Anne Enright Wins Booker Prize

Well, well, well. Who woulda thunk it? Anne Enright, the 45-year-old Irish writer, has scooped the 2007 Man Booker prize against all the odds and stiff competition from the likes of Ian McEwan. Congrats to Anne — I caught up with her in Bray recently to discuss her novel The Gathering and she was extremely interesting to interview: sharp as a tack, wry and witty. One thing that struck me about her — unlike most other Irish female writers, she has stuck determinedly to the path of literary fiction. That’s no easy feat in a world that wants journalism, chick-lit, anything but that specialised stuff that doesn’t sell. It’s hard to credit, but up until last night, The Gathering, a book that was published as long ago as May, had sold only a little over 3,000 copies. These are the kind of figures that explain why literary writers — for all the kudos they might receive in the press — are frequently forced to earn a living by other means. Anyhow, after the jump, here’s my September interview with her…

 Anne Enright tried very hard to do something normal the day this
year’s Man Booker Prize shortlist nominations were being announced.
She thought she might go to a yoga class or have a swim in the sea.
But in the end September 6 turned out to be harder than she had
thought. Her husband Martin, director of the Pavilion Theatre in Dun
Laoghaire, came back to their home in Bray, Co. Dublin that afternoon
to take care of the kids – “I didn’t want to shout at the children
because of the Booker Prize,” Enright laughs – while she fretted. She
had told her publisher to text her the news, either way. But when the
phone rang, she knew that the news must be good. And it was.

Along with Nicola Barker, Ian McEwan, Mohsin Hamid, Lloyd Jones and
Indra Sinha, Enright, 45, had made the Booker Prize shortlist, beating
off in the process a whole host of well-known names, including J.M.
Coetzee, A.N. Wilson, Graham Swift and Doris Lessing. That so many
significant authors had failed to make the shortlist (Swift, Lessing
and Coetzee failed even to make the longlist) caused consternation in
the literary ranks. Of all the shortlisted authors, McEwan was the
only author who could truly be defined as a literary big hitter. Not
only had many literary critics not read the shortlisted books, they
had barely heard of several of the authors on it.

“It was great,” Enright smiles, as she sips a macchiato outside a
small coffee shop in Bray. “The tendency with the Booker Prize is to
look for men over the age of 50 slugging it out. But I thought this
was a really positive thing. It was a readers’ list. You could tell
that these people had read books, that they weren’t convinced by the
obvious.”

Although she’s hesitant to define it as such, the nomination was also
something of a life buoy for Enright‘s The Gathering, her fourth novel
which had been published in early summer by Jonathan Cape. Prior to
August and the Booker Prize nod, the book had sold around 834 copies
in the UK, according to Nielsen BookScan. For an author mid-career,
with no chance of being hailed as publishing’s next big thing, it was
an extremely dangerous situation to find herself in. “I had a slump in
August,” Enright says. “I thought, three years [of writing] and that
was that. The thing the Booker has done for me is to have rescued a
potentially disastrous situation where I’d go back [to my publishers]
for another book and they’d say, you haven’t done the business on
this.'”

Although Ian McEwan’s novel On Chesil Beach is outselling all the
other shortlisted books put together, Enright‘s sales figures have
vastly improved since the nomination. More importantly, as she points
out, “people now think, ‘oh, there’s the Booker nomination. There must
be something in them.'” As it happens, there’s an awful lot to
Enright‘s books. The Gathering is an odd yet rich book, strikingly
individual, frequently bleak and abrasive, occasionally funny and
always flecked through with insight. It’s a challenging, difficult
read. Persevere with it, though, and you will reap the rewards.

The story centres on Veronica Hegarty, a wife and mother attempting to
cope with the suicide in Brighton of her brother Liam, who, at just
eleven months older than Veronica, felt to her almost like a twin.
Liam drowned himself wearing a high-visibility jacket so people would
discover his body easily. It is Veronica’s job to bring Liam’s body
home from England for the Hegarty family wake. Through the book, she
must also learn to deal with her grief.

Suicide is such a difficult subject; I wonder if Enright had fears
about covering it in fiction. “I was very concerned about how
miserable the book was,” she says. “But people aren’t necessarily
picking up a book for a jolly time. I’ve been listening to the radio
in the afternoon for the last 15 years. It’s impossible not to
confront this subject at some time. It’s in the air. It’s part of what
we are. I’ve been very interested in damaged men. And I do feel that
the damage that happens to men is one of the greatest problems, in
human terms, for us.”

Through Veronica, the book also delves into the knotted history of the
12-strong Irish Catholic Hegarty clan. “There is always a drunk,”
Veronica reveals in the novel, talking about large families. “There is
always someone who has been interfered with, as a child. There is
always a colossal success, with several houses in various countries to
which no one is ever invited. There is a mysterious sister…” Even
despite her grief — or perhaps because of it — Veronica has a
tendency to chronicle her own life and the lives of others in sexual
terms that are often curiously abrasive. Describing the growth of her
family, she says that her parents, “were helpless to it, and bred as
naturally as they might shit.”

More than any other theme, the sexual content in the book seems to
have disquieted reviewers. Their comments have, in turn, given Enright
pause for thought. “We’re so hard wired erotically, it’s difficult for
us to pull our attention away from sexual content,” she says. “If you
have sexual content, people will have all kinds of alarm bells in
their head. It tends to magnetise the attention of the reader.” Does
Enright find sex difficult to write about? “It’s very difficult. It’s
like writing about swimming – how do you write about swimming? How do
you describe it? It’s very hard to write about physical realities. But
you want to be truthful – it’s hard to leave things like sex out.
Basically I think anything is sayable within the covers of a book and
that is the great amnesty you have. We live in a highly pornographic
age. I do feel like it’s part of my job to reclaim some of that
territory that women don’t really possess.”

She is ploughing a lonely path. While Ireland is teeming with youngish
Irish female novelists writing light commercial fiction, there are
very few Irish female authors writing literary fiction these days,
much less being nominated for big awards. Anne Enright is a rarity.
But she’s a rarity who doesn’t even like being described as a woman
writer. “When people say, ‘Are you a woman writer?’ what I hear is,
‘Are you a really boring writer that I will never read?'” she smiles.
“To me, an awful lot of gender is constructed and I’m interested in
deconstructing that.

“A lot of people think my writing is chilly because they have certain
expectations of what a woman should write like. But I’m not chilly in
the slightest. The thing about male and female writing is that it’s
astonishing how taboo anger is from women. If a male narrator is
angry, we feel that’s somehow empowering and fine. But when a female
narrator is angry we feel vaguely accused. We are unsettled for
probably very profound reasons. So that’s in the mix as well.”

As for the public engagements of a ‘woman writer’, Enright could
happily do without them. “Being a woman writer in Ireland is a pain in
the ass,” she says. “You still get people in Ireland ringing you up
because they’ve forgotten to get a woman on the panel. They think it’s
all right to do that – ‘oh, you’ll be a woman’. I think, ‘actually, I
can’t be arsed being a woman today. Go get some other whatever you
think a woman is.'”

Enright, you suspect, does not suffer fools gladly, nor does she
easily tolerate the advice of others, no matter how well intentioned.
“People tend not to tell me what to do and I tend not to take their
advice when they do,” she says, grinning. As we talk, you can feel her
examining your reporter’s interviewing process – polite and friendly
as she is, she will nonetheless interrogate every question, hold it up
to the light and examine it for flaws. At one point, she clearly feels
that we have spent too long discussing her career, and too little
discussing her new novel. “I just write the books,” she smiles, and
you can feel the tiny hint of rebuke.

Alongside her occasional sharpness, Enright also reveals a great wit
and an interesting dreaminess. Frequently, she admits, while her two
children, seven-year-old Rachel and four-year-old Lorcan, are
nattering to their Mum, Enright is half-listening and half-thinking
about her characters. “I do think about the books when I’m doing the
school run,” she says. “I can do it all but sometimes I mightn’t
listen or hear exactly what my children are saying to me, if a thought
occurs to me.” Enright mentions Alice Munro and the “toddler rage”
Munro’s daughter said she felt when her mother would write on the end
of an ironing board and ignore her. “The thing that Alice Munro had
was that everyone treated her like a house wife all the time. I don’t
get that. It is entirely possible to be a serious, proper person and
wipe noses at the same time.”

Well, it is, until something as important as the Booker Prize comes
along. These days, there is a certain amount of tense waiting going on
in the Enright-Murphy household. Has Enright put a bet on herself
winning the prize? “No. I’m not superstitious, but a friend of mine in
London emailed me to say ‘I’ve put a bet on everyone else except you
because I’ve jinxed it in the past.'” No matter how the cards fall on
October 16, when the Man Booker Prize winner is announced, Enright
says she will continue on, as she has done for years, concentrating
simply on getting to her desk each day.

“It’s a vocational thing, being a writer,” she says. “Nobody is in it
for money. I’ve been sitting down every day for 15 years so, if there
is an emotion associated with writing, I’ve endured it.” As a final
question, I ask her what the most difficult aspect of writing is. “I
try to keep myself artistically open. That is the most difficult part
of the gig really. To keep yourself vulnerable to what needs to be
said.”

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One thought on “Anne Enright Wins Booker Prize

  1. Hiya Nadine, found your page here via UnaRocks.
    Very interesting read…was pretty taken aback by Anne Enright’s good fortune myself. Bloody fabulous that a female Irish writer’s on the map for something more weighty than man-troubles and tea. Confess I haven’t read The Gathering yet. I will now!

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