Sept/Oct/Nov 2008

Writing Sex and Gallows Humor

Anne Enright talks with Bookforum

Kera Bolonik


Irish writer Anne Enright has won literary awards for nearly every book she's published since her debut in 1991, the short-story collection The Portable Virgin (which earned her the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature). But for over a decade, the onetime television producer, who studied creative writing with Angela Carter and Malcolm Bradbury, lurked under readers' radars. She prolifically published fiction that sometimes veers into the fantastic realm of her mentors—The Wig My Father Wore (2001), for example, features the angel of a man who killed himself many years earlier. Then, last year, she was awarded the Man Booker Prize for The Gathering, seizing the attention of an international audience and earning a place on the New York Times best-seller list. With lyric precision and unflinching honesty, Enright creates a spellbinding portrait of a middle-aged woman harboring an unspeakable decades-old secret, as she contends with her large, dysfunctional family in the wake of her alcoholic brother's suicide. The author's new story collection, Yesterday's Weather (Grove), is no less beguiling. We are privy to the innermost thoughts and, at times, the darkest dreams of middle-class Irish people of all ages, as they struggle with infidelity, guilt, resignation, illness, and death. Enright and I spoke on the phone one July morning about loss and the suspension of time, the mystical quality of invented lives, and the true nature of black humor. —KERA BOLONIK

BOOKFORUM: This is your first post-Booker publication. Are you now thinking about your international readers when you write?

ANNE ENRIGHT: No. I think about my writing when I'm writing [laughs]. But the American market is like a fairy tale. When I went to the States and Australia, I met these large English-speaking audiences, and for the first time in my life, I had a direct con- nection with them. I don't know whether that'll improve my work, but I know it's a new energy.

BF: Your new stories, which are dense and compact, masterfully evoke a life in a few pages.

AE: When I get a few sentences on any of these people, I know an enormous amount about them. But they only have one particu- lar thing to say within the length of a short story. I know all about that woman in "Until the Girl Died." If I were going to make her into a novel, by chapter 3 she'd decide to have the garden landscaped.

BF: In that story, the protagonist, who has always ignored her husband's infidelities, is now racked with rage and grief when one of his girlfriends dies in a car accident. The girl's absence has suddenly and defiantly become an unspoken presence in their marriage.

AE: The husband never talked to her about the others. This story isn't really about infidelity so much as men aging. By the end of the story, she's lost her young husband. He just got old. I have a lot of sympathy for the guy. There's no way he can leave this woman. Even if he leaves her, he hasn't left her. This is the marriage. I read it for an American audience, and one woman said, "Why are you so nice to him? He's awful." I said, "The difference between a writer and a friend: If that woman is my friend, I'd be very much on her side. But as a writer, I'm not on anybody's side. It's not about moralizing. It's about looking for the larger story underneath."

BF: How do these people and their stories reveal themselves to you?

AE: There's too much anxiety in the idea of starting a story. You just let the character or situation present itself to you. You know emotionally and concretely and visually a lot about the texture of their lives that you don't necessarily put down on the page. There are things that you do, like choose a name, that predetermine them a little bit, push them one way or another. It's very difficult to talk about how you start something because you think you'll never be able to start anything again. The last story I wrote was an anecdote that just wouldn't go away for ten years.

BF: Death is a constant presence in your fiction. In these past two books, you've steered away from ghosts, yet your stories remain quite haunted.

AE: I don't really write realism. I suppose it's hyperrealism, as things become a little bit heightened. But there are so many ways to be dead. There are about as many ways to be dead as there are to be alive. People linger in different ways, both publically and privately. I was just writing about Angela Carter, who was my teacher at the University of East Anglia, where I did an MA in creative writing. She was fantastic and arbitrary and didn't talk about my work at all. She died when she was young. I was sad at the time, but I was young myself and didn't miss her until this year. Suddenly, she's quite present for me, maybe because I'm approaching the age she was.

BF: You find the humor amid bleakness, which is an art form in and of itself.

AE: I don't just write about sex and death. I write about birth and death, and I think that's very important. The impulse, as far as I'm concerned, is arriving at a moment of grace or redemption. And gallows humor isn't about change. It's about coping. What I really want my characters to do is to get to a moment of change. It's not usually change for the worse, because I do think that change is usually a good thing.

BF: You also write about the connection between rage and desire. At the ending of "Wife," we meet a mild-mannered father who harbors violent fantasies about a female clerk at the corner store where he buys his wife's cigarettes.

AE: It is certainly a facet of male desire, this man's ability of fancying someone he doesn't like or not liking someone because he fancies them. These are fleeting feelings, a shadow of an emotion that may or may not adhere to him. You don't know at the end of that story whether he's going to become a serial killer or go home and have sex with his wife and wake up the next day and have his corn- flakes. Although this sort of thing is a strong strand in the male literature of desire, it's not how I experience the men I know. I know a lot of really nice guys. The women in my work have an awful lot of yearning, almost spiritual desire, physical desire. I think men are much more mysterious even to themselves. The advertising industry is a whole system of commerce based on men's response to visual signals—men are very reinforced in this simplicity. The wonder is that they're not complaining more.

BF: What's the secret to writing sex well?

AE: I liken it to writing about swimming—it's a wonderful physical experience and very difficult to describe. You write it from the point of view of the person who's gone into the water—how does it feel, and what do they think when they come out? One problem in writing about sex is that words that are sexualized become magnified on the page, and people can't get over them. Sex provokes very strong responses in the reader, and their responses are all very different. To some, sex is something they do on a Tuesday. To other people, it brings the wrath of God down on them. Writing about sex is a challenge, but it's much more interesting than describing a cup of tea.

BF: When do you know that a story needs to be told in short form versus long form?

AE: I know what it is within the first couple of lines. I'm very fond of the short-story form. In a funny way, because they're conventional narratives, my short stories are received much more easily than my novels. People say, "Why don't you do more of your lovely short stories?" which makes me think there is something too harmless about them. For me, a novel is like a marriage: There's no getting out of it. You're obliged to plug away; you can let your unconscious do a lot of the work with a short story that way. I write short stories as they happen. My story "The Cruise" [about a woman whose older parents go on their last vacation together] was on my computer for ten years before I pushed it forward. I just had this image of these parents going up the gangplank, wearing powder-blue tracksuits that had been ironed. "The Cruise" had fallen off an old book as a fragment, and I just really liked it. I have very few of these fragments left; there's nothing left to finish. I'm not panicking [laughs]. I wasted so much time in my twenties being too anxious and having too large an idea of what I should write with no idea of what it should be. Ever since I've had kids, I don't waste that time anymore. I started another novel. I like to work; it settles my mind. I think writers worry that you might not exist in some strange way if you're not writing.

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