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"I still don’t know what the Booker means"

March 17, 2008 |  1:13 pm


(Photo credit: Alastair Grant/Associated Press)

Anne Enright’s breakthrough success with the novel "The Gathering," which won the 2007 Man Booker Prize, hasn’t changed her attitudes to the writing life. Talking to Declan Meade in the spring issue of the fine Dublin-based literary magazine, The Stinging Fly, Enright describes the demanding process of revision, Irish mothers, paying the bills, winning the Booker and much more.

(To learn how to get a copy of the entire interview, check out the subscriptions at the website. Go on, it’s plenty worth it.) Here are some excerpts:

Meade: I’ve read in another interview you did that your advice to new writers would be that it is the rewriting that is all important. When you rewrite, are you building up the work or paring it back?

Enright: If I’m talking to new writers one of the things I say is that what you have to do is manage your emotions about your work. I think the first impulse of writing is in a place of flow, a really very blessed place to be in, writing a first draft. Some writers find it very difficult to rewrite because of the disgust that they feel for that act of what psychoanalysts call extromission. Adam Philips gave this great talk in Dublin and he was saying how R.D. Laing had done this experiment on it. He made people spit into a glass of water and then drink it and then spit into the glass again, and nobody could do this more than four times; they couldn’t drink any more. And Philips himself, I asked him, does he do it, does he edit his work and he said no, I don’t drink the spit, I won’t drink the spit (laughs). I say that rewriting is where it’s at, and I say it because people write work that could be good if only they’d rewrite it. And their emotions about it are less than relevant (laughs).

I rewrite all the time. So when somebody says they do six drafts or something like that, I’m always amazed because I don’t know how they know. A book is never a stable object for me and it is never finished. I rewrite when I’m doing a reading! My early rewriting is a question of distillation and concentration; the challenge is to make it undiluted. And a lot of it is working on the rhythm....

Meade: Mothers and the theme of motherhood come up a lot in your work. Even when the mothers are absent they are crucial.

Enright: I cannot remember who said that mothers are so important in Irish writers’ work that they don’t exist, I mean on the page. Somebody’s autobiography and I don’t know whose it was, the mother got half an actual sentence even though the book was essentially all about her. They are in some way unwritable in the Irish context. I don’t want to think about it too much because I don’t want to mess with it. One of the only possible ways to write about mothers is by making them absent, that’s one of the tricks. In the baby book I wrote about my daughter learning how to speak, and there’s this exchange, a mirroring of words, which led me to think that all language is given to you or received from the mother. It happens in the maternal space.

I know I should read Lacan or Kristeva again. I have a theory that all writers have big mothers, that mothers are big figures in all writers’ lives. I’ve floated this at various tables at various conferences and I’ve never not hit home. And one guy--who shall remain nameless--he started to cry, just started to cry. What’s all that about?

I mean the personality of your mother matters, but it’s not a question of personality--finally. I like to occupy a very primal space when I’m writing, which I think comes through in "The Gathering." In this book as well I talk about the very beginnings of narrative being in the body, the body is the place where narrative begins, and where stories finally lodge....

Meade: Through the years you’ve won a number of prizes--the Rooney Prize, the Encore Award, the Davy Byrnes Irish Writing Award--culminating in the Booker Prize. What have each of those meant to you?

Enright: I still don’t know what the Booker means. For the first week or so, I thought everybody had gone slightly mad. It had a lot of an effect on other people; it didn’t have a lot of an effect on me. It was a very nice night and all of that.

I also felt on a larger scale what people feel all their lives: that with writers people like to attack them as much as they like to worship them. Neither is necessarily anything to do with the writers themselves. You get that in Dublin all the time. You get unnecessary aggression in Dublin all the time when you’re a writer. It’s just now writ larger because it’s the Booker. That aversion and attraction, the magnetism gets stronger.

I know I’ve said I haven’t changed much myself, but recently I have had terrible surges of entitlement (laughs) and I wonder why my life hasn’t changed....

Nick Owchar