it was – cultural life in Dublin – and that is very comforting in a way. They have opinions about each other, become friends, fight and fall out. They take umbrage, include and exclude. I suppose you might say that they lack boundaries, or that they drank so much they couldn’t see the boundaries, and that is one reason mad things happened. People acted out. As for the second part of your question about madness – if I could answer that in an interview I would not have needed to write an entire novel.

From the Golden Age studio system to the Weinstein scandal, Hollywood has a reputation for mistreating women while simultaneously elevating them to idols. As a writer did the actress provide a good vehicle to explore the female experience more broadly?
Female actors have a tough time in the real world of jobs and auditions – we all know that now. They also perform fantasies for us, the audience, on screen and onstage. Many of those fantasies are imagined and written by men, though they contain content that women also latch on to. I wanted to show how few real parts there were for women, in the past; how few female characters are the subjects of their own stories up on the big screen. It must have been astonishingly wearing for a female actor to work like this, as a series of empty shells on which the audience could project their dreams and fears

Why is Norah’s story of her mother’s life addressed to her husband?
Because she likes him.

Norah is a writer and she says her books have become more “simple and unassuming” over the years. How have your own developed?
Well, not that way, unfortunately.

Women have quelled their rage for generations. Is it time they stopped?
I associate the word “rage” with very early feelings, the kind that are hard to understand or control. I think that misogyny, for example, is rage distilled, and that is one of the reasons women find it so upsetting. I am not sure we should rage back, but it is good to know how you feel about things. I think women should be open, emotional, strategic, smart and comprehensive. There is a place for righteous fury in all this, but rage is blind, and we should not work blind.

Irish starlet Katherine O’Dell’s biggest fakery was that she was actually English. How do you think the relationship between Britain and Ireland will fare post-Brexit?
Katherine was born in London and spent her teenage years with a mongrel troupe of travelling players, bringing Shakespeare and melodrama to small Irish towns. Theatre is its own tribe. I wanted to show how permeable the borders between the two countries are. Brexit will not stop the free movement of people, let alone that of stories and ideas.

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